Burning Question: Can Rules Bend Without Breaking?

Publish date:
burning question november 2015 cheating new england patriots

When New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady faced a four-game suspension for his alleged role in deflating footballs, support came from an unlikely source: Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks' star cornerback and Brady's nemesis in Super Bowl XLIX.

"Everybody does their things a little differently, but at the end of the day, it's handled between the lines," Sherman said to ESPN.

Sherman's stance was surprising not just because the Patriots had recently denied the Seahawks back-to-back championships. It was the latest in a long list of cheating allegations and rumors that have followed the Patriots, even predating Spygate, the 2007 incident in which New England was caught illegally videotaping the New York Jets' coaching signals.

Brady's suspension was ultimately overturned by a federal judge, but questions remained. How much would small acts like deflating footballs and taping signals really help the Patriots? (After all, they were even more successful after they were busted for Spygate — and presumably stopped their taping.) Were the games really decided "between the lines," as Sherman said? And just where is the line between outright cheating and gamesmanship, the small, dubious things that teams or players do to get an advantage?

To answer the latter, consider the small kinds of cheating in sports that are not just overlooked, but actually celebrated. Gaylord Perry played in the major leagues for 22 seasons, winning 314 games and striking out 3,534 batters. But Perry threw the spitball, a pitch for which the ball has been doctored by some substance meant to make its trajectory erratic. The spitter is in many ways a worse offense than a deflated football. It makes it harder for an opponent to hit the ball.

Perry's cheating was well-known, and he didn't shy away from it — he even titled his 1974 autobiography Me and the Spitter. He claims that he mainly used the threat of the pitch to scare hitters, but he was eventually caught throwing it by an umpire in 1982, his next-to-last season.

What was his punishment for a lifetime of bending the rules to his advantage? Just a Hall of Fame induction in 1991.

Other infamous baseball cheaters had worse luck. Home run king Barry Bonds has yet to join Perry in Cooperstown due to his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs, which — unlike Perry and his spitball — Major League Baseball never caught him using.

And maybe that's a clue to how the Patriots will be remembered. Bonds' legacy has been tarnished by the secrecy surrounding PEDs. Since players hid their use, fans assumed it serious. But because Perry made his cheating a running joke throughout his career, opponents — much like Richard Sherman — accounted for it as just another of many challenges to be overcome on the field.

Only the Patriots truly know how much things like stealing signals helped them. But the more they win after getting caught, the more likely they'll be remembered for their gamesmanship, not their cheating.

Photos: Jim Rogash/Getty Images (Brady), Andy Hayt for Sports Illustrated (Perry)

burning question november 2015 cheating gaylord perry