Just when you thought things might settle down in the NFL, here we go again with another controversy -- a controversy that evidently strikes at the very core of American values, if you believe some of the things you've been reading about.
It goes like this: Footballs that the New England Patriots used in the AFC championship game were inflated below regulation and, once again, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have conspired to pull the wool over everyone's eyes, thus their dynasty is a fraud and a sham.
Let's get a few things out of the way. First of all, yes, the footballs used did not comply with NFL requirements, and were very likely altered after they had been inspected by NFL officials. Second, Brady was among the quarterbacks who lobbied the NFL to change the rules regarding how footballs are prepared for games. (The summed-up version: It used to be the home team supplied the footballs, but it changed to each team supplying their own.) Third, it's not the first time the Patriots have been accused of, and found responsible for, violating NFL rules. And fourth, yes, I absolutely believe Brady knew what was happening, and it's likely Belichick knew what was going on as well.
With all this said, why are so many people acting like it's the end of the world as we know it, that the Patriots cheated and our way of American life happens to be at stake?
Oh, sure, if you want to make jokes about "deflated balls" and laugh at how you have another reason to hate Tom Brady, I can get that. One of the traits every sports fan shares is the pleasure of making jokes about athletes, teams and events, particularly if we don't like those who are involved.
But reading some of the articles written about this situation, makes it sound like a staple of Americana hangs in the balance, and with it, America itself.
Here's a newsflash for everyone: Integrity often means little in professional sports. Owners expect cities that host franchises to pay for new stadiums every time they ask, or they'll pack their bags and leave town. Coaches look for new methods and approaches to the game, often figuring out what rules they can bend, circumvent, or creatively interpret to their advantage. Players follow suit on the field -- all you have to do is watch a wide receiver and a defensive back jostling with each other on a pass play, with each one expecting the official favor him over the other guy, no matter what. Oh, and they also like to seek out any performance enhancer, legal or illegal, that they think can help them gain a competitive advantage.
And what's a big reason why coaches and players keep looking for advantages? Answer: Because we, the fans, have made demands upon them that force them down that path.
The typical football fan expects his or her favorite team to WIN NOW, because they see guys like Chuck Pagano and Bruce Arians turning things around in just one season, even if they are the exception. The typical football fan expects each player drafted in the seven rounds to make an instant impact, or they will be immediately written off as a bust, because just look at all these guys who were drafted in different rounds and were immediate sensations (did someone mention Brady?). The typical football fan especially expects a quarterback to be a winner right away, touting Andrew Luck as the example of how easy it is for a QB to achieve instant success, while forgetting that most quarterbacks are like Johnny Manziel, in that they stink up the joint in their first NFL starts.
And yes, it doesn't help that Manziel got hyped to death, but that's yet another problem with the typical football fan. The typical football fan sees Manziel excite everyone in college, expects that to immediately happen in the NFL, gets impatient when he doesn't start right away, and when he finally starts and looks terrible, they immediately declare it's all over for the guy.
On top of that, when the media starts feeding narratives to typical fans, these fans are more likely to eat them up rather than reject them. So you have Brady, watching how everyone calls Peyton Manning a playoff choker, how Tony Romo can't win when it counts, and how Seattle has the BEST DEFENSE EVAH, and then you act surprised that Brady might choose to employ questionable methods so he can avoid the likely narrative known as "Is it all over for Tom Brady?"
The fact is, football is a complex sport in which the outcome of games can't be boiled down to one or two factors, as much as people try to make it out to be that way. More importantly, football is not something that is supposed to represent American values, as much as some might want it to be that way.
If football were to disappear from the face of the earth, America would not perish. There are far more areas one can look to, to understand what American values are truly all about, rather than a sport in which the general mindset is to "win now or else," and where said mindset often leads to unscrupulous undertakings by owners, coaches and players, all trying to see what they might get away with, in the quest of winning.
(Actually, it's not too different from how most Americans are. We're constantly told we have to be "number one" in everything, and if we are anything short of that, then we must DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. And then we act surprised when somebody tries to circumvent rules in place to ensure they get the "number one" result that Americans demand. Maybe it's time we start being fine with "always do your best, no matter the outcome" rather than getting up in arms about how America has been ruined because we aren't "number one" for whatever the reason may be.)
By all means, hold those who violate the rules accountable. But stop acting like the way of life of Americans is threatened by Belichick, Brady, and footballs that aren't regulation -- and most of all, stop acting so surprised that coaches and players would bend the rules as far as they can in the pursuit of winning.
After all, when you insist that one "win now or else," the next logical step for one to take is "win at all costs, rules be damned."