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Personal foul: The ethical fallout from Deflategate

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If you were a highly successful life insurance agent making elite money, running an agency, at the top of your game and known as a business leader in your community, how fast would your fall from grace be if you were suddenly implicated in a scandal where you were accused of breaking the law to gain a competitive advantage?

Pretty fast. The resulting bad publicity would severely damage your reputation, causing you to lose existing clients and prevent you from gaining new ones. And if you were subsequently found to be guilty, you would lose your license, face steep fines and reparations, possible jail time, and almost certainly be forced out of the business completely.

The reputation for integrity and goodwill in the community you worked long and hard to cultivate could be gone in an instant.

That’s the way it is in the real world. You make a big mistake with a serious lapse in judgment by willfully breaking the law, and you often pay for it in a big way that will derail your life.

And then you have the world of the NFL, where getting caught breaking the league rules to gain a competitive advantage will cause a firestorm of publicity and cause damage to your reputation, but may or may not lead to any tangible punishment whatsoever.

So seems the case with “Deflategate”, where professional ethics have been called into question and the organization involved has gone on the defensive and professed innocence since the story broke.

The latest as of Jan. 27 included a report that the New England Patriots turned in their game balls prior to the AFC Championship game in their “underinflated” state to game officials, who supposedly signed off on them as being legal, according to the report. That report directly conflicts with other reports that the game balls were tested by officials with a pressure gauge before the game and approved—and that 11 of the 12 balls used by the Patriots offense in the first half somehow were deflated in the interim.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft wants an apology from the National Football League if the league’s investigation is not able to “definitely determine” that the organization tampered with the air pressure of the footballs.

At a press conference Jan. 26 in Chandler, Ariz., near where the Patriots will play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX on Feb. 1, Kraft told the assembled media horde, “I would expect and hope that the league would apologize to our entire team and particular coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week.”

That likely won’t happen. One way or another, it still appears the intent to cheat was there. Either the Patriots provided knowingly underinflated balls in hopes that officials wouldn’t actually check their air pressure, or someone in the organization actually did deflate them with a needle after the inspection but before or during the game.

If they provided underinflated balls and the officials found them to be underinflated upon inspection—the officials simply would have pumped up the balls in question to the required threshold. End of story and there is no “Deflategate”. In that case, Patriots might have tried to pull a fast one, but the system would have worked and the Patriots can forever claim the balls were not intentionally underinflated and they didn’t break any rules.

Or, someone in the Patriots organization—with or without the knowledge of Brady, Belichick or the equipment manager—willfully deflated the balls after the inspection in a clear and intentional violation of the rules.

“Deflategate” may indeed be an overinflated controversy at this point, but the reason the incident created such a firestorm in the first place is because such a blatant attempt to skirt the rules has damaged the integrity of the game Americans are most passionate about. It bothers people that the intent to cheat was there, was discovered, and they may get away with it with little or no punishment from the league.

But the Patriots, with another big cheating scandal on the books (Spygate 2007), still figure to suffer significant reputational damage in the court of public opinion.

Doing everything you can within the rules of the game to gain a competitive advantage is fine and expected. But knowingly breaking rules to gain that advantage crosses the line.

In a Jan. 21 report on WISH-TV in Indianapolis, University of Indianapolis Philosophy professor Dr. Jonathan Evans said “Deflategate” is just the latest example of professional sports gone wrong, and that there should ethically be limitations to how far you will go in the pursuit of victory.

“This is an opportunity to reflect and to ask, ‘Am I willing to do something that disrespects other people in order to get what I want?’ That’s a tough question,” Evans said. “And I don’t think that’s a Bill Belichick question, that’s an ‘everybody’ question.”

Highly successful insurance agents would answer this question with a “no.”


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