Balk: Like other cheating scandals, Patriots story overblown

Tim Balk, Columnist

Cheater. It is one of the most damning pejoratives in sports. As sports fans, we claim to hate cheaters. We hate teams that cheat. We hate players who cheat. And yet, we are also irrational about cheaters. We hold different teams to different standards. We defend our favorite players when they are caught cheating. We do the same with our favorite teams. We make illogical distinctions between different types of cheating. When teams are caught breaking rules, we use it to fuel narratives.

The New England Patriots got busted this week, with the NFL finding they used underinflated footballs in their 45-7 demolition of the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

With yet another visit to the Super Bowl looming, the Patriots’ cheating is the top story in the sports world. And the cheating has spawned a two-sided debate.

Many might argue that, while the Patriots did show gall in deflating balls, their crime is relatively minor.

Others would say that the Patriots should not be defended. They have cheated before (everyone points to Spygate). They are coached by Bill Belichick, a stoic and sometimes snide hoodie-wearing mad scientist who, aside from being the best coach in NFL history, is certainly not a paragon of honesty. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are breaking other rules, too.

The thing is, in pro sports, the best always find ways to bend the rules. Jose Canseco and Alex Rodriguez pumped their bodies with performance-enhancing drugs. Sammy Sosa did too, and threw cork in his bat for good measure. Michael Jordan pushed off. The best pitchers have been messing with baseballs since Abner Doubleday “invented” baseball. The best soccer players flop like fish all over the pitch.

Sometimes we even admire the cheating. In basketball, we sometimes call flopping an “art form.” Jordan’s iconic push off is the stuff of legend. Some baseball players get romanticized for putting too much tar on their bats or throwing spitballs.

We denigrate other cheaters. Players associated with steroids like Canseco and Rodriguez are sports villains. The Patriots are the NFL equivalent to Darth Vader. In the early 2000s, the Yankees were the “steroid” team.

Strangely, other teams and players get passes. David Ortiz, who has also been linked to steroids, usually gets a pass for the simple reason that people like him.

The Patriots will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl. It was noted in a Wall Street Journal article last year that the Seahawks’ dominant defense is fueled in part by constant pass interference. That’s a form of cheating too, no doubt, although the fact that it’s so out in the open makes it appear less dishonest. It is not the Seahawks’ fault if the refs do not throw their flags. Just the same, though, you could say it is not the Patriots’ fault if their ball-doctoring activities go without notice.

We are hopelessly inconsistent when it comes to our judgments about cheaters in sports. The Patriots will be defended by their fans and bashed by the fans of their opponents. When the Patriots and the Seahawks take the field on Super Bowl Sunday, both teams will do everything they can to pull out a victory. They will rush to the line of scrimmage before officials can review calls. Their offensive lineman will attempt to get away with holding calls. Their wide receivers will pretend to catch footballs that scraped the field first. And we, the sports fans, will be talking about a bunch of deflated footballs.

Tim Balk is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to