The Other Sacred Thing Tom Brady Squashed: Sportsmanship

The Other Sacred Thing Tom Brady Squashed: Sportsmanship

12:09pm May 20, 2015
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks to the sideline during this year's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady walks to the sideline during this year's Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images

Sport may be dismissed as inconsequential child's play, but there is, in counterpoint, the ideal that sport is our best model for human fairness and equality — a Garden of Eden with competition. But, of course, there are snakes in this athletic garden. Rules will be broken.

To my mind there are, in ascending order, three kinds of transgressions. The first is the most simple: transgressions committed in the heat of the action, instinctively, because of frustration, failure or anger. There are referees to tend to that misconduct.

The second type of violation falls more in the realm of regulation. For example, who is eligible to play? There are age restrictions in youth sport and academic requirements in college. Also, as with any civil enterprise, sport can deny entrance to the garden to anyone who misbehaves in the public sphere. For instance: Thou shalt not batter women or children. Alas, that is famously more honored in the breach.

And then there is the third type: violations against the very nature of the game. These are invariably premeditated. In any sport, once the lines are drawn, what we have on the field are, in toto, athletes and the proper equipment.

In religious terms, these are the priests and the relics, and to deface or distort either is not just an infraction, but a contamination. That's why athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs and those who would maliciously alter the equipment are considered sacrilegious.

In hindsight, all of us made a terrible mistake in looking upon someone like Gaylord Perry — a pitcher infamous for loading up his deliveries with what we quaintly call "foreign substances" — as a sassy, picaresque figure, who was merely tilting at the windmills of authority. But that view is nonsense. Perry and his ilk did not abuse baseballs; they abused baseball.

So, even if it was no more than an illegal puff of air that was willfully, with foresight, removed from the New England Patriots' footballs — with Tom Brady's direction or mere acquiescence — Brady is guilty of purposely defiling the very artifacts that make the game fair and square. It is not enough to say that everybody cheats a little, or that, gee, there wasn't all that much difference in the balls, or that people are picking on the poor Patriots.

Games are played by naturally gifted people using authorized equipment. If either is illegally distorted, it's not just a crime against the game but a wound to the whole essence of sport.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also tracking this story; the New England Patriots say they will not appeal NFL penalties for underinflated footballs. Quarterback Tom Brady says he will appeal. Our commentator, Frank Deford, has been thinking of what broken rules mean for sports.

FRANK DEFORD, BYLINE: Sport may be dismissed as inconsequential child's play. But there is, in counterpoint, the ideal that sport is our best model for human fairness and equality, a Garden of Eden with competition. But, of course, there are snakes in the athletic garden too, so rules will be broken. To my mind, there are, in ascending order, three kinds of transgressions. The first is simplest, those committed in the heat of the action instinctively because of frustration, failure, anger. There's referees to tend to that misconduct. The second type of violation falls more in the realm of regulation, like who's eligible to play. There are age restrictions, for instance, in youth sport, academic requirements in college. And, as with any civil enterprise, sport can deny entrance to the garden to those who misbehave in the public sphere - thou shalt not batter women or children - if, alas, that's most famously more honored in the breach. But then, finally, there are the violations against the very nature of the game, these, invariably, premeditated. In any sport, once the lines are drawn, what we have on the field are, in toto, athletes and the proper equipment. That's it. In religious terms, these are the priests and the relics. And to deface or distort either is not just an infraction, but a contamination. That's why athletes who take performance-enhancing drugs are, to continue the analogy, sacrilegious, and, no less, those who would maliciously alter the equipment. In hindsight, all of us made a terrible mistake in looking upon someone like Gaylord Perry - he, the pitcher infamous for loading up his deliveries with what we quaintly call foreign substances - as a sort of a sassy, picaresque figure who was merely tilting at the windmills of authority. Nonsense, Perry and his ilk didn't abuse baseballs. They abused baseball. Do not let that happen again. Therefore, likewise, even if it was no more than an illegal whiff of air that was willfully, with foresight, removed from the Patriot footballs, with Tom Brady's direction or mere acquiescence, he is guilty of purposely defiling the very artifacts which make the game fair and square. It's not enough to say, oh, everybody cheats a little, or, well, gee, there wasn't all that much difference in the balls, or you're picking on the poor Patriots. Games are played by natural flesh and blood people using authorized equipment. If either is illegally distorted, it's not just a crime against the game but a wound to the whole essence of sport.

INSKEEP: The flesh and blood of sports, brought to us each Wednesday by Frank Deford on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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