The Patriots signal-stealing controversy, sports ethicists say, is a high-tech example of how competitive edge-seeking and gamesmanship can become win-at-any-cost cheating.
"I think the Patriots have sunk to a new low here," said University of Southern California professor William Morgan, the author of "Ethics in Sports" and "Why Sports Morally Matter."
"Taking it up a notch and using technology to do it strikes me as really below the belt."
Last Sunday's incident in an easy road victory over the New York Jets rekindled a national debate about what should and should not be allowed in sports and where the line should be drawn.
The Patriots' video snooping, which resulted in $750,000 in fines from the NFL and the potential loss of a first-round draft pick, has been widely condemned. Many of the team's fans, though, have been defending coach Bill Belichick. "I've always said it's a continuum," said Boston University sports psychologist Len Zaichkowsky. "And the continuum isn't the same for everybody."
Cheating in sports is nothing new, even in obscure events. In the 1976 Olympics, Soviet modern pentathlete Boris Onischenko was disqualified for wiring his fencing weapon to register an electronic hit without touching his opponent.
Even the most popular sports aren't immune.
"Take baseball, the national pastime," said Michael Josephson, founder of the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, which provides consulting and training services in fields ranging from business to government to sports. "The spitball came in with the game. There always was a category of people who would do anything to get an edge."
What has changed is how many prominent people across multiple sports are breaking the rules to do it. Thursday, the McLaren auto racing team was fined $100 million for using technical documents stolen from Formula One rival Ferrari. This year, eight NASCAR crew chiefs have been suspended for cheating in separate incidents. Michael Rasmussen, who was leading the Tour de France, was pulled out of the race by his cycling team for ducking doping tests by lying about where he was during training.
Barry Bonds, who broke Hank Aaron's career home run record, allegedly has used a combination of banned drugs. Patriots safety Rodney Harrison was suspended for four games for obtaining human growth hormone through an online scam that reportedly involved numerous athletes.
In a society where cheating, from insider trading on Wall Street to plagiarism in the classroom, seems to be a common occurrence, observers say sports hardly can be considered immune.
"Someone once said that sports is life with the volume turned up high," said Josephson. "It highlights the best and worst of human nature." What has been lost, he said, is the concept of "victory with honor. In sports, we've begun to think that dishonorable conduct is honorable."
Under the old amateur code, winning the "wrong" way was unacceptable. In 1940, Cornell's football team gave back a victory over Dartmouth after realizing that officials had mistakenly allowed them an extra play that produced the winning touchdown. "We figured if they win it, they win it, and that's the way it should be," said Cornell tackle Nick Drahos, whose teammates likely cost themselves a national championship with the gesture.
While most professional sports monitor teams and players and discipline rule breakers, golf still adheres to the gentleman's code, with players routinely penalizing themselves even for innocent violations.
"[British jurist] Lord Moulton once said that ethics is obedience to the unenforceable," said Dan Doyle, founder of the Institute for International Sport at the University of Rhode Island. "The very ethos of golf is to be honorable. You are shunned if you're anything other than that."
At last year's Irish Open, Darren Clarke drove a ball into deep rough just before rain suspended play during the final round. When he returned the next day, Clarke, who was leading by two strokes, found that his lie inadvertently had been improved by subsequent foot traffic.
Though the rules allowed him to hit from the same spot, Clarke chose to play the ball as he originally would have, chipping it sideways. "Honesty is part and parcel of the game," said Clarke, who ended up losing by two strokes, "and I could not have acted any other way."
Sports are governed by rules at one end and by sportsmanship at the other. In the middle is a hazy area of gamesmanship. "Gamesmanship is gaining an advantage without necessarily breaking the rules, but breaking the spirit of the rules," said Doyle.
Stealing signs in baseball and football long has been considered gamesmanship. "In baseball, the batter doesn't look back at the catcher or he'll get hit with the next pitch," said Zaichkowsky. "But if you can get away with it while standing on second base, that's creative." In NASCAR racing, which uses souped-up cars by definition, legal is whatever a garage can get away with.
The problem with gamesmanship, ethicists say, is that it's the gateway to cheating. "We wink and say it's part of the game, but it erodes the line," said Northeastern athletic director Peter Roby, former director of the school's Center for the Study of Sport in Society and ex-head basketball coach at Harvard. "Those things are cumulative because they send a message that you should be looking for an edge and that it's not really a problem unless you get caught."
The most puzzling question, observers say, is why the Patriots would do it. Why would a team favored to win its fourth Super Bowl in seven years brazenly break the rules? "The Patriots are a hell of a team," said Morgan. "They were going to kill the Jets. It almost reminds me of Nixonian paranoia. Nixon had the election won. It makes me wonder about Bill Belichick."
Even after video assistant Matt Estrella was caught camera-in-hand on the sideline by a league security officer, Belichick admitted no wrongdoing, saying he'd spoken to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about "my interpretation of the rules."
"What strikes me about Belichick is that he's a technocrat without a moral conscience," said Morgan. "That kind of terse technical response is completely evasive."
Belichick's statement also struck some observers as ludicrous. "People keep wanting to rationalize," said Roby. "That's like [basketball coach] Bobby Knight saying he didn't know what zero tolerance is. You're insulting people's intelligence."
Cheating diminishes interest in sports, ethicists say, because the fans eventually grow weary of questioning results and being disappointed by their heroes. "There will be a footnote next to Barry Bonds's record forever," predicted Josephson. "That is the cost of cheating. How come his ball didn't sell?"
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.