The National Football League’s second best quarterback (he’s not Aaron Rodgers) not only cheated but apparently lied about it. Tom Brady was suspended for four games and his team, the reigning champion New England Patriots, were fined $1 million and lost two draft choices because of “deflategate.”
Brady apparently let it be known to a couple of guys in charge of inflating footballs for his team that he liked them soft and easier to handle. So they obliged by letting the air out, dropping the pressure to below NFL standards. Brady said he had no idea what was going on, but the league didn’t believe him and he didn’t help his case by lawyering up and refusing to hand over his texts and emails. There’s even evidence that Brady paid these guys off with cash and football swag.
In the big scheme of things, deflating a few footballs is the least of the kinds of scandals that have plagued professional and college sports for years.
Last year, then Baltimore Ravens’ running back Ray Rice was caught on tape beating a woman in an elevator. Although he was eventually suspended indefinitely, he was initially sidelined for only two games, half of what Brady got for conspiracy to deflate footballs.
Also last year, star Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was suspended for beating his 4-year-old son with a tree branch.
In college football, once iconic Penn State coach Joe Paterno was fired for looking the other way when one of his assistant coaches, Jerry Sandusky, was molesting young boys in the team locker room. Paterno died shortly afterward, but the university, rather than accepting its comeuppance, continues to fight the other sanctions meted out to it by the NCAA.
Major League Baseball has had to install asterisks next to the names of some of its record holders because no one is quite sure how much performance enhancing drugs played in those achievements. Too close to home, Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, once the face of his team, was suspended for half a season for using banned drugs and then vociferously lying about it. Braun even tried to throw the poor guy who collected his urine sample under the bus, claiming that he might have altered it.
And maybe the biggest fall of all was that of O.J. Simpson, once the very symbol of all that was good in sports, now serving time for a break in and robbery and, though not convicted, is widely believed to have killed his former wife and another man.
We could go on in this vein for some time. There’s a lot of bad stuff out there associated with professional and college athletics, from the serious — sexual assault — to the trivial but dishonest — deflating footballs.
So, can we finally once and for all put to rest the often repeated canard that, as a rule, participation in team sports somehow builds character?
Look, I have no doubt that in a lot of cases playing a game can improve self-discipline, teamwork and other positive human attributes. But there’s no evidence that sports does that any better than playing in a band or being a member of the chess team or helping your family clean the house and mow the lawn.
Life is full of activities that offer the chance to teach behaviors we’d like to see more of in our kids, but sports holds no special place among those activities and, in fact, there’s some evidence that participants actually are more likely to get into trouble.
In 2011, Sports Illustrated and CBS News conducted a major reporting project in which they searched the backgrounds of all the players on the top 25 college footballs squads for the previous year. They found that at least 7% of them had criminal records and 40% of those athletes had committed serious offenses like assault. In fact, Laura Finley, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Barry University in Florida, finds that college athletes are six times more likely to commit sexual assault than their peers.
The vast majority of players are decent people who work hard, which is true in most every other endeavor. There’s no reason to condemn all athletes, but there is no reason to hold them up as role models either. Tom Brady is a great athlete and also a cheater and a liar, though I would say on a relatively small scale. In other words, he’s a complex human being just like everybody else.
One thing’s for sure. He’s no model of good character.