The Ethics of Flopping

The Ethics of ‘DeflateGate’

Did the Punishment fit the Crime?

I have read all kinds of rationalizations as to why the “DeflateGate” scandal is much ado about nothing. Other teams cheat, the saying goes, including in the 1985 and 1986 NFL seasons when S.F. 49er legendary coach, Bill Walsh, allegedly, instigated a problem with phone communications with staff that led to the opposing team, the NY Giants, having to put their phones aside. Former NY Giants coach, Bill Parcells, claims this gave the 49ers a competitive edge because Walsh was known for scripting the first 15 plays or so whereas the competition had to react to those plays without the benefit of communications with the coaching staff upstairs.

By now you’ve heard that 11 of 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots in its playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts this past January were purposely deflated below regulations in NFL rules. The lighter footballs are said to be easier to grip and throw, especially in the rain. Teams use their own footballs on offense. You might think “DeflateGate’ contributed to the “blow out” (pardon the pun) with the one-sided final score, a 45-7 victory in favor of the Pats.

What’s at stake here is the integrity of the game. If one team can get away with deflating the footballs, what about another team enhancing their uniforms and their padding in a way that violates NFL rules to gain a competitive advantage? Where does it stop? What are the limits of acceptable behavior?

Some have criticized the punishment imposed by the NFL. On May 11, the NFL announced that it had suspended Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady without pay for the first four games of the season, fined the Patriots $1 million and taken away two draft picks as punishment for deflating footballs used in the AFC title game. The NFL also indefinitely suspended the two equipment staffers believed to have carried out the plan, including one who called himself "The Deflator."

There is little basis for comparison in deciding whether the punishment fits the crime or whether it is too extreme. The closest in terms of severity of punishment, and most recent competitive-driven scandal in the NFL, was imposed in 2012 on the New Orleans Saints. The Saints secretly doled out cash rewards to players for hits on opponents — $1,500 for knocking someone out of the game, $1,000 for getting a player carted off the field.

The NFL suspended Sean Payton, the Saints' coach, without pay for a year and gave out suspensions to their general manager and two other coaches. In addition to suspending Payton, Commissioner Roger Goodell handed an indefinite suspension to former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the architect of the pay-for-performance program who now works for the St. Louis Rams. Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games and linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six. New Orleans also lost second-round picks in the draft and was fined $500,000.

The Saints incident clearly is more serious because it involved the safety of opposing players who could have been irrevocably physically or mentally harmed by the bounty hunter program. The penalties in ‘DeflateGate’ may seem too severe in comparison, but they follow on the heels of sexual assault and child abuse charges against some players in the league. The NFL was criticized, especially early on, for their relative disregard of the offenses committed by some of the game’s best players. Perhaps the severe penalty imposed on the Patriots was instituted to compensate for earlier inaction and restore the good name of the game.

I had mixed feelings about the extent of penalties that should have been meted out in ‘DeflateGate’ until I watched Tom Brady during his interview with Jim Gray last week where he seemed to dismiss the whole scandal. He treated it as if it was a non-issue. He played to the crowd that obviously fully supported whatever the Patriots did to win. My concern from an ethics perspective is it’s a win at any cost mentality. In other words, it portrays an ethic of the ends justify the means.

Brady’s smugness and obvious devil-may-care attitude spoke volumes about his character, or lack thereof. Ethics is all about how we act when no one is looking, and Brady and the Patriots failed miserably on the ethics test.

The way in which Brady handled Gray’s questions reminded me of one of my core beliefs that in life, and in whatever we do, it’s the form which our actions and reactions take to improper behavior that is important, even more important, than the issue at hand. If Brady had admitted his role in ‘DeflateGate,’ cooperated with the NFL, and seemed genuinely remorseful about his role in the scandal, then public opinion would be on his side (Just think about Lance Armstrong’s legacy if he had admitted to doping right away rather than denying it for so many years).

The penalties in ‘DeflateGate’ seem appropriate all things considered because the NFL must send a strong message about cheating. There is no place for cheaters in the NFL or in any sport. Athletes are role models for young people and need to act that way. We have enough negative role models already in society. Perhaps the strong punishment will make other players and coaches think twice about unfairly gaining a competitive edge. At least the NFL has gone on record as enforcing an ethic of good sportsmanship and fair play in the game.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on May 20, 2015. Professor Mintz is on the faculty of the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at: