The Art of Competitive Advantage: ‘Deflategate’, Blurred Lines, Blind Eyes, Hypocrites and Cheats

Last weekend, the New England Patriots demolished the Indianapolis Colts 45–7 in the AFC Championship game to clinch a berth in next Sunday’s Super bowl. A day later, it was reported by the Colts that one of the balls used by the Patriots was supposedly inflated to under the regulatory pressure (12.5 PSI). The NFL stated that they would investigate the claim further, and the Patriots pleaded open-armed ignorance. A day later it was revealed that after a half-time examination in light of this initial complaint 11 out of 12 game-balls were, strictly speaking, deflated. Cue pandemonium, outrage and accusation. After the ‘Spygate’ episode in 2007, the Patriots’ success has had a proverbial asterisk placed alongside it by some commentators and many more armchair pundits. Surely, the sentiment maintained, Belichick must be up to something shady – once a cheater always a cheater and all that. But until Tuesday, nothing specific had been reported, or even levied. Belichick and Tom Brady, the goldenboy quarterback about to compete for his 4th Super Bowl title, have been bombarded with questions over the last couple of days, and their denials of complicity, connivance and cognizance haven’t been convincingly exonerating. A few years back, Brady revealed he (innuendo alert) preferred playing with softer balls. Belichick and the Patriots have a history not only of cheating, but of being accused of using atypical, perhaps underhand tactics (most recently in the very same game, after offensive tackle Nate Solder reported as eligible and proceeded to catch a pass and rumble in for a touchdown). The general consensus is that the Patriots have farted and said they have a cold – they can’t smell anything so wouldn’t know anyway. It’s not sticking, but until concrete evidence is produced, their word will have to do.

But this episode is merely a Segway. In a tense, at times awkward press conference, Brady stated that the investigation was necessary to protect and uphold ‘the integrity of the game’. In this instance, a potential case of petty but flagrant rule-breaking, that’s a fair comment. But it got me thinking about the ‘integrity’ of other sports, the extent to which gamesmanship is accepted and the lines between gaining a competitive advantage through exercising this and plain cheating. What constitutes what? And when? Considering the best exponents provoked another tier of inquiries: does consistent excellence require something in addition to talent and good execution, a logistical, ideological or organisational factor that somehow breeds winning? Should it really need to? The evidence certainly suggests so, which in turn forces us to consider whether the aspects of sport and competition that we hold dear – the emotion, the humanity, the escapism, and most importantly the chivalry – are really so profound after all.

Vague, capricious rules don’t help. The ICC allows the shining of balls but prohibits their intentional scuffing. Seam-tampering, to incite more spin, is an anathema, but fast-bowlers are generally free to take an extra step or two on the wicket after following through in order to help out their slower-armed colleagues. In rugby union there’s a struggle for parity at the scrum, and Northern hemisphere refs call the breakdown differently from there Southern counterparts). And don’t even get me started on pass interference, helmet-first hits or reception farces in NFL.

There’s not really a sport in which grey areas aren’t routinely exploited. The acceptance comes with the ubiquity. Take the issue of ‘diving’. If Vincent Kompany sticks his leg out and Nacho Monreal falls over it, should it be rewarded with a foul? Watch Tony Kroos, Sergio Busquets or Franck Ribery – they invite contact, and as soon as they feel it they are already reaching down to take a quick free-kick, sometimes before the referee has even put his whistle to his lips. Obviously, if a player hasn’t been touched and goes over, that’s a dive. That’s cheating. But how often do we hear the phrases ‘he went over too easily there’ or ‘that wasn’t hard enough to him down’. Sure thing, Alan Shearer, next time he’ll don a mouth-guard and put his shoulder in just to make sure you’re satisfied. Same rules, different interpretation and implementation. Our frustration manifests itself, as always, in invective scapegoating. In this case, the media selects the talented Mr Robben.

The manipulation of officials is pretty universal; if you think all manipulation should be regarded as cheating, then you are probably being slightly idealistic. The dark-arts are as old as the games themselves. It boggles the mind to think about how many undiscovered instances of duping there’s been, be it faking injury in football, intentionally drawing contact upon shooting the NBA, deflating balls after the officials have approved them, using blood capsules or taking PEDs (yes, it took the NFL that long to realise) or intentionally spilling drinks on the court. I told my Dad that I was halfway through a piece on ambiguity and what constitutes cheating in sport. He replied, with a tone of facetiousness that was alarmingly hard to gauge, that it was ‘‘when you get caught’’. After Gatlin, Armstrong and Marion Jones, we are now at a point where we half expect Usain Bolt to get done for doping. That’s a pretty sad state of affairs, but one we have created ourselves.

Is the use of rules advantageously or amorally a noble thing to do? Most people would argue that it isn’t. Ian Bell’s reinstatement after being run out against India on the last ball before tea in 2011 was noble on MS Dhoni’s part, but objectively wasn’t a decision that wasn’t conducive to India winning the match. What would the ‘correct’ thing to have been to do? Excuse Bell’s naivety or employ anther nebulous rule in its purest form? It works both ways, and those who lobby for acts of good sportsmanship sometimes risk defiling ‘the integrity of the game’ in their cause.

New Zealand is heralded as the greatest rugby nation on earth, producing wave after wave of world-class talent. But it turns out that in this process even they, the exponents of rugby in its most distilled state, imbue, as an ingredient and/or by-product, cynical gamesmanship; during last year’s Autumn Internationals several All Blacks, notably Kevin ‘spear tackle’ Mealamu, admitted that they adopt a means-to-an-end mentality. It’s funny how substance can get overlooked in favour of style.

Problems of moral ambiguity in sport extend from the quotidian to the Meta. In America, the Patriots and the San Antonio Spurs have been regarded over the last decade or so as paragons for excellence and continuity in American football and basketball respectively. They have two key features in common: firstly, a Head Coach who is also the de facto General Manager (squad selector) and regarded as one of the ‘Greatest of All Time’. Secondly, they are both praised for imparting values that eschew individual glory for the pursuit of utilitarian concepts of ‘team first’ and ‘buying in’. They’ve had plenty of success, but it begs the question: why those individuals? What gives them such a God complex? Why don’t other organisations adopt the same methods and put a Machiavellian dictator in charge of their teams?

It doesn’t always go well. At Arsenal, Wenger has been contemporaneously stuck in his ways, and relative mediocrity. The problem with Wenger is adaptability. After last season’s Championship victory Popovich adumbrated how he realised some time ago that his aging stars and smaller roster couldn’t play the same ‘twin tower’ style deployed during the early 00’s, and instead started to integrate a system predicated on spacing, incisive passing and disorienting ball-movement. Belichick changes his game-plan on a weekly basis. But Wenger’s critics have been making the same observations throughout – reluctant to buy, rigid in his philosophy and poor touch-line management. Some purists laud Le Professeur for his dignified refusal to compromise his approach, but how dignified is it to fail in the same manner season after season and continually not give the team you manage the wherewithal to improve and really compete with the best teams in Europe? Conversely, the only philosophy Jose Mourhino has is winning. He is an arch pragmatist. He will persuade/force Xabi Alonso to impersonate Thomas Gravesen or move Samuel Eto’o to the wing if it leads to a superior defensive set-up. And, Juan Mata, if you can’t do this, then you don’t play.

That last part is typical Belichick and textbook Popovich. Yes, professional athletes are commodities and assets, but it’s the frequency and utterly unapologetic manner with which these three discard players who don’t fit their needs that marks them out as different. The regime is always the priority. There’s a George R. R. Martin character inspired by Belichick’s lack of loyalty; protecting his innocence and deflecting the media onto Brady was a lamentable demonstration of this. It’s also well known too that Sir Alex’s ego and tight ship-running often pushed him into making rash, regrettable decisions. Are we happy with professional sports projecting this message. We, especially in light of recent events, like to regard our democracy, pluralism and freedom of speech as the ‘ideal’. We like to think sport teaches many positive traits – discipline, teamwork, winning and losing with grace, work ethic, courage, determination – and it does to a degree. But we are also continuously fed examples of the notion that to be the best, to really succeed requires an environment that is authoritarian, exclusive, systematic, ruthless, enforces a my-way-or-the-highway arrangement and incorporates concepts of identity politics. Would it be unfair to say that this template is also applicable to other aspects of society aside form professional sports? Business? Those who knew Steve Jobs or know Lord Sugar might certainly say so. David Fincher, when he made ‘The Social Network’ must have thought so too. Education? I spent enough years at an ambitious private school to almost be inculcated by its ethos of insular pomposity. Then there’s the self-explanatory realm of partisan politics.

Do we really all have to become hypocrites to get to the top? Do we really have to sacrifice our morals to gain a competitive advantage? Perhaps this just the nature of the aforementioned ‘results driven industries’ – is the idea that the journey is more important than the destination about as realistic as 11 out 12 game balls being illegally deflated without the consent of the ultimate ‘by-any-means-necessary’ coach? Maybe, that’s the case, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe, it’s me who’s the naïve idealist after all.

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