Tom Brady's moral defense

Posted at 8:50 AM, May 15, 2015
and last updated 2015-05-15 10:16:44-04

More power to Tom Brady and a pox upon the scolds galloping on nags saddled in hypocrisy, trotting along in Roger Goodell’s cavalry charge of sanctimony.  If anyone should be punished in this silly scandal of air pressure, it should be the referees who didn’t enforce the rules properly.  The sanctimony and frothing outrage is curdling my afternoon buttermilk.

Quick caveats: I have no opinion on the “facts” of DeflateGate. For the sake of argument, I stipulate that Brady and the Patriots are guilty as charged.  Also, I dislike the Patriots emotionally, though I respect the superior abilities of Brady, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft.  I am a loyal fan of the Chicago Bears, and I don’t like dynastic winners and teams that are named for regions, not cities.

My micro argument is this: It is the job and metaphysical purpose of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to win professional football games.  Professional sports have different goals than amateur sports and thus different ethical standards. The primary goal is to maximize revenue by entertaining, creating obsessive fans, conveying advertising and selling tickets and beer, all enhanced by winning.  Unlike amateur or collegiate athletes, there is no pretense or legal duty to educate, model traditional values or represent institutions or countries. There are rules of the games, of course. It is the job of referees (and umpires) to enforce the rules; it is not the job of players to obey the rules. Their job is to win. The referees in the DeflateGate game simply failed.  Tough toenails.

My macro argument is this: Of all the crimes, cruelties, exploitations, corruption and ignored dishonesty in professional and college football, punishing the use of improperly inflated footballs (leather tanned by the Horween Leather Company of Chicago since the 1950s, by the way) is equivalent to citing Bernie Madoff for littering.

Magicians call this “misdirection,” drawing the eye to the card on the table so the audience doesn’t notice the pigeon up the sorcerer’s sleeve.  Herbert Marcuse, a favorite political philosopher of the New Left in the 60s, called it “repressive desublimation”: fixate and exaggerate a small injustice so the larger injustice remains ignored.  Suspend Brady so you don’t have to talk about the 1,000 IQ points players lose every Sunday from concussions for a while.

I feel the exact same way about spitballs, pine tar, steroids and all the other PEDs.  If it enhances performance and thus our entertainment and national GDP, who cares?  Adults who are free to weigh the costs and benefits make these decisions.  If the governors of the various sports want to enforce rules, let them enforce them. If they catch violators, sure penalize them just like you would a linebacker for clipping and pitcher for storing Vaseline in his nostrils. But don’t get all moral and holier than thou about it.

Consider an example, a situation that arises several times in every game ever played. It’s third and three. The runner gets the ball, is tackled short of the first down line, but squirms and slithers and lounges the ball forward after the whistle and well after his knees are clearly down. He is trying to cheat. If the referees miss it and call a first down, they are wrong, they have failed and it is their fault. No player has ever been penalized for this or even scolded; they are not playground monitors.

Ah yes, cry the righteous, but children look up to these American athletes and they have a responsibility to be role models.

Wrong!  You, Mr. or Mrs. American have a responsibility to guide your children as you see fit. All the media devices in your home have been endowed by the good Lord with an “off” button. Don’t hoist the responsibility and honor of moral tutelage on Tom Brady, Roger Goodell or, most commonly, schoolteachers.

Is it cheating when starlets fill their lips with collagen and their breasts with water balloons, when computers alter singers’ voices, when shrimpy hunks are shot to make them look tall? Do we expect actors, rappers, celebrities and other creatures that live on our TVs to be role models? Hardly ever, unless they proclaim that status for themselves, like Bill Cosby.

There is a moral problem with football now, but it is my problem. The knowledge we now have about brain injuries is almost poisoning the game for me. I feel like I am being entertained by an activity that will give some families generations of wealth and security, and others heartbreak. Do I believe players are free and able to make their choices? Of course.  And I am free to use the “off” button. 

And if the Bears could ever nab Tom Brady, I’d be his biggest fan.

[Also by Dick Meyer: It’s us versus marketing, and we’re losing]

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