In 67 A.D., the Roman emperor Nero used 10 horses in an Olympic race featuring four-horse chariots. He tumbled, failed to finish and was still declared the victor.
In the 1904 Summer Games, an American named Fred Lorz was the first runner to finish the marathon – aided by 10 miles spent in an automobile.
In 1938, a German named Dora Ratjen set the women’s high-jump record, which stood until officials learned that she was actually a he. In more recent times, ballplayers juiced, cyclists lied, fighters took bribes, football teams spied and golfers fluffed lies.
So it shouldn’t be a surprise that the New England Patriots’ advance to this year’s Super Bowl involved footballs that were allegedly low on air pressure. While rule books are printed in black and white, they regularly have been challenged, creatively interpreted and ignored entirely.
The line separating what’s acceptable from what’s illegal can be gray. Depending on whom you ask, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is brazenly blurring that line, pushing it or obliterating it entirely, gamesmanship trumping sportsmanship.
Belichick told reporters Thursday that he was “shocked” and that “I have no explanation” about his team’s use of underinflated footballs in this past Sunday’s win over Indianapolis in the American Football Conference championship game.
But the veteran coach also is exposing that line for what it is: fluid. In sport and beyond, at times little separates the innovators and rule-breakers.
“Think about it, there was a time we didn’t even have the forward pass,” said Shawn Klein, who teaches philosophy at Rockford University in Illinois and runs the website SportsEthicist.com. “Someone had to push the boundaries and say, ‘Maybe this is the way it should be done.’ ”
Different sports, competitors and fan bases regard their respective rule books with varying degrees of sanctity. Former Major League Baseball pitcher Gaylord Perry cracked jokes during his Hall of Fame induction speech about his well-known rule-breaking involving doctoring the baseball. Sluggers such as Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and others, meantime, can’t get in Cooperstown without first purchasing a ticket at the door because of drug use. The slam dunk was once illegal in college basketball and discouraged in the pros; today it’s a staple of the sport.
Evolving technology, too, requires constant rule changes in auto racing, golf and many extreme sports. In more traditional sports such as baseball, adopting instant replay is akin to relocating a mountain one shovelful at a time. The common thread is usually a level playing field and agreed-upon terms of play.
“I think people enjoy sports – and men in particular – because it gives order to the universe. Something is either fair or foul, either a strike or a ball,” said Randall Balmer, an author, historian and chairman of the religion department at Dartmouth College, where he teaches a course on ethics in sport. “Nothing riles up a sports fan more than something that disrupts their orderly universe. It’s implicit in any athletic event that we are all going to play by the same rules, so any sort of transgression is taken pretty seriously by a lot of people.”
As history might suggest, Klein says cheating might very well be ingrained in the nature of competition. But it’s also a part of human nature.
“It’s people asking, how far can we go? Asking questions, why is the line here? Maybe the line should be somewhere else? Let’s push and see,” Klein said. “That can lead us to innovation and important change … Rule-pushers, and to an extent the rule-breakers, play an important role in sport but also in life and culture, so that we can adapt and learn new things.”
Belichick’s pursuit is relatively modest – a fourth Super Bowl trophy – and part of his midcareer legacy already seems clear: a competitor who was willing to bend rules, even break them at times, in order to win. In 2007, long before anyone was worried about air pressure in footballs, he was busted for videotaping opposing coaches’ signals. But he’s also noted for creatively operating within the rules, most recently employing a unique offensive formation against Baltimore two weeks ago that had Ravens’ coaches and players mistakenly crying foul. “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out,” Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said at the time.
Against the Ravens, their bold strategy was lauded, not lambasted. They tiptoed up to the line but didn’t cross. This latest incident, though, leaves a football nation convinced the Patriots have no problem stepping well over that line, if necessary.
Cheating and challenging norms has been a part of sports for centuries. The Roman emperor flaunted rules and wore a crown of olive leaves. Today’s most polarizing National Football League figure does the same, wearing a headset and a sleeveless hoodie instead.