As a born Bostonian, proud of the Hub’s tradition of elevating the nation’s ethical sensitivities, the spectacle of the old city’s football fans embarrassing themselves out of loyalty to a home town quarterback who doesn’t deserve it is nauseating. As a recent New York Times feature gruesomely illustrates, Tom Brady’s complicity in a successful cheat to get the New England Patriots into the Super Bowl has corrupted the usually reliable ethical values of this iconic city.
The information coming out of the NFL is that Brady’s cheating, lying about it, refusing to cooperate with the league’s investigation and—I hope this is taken into consideration—his smirking attitude about the incident since the results of the investigation were announced will get him suspended for 6-8 games. Think of it: Boston has been so corrupted by its sports star that it is now less ethically sensitive than Roger Goodell.
Now that’s corruption.
But as I have written here many times, that’s how heroes can ruin cultural values. It is why you must choose them with care, and be ready to jettison them quickly. It is the power of cognitive dissonance and the scale’s ability to rot our values without us even realizing it:
Tom Brady is at the top of the scale, maybe not a 10, but at least an 8. Well below the neutral mid-point was cheating, even in the academic center that is Boston, where cheating by students has become epidemic. (The city’s tolerance of cheating was initially increased when a cheating Kennedy, Ted, required that shift in order to be elected Senator.) Let’s say BI—“Before Inflategate”—it stood at -6. The pioneer of cognitive dissonance, Leon Festinger, posited that our minds have to resolve such dissonance: we can’t simultaneously have a strongly positive view of an individual who engages in behavior we rate so negatively. Thus the values of both Brady and cheating must change to resolve the dissonance. Brady falls, but cheating rises, and because he is more popular than cheating is reviled, now cheating, at least in professional sports for Boston teams, is in positive territory. Cheating in anything and everything else may not quite be in positive figures (yet) but it somehow doesn’t seem as bad as it once did.
That right: Tom Brady just got Hillary Clinton some votes.
Brady has validated cheating for Bostonian football fans, just as Bill Clinton made adultery more palatable to Democrats, just as George W. Bush made torture seem reasonable to Republicans, just as Barack Obama has taken the sting out of lying for African-Americans. Hillary has given influence peddling, if not a good, then a at least a better name. Woody Allen has been a boon to the self-image of incestuous fathers. Roman Polanski made statutory rape (which, Whoopie explained, isn’t “rape rape”) respectable in Hollywood. Floyd Merriweather and Ray Rice gave domestic abuse a PR boost among boxing and NFL fans.
Has Bill Cosby made sexual assault a little less repugnant to his throng? You bet it has.
It’s not villains who rot our ethics. It’s the flawed and untrustworthy heroes who abuse their power, choosing to make us worse human beings instead of better ones.
UPDATE: The League suspended Brady for four games, fined the Pats a million bucks, and took away two draft choices. I would have liked to see the team’s 2014 championship stripped too, but this in no slap on the wrist. It makes the right statement.