I was in Boston recently, and naturally the topic of Tom Brady and Deflategate came up often. I kept hearing the same defenses of Brady with a growing sense of déjà vu. Yes, many of the rationalizations on the Ethics Alarms Rationalizations List raised their ethically-muddled heads in Beantown, all-purpose classics like “Everybody does it,” “It’s a bad law/ stupid rule,” and “No harm, no foul,” but there were others that clearly came out of some secretly published “Cheater’s Handbook.”
These are going to enter the list as a group, like #6,The Biblical Rationalizations. They will be trotted out for other purposes, no doubt, but no set of excuses better defines the unethical mindset of a cheater’s defenders than these three.
59. The Cheater’s Rationalizations
59. A. Barry Bonds’ Pass: “He didn’t need to cheat.”
This has long been the refrain in the Barry Bonds argument for baseball’s uber cheater to be admitted to the MLB Hall of Fame. Bonds, you see, was a great player before his alleged use of steroids began, so even if he did use steroids (he did), what difference did it make? How do we know that the steroids helped him? Some excuse Bonds on the grounds that whatever advantage he thought he was gaining by using PEDs, they were imaginary. He may have tried to cheat, but since he really didn’t benefit, there is no cheating to punish. Similarly, Tom Brady is a great quarterback, so what proof is there that deflating the balls was the reason he had a great second half in the play-off game in question?
The argument doesn’t make sense, logically or ethically. It is like arguing that a young Einstein couldn’t cheat on a physics exam even if he stole the answers and memorized them, because he would surely have figured them out anyway. Cheating demonstrates dishonesty, trustworthiness and a lack of integrity, whether it materially assists the cheater or not. What is wrong with cheating is the act itself, not the magnitude of the results, or even whether there are any.
59 B. The Vendetta Excuse: “It’s not the cheating, it’s the cheater”
I heard ancient Boston sportswriter Bob Ryan shout on ESPN that the NFL was going after Tom Brady to punish and embarrass his coach, Bill Bellichick and his team, the New England Patriots, as well as Brady, all because of accumulated suspicion, jealousy and animus over the years. The standard defense of Barry Bonds was that he was being targeted for cheating allegations because he was black, and no white player would be hounded that way. Then came the Roger Clemens scandal. Lance Armstrong dismissed accusations that he was doping by attributing it all to the age-old desire of opponents to discredit the one who surpassed them. “They are out to get me/my family/my employer” might be the oldest cheating deflection of them all.
59 C. O.J.’s Facade: “You can’t prove it!”
A cheater doesn’t have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt unless his conduct gets him charged with a crime. Those who are charged with overseeing the integrity of competitions and competitive exercises like academic exams must often make reasonable assessments based on less than conclusive proof. That is why carrying a cheat sheet into an exam is itself cheating, even if there is no way to prove you looked at it. It is why the Chicago Black Sox were banned from baseball for life for taking bribes from gamblers, even though it couldn’t be proved that they didn’t play to win while losing the 1919 World Series to an inferior team.
In sports, the fans of a sport believing that an athlete or team has prevailed by cheating is destructive to the sports itself, so the appearance of cheating is as damaging as the cheating itself. The accused cheater, like the accused murderer in a “Columbo” episode, whose response to an accusation isn’t “I didn’t do it!” but “You can’t prove it!” has merely added to the suspicion of wrongdoing.