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Stop the moral fury over 'Deflategate' and admit it: We're all cheaters

We all cheat, to some degree or another #Deflategate

Friday, as “Deflategate” continued to swell, NFL Hall of Famer Jerry Rice pronounced a requiem on the New England Patriots. If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, Rice said, “you have to really put an asterisk on it.”

OK, go ahead and do that. But while you’re at it, put an asterisk on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Super Bowl victory in 2003. Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson “paid some guys” $7,500 to scuff the game balls so they would be easier to grip, as Johnson recently admitted.

Actually, put an asterisk on everyone. On all the winners. And the losers. On you. On me.

That’s because we all cheat, to some degree or another. But it’s so much easier -- and, let’s face it, so much more fun -- to accuse the other guy of it.

And that’s the only way to explain the huge outpouring of national indignation heaped on the Patriots, following news reports that 11 of their 12 footballs were under-inflated during the first half of their conference championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts. At the end of the day, we all want to be heroes in our own bedtime stories. So we focus obsessively on the villainy of others, which allows us to turn a blind eye to our own.

Raise your hand if you’ve never accepted change when you knew it was miscalculated in your favor. Or if you’ve never boarded a plane before your seat was called.

I didn’t think so. Yet we feel angry when we see other people doing the same thing. And, not coincidentally, we feel better about ourselves.

That’s even more the case when the infractions occur in sports, which symbolize our wish for a righteous universe. Out in the real world, the moral lines might be get blurred now and then. When you get between the lines of an athletic contest, however, everything is supposed to be clear. There’s a reason we call it a “level playing field,” after all.

Only, it isn’t. Sports, it turns out, is just like life: replete with cheaters, large and small. It’s a question of degree, not of kind. Is anyone completely clean?

The big-time cheaters are people who take money from gamblers to lose games -- like the 1919 "Black Sox" -- or who take performance-enhancing drugs to win them: Think Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa or Alex Rodriguez. Despite their superlative statistics, their steroid use will probably block them from the Hall of Fame.

But the same august institution gladly admitted Gaylord Perry, who doctored his baseballs with Vaseline. “Gaylord is a very honorable man,” quipped the president of the Cleveland Indians, for whom Perry notched 70 of his 314 career victories. “He only calls for the spitter when he needs it.”

Another Hall of Famer, Whitey Ford, used his wedding ring to cut the ball. He also planted mud pies around the pitching mound, which provided a ready-made baseball coating. In the 1963 World Series against the Dodgers, Ford later confessed, he “used enough mud to build a dam.”

Ford lost twice in the series to the great Sandy Koufax, whose Los Angeles Dodgers swept Ford’s Yankees four games to none. So cheating doesn’t always work, of course.

But it does happen, over and over again. In sports, as in life, people are more likely to cheat if they think they can get away with it. And baseball officials gave Perry and Ford every indication that they could.

Likewise, any NFL team -- not just the Patriots -- would have good reason to believe it could tinker with the pressure level of its footballs without getting caught. If the league regards this infraction as such a serious matter, why would it allow each team to supply the balls for its own offensive plays?

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the teams to use the same balls, which would be kept in the possession of the referees?

As Duke psychologist Dan Ariely has shown, we also cheat more often when we know that other people are doing it. So here, too, the Patriots would be on solid ground.

Just ask Rich Gannon, the losing quarterback in the Super Bowl in which Brad Johnson used scuffed footballs. “This kind of stuff has been going on forever,” Gannon recently told an interviewer. “Everybody does it.”

So please, spare me the moral fury over “Deflategate.” If the Patriots cheated, it was more like throwing a spitter than taking a steroid. I would never think of robbing a bank, but I have stolen a grape at the grocery store when no one was watching. Haven’t you?

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education," which will be published in March by Princeton University Press.

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