Meanings: Cheat

January 24, 2015

“This kind of gamesmanship goes on all the time,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor at Ithaca College who studies sports ethics. He was commenting on the Patriots’ deflated footballs in last week’s AFC title game, sign stealing, corked baseball bats and scuffed baseballs. “It’s certainly accepted as part of the culture that you game the system as much as you can, and if you don’t get caught, it ain’t cheating.”  (Tim Rohan, “Gamesmanship vs. Cheating,” New York Times, January 24, 2015, pB9.)

I dissent from that view however commonplace it may have become.  (I also wince at a professor saying “ain’t.  Mosher, by the way, has a B.A. in English and Journalistic Studies, and a Ph.D. in Sport Studies with Concentrations in Philosophy and Literary Criticism, both from U. Mass, Amherst. Such expertise….)

Games have rules; those rules define the game. Having all contestants adhere to those rules is what makes a game ‘fair.’  In professional football, there is a rule about the permissible pressure in a football. If someone deliberately altered the footballs so they didn’t adhere to that standard, that’s cheating, and there should be consequences.

I remember a faculty meeting many years ago where we were discussing student plagiarism. Some members of the faulty were upset at some recent incidents. Others began to talk about how murky s concept plagiarism is, how difficult it is to know dishonest plagiarism from honest borrowing. (In my view, the cases under discussion were far from murky.)  A member of the music faculty rose, someone who rarely spoke in faculty meetings, and said “in my field, plagiarism consists of three notes.” He sat down; he knew plagiarism when he saw it.

In the discussions of deflate-gate, I’m astonished that there isn’t more outrage and more talk of consequences being visited on the Patriots. No one seems to question that the Patriots should play for the NFL Championship next Sunday. After all, I’ve read many saying, the Patriots would have won even if they hadn’t cheated, so decisively did they defeat the Colts. Here, for example, is an exchange on NPR between Audie Cornish (host) and Tom Goldman, NPR Sports Correspondent:

CORNISH: Now, if a current NFL investigation shows the Patriots did purposely under-inflate the balls, will people be able to say that New England cheated its way into the Super Bowl?

GOLDMAN: I know you may disagree with this, Audie, but no. The Patriots dominated Indianapolis in all facets of the game, as they’ve done the past few games against the Colts.

So it’s OK if you would have won anyway? And it’s also OK if you don’t get caught?

The NFL and Patriots owner Robert Kraft have both issued statements. The NFL statement says that the goal of the investigation is to determine “the explanation for why footballs used in the game were not in compliance with the playing rules” and”specifically whether any noncompliance was the result of deliberate action.” But the statement is utterly silent on what consequence might follow if the footballs were found to be deliberately under-inflated by action of anyone working for the Patriots.  After pledging full cooperation with the investigation, Kraft’s statement makes it clear he expects the Patriots to be playing next weekend in the Superbowl: “Meanwhile, our players, coaches and staff will continue to focus on our preparations for Super Bowl XLIX and the many challenges we face as we prepare for the Seattle Seahawks.” He doesn’t even imagine the possibility of disqualification.  (“Meanwhile” = this investigation is to one side of the question of whether we should be playing.)

If the Patriots cheated, why should anyone watch?

The word “cheat,” by the way, comes from the legal term escheat. According to etymology.com:

cheat (v.) Look up cheat at Dictionary.commid-15c., “to escheat,” a shortening of Old French escheat, legal term for revision of property to the state when the owner dies without heirs, literally “that which falls to one,” past participle of escheoir “happen, befall, occur, take place; fall due; lapse (legally),” from Late Latin *excadere “fall away, fall out,” from Latin ex- “out” (see ex-) + cadere “to fall” (see case (n.1)). Also compare escheat. The royal officers evidently had a low reputation. Meaning evolved through “confiscate” (mid-15c.) to “deprive unfairly” (1580s). To cheat on (someone) “be sexually unfaithful” first recorded 1934.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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