Because this kind of thing is important to some, let's get it out of the way: I'm a New England Patriots fan. I happened to write about that just last week.
But if the NFL finds that the Patriots willfully deflated footballs - 11 of the 12 used in the AFC Championship were underinflated, ESPN reported this morning - then the Indianapolis Colts should be the AFC representative in next Sunday's Super Bowl.
Otherwise, the NFL will be no better than NASCAR, which diluted its product and alienated its fans by allowing one of its best teams to continually violate the rules without significant punishment. That team, of course, was Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team, which chronically cheated yet faced only fines and meaningless team points penalties.
Johnson won five titles, but as I wrote in 2012:
It's almost impossible now to conclude that the 48 won five NASCAR championships without the benefit of cheating. And while the culture inside and out of NASCAR garages has forever been "it ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught," if it still ain't punished when you do get caught, what are you left with?
The NFL faces the same question today. No, both teams didn't use the same deflated footballs (each team supplies the balls its offense uses) and yes, it's easy to say that New England would have won if the football were filled with sand. Perhaps, but perhaps not. Who knows whether Tom Brady would have thrown another first-half interception with a ball that was less comfortable? Who knows how the game would have flowed if the halftime score were different?
Also, it's besides the point. Punishing cheating isn't about predicting what might have happened had the cheating not occurred. It's about assuring the fans that there is integrity in the outcome. As I wrote in 2012:
Punishment in sport is a tricky endeavor - part deterrent for athletes, part salve for fans. Even in sports where cheating is acknowledged as an everybody-does-it reality, punishment gives fans the appearance of integrity, the sense that their sport's field is level because the possibility exists that cheaters will suffer real consequences.Johnson's fans argued then what Patriots fans will argue now: That unless there's proof he participated in the cheating, it's unfair to punish him. After all, he can't control what everyone in his organization does. But Johnson then, and Pats coach Bill Belichick now, can and do make clear what is acceptable and unacceptable in their organizations. And as any coach will tell you, teams share success and ignominy together.
Or at least they should. My guess: Belichick and the Patriots will say they had no idea that an attendant deflated the footballs, and the NFL will gladly run through that hole and punish the Patriots only with fines and perhaps the loss of a draft pick or two. Patriots haters will argue that they should get more - and that a New England win two Sundays from now win will forever be tainted.
This time, they'll be right.
Peter St. Onge