The Punishment Should Fit The Crime
When I called in sick this past Friday, I mentioned that I had an idea for a post, which may or may not remain timely throughout the weekend. Fortunately, or unfortunately – however you want to look at it – the topic remained timely. It should have been about the Rolex24, which is always a nice kickoff for the racing season to take our minds off of the long IndyCar offseason.
It did seem odd to be watching a live race on a day that we woke up in Nashville to snow-covered lawns. Congratulations go to Chip Ganassi and IndyCar drivers Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan. Dixon and Kanaan can now add this impressive achievement to their Indianapolis 500 victories along with their IndyCar championships.
Unfortunately, that’s not the topic. It’s something that has gone from the sports page to the front page in a matter of days, and will surely turn the stomach of most Colts fans. Yes, I’m talking about the deflated football issue regarding the New England Patriots of the NFL. I refuse to label it Deflategate. Why does every controversy these days have to have –gate attached to it? I was fourteen years-old when Watergate took place. Most of those that like to label everything with –gate weren’t even born in 1972; but I digress.
There is a racing correlation to this, so hang with me.
In case you’ve lived under a rock, the Patriots have been accused of deflating their footballs under the minimum pressure, during last week’s AFC Championship game, in order to afford a better grip and make the ball easier to catch in the cold and damp weather. It should be noted that the discrepancy was discovered at halftime, when the score was 17-7. The balls were re-inflated to the legal pressure at the half, and the Patriots outscored the Colts 28-0 on their way to a 45-7 romp in punching their ticket to Super Bowl XLIX. As many have noted, the Patriots could have probably played with bricks and still won the game.
The controversy has produced a lot of humorous posts and photos on social media, while there have been way too many references to Tom Brady’s balls for the past week.
But there have been many that fail to see any humor whatsoever in the incident. Many have labeled this as felonious cheating. Over the weekend, I read that a CNN columnist proclaimed that the Patriots should be tossed out of the Super Bowl. Seriously? Most haven’t gone that far, but many feel that either the Patriots organization should be fined and/or lose draft picks or that coach Bill Belichick be suspended either for the Super Bowl or for next season. Many are rationalizing that this is more egregious than when the New Orleans Saints paid bounties for injuring opposing players, resulting in the one-year suspension for coach Sean Payton.
I’m sorry, but I don’t see the comparison. The Saints were trying to injure and cripple players, possibly ending careers and causing life-long problems for players. The Patriots were trying to make a ball a little easier to throw and catch in inclement weather. Were they completely innocent? No. Is this an act that should throw them out of the Super Bowl? Absolutely not. In my eyes, this is a misdemeanor. It’s not a felony.
In racing, there is an old adage that says “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’”. That’s the NASCAR translation of “pushing the envelope is encouraged”. Sometimes rules infractions are obvious. Other times, it’s a very gray area. Even when it appears obvious, there are extenuating circumstances.
In the waning laps of the 1995 Indianapolis 500, Scott Goodyear passed the pace car during a restart, on his way to what may have been a victory. It’s pretty black & white. You can’t pass the pace car on a restart. I was sitting in Turn Four that day and saw Goodyear accelerate when the pace car did not. The pace car had been going very slow on restarts that day, and this was no exception. Goodyear had committed to his accelerated pace and decided he was going – with or without the pace car. I suppose he assumed that USAC and Chief Steward Tom Binford would understand his actions. I don’t think Goodyear was cheating; he was trying.
Unfortunately for Goodyear, USAC didn’t see it that way. They black-flagged him to come in for a stop & go penalty. Goodyear ignored the black flag, and USAC stopped scoring him. Goodyear was eventually credited with fourteenth, even though he crossed the finish line ahead of Jacques Villeneuve on Lap 200.
In 1972, Roger Penske won his first Indianapolis 500 with Mark Donohue as his driver. The race had come down to Donohue and Jerry Grant, who was driving for Dan Gurney. Grant was leading, but had to pit on Lap 188 when a tire was going down. He accidentally pitted in the pit box of his teammate Bobby Unser, who had retired much earlier in the race.
The crew connected the hoses from Unser’s fuel tank. Whether they actually took on fuel is debatable, but the rule of not taking fuel from another driver’s fuel tank had appeared to be broken. Grant’s last laps did not count and was credited with twelfth. Who knows? Grant may not have even known that was a rule, although it was brought about after AJ Foyt used a refueling rig from another car in 1961.
But speaking of Foyt – there have been other times when some racers were fairly obvious with their fouls, yet the officials were thought to look the other way. It’s probably safe to say that Gordon Kirby is not a huge fan of AJ Foyt. Kirby swears that Foyt was allowed to get away with far more than any other driver in any other series in history. He sites examples of Foyt carrying extra fuel in the frame tubing when he ran in NASCAR and sneaking a tank of nitrous-oxide under the leg of his driving suit. Eddie Cheever has talked openly about Foyt picking up officials by the collar and physically throwing them out of his garage. If that’s true, could any other driver or owner get away with that? Um…no.
Many have opined this week that if the Patriots go on to win their fourth Super Bowl under Bill Belichick; that their legacy will be tainted. We already know that the Patriots had been caught trying to videotape opposing team’s signals in 2007 (another –gate scandal) . They were fined and lost draft picks in the next draft. Due to this offense eight years ago, some are calling the Patriots “repeat offenders”. Others have wondered out loud what else they are doing and just haven’t been caught.
When Helio Castroneves won the Texas race in 2013, his undertray was found to be out of compliance. The tunnel exit was determined to be less than one-tenth of an inch too low. I’m no engineer, but those I talked to about this at the time said this would have been a disadvantage. Still, Team Penske was fined $36,000 and they were docked fifteen entrant points; although Helio was allowed to keep his twenty-two point lead at the time.
In the week following the race, many pontificated that if Castroneves went on to win the championship, it would be forever tainted. Helio didn’t win, but did any of you even remember that before I brought it up less than two years later?
Like Helio’s infraction, in the grand scheme of things, the Patriots deflating footballs seems like nothing. If the Patriots had won by 10-7 instead of 45-7, it might raise a few more eyebrows. Had the Patriots not been caught cheating in 2007, or not won three out of four Super Bowls in the first half of the previous decade, would we be hearing about this at all?
After reading this, you might determine that I am a Patriots fan. I’m not. This Sunday, the New England Patriots will be playing in their eighth Super Bowl. In the previous seven, I found myself cheering for them only once – when they beat the Rams after the 2001 season; and that was because I was still smarting from the Rams beating the Titans just two seasons earlier. But for the record, I’ll be pulling for them this Sunday.
Whether it’s racing or football, everyone is going to try to get any possible advantage over their competitors. It’s the nature of sports. Whether it’s deflating a football slightly, doctoring a baseball or having a friendly pop-off valve that allows a little extra boost – everyone is trying to stay ahead of the game. If it’s a huge advantage that directly causes an outcome, they should be heavily punished. If not, deal with it and move on. The punishment should fit the crime.
My hope is that once the teams get settled in Glendale, Arizona this week; this will all blow over. Then we can hear about how football is played instead of how they are deflated. Then a week from today, we’ll be into full racing mode for the year.