Until now, I had been quite proud of the fact that this blog was one of the very few --- possibly the only --- Spygate-discussion-free football website in existence. Unless I've forgotten about something, not one word about the topic has been written here. And this really isn't a Spygate post either. It's more of a meta-Spygate post. But in order to set it up, I have to say just a few words about Spygate itself.
I think the Patriots knowingly broke rules with the intent of gaining a competitive advantage. I think the competitive advantage they gained was probably somewhere between negligible and very small, somewhere on the order of one or two expected wins during the course of the Belichick era. I think it's possible that other teams are as guilty as, or even more guilty than, the Patriots, but that New England is probably in the top five or top ten cheatingest teams of the last decade. I have very little basis for any of these beliefs.
But as I said, this post isn't about Spygate. It's about the reaction to Spygate. It's about what morality means in team sports. It's about double standards. It's about win-at-all-costs being an admirable motto and a disgraceful one, depending on how the costs are counted.
Matt Walsh had nothing. But his eight tapes' worth of nothing ignited another round of columns about how evil the Patriots were. Walsh's and Ross Tucker's allegations that the Patriots misused the injured reserve list to their advantage would have been No Big Deal had it been any other team. But it was (is?) a Big Deal because it was the Patriots. Why? The easy answer is jealousy, and that's part of it.
But far more important is the way the Patriots have portrayed themselves, and have been portrayed by their supporters, since February of 2002: as not just a great team, but a team that was great because of its morality.
In team sports, the ultimate Moral Good is devotion to the team above self. Just behind that is the will to win, and for some reason intelligence is considered a moral virtue as well. These were the cornerstones of the Patriots' schtick. The Pats didn't win because they have more talent; they won because they play better as a team. They didn't win because they had better athletes, they won because they were smarter and harder-working and more willing to make personal sacrifices for the good of the team. They wanted it more.
When a team goes out of its way to break from the norm and introduce itself as a team --- and when its fans fall all over themselves praising this choice --- there is a clear implication of moral superiority. The Rams could have won that Super Bowl if they had had the courage to put the good of the team above their own personal glory. The Patriots didn't just win. They won The Right Way. They won only because they did things The Right Way. And that's what Pats' fans have been emphasizing for the last five years.
And I don't blame them for emphasizing that. Winning The Right Way is something to be proud of. It is better than just winning. But the problem is: if you want credit for winning The Right Way, you have to, you know, actually win the right way.
That's why "they didn't really gain a competitive advantage" and "other teams have admitted to similar violations" fall on deaf ears that surround an angry face. If you've been lecturing me for five years on how you win because of your ability to do the little things right, I don't want to hear that this was just a little cheating. If the secret of your success is having the strength of character to do what other teams aren't willing to do, I'm going to react badly when you tell me that sure, you cheated, but no more than anyone else probably. And I'm not going to find it too much of a stretch to believe that maybe the other secret to your success is that you had the weakness of character to do what other teams weren't willing to do.
The Patriots are taking more heat about this than other teams would for the same reason that a televangelist takes more heat than a rock star when he turns out to be a drug-using adulterer.
Has the Patriots' dynasty been tarnished? Yes and no.
No. Their on-field accomplishments stand, as far as I'm concerned. It probably was a very small competitive advantage (if any) and other teams probably were cheating at nearly a similar level. The New England Patriots are the legitimate dynasty of this decade. But eight months ago, they were more than that. They were some sort of transcendent super-dynasty. That hasn't merely been tarnished. It has disintegrated.
The Patriots: Just Another Dynasty.