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September 13, 2007

The Man in the Green Shirt

As you may have heard, the New England Patriots are in hot water because they were caught videotaping the New York Jets' defensive signals this past Sunday in violation of NFL rules.

According to ESPN

[NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell is considering severe sanctions, including the possibility of docking the Patriots "multiple draft picks" because it is the competitive violation in the wake of a stern warning to all teams since he became commissioner, the sources said. The Patriots have been suspected in previous incidents.

My admittedly limited sampling of media and fan reactions to the story all says something along these lines: "Sure, the Patriots cheated but this whole things is being blown out of proportion. After all, how much competitive advantage could the Patriots have gained by violating the rule?" As Aaron Schatz of the Football Prospectus told Bill Simmons of ESPN, the "strategic advantage" to be gained from breaking the rule in question is "minor." Thus, no big deal.

Schatz and company have it exactly backwards: the fact that the "strategic advantage is minor" makes the Patriots' offense worse, not better.

At least, that's what St. Augustine would argue. In Book Two of his Confessions, he reviews his "past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of [his] soul." One of the sins whose memory caused him the most anguish involved a pear tree near his family's vineyard. As Augustine recounts, its fruit

was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night -- having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was -- a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves. Doing this pleased us all the more because it was forbidden.

Augustine saw in this gratuitous transaction evidence of the wantonness, foulness and depravity of his soul. His actions weren't driven by need or even disordered desire: they were entirely perverse. He did it for the pleasure of getting away with it.

That's why telling me that the Patriots (or anyone else) don't need to cheat to win doesn't make them less blameworthy -- it makes them more. Like Augustine, their actions seem motivated not so much by the object of the transgression (whatever information that could glean by cheating) than by the transgression itself and what it says about their "commitment to winning." Or, as Augustine might put it, "seeking nothing from the shameful deed but shame itself."

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Well said, I used to be an avid football fan, I hardly watch anymore, not because so many players get into trouble, but because when they do, its explained away or even rewarded.

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