A reasonable man in an unreasonable hat.

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The NFL's Ethical Course in Deflategate

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Last week I wrote about why people with no interest in football should care about whether the New England Patriots broke the rules in what has become known, somewhat nuttily, as Deflategate. Since that time a number of fans and sportswriters have leaped to the defense not precisely of the Patriots but of ... well, of not caring.

Fair enough. Differences of opinions make horse races, and if everybody had the same view, blogs would be dull indeed. True, some of the language used in the debate is astonishing. One of my favorite sportswriters, Charles P. Pierce of Grantland, even described those of us who are worried about the potential scandal surrounding the Patriots and those underinflated footballs as “infantilized yahoos.”

Calling names is fun, but I’m afraid I operate more in the domain of actual argument. I’m a practical ethicist, which is to say I’m interested in how we should go about deciding what’s right and wrong in everyday life. Sports are a fruitful testing ground for ethical questions, because they are so popular and ubiquitous. One example I often use to spark debate among my students involves a football player who knows that the referee has made a mistake in his team’s favor. Presumably no athlete in the world would go over to the official and say, “You’re wrong, sir, I dropped the ball.” Thus as a practical matter we might say that the meta-rules about following the rules encourage taking advantage of errors committed by those charged with enforcing the rules. That’s what everyone expects.

Yet when the post office accidentally delivers to our door a valuable package intended for our neighbor, most of us walk across the street and make sure it reaches its proper destination. A few weeks ago, one of my students instantly handed back a paper I had accidentally given her that would have provided an advantage on a written assignment. This was instinct, not reason: As soon as she saw the document, she walked across the classroom and returned it, even though the error was mine. And I am willing to bet that most students would have done the same.

In sports, our expectations are different. But this is likely because our perceptions are different. This recognition goes back to the Hastorf and Cantril psychology experiment of the 1950s, where Dartmouth and Princeton students, viewing a tape of a particularly rough football game between the two schools, tended to notice the penalties committed by the other team and to miss those committed by their own. This led the researchers to their conclusion: “In brief, the data here indicate that there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ The game ‘exists’ for a person and is experienced by him only insofar as certain happenings have significances in terms of his purpose.”

Later studies in a variety of fields have found similar results. Fans -- in sports, in politics, anywhere there is a rooting interest -- see the game differently depending on where that rooting interest lies. The crowd that boos the obviously correct call because they believe the receiver was out of bounds really does believe it. We grow implacably committed to our views because we’re implacably committed to our perceptions. We saw what we saw.

This use of commitment as the frame through which we view reality is a large part of what makes the ethics of sports so fascinating. But once we accept that sports fans, in the words of the longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, see the pitches with their hearts, an additional burden is placed on league officials when controversy arises. It’s vital to investigate, and to get to the bottom of it, fast.

Of course, an investigation won’t quiet the arguments. If the league concludes that the footballs lost a bit of pressure because of the weather (a scenario most scientists quoted in the news media seem to think implausible), those who have always hated the Patriots will hate them still. If the league concludes that somebody on the Patriots' sideline was involved in some shenanigans (a scenario New England has firmly denied), the team’s fans will insist to the end of time that the punishment --  whatever it is -- was far too harsh.

I’m looking forward excitedly to the Super Bowl. For once, the game matches the two teams that are, by a mile, the best in the league. If there’s fire behind the smoke, my enjoyment of the game won’t be lessened. But the ethicist in me wants to know the answer -- and, even more, wants to see how fans and sportswriters react.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net