By Jason Keidel
Sports are more than metaphor. Most boys adore sports because of the athletic aesthetic, trust in the final score and that both were attained by fair play. It’s what distinguishes the NFL from the WWE.
We assume one has old-school behemoths who play within the lines, and the rules, and the other has juiced-up behemoths who win by breaking the rules like a chair over a bulging back.
Once the laws are more malleable, then the line between fact and fiction becomes obscured. We no longer know the difference between pro football and pro wrestling.
It has taken baseball, our beloved pastime, a decade to slap the toxic dust off its reputation. Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens took an eraser to the rulebook and sterilized the record book. Baseball became a charade, a parade of miscreants whose shoe and hat sizes mushroomed long after adulthood. They assumed comical contours, and became a punchline and embarrassment to the American maxim of fair play.
We fall in love with sports at the same time we learn about life. We discover that the two have intertwining themes, codas and causes. Turns out prosperity in both takes equal parts teamwork, selflessness and sacrifice, not to mention a healthy regard for the rules.
So when Tom Brady was hammered by the NFL this week for his role in “Deflategate,” it jarred our old-school sensibilities. Just because we become adults doesn’t mean we lose our preteen admiration for sports stars. And it doesn’t mean we can’t be collectively disappointed by them when they let down the league, the kids and the adults.
Sportscasters and sportswriters are little more than fans with a mic, pen and a penchant for endless sports banter. Ask any member of the sports media, and he/she will tell you with alarming accuracy exactly when they fell in love with our wide buffet of team sports.
I fell in love with baseball watching Reggie Jackson hit three homers on three pitches from three pitchers in Game 6 of the 1977 World Series.
I fell in love with football watching Lynn Swann catch a football while tumbling to the turf in Super Bowl X in 1976.
I fell in love with boxing when my dad took me to see Roberto Duran fight Carlos Palomino at Madison Square Garden in 1979.
I assumed they all competed fairly and squarely, that they outplayed or out-pointed their opponent by dint of decency and hard work. Even in sports as barbaric as boxing and football, we appreciate the image of bloodied and beaten athletes hugging those who just beat them. It’s an implicit agreement that they just lost to the better man, not the slicker one.
So this week, when Tom Brady felt the official hammer of NFL discipline, it shakes up more than the Patriots’ personnel in September. It means more than starting Jimmy Garoppolo, more than sliding a neophyte into the place of a fallen icon.
It puts football with baseball in a twisted universe, a Twilight Zone where there’s more Rod Serling than Roger Goodell. We feel duped. Even if we have no dog in the Super Bowl, we have a stake in the sake of the sport. We can’t have the best players in America’s favorite sport toying with the balls, and the rules.
Brady bristled when the Baltimore Ravens griped over the Patriots use of eligible receivers in their playoff games. “Read the rulebook,” Brady quipped when told of the Ravens’ collective indignity.
Indeed, Tom. Read it. Learn it. Live it.
You’ll notice Brady isn’t shaking his fist at the establishment, shrieking about innocence, justice and jurisprudence. He’s said nary a word in his defense, instead talking in platitudes about absorbing the weight of the world and the words in the Wells Report. Behind the scenes, he’s hired his conga line of lawyers to fight the ruling, but it’s little more than cosmetic. Even if Brady gets the league to shave some games off the suspension, almost no one outside of New England thinks he’s innocent.
Brady is many things, most of them good. Dumb isn’t one of them. He knows he bent the rules until hey snapped, and got caught. And had he just admitted it, he wouldn’t be in this position. We’ve long been told that the coverup is worse than the crime, that lying about the lie is worse than the original lie. Yet even someone as potent, polished and worshiped as Tom Brady must learn for himself.
And let’s avoid the rampant relativism. Forget that the NFL dropped the ball in other cases, handing out half the punishment for twice the crime. This isn’t about a culture of cheating, or the notion that other quarterbacks slide footballs into overly warm holes, nestled nicely under heaters, when QBs become de facto chemists a few moments before a football game.
And yes, Brady and his employer probably got the heavy hand of Johnny Law because of who they are and what they’ve done. It matters that he’s Tom Brady, that they’re the Patriots and that this isn’t the first time they’ve shivered in the shadow of the gallows.
Ask Marshall Faulk about the Pats. You may recall that Brady’s first Super Bowl ring came at Faulk’s expense. The Hall of Fame running back has long asserted that the Pats practically knew every play the Rams would run in the first half. But once they changed the play-calling and audibles in the second half, New England had nary an answer for the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
Sour grapes? Faulk isn’t exactly known for his bitter disposition. Indeed, the laconic, iconic running back is known for his vision on the field, and wisdom off of it. Faulk merely echoes what many players have said for over a decade. Ryan Clark, formerly of my beloved black & gold, also noticed a surreal prescience on the part of the Patriots.
Great players? Sure. Great coach? Indeed. But the Patriots have long regarded the rules to be elastic. This time they snapped. This time it cost them a quarterback, for a quarter of the season.
Tom Brady seriously fumbled. And no Tuck Rule can save him this time.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden.