Since Monday morning, the sports world has been obsessed with exactly how much air was — or wasn’t — present in the footballs used by the New England Patriots during their 45-7 AFC Championship rout of the Indianapolis Colts. As theories flew about how exactly the Patriots’ footballs came to be underinflated, one question intrigued us. Why would the Patriots (or the Deflatriots, if you prefer) cheat during a game they were likely going to win anyway?
Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School has done research that focuses, in part, on behavioral decision making and deception, and he spoke to Only A Game‘s Doug Tribou.
DT: One member of the Colts has said that the Patriots would have won even if they had used “soap for balls.” We don’t want to speculate about how those footballs came to be deflated, but why might an athlete or team that has the advantage decide to cheat anyway?MS: There are several reasons. Part of it is a fear of losing — that is, if you’re expected to win you actually face even more pressure to come out on top. A second reason, I think, has to do with culture. In some organizations, the line between cheating and merely being very competitive isn’t very clear.
DT: Well along those lines, the Patriots are known for doing whatever they can to gain an edge. In the Divisional Playoff they used a rulebook loophole to create a formation that caught the Baltimore Ravens by surprise. Can the act of bending the rules — what some might consider gamesmanship — eventually lead to actually breaking the rules?
MS: Yeah, I think so. As we focus on winning, we’re less likely to focus on other things. And so the lines that were very clear to us before become less clear. And what’s merely competitive versus what is unethical becomes fuzzier and more people are likely to cross that line. So in a very competitive situation, people are more likely to cheat.
DT: On Wednesday, former NFL quarterback Matt Leinart tweeted, “Every team tampers with footballs. Ask any QB in the league.” And, in fact, research has found that one of the most powerful motivations for cheating is the belief that everyone’s doing it. Do you buy that as an excuse?
MS: Yeah, I think that that’s also true. First of all, there’s a norm, where people are justified in saying, “Look, everyone’s doing it,” and it becomes part of that culture. The second is competitive pressure, like the use of steroids. If everybody around you is using steroids, the only way to be competitive is to use steroids too.
DT: We’ve talked a lot about the rationales, the excuses or the justifications that players or teams may use for cheating. But in the end, cheating is still cheating. There’s still just this basic element of right and wrong being ignored.
MS: Well, I think fouls in basketball are a good example. Is it unethical to foul somebody in basketball? Sometimes it’s part of the strategy. And I think when people are in a very competitive situation,what they see as a bright line is different from how an observer would see it. Now having said that, there are clearly some things that are just way over the line, and some people do it anyway.
DT: There have been a lot of pundits in the sports world who have been quick to call the Patriots guilty, in part because they were caught cheating in the past. Now some say the team’s reputation will never recover. Do people typically consider their own legacies as they’re deciding to cheat?
MS: No, typically not. And I think it’s very hard to forecast what’s going to happen in the long run. I think many people’s reputations turn out to be more resilient that we think. And I think that’s particularly true with a team, where the team has the opportunity to do things to change procedures and regain trust. It’s not easy, but I think they can do it.