At this writing I do not know whether the New England Patriots are guilty or innocent of the charge that they cheated in the AFC Championship game by playing with improperly deflated footballs. Soon, I hope, the truth will come out. The Pats may be completely innocent.
What I do know is that there is a teachable moment here, and it has to do with the importance of reputation. As you know if you are a sports fan, on Sunday, January 19, the Patriots clobbered the Indianapolis Colts to win a berth in 2015’s Super Bowl XLIX. But no sooner had the game ended than rumors began to swirl that the Patriots might have deflated the footballs that their players used in order to make the balls easier to throw accurately and catch securely. On the face of it, it is a tad implausible, but certainly not impossible.
This has not been a minor issue. It has generated major headlines, both on the sports pages and on the front pages. It was a leading story not only on ESPN but also on NBC’s Nightly News. One of the major reasons that this alleged wrongdoing will be a major distraction for the Patriots, probably all the way up until the Super Bowl is played (and beyond), is that the Pats and their genius coach, Bill Belichick, have cheated before and thereby damaged their reputation and invited the reasonable suspicions of the world.
If you are not an NFL fan, you probably have never heard of SpyGate, but the gist of the story is that in 2007 the league hit Belichick with the largest fine ever imposed on a coach ($500,000) for illegally videotaping the opposing team’s coaches’ signals from a sideline location. Belichick admitted to making such tapes all the way back to 2000, but claimed that he did not know the taping violated league rules. He apologized for a “misinterpretation” of the rules, but the NFL was sufficiently convinced of wrongdoing that in addition to fining Belichick, it hit the Patriots organization with a $250,000 fine and loss of a first-round draft pick.
Obviously, this previous scandal makes the current allegations more plausible. As Gary Myers’s column in the New York Daily News put it: “Bill Belichick’s past with Patriots gives DeflateGate scandal credibility.” Myers wrote:
If Belichick was [New York Giants coach] Tom Coughlin, whose integrity has never been questioned, or if Belichick didn’t already have SpyGate on his resume after his friends at the Jets turned him in, then you just laugh this off as somehow tracing back to the Colts and being sour grapes as an excuse for the inferior and embarrassing product they put on the field at Gillette Stadium. But this is Belichick, so anything really is possible.
So, the old aphorisms are borne out once again:
- “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” –Benjamin Franklin
- “A single lie destroys a whole reputation of integrity.” –Baltasar Gracian
- “A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.” –Joseph Hall
The fundamental attribution error, highlighted in one of our EthicsUnwrapped videos, is the tendency for people to believe that if a person does a bad thing, he or she must be a bad person. Sometimes there are situational factors or organizational pressures that cause even good people to make moral mistakes, but because of the fundamental attribution error, most observers will allocate too little of the blame to the circumstances and too much to the person’s supposed character. That is a recipe for redoubling the impact of a blow to one’s reputation caused by an ethical misstep. Most of us can’t be ethical 100% of the time, but we should sure try.
Gary Myers, Bill Belichick’s Past with Patriots Gives DeflateGate Scandal Credibility, New York Daily News, Jan. 20, 2015.
Robert Shiller, Finance and the Good Society 135 (2012).