Is cheating a tradition?

Some see Pats' tactics as just new technology layered over decades-old phenomenon

NFL scandal

September 15, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

Defensive back Bruce Laird brought his Baltimore Colts playbook with him to San Diego when he was traded to the Chargers 25 years ago.

Like many other just-traded players before and since, Laird didn't even think twice about supplying inside information on his former team's plays. "I mean, you're wearing different colors now and you're there to win," he said.

Because of such experiences, Laird was less surprised than many in the public to learn that the New England Patriots trained a video camera on the New York Jets' sideline Sunday to try to steal defensive signals.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's Sports section mischaracterized the view of former Baltimore Colts player Bruce Laird about NFL teams' efforts to steal other teams' signals or obtain their playbooks. Laird did not characterize such efforts as cheating.
The Sun regrets the error.

Laird and others connected with sports say New England's tactics are part of a long history of cheating in athletics that now features modern twists - higher stakes and better technology.

For as long as there have been rules, there have been players willing to trample them. Gaylord Perry doctored baseballs, Rosie Ruiz infamously sneaked into the Boston Marathon near the end, Sammy Sosa was nabbed with a corked bat. Eight members of the Chicago "Black Sox" were suspended from baseball after charges that they fixed the 1919 World Series.

The difference is that today there are video cameras and camera phones tiny enough to fit inside a pocket. With the technology come new opportunities to cheat - a temptation made all the greater by increasingly soaring salaries.

Towson University men's basketball coach Pat Kennedy knows firsthand about video cheating. Coaching DePaul in the late 1990s, Kennedy says he once caught an opposing team "taping our practice from a coat room that from the court looked like a black window. The team said one of the assistants put the kid up to it."

Says Kennedy: "Sports is a competitive animal by nature, and people will go to all different extremes."

The Patriots' actions cost coach Bill Belichick a $500,000 fine, the largest ever assessed an NFL coach. It is believed that Belichick makes $4.2 million a year, according to the Associated Press. The league also fined the Patriots $250,000, and they will likely lose a first-round draft pick.

The penalties came during a particularly active week of cheating, even for the jaded world of professional sports.

The Formula One racing team McLaren was fined a record $100 million by the World Motor Sport Council after being accused of using leaked secret data from rival Ferrari.

In Women's World Cup soccer, Denmark sought answers for why two men with video cameras hid behind a two-way mirror in the team's meeting room, according to the Associated Press.

If such allegations seem more serious than tampering with a baseball, that might be because the equipment involved suggests a higher level of intent.

Cheating seems somehow less innocent today, said Peter Roby, the former director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society. Referring to the Patriots' case, Roby, now the school's athletic director, said: "The technology is such that you really have to invest in it. It's not just a guy standing on the sidelines trying to pick up another team's tendencies."

Former Cleveland Browns offensive lineman John Wooten agrees.

For years, Wooten says, NFL teams tried to steal signals the old-fashioned way - with binoculars. He says a key distinction in the New England situation is that Sept. 6, the NFL clarified the rule against team video devices on the sidelines.

"When we advance-scout a team, we try to figure out what the signals are - that's the main thing you're doing," Wooten says.

"It's one thing to look at binoculars and try to remember the hand to the shoulder or the hand to the neck. But to put a camera right down on the field - that's blatant."

But author David Callahan said the image of sports isn't likely to suffer much. "We're not learning anything new about sports after two years of steroids scandals. This is just more of the same," said Callahan, author of the 2004 book The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead.

Baseball teams have long tried to steal each other's signs. "Cheating has been a part of baseball ever since they dreamed up the ridiculous myth that Abner Doubleday invented the game," said Dan Gutman, author of the 1990 book It Ain't Cheating If You Don't Get Caught.

The New England case is a big deal, Roby said, because it targets a team that has won three of the past six Super Bowls and whose coach, Belichick, is regarded as one of the NFL's top minds. "You're talking about a franchise that's held up as a model, given the success they've had over the last decade," Roby said.

Belichick has said little about the incident other than issuing a statement in which he accepted "full responsibility."

Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy said that because of the spying incident, Belichick could be viewed in the same light as San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds.

"We seem to have tarnished Barry Bonds," the Colts coach said yesterday, according to the Associated Press. "We've pointed out that, even though he's a great player and he's hit a lot of home runs, because of what some people that work around him have done, it seems to have tarnished him in the court of public opinion. We'll see."

If there seems to be more cheating in society these days, that's because there are more rewards, said author Callahan, founder of Demos, a New York City-based think tank.

The New England case "is yet another example of how the incentives for winning have gotten bigger and bigger. You don't think of NFL coaches as mega-superstars, but top coaches can get $5 million, not including endorsements and speeches," Callahan said.

"And it's all contingent on continuing to win."

jeff.barker@baltsun.com

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