Category Archives: sportsmanship

Tom Brady’s guilt? Probable enough (if you aren’t a Patriots fan).


On good legal advice, it can be stated here that that rascally Tom Brady is in a bind. Because, beyond Brady getting beat up by (non-New England Patriots) fans on the jury in the court of public opinion, the term “more probable than not”—used to cite Brady’s culpability in the case of the squishy NFL footballs—is a valid one in establishing proof.

Furthermore, as Northeastern University law professor Roger Abrams explained in a telephone tutorial, “When the NFL wrote its own rules, unilateral rules, they were not negotiated with the union, because [the league] wanted it as easy as possible to sustain discipline.

“The NFL has its own housekeeping rules,” Abrams said. “If the question is whether the NFL has the power [to suspend Brady for four games], the answer is, ‘Sure.’”

Brady can appeal, and his agent has said he will. And the players’ union can appeal on Brady’s behalf. But either appeal, Abrams said, “does not go to an independent, neutral arbitrator. It’s to a person designated by the commissioner. The NFL has the edge, absolutely.”

It should be noted that Abrams, who has written extensively on law and sports and served as arbitrator in hundreds of legal disputes, was “floored” by the Brady suspension. “The NFL,” he said, “seems unable to get it correct,” citing how the league’s original suspensions in the matters of Ray Rice’s domestic violence, New Orleans Saints bounty practices and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges—each of those involving physical harm as opposed to fudging competitive rules by decreasing the air pressure in footballs—all were overturned.

But this is what happens when cloak-and-dagger activity is unearthed in sports, a universe founded on the ideal of the Level Playing Field and so closely scrutinized by passionate, partisan devotees. However stark, raving mad Patriots fans are about having Brady convicted of behavior they insist is neither conclusive nor outside the bounds of common practice around the league, those anti-Patriots loyalists have been just as nuts over Brady’s perceived arrogance and apparent treachery.

This opinion divide was evident in a sampling of New York Times’ reader reactions published Sunday. To both sides of the argument, then, the NFL penalties announced on Monday, including a hefty fine and loss or draft choices for the Patriots, were predictably gasoline on the flames.

The better part of valor in this fight could be humor, as when Columbia University physics and mathematics professor Brian Greene wrote in the Times—soon after the scandal surfaced—that the league’s attempt to obtain expert scientific analysis of pigskin inflation occasioned “one of the rare times when the jocks turn to the nerds….

“So fellow fans of molecules and momentum—climb out of that gym locker you were stuffed into—this is our moment.”

Greene, alluding to “gas physics” and a formula considering volume, pressure and air temperature, slyly concluded that NFL lawyers may “just want to increase their billable hours.” And, taking the meteorological elements into account, “It looks to me that mother nature at least provides a reasonable doubt” about any skullduggery. “So, based on what I know now, your honor, I cannot convict,” Greene wrote.

My friend Charlie Pierce, whose wickedly snarky style is to be envied in these situations, similarly advised that we all calm down. In a piece for the Web site Grantland just prior to the suspension order, Pierce wrote,

“1. I think [Brady] knew damned well what was going on with those footballs. I think his categorical denial at the January press conference was what my old journalism school dean would have called a “barefaced non-fact.” I think he should be suspended two games. And then, good god, people, we should all get on with our lives.

“2. I think anyone who advocates a more serious punishment than that, and anyone who equates Brady with Lance Armstrong or Barry Bonds, is a dangerous child who should be kept away from the public for the same reason we keep toddlers out of the cutlery….”

Meanwhile, back to the “more probable than not” guilt assigned to Brady, the face of the Patriots and—to some extent—the face of the NFL: “What it means in real life,” Abrams said, “is, ‘It could be, maybe it’s not, I’m not too sure.’ It’s 51-percent sure. Which means it’s 49 percent not sure.

“But ‘more probable than not’ is used in civil actions, not criminal actions, for damages in car accidents or breach-of-contract or actions involving real property. Does the evidence [against Brady] meet that standard? Ted Wells [the lawyer who authored the report on the deflation investigation] is a wonderful attorney. Known him for 30 years. I value his work.

“On the other hand, people are picking that report apart.”

In the end, Abrams said, this was “not a legal decision but a policy decision: What’s best for the business?” So what the NFL had to decide was whether it wanted to open the 2015 season on national television—New England vs. Pittsburgh—without the sport’s biggest star? Or wanted to risk, by some relatively meek penalty, reinforcing the notion that rules are not quite the same for superstars?

Either way, what has been aired out, with those footballs, is some of the game’s dirty laundry.


Curtain of gamesmanship



There is something to be said for college students’ uninhibited ingenuity. A primary purpose of higher education, after all, is to stimulate the innovative gene, and college hijinks have a certain place of honor at sporting events, few of which can match the passionate, occasionally goofy scene at big-time basketball games.

But I’m not sure I’m impressed with the Arizona State students’ Curtain of Distraction. Its fevered, bizarre mini-productions—staged for the express purpose of impairing the free-throw proficiency of opposing teams—somehow has brought overwhelmingly positive publicity for its buffonish inspiration.

The perpetrators—essentially a small band of students but fully backed by the university, including associate athletic director Bill Kennedy—are proud of having devised an efficient “free-throw defense” behind the opponents’ basket, and the NCAA itself—that bastion of fair play—has given its blessing.

The Web site has posted a glowing video about the creation and operation of the curtain, and further approved the device’s continued use in the women’s championship tournament for Arizona State’s first-round home games. That, in spite of a New York Times analysis that cited a one- to two-point advantage per game for Arizona State resulting from the curtain’s deployment.


In case you don’t know: With the Curtain of Distraction, Arizona State pranksters, stepping away from the role of spectating just as an opposing player readies to take a free throw, whip open a black curtain behind the basket to reveal some weird, frenzied skit. A student rowing a blow-up kayak. A mostly naked fellow playing a guitar. An Elvis impersonator. A fat guy in an undershirt and tutu. A clown jumping rope.


The choreographed lunacy has been called “brilliant” and “the funniest weapon” against free-throw efficiency. The intent itself hardly is new. In the 1950s, when guide wires stabilized baskets at NBA games, there were tales of Syracuse Nationals fans grasping those wires and shaking the backboard during opponents’ tries.

Still, compared to the typical modern tricks, of fans waving their arms behind the basket or holding up silly posters—also not exactly respectful—the Curtain of Distraction is fan disruption on steroids. It is a show-stealing invasion of the athletic competition. And at what point is that tantamount to poor sportsmanship?

Ka’Nesheia Cobbins, a senior guard for the Arkansas-Little Rock team, preparing to face Arizona State’s women in the second round of NCAA play, was aware that “every time they open [the curtain], it’s a different character, and we’re, like, ‘How did they do that?’ The commentators were saying that they think that’s something good. It’s cool, I guess, but we’re just going to have to block it out….”

Why is it something good?

The man who wrote the Times piece on the Curtain of Distraction’s effect, University of Michigan economics professor and public policy scholar Justin Wolfers, is the same fellow who applied “forensic economics” to a 2007 study concluding there was point shaving in roughly one percent of Division I basketball games. Wolfers drew no conclusions that the Curtain of Distraction is a different form of cheating. But I will.

Isn’t the Curtain of Distraction also gaming the system? Shouldn’t players be players, officials be officials, coaches be coaches and fans just be fans? Arizona State has a drama department for the Curtain’s aspiring thespians, where there is no danger of visiting basketball players showing up and trying to mess with their focus.

(Arizona State University)

(Arizona State University)