As the NFL works out whether the weather or the New England Patriots were responsible for deflating 11 of the New England Patriots' 12 game balls to levels significantly below the NFL's requirements during Sunday's AFC Championship Game, fans and sports psychologists are talking about the culture of “bracketed morality” that makes cheating a more believable cause.
An initial investigation found the footballs were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what's required by NFL regulations during the Pats' 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Softer footballs are easier to grip, particularly in rainy weather. Today, the NFL is wondering if that high a number of affected game balls could have been due to atmospheric science and not cheating.
If the Patriots knowingly broke the NFL rule, why wouldn't they consider that wrong?
“In sports we call this ‘bracketed morality’ when certain moral and ethical behaviors we have in real life don’t have a place on the playing field, or in pro-sports culture,” says Boston sports psychologist and player development consultant Adam Naylor in a phone interview. “It’s a very insular world and culture that coaches and players live in. So, as long as people around the team are happy with what they’re doing, what people in media and on the outside are saying has no effect on them.”
Mr. Naylor says that while 11 of 12 is a lot of footballs to find deflated, which he hopes is an indication of science and not moral turpitude at work, “deflating the balls isn’t hard to do and sadly, as one who has studied the history of this particular coach who is known for his bracketed morality in the culture he creates, it would come as no surprise if it was purposefully done.”
Dr. Naylor has more than a decade of personal background in Olympic, professional, collegiate, and elite junior sports. His clients include - US Open competitors, Stanley Cup champions, Olympic/International medalists, NCAA champions, and UFC martial artists. He is also currently the mental game coach for the Bay Club (Mattapoisett, Mass.) and Nashawtuc Country Club (Concord, Mass.), coach educator for USA Hockey, Associate Director of Mental Training for the Junior Sports Corporation, and part of the leadership of the Institute for Rowing Leadership. He spent a decade directing the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center and oversees the Mental Conditioning Services at BU.
“Football coaches are well known for leaving the real world for a parallel universe where they don’t see their families for months as they just sit in a room watching films of teams, searching for minutia, that tiny detail that could provide an edge,” Naylor explains. “Professional and even college teams just don’t live in the same world as people with nine-to five jobs, morals and ethics. They are there to win in order to keep those people – fans – happy.”
Leah Lagos Wallach a clinical and sport psychologist in New York who specializes in helping athletes find strategies to manage competitive anxiety, wrote in an email, “From a psychological perspective, it takes emotional reasons to commit an act of deception or pattern of cheating.”
“In addition, an emotional source for the act of cheating can often stem from a resentment of an authority or seeing an opponent as having an unfair advantage. A powerful urge to cheat can stem from a strong sense of unfairness and seeing yourself as the victim,” Ms.Wallach adds.
According to Naylor, as part of that immediate insulation surrounding a team, fans play a role in the abandonment of ethics in both players and coaches.
“Traditionally, we see that fans are OK with cheating as long as their team is winning,” he says.
Naylor points to other players who have not hesitated to talk openly about their willingness to get test the rules in order to gain the advantage on the field.
While Naylor says that some coaches he’s worked with get a too creative, by paying all sorts of outlandish advisors, such as tarot card readers, deflating or over-inflating a ball is a legitimate scientific advantage that isn’t news in and of itself.
“Aaron Rodgers has said publicly he likes the balls over-inflated and pushes that rule to see if officials notice,” Naylor says referring to Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ interview with an ESPN Milwaukee radio show. “So this isn’t tarot card reading. This is good science and perhaps, we may find in the end, some bad ethical judgment in a culture that breeds a ‘win at all costs’ mindset in coaches and players.”
If other NFL teams are under- or over-inflating footballs and referees aren't objecting, the cheating seems justifiable. “In these contexts, the cheating becomes easier to justify to the cheater. Then, it becomes a matter of restoring fairness (in the cheater's mind),” Ms. Wallach wrote. “These cognitive rationalizations can help the cheater(s) frame situation that makes deception more justifiable (in their mind).
Wallach concludes, “It also begs the question about what else are they doing that hasn't been caught?”