Sports of The Times: Why Do Fans Excuse the Patriots’ Cheating Past?



So the pre-Super Bowl chatter marches on, focusing on Belichick’s genius, even though he was fined a half-million dollars for videotaping opposing coaches in 2007, or Brady’s brilliance, even though he was suspended for the first four games of the season after being accused of using deflated footballs.

To the Patriots and their fans, ignoring the negatives is just a way to protect the team and the legitimacy of their sport, DeSteno said, adding that in doing so, the Patriots and their supporters are not unlike any other group and its followers.

“It’s not about the true facts, or about how honest you believe a group is, or what the group’s past behavior is,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what sport it is, or what team it is, or even if it’s sports at all. Just being a part of a group, any group, is enough to excuse moral transgressions because in some way, you’re benefiting from it. Your moral compass shifts.”

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DeSteno and his former student Piercarlo Valdesolo conducted studies that showed that even strangers placed into groups quickly start favoring the people in their group, as they would favor themselves, even if that group was created randomly, and only minutes earlier. Morality, as it turns out, can change by the second, and for no good reason.

It’s not even a conscious decision, DeSteno said. It’s an innate survival reaction.

It even showed up in the coin-flip experiment. Before it started, the initial group had been divided using different color wristbands, effectively separating participants into teams, and then some were told to watch on a hidden camera as the coin flippers cheated. When the observers saw people cheat, they considered it unfair and wrong — unless they saw that the cheater was wearing the same color wristband as they were. In those cases, they were much more likely to excuse the behavior.

“What’s interesting to me is that smart people can see the same events, but can have such different views of an act that’s otherwise objective, like videotaping another team when it’s illegal,” DeSteno said. “Some people could see that and say it’s terrible. Others could say it’s not cheating because everyone’s doing it. Both groups of people would believe what their mind is telling them to believe.”

The closer you feel affiliated with a group, DeSteno said, the more moral leniency you are willing to allow. So imagine that you have grown up a Patriots fan, watching their games with your family every Sunday. Your friends and neighbors follow the team just as devotedly, and even your children can recite the names and jersey numbers of the top Patriots players.

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With an allegiance like that, built over years and years of fandom, the Patriots could basically be caught with 22 players on the field and have their fans justify it, somehow, someway.

For Alisha Karkera, who was a junior at Northeastern last year before transferring to the University of Texas at Dallas, it still doesn’t make sense.

Last fall, she interviewed DeSteno for a question-and-answer piece titled, “Why Does Patriots Nation Trust Tom Brady When No One Else Does?” She wanted to explain how Patriots fans could have tunnel vision when it came to their beloved team, even after an N.F.L. investigation had caught it using deflated footballs. She had seen that fervent team loyalty in person.

Her father, Sharad, is a longtime Patriots fan, a proud owner of a Patriots championship jacket. He was sure Brady had nothing to do with deflating those footballs, Alisha Karkera said.

“‘I’m glad you got published, but, hmm, I don’t know if I agree with what you wrote,’” she recalled her father saying when she showed him her Q. and A. “But I told him: ‘The facts are right there. Why don’t you believe them?’ I now know that he just sees those facts differently.”

If her father accepted that the Patriots had cheated, Karkera realized, it would mean accepting an uncomfortable conclusion about his own ethics — that he supports a team that cheats.

Yet she is still amazed by the power of sports to affect the way people think. “I don’t want to say anything rude,” she said, “but football, it’s like a cult.”

Brady’s father, also named Tom, spoke to a San Francisco television station last week and decried how the N.F.L. had punished his son with a suspension for deflating footballs, when it had no direct evidence against him. He called the ban a witch hunt and said he would be thrilled to see his son win the Super Bowl, even if that meant his son might receive the Lombardi Trophy from Commissioner Roger Goodell.

“Somebody that has Roger Goodell’s ethics doesn’t belong on any stage that Tom Brady is on,” Tom Brady Sr. said.

There’s absolutely no criticizing a father defending his child. Just as there is no persuading fans if they believe their beloved team is in the right. But like it or not — and science, psychology and experiments aside — we do know that love can be blind.

Being on the outside of that can take some getting used to. But it might be comforting to know that these people just can’t help it.

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