Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Picking Up Flags, Putting Down Integrity

There's an ESPN explosion of coverage on the controversial call that ended the Patriots at Panthers game on Monday night. I'll summarize it this way. The Patriots were at the end of a last gasp effort to win the game, a common occurrence in the Tom Brady-Bill Belichick era. Down 24-20, time ran out as Brady threw a pass into the endzone intended for (on a path for) Rob Gronkowski. Gronkowski was running for the back of the endzone. He was also being bearhugged by Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly. (The use of the word "bearhugged" is not an exaggeration.) Brady's pass was intercepted near the front of the endzone. The clock expired. Game over, right? Right...except for the flag that was induced by the Kuechly-Gronkowski bearhug and then picked up following an official's conference.

That non-called penalty is the focus of all the post-game banter. Was it actually a penalty as the ball would have been intercepted anyway as there was no way for Gronkowski to get to it? Does it matter if the ball would have been intercepted anyway because a bearhug is a bearhug and is illegal? What do coaches and officials that weren't involved in the game have to say about it? All of these questions are irrelevant and are an example of the minutia that permeates the content put out by the mainstream media. What happened, happened. There is no point in speculating if it should have happened differently and what would have happened afterwards if it did. Rather, the discussion should be about why what happened, happened and if that reason is right.

In other words, this "controversy" is an example of missing the forest for the trees. The focus is so intensely on one tree, the picked up flag, that all the other ones are being missed. Other ones such as:

1. Kuechly bearhugs Gronkowski
2. Panthers Tight End Greg Olsen holds Patriots Cornerback Devin McCourty and McCourty is called for holding

Both trees demonstrate the same issue--players doing what they know is against the rules in order to gain any advantage possible. In number one, Kuechly is trying to prevent a big and tremendous pass-catcher from moving how he naturally would to catch the ball. The rules are specifically written to prevent this type of action by defenders. In number two, Olsen is holding onto McCourty in a way that makes it seem like McCourty is holding him (I wish I had a better picture) in order to draw a holding penalty. That action is, in a word, dishonest. Players, coaches, and fans sidestep that dishonesty by saying you do whatever it takes to win. "Whatever it takes" includes intentionally flouting the rules in hopes of not getting caught, apparently.

Winning by breaking the rules is an oxymoron. The rules are what make the game what it is. They are the parameters you play within. You're talking about different footballs if you score by kicking a ball into a net or if you score by moving a ball into a specific zone. Even if those rules are the only ones you play with, they are still parameters. They are limitations on reality that tell you what a "score" means. The game then is about measuring who can score in that manner the best--who has the most skill at completing that goal. Any rules that are subsequently added are intended to make sure the process for determining who can score the best is fair and correct. You want to make sure you are measuring the right things.

We could argue all day about whether the rules in the NFL fulfill that purpose (and I agree, there are many that don't), but the rule book is agreed on prior to each season by owners, coaches, players, league officials, and/or representatives of each of these groups. By agreeing to play by the set of rules, a person is agreeing that process is proper for determining who is better at a certain skill. So what does it mean when a player openly flouts the rules to do "whatever it takes to win"? He doesn't care about the game. He only cares about winning. The only problem is there's no such thing as winning without rules. Everyone works towards achieving different values. Rules ensure that a group of people are working toward the same value. That is what winning a game is. "We both find this skill equally valuable. Whoever can do it bests deserves to be honored for it."

The "whatever it takes to win" mentality is certainly not limited to football. (I would argue it's a larger cultural issue.) However, in recent years I've seen it's prevalence grow in the game. The Panthers are the most recent franchise in a series of defensively oriented teams that have utilized this approach. (The most notable would be the Ravens.) Each of these teams has been known for their mentally tough and physically brutal play--at least, that's how they're characterized. I, on the other hand, find their play to be dishonest, dirty, and dangerous. This in-congruence is an important issue. When the "whatever it takes" approach is intentionally whitewashed in post-championship exhalations by exaggerating other supposed strengths these teams possess, it devalues the entire game, season, and league.

I know, I know, how dare a Patriots fan write about this issue and continue to support the franchise after "Spygate." Honestly, I'm tired of that argument. Accepting that the Patriots were using the "whatever it takes to win" approach with Spygate requires that you accept Belichick is a despicable human being who not only used that approach but then lied about using it afterward. The evidence just doesn't support that view of Belichick, even though many people do. That's fine, of course. It's up to them to decide what they believe, but it makes me wonder, are these people the same that advocate the "whatever it takes to win" approach (I mean, everyone does it, right?) and are just mad that Belichick does it (according to them) better than them or their team?

I know, I know, I also sound like a pussy right now. I should nut up and be a man. I'm just complaining because I'm not good enough, right? Wrong. People who believe they aren't good enough flout rules because they don't think they can win within them. Men come to agreements and stick to them because they believe the agreements are right and they are good enough to succeed within those agreements. Ultimately, respect for rules (that you've agreed to) is respect for yourself.

I don't care that the Panthers beat the Patriots on Monday night. I've witnessed much worse losses in my time as a Patriots fan. (18-1 for one,) I care that I'm supposed to sweep all of it under the rug by accepting that the Patriots didn't play nearly well enough to deserve to win even though it was an extremely close game the entire time; and if I don't except that, I'm a whiny crybaby who isn't smart, mature, or masculine.

The Panthers won. The refs fucked up. I accept those facts. I also trust that the NFL is run in a manner so that most games won't end this way; and if a lot of games do end this way, the NFL will do something to fix it as soon as possible. If I couldn't confidently say any of these things, I wouldn't be a football fan. It would be a waste of my time. I just wonder why so many people who can't say these things insist on remaining involved.

There's a lot of trees in the forest. Find another one to climb.

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