Wait a minute — it’s not supposed to be like this. Why would Bill Belichick condone his coaching staff videotaping his opponents’ signals? Doing so is, of course, against the rules. Why would the coach, who some call “the only certifiable genius in the [NFL] coaching ranks,” go so far as to “insanely risk his reputation on the long shot that a small advantage might provide just one more victory he probably would have gotten anyway”?
By now, of course, the NFL world is abuzz with the fine and penalty levied against the New England Patriots. The blogosphere has similarly run with the story (see here, here, here, and here). The Patriots — winners of three of the last six Super Bowls — were secretly filming the Jets defensive coordinator when he called in plays. As a result, they knew the defense’s plays and were able to call their own plays accordingly. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Bill Belichick personally $500,000; fined the team $250,000; and ordered the team to forfeit one or two draft picks (depending on whether the team makes the playoff this season). Perhaps worst of all, Belichick’s reputation is now sullied. What kind of “certifiable genius” has to cheat to win? Some Philadelphia Eagles players even suspect that the Pats’ dramatic second-half turnaround in Super Bowl XXXIX was perhaps a product of signal-stealing.
As is often the case, we are unable to make sense of people’s behavior because we assume that they are rational (dispositionist) actors. In other words, we assume that people’s behavior reflects deep-seated, stable personality traits, and that they make decisions by dispassionately weighing the risks and the benefits. It was perhaps in this vein that one writer said that “this charge fits perfectly with everything we know about [Belichick,] on and off the field.” And if he was weighing the potential loss and potential gain, it seems like this was a no-brainer. The benefits of cheating were miniscule: first of all, the Patriots probably would have won anyway, so the marginal benefit of cheating were minimal. Second, even if they lost, the Patriots were still highly favored to, at a minimum, win the AFC; they were ranked #1 in many preseason rankings and favored to win the Super Bowl (with one website giving 2-to-1 odds). Thus, it is highly unlikely that the Pats would have lost on Sunday, and even less likely that a loss on Sunday would have made a difference in the postseason. Indeed, one can understand why Belichick, or anyone for that matter, might cheat in the Super Bowl or another playoff game, where fame, fortune, and legacy are on the line. But in the first game of the season?
Perhaps part of the explanation is situational. In an environment where competitive pressures and expectations are very high, incentives to push the envelope, cut corners and, yes, cheat outright are quite strong. Bad choices, to be sure. But powerful situations too. Consider the recent debacles in corporate America. Surely, none of the now-disgraced executives set out years ago on a quest to defraud shareholders. Instead, they faced pressures to meet analysts estimates quarter after quarter. When a division or department reported figures that didn’t quite seem right, they looked the other way. When accountants concocted unusual transactions and entities to hide debt and inflate revenues, they assumed “everyone was doing it.” (To read Sung Hui Kim’s related posts on why lawyers acquiesce in their client’s misconduct, click here and here.)
So, too, in football. Perhaps the surprising thing is not that Belichick was cheating; it’s that he got caught for doing it so obviously. And the pressure in this case comes not from investment bankers or shareholders but from sportswriters and fans. Sure, the cheating may not have made a difference in this game — but Belichick was looking for an edge in the next game and the next, and perhaps a playoffs rematch with the Jets. Indeed, Belichick implied as much in his “statement,” saying that the Pats “have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress.” Of course, as a commentator pointed out on CNN this morning, if it didn’t make a difference, they wouldn’t have done it. The risks may have been sky-high, and the benefits marginal, but in the minds of Belichick and the pats, every little bit could be the difference maker in their quest for a fourth Super Bowl ring.
In a relatively situationist account of the Belichick fiasco, Dan Weztel wrote for Yahoo! Sports that the problem had to do with the “culture” of the NFL. He aptly titled his article, “Products of the System,” and posed the question of whether Belichick was a problem for the NFL or if he was the NFL — “a byproduct of a business where a coach that doesn’t seek every last advantage is doomed to fail.” As Situationist contributor Phil Zimbardo might put it: Is the problem just with the apple or does the barrel itself play some role?
Various Situationist contributors have written about the effects that situational pressures can have in corporate law (e.g., Kate Hill’s “When Thieves See Situation“) and in sports (e.g., Jon Hanson and Michael McCann’s “What’s Eating David Ortiz?“). The Belichick scandal illustrates one of the commonalities between the two: that in a highly competitive environment, the situational pressures to cheat are very high. Belichick got caught, but he was not the first, and he surely will not be the last — not because these coaches are particularly evil-minded, but because the competitive nature of their jobs make it difficult for them not to. Steroids in baseball, doping in cycling, the list goes on.
Given the power of situation to compel choices, eliminating the possibility of certain choices may prove advantageous. The NFL could, for instance, provide for additional security in games to monitor for potential cheating, assess “unsportsmanlike conduct” penalties if it came to light during the game, and in extreme situations, require teams to forfeit tainted games. After-all, it appears that the NFL only responded to the Patriots’ videotaping upon being notified by other teams’ personnel. If the issue were so crucial to the NFL, as the league now alleges, why did the league allow for a situation in which it may exist until detected by opposing teams?
Belichick needs to be punished, no doubt. And a stiff punishment and public outrcry will influence the situation of all coaches who contemplate such options. Still, if we care about honesty and integrity, in sports as in business, we would do better than to rely on “the better angels of our nature.” Instead, we should be sensitive to shaping our institutions and our laws with a view to changing the incentives that our coaches, players, and CEOs face. Even without laws and rules that condone advantage-seeking, there are plenty of incentives, for corporations and for sports teams, to be and to remain highly competitive. A more accurate understanding of human nature just might change some of the incentives to cheat.
In that vein, and in an effort to foster some collective, constructive situationism, we encourage readers to comment with suggestions about what else might be done — in terms of rules, league arrangements, or otherwise — to influence the situation in ways that would discourage cheating of this sort.