What's Happening in Character?

Deflated Reputations: An Ethicist's Take on Tom Brady's Actions

Posted by Dave Keller on Thu, May 7, 2015 @ 16:05 PM

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by Dave Keller

Yesterday was not a good day for Tom Brady.

Lots of folks are weighing in today on the NFL’s report from yesterday (known as the Wells Report) regarding the infamous “Deflate-Gate” incident where the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots were accused of attempting to gain an unfair advantage by intentionally altering the air pressure of the footballs in their January 18 conference championship game.

Yesterday’s Wells Report (all 243 pages) paints a relatively scathing picture of the incident, summarized in the following excerpt:

“For the reasons described in this Report, and after a comprehensive investigation, we have concluded that … it is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the Playing Rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.  In particular, we have concluded that it is more probable than not that [the official Locker Room attendant for the Patriots] and [an equipment assistant for the Patriots] participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee. Based on the evidence, it also is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities … involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.”

(Wells Report, p.2;  NOTE: bold/underline/italics added for emphasis for this article)

“More probable than not.”

Hmmm.  Not exactly 100% conclusive.  

And yet, somehow, in this instance --- at least to me --- those words ARE conclusive. I read major portions of the report this morning, and it is very obvious that Tom Brady knew the balls were being manipulated to his preferences. He clearly engaged in conversations with equipment personnel regarding the topic, including getting angry when the balls were not inflated to his preference.

He knew.

As a professional ethicist, that brings me to some interesting thoughts (at least they are to me, but I admit that I’m ethically nerdy).  My problem isn’t so much that Brady and some equipment guys pushed the limits of the rules. I wish they hadn’t, for their own integrity and the integrity of the game. But that isn’t my biggest problem. The concept of “pushing the limits of the rules” in sports has been around as long as sports have been around.

Those “gamesmanship” versus “cheating” debates are worthy of debate and discussion. But not for this article. Let’s save those discussions for another day.

My problem lies more in the statements Tom Brady made in the days immediately following the accusations back in January.  “I would never do anything to break the rules. I respect the league,” he said. He played dumb. He played ignorant. He acted as though he was completely oblivious to how the balls got on the field.

He was being deceptive. And that bothers me.

I am a huge believer in sports to powerfully reinforce positive character traits in young people. Sadly, we all know sports can also undermine character development if done poorly. Most of us can readily recall salient examples of each.

Each time I read or watch one of these negative sports stories, I wonder about the impact on some young developing athlete. I always think of some young boy or girl with a poster of the disgraced athlete on their wall. Breaks my heart. Obviously, the same can be said of other role models, such as parents, teachers, neighbors, ministers, and others. The sting of their failures produces similar damaging effects.

As a society, we can do better. Especially in our sports community.


This October, at the National Forum on Character Education in Atlanta, Character.org will be hosting a sports panel dedicated to exploring the issues of integrity in sports. Former Atlanta Braves baseball great Dale Murphy (founder of the “I Won’t Cheat” program for youth baseball) will be a keynote speaker as we look more deeply into these issues. To learn more, visit www.character.org.  

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Source: “INVESTIGATIVE REPORT CONCERNING FOOTBALLS USED DURING THE AFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME ON JANUARY 18, 2015” By: Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP; Theodore V. Wells, Jr., Brad S. Karp, Lorin L. Reisner; Dated: May 6, 2015

Topics: Sportsmanship