Baltimore Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck talks about the New England Patriots' pattern of breaking the rules and why the NFL should take a strong stand. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
The New England Patriots "deflategate" controversy would be a silly pre-Super Bowl sideshow if it wasn't such a sad commentary on the current state of the scandal-ridden National Football League.
If you believe the latest reports, 11 of 12 Patriots game balls examined after the AFC title game were under-inflated, which may or may not have given New England an advantage in its lopsided victory Sunday over the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium.
Why it is silly: Because if deflating footballs made them that much easier to throw and catch, the NFL would have deflated them a long time ago. We love offense. We love touchdown dances. We feel defense is almost un-American. The league's competition committee can't make up rules fast enough to light up the scoreboard. When the Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams combined to score just 18 points in Week 15, I thought they were going to tell former FBI director Robert Mueller to stand by for another investigation.
Why it's a sad commentary: Because the Patriots have a history of bending the rules and the NFL has been so awash in disturbing headlines over the past year that it has become too easy to believe that something this ridiculous could have happened and — if it really was another sleazy attempt by the Patriots to gain unfair advantage over an opponent — that the NFL would find a way to downplay it before the start of Super Bowl week.
That's where the sport is right now, in the midst of a post-Ray Rice hangover that has left the league with a credibility problem that makes anything seem possible, especially when it involves an AFC championship team whose owner was one of the most vocal supporters of embattled commissioner Roger Goodell at the height of the NFL's domestic abuse crisis.
The last thing the NFL needs is another challenge to its institutional integrity, especially during the run-up to what should be a very compelling Super Bowl, so it would be wise for the league to make sure there is not even a whiff of cover-up or favoritism.
If you recall, there were those who felt that the Patriots received relatively light discipline for the shady activity that led to the infamous "Spygate" scandal in 2007, especially when compared later to the stiff penalties levied against the New Orleans Saints for "Bountygate" in 2010. Everything about this situation — particularly the timing and the team involved — puts Goodell in a very difficult position.
It's only fair, however, to point out that the Patriots don't have the market cornered on questionable behavior, especially when Baltimore was a proverbial glass house full of sports scandal in 2014.
Rice's assault case was the bad news story of the year, and that ugly elevator attack in Atlantic City last February was just the first in a series of tawdry incidents involving several of Baltimore's highest-profile athletes.
If all that wasn't enough, Ravens defensive star Haloti Ngata tested positive for Adderall in December and was suspended for the final month of the regular season — the timing in relation to his team's playoff drive strangely similar to Davis' suspension.
Of course, the incidents involving Rice and Phelps should be judged on a different level because they endangered others. Spygate, the two drug violations and any allegations that the Patriots tampered with the footballs in Sunday's AFC title game belong in a separate discussion of cheating, which is hardly peculiar to this particular point in time.
Professional sport, by its very nature, is an incubator for that kind of unethical behavior.
The competitive nature of elite pro athletes too often combines with a win-at-any-cost mindset to rationalize whatever it takes to get an edge over an opponent. The stratospheric rise in player compensation over the past three decades only increases the pressure on players in all the big-money sports to find ways to enhance their performance.
That doesn't mean everybody cheats, and it certainly doesn't justify the shortcuts that a multitude of athletes knowingly took during the worst of the performance-enhancing drug era (which is far from over). But no one should be surprised when people act badly to promote their own interests in a pro sports landscape that — in so many ways — encourages that.
For all the high-minded talk about fairness and integrity, many still revere the likes of Patriots coach Bill Belichick for exploiting an ambiguous loophole in the NFL rulebook and wink at the way Gaylord Perry cheated his way into baseball's Hall of Fame.
So, don't be deflated if the NFL finds a way to let the air out of this latest controversy.