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‘Deflate-gate:’ why do we cheat?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws during the first half of the NFL football AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts Sunday, January 18, 2015 (Credit: AP/Charles Krupa)

I’ve been watching NFL games for five decades, but I’ve never heard of this. While no one is yet sure of exactly how it happened, recent reports have made it clear that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots in this past Sunday’s AFC Championship Game were significantly underinflated (2 PSI when regulations require that all game balls be between 12.5-13.5 PSI). The difference was first noticed in the second quarter after Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass from Tom Brady. The team then notified officials and the footballs were checked at halftime where the error was found.

The improperly inflated footballs had little impact on the final outcome of the game as New England, up 17-7 at the half, would go on to score 3 more touchdowns in the third quarter with, what one would presume, were properly inflated footballs in route to winning 45-7. I have no idea what the league will choose to do going forward. But I am intrigued by the larger question: why do we cheat? From taxes to athletics, cheating is part of the human story. As long as there have been rules, there have been people willing to break them.

It seems to me that three motives are at work.

Clearly, some cheat out of desperation. A man calculating his income taxes determines that he owes far more than he can pay, so he lies and hopes the IRS doesn’t catch him. A golfer knows he will lose the match if he doesn’t lie on his scorecard. Sometimes cheating feels like the lesser of two evils.

Some cheat out of passion in the moment. They didn’t plan to violate the rules, but they couldn’t stop themselves. The most famous example in football history is probably the time Tommy Lewis ran from the Alabama sideline onto the field to tackle Rice’s Dicky Moegle in 1954.

But here’s the motive that interests me today: some cheat out of what a good friend of mine calls a “scarcity mentality.” No matter how much they have, they believe it’s not enough. Though an objective observer would say they will clearly win without violating the rules, they believe they still need an edge. They have to do all they can to win, whatever the cost to their integrity.

Consider Watergate, the scandal that has become a metaphor for cheating ever since. The Nixon reelection campaign was clearly far ahead of McGovern and the Democrats. Nonetheless, they broke into Democratic Party headquarters, looking for an edge they didn’t need. And their crime ended their candidate’s career and stained his reputation for all time.

Are you tempted by a scarcity mentality today? Do you believe that your resources are not enough for your needs? Or do you believe that your Father owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10), that he will “meet all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19)?

Will you live in a mentality of scarcity or abundance today?