Tales From The Shtetl: Cheating and Calciopoli

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In 2006, Italy was engaged by scandal. No, it did not involve politicians, celebrities, or societal unrest. This was the Calciopoli scandal, whereby Juventus and several other major Italian soccer clubs fixed matches by having the league select referees which were favorable to them. For more information, see the excellent, but brief overview of Calciopoli and its effect, from Tifo Football.

American sport has never encountered a scandal quite as broad as Calciopoli. But that does not mean to say that scandal has not occurred, of course. I bring up the subject of Calciopoli, and scandal in general, in light of the New England Patriots making another Super Bowl. The reason being, I recall seeing several memes about supposedly questionable refereeing decisions in the Patriots-Jaguars AFC Championship Game, and that lead me to thinking about this particular comparison. Do I hold any stock in the Patriots cheating in this years AFC Championship Game, in line with those memes? Not in the slightest. Do I think Deflategate was overblown? Yes, but full disclosure, I am also a Jets fan, so any opportunity to hate on the Patriots is reason enough for me.

The reason this comparison between the Patriots cheating scandals and the Italian match fixing scandal intrigued me was more as a function and form of cheating, and our collective responses to cheating in sport. I follow Italian soccer relatively closely, and greatly admire Italian clubs, particularly Juventus, who was the keystone club to the match fixing scandal.

So what is the difference? Why am I able to leave Juventus’ cheating in the past, but I still feel hard done by the Patriots?

Well, if you watched the above video, you would see the result of the Calciopoli scandal. All the teams involved were docked points. But Juventus lost two Italian championships and were demoted to Serie B- the second level of Italian soccer. (For those not familiar with promotion/relegation system, it would be like the Yankees being sent down to AAA for a season for selecting umpires that ruled in their favor). There is a sense that justice was served.

Can we same the same with the Patriots?

Tom Brady was suspended for four games, then came back and won the Super Bowl that season. Which, in the context of the actual “crime” of Deflategate, seems well enough.

But then we have the Spygate. And the sense that I have always felt that not only was justice not duly served to the Patriots, but also that the NFL did not allow us in the public to truly ever know the extent to which the Patriots taped opposing teams during practice.

It supports a sense of unease and lack of trust about the sport in general, but also about the Patriots. We do not know what they did in full, it was never disclosed to us in the public. And then the tapes the Patriots used were eventually destroyed, meaning that we will never know what happened. Only Paul Tagliabue, Bill Belichick, and the guy filming the Spygate tapes will ever really know to what extent the Patriots gained an advantage on their opposition during the 2001 NFL Season. And that sense of not knowing does not sit well- it breeds a sense of distrust.

But with Calciopoli, we know exactly what happened, because Italian football conducted a full investigation, with a fair amount of transparency. The Italian national sports newspaper, La Gazzetta Dello Sport, covered the story for months, making sure the public knew every last detail, as it came to light, about what these teams were doing.

I think also having some distance from the events and perpetrators of Calciopoli helps as well. Nearly everyone involved in the scandal has left Italian football, and Juventus had several years in the wilderness. Luciano Moggi, the man at Juventus who engineered the system, is banned from football for life. Now Juventus have been at the top of Serie A every season since 2012. But those who designed the match-fixing have left the club. Any residual hatred of Juventus is likely tied to them being successful, and not as a result of their cheating, or of a conspiratorial belief that Juventus is still cheating.

While the perpetrators in Italian football were banned, Belichick and co. are still with the Patriots and winning championships. The residual distaste for their success (as comes with any successful franchise) is bolstered by a sense that we don’t know to what extent they have cheated, so they still may be cheating. There is no evidence for this sentiment. It is only a feeling. The success of the Patriots since Spygate or Deflategate is not evidence of their cheating. Only the Spygate tapes and the texts Tom Brady and his equipment managers traded serve as evidence of their cheating.

Do we need to move past all of this and embrace the Patriots? No. I do not feel so. They do not feel the need to be embraced, or at least, certainly Belichick does not feel the need to be loved by the masses.

But do we need to at least acknowledge that the achievements of the Patriots are more earned than stolen, and ignore sentiments to the contrary? Yes, because we have no evidence to anything else. Five championships with the opportunity for another is bound to lead to hatred from rivals. It is a bitter, arsenic-laden pill for this tired Jets fan to swallow. But in the interests of being free from as much delusion as possible, we have to admit the merits of the New England Patriots. Just as equally as I admire Italian football, I can admire the achievements of Belichick and Brady.

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