As I record this, the New England Patriots are off to one of the greatest starts in NFL history, winning their first three games by an average of 26 points.
But their on-the-field accomplishments have been overshadowed by off-the-field controversies—controversies that say more about our culture than they do about football.
A few weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell fined the Patriots and Coach Bill Belichick $750,000 for videotaping opponents’ signals in violation of league rules. In addition, the Patriots will probably forfeit their first-round draft choice in the April 2008 NFL draft.
Some commentators insisted that the Patriots and Belichick got off too lightly, but theirs was definitely a minority view. For most commentators, it was much ado about nothing. They argued that the “strategic advantage” to be gained from breaking the rules was minor.
In fact, many were shocked that Coach Belichick bothered to cheat. After all, the Patriots’ lopsided victories proved that they did not need to cheat to win—as one writer put it, “it’s a whole lot easier to catch the spy than it is to actually beat him.”
This is why we do not, or at least should not, turn to sportswriters for moral guidance.
Perhaps a better guide would be St. Augustine of Hippo. In Book Two of his Confessions, Augustine recalled the “past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of [his] soul.” The sin whose memory caused him the most anguish was not his sexual misconduct and debauchery. Instead, it involved fruit.
Specifically, it was a pear tree close to his family’s vineyard. He writes that neither the pears’ flavor nor their color was tempting. Yet, one night he and his friends “went to shake and rob this tree.”
Augustine wrote that he was “compelled to [robbery] by neither hunger nor poverty.” He had plenty of pears at home that were of “much better quality.” He did not “desire to enjoy what [he] stole, but only the theft and the sin itself.”
He recalled how he and his companions “laughed because,” as he wrote, “our hearts were tickled at the thought of deceiving the owners, who had no idea of what we were doing and would have strenuously objected.”
As he put it, he acted out of “a contempt for well-doing and a strong impulse to iniquity.” He stole the pears precisely because it was the wrong thing to do.
This “impulse to iniquity” was, for Augustine, what it meant to be fallen—original sin. People are not calculators whose actions are solely, or even largely, determined by rational self-interest. Our natures have been, in C. S. Lewis’s words, “bent”—we often do the wrong thing because it feels better than doing the right thing.
We break rules because our fallen natures tell us that the willingness to break them proves our “superiority” to those who do not. We test the limits, not because it yields an advantage, but to see what we can get away with. Belichick and the Patriots cheated, got caught, and were punished. Good. But it should come as no surprise to Christians that someone who does not need to cheat to win, cheats anyway. That’s what we humans do.
The attempt to explain human perversity solely in terms of “strategic advantage” is a reminder that without Christianity, a culture not only cannot understand God—it cannot understand man, either.
For Further Reading and Information
Frank Deford, “Beli-cheat,” Sports Illustrated, 19 September 2007.