RSP NFL Lens WR Antonio Brown (Steelers): It’s Only Cheating If You Get Caught

Matt Waldman’s RSP NFL Lens examines Antonio Brown’s Thursday Night Football touchdown reception against the Panthers and reveals the ambivalence we have with cheating. 

No, I don’t believe in the statement that the title of this piece suggests but it was still an admirable display of craft — if you can divorce yourself from the morality of the act. For some of you, this will be hard to do.

Antonio Brown’s touchdown grab on rookie Donte Jackson was offensive pass interference. Brown grabbed the back shoulder of Jackson and at the last second, before he turned to attack the ball with both hands, he ripped downward and pulled the cornerback off balance.

The official couldn’t see the foul because Brown set up the maneuver at an angle where it was away from the zebra’s line of site. It was illegal. It was also brilliant. Most fans can’t resolve that Brown’s actions can fit into both categories.  Until it’s a player on your team who gets away with it.

We’re told early in life to play by the rules. Honor codes and sportsmanship are two of the ways that our society attempts to reinforce the ideals of fairness at every level of our education.

However, we’re shown early in life that cheaters prosper. We also see events in sport, finance, and government reinforce this dueling narrative.

In this case, sadly, actions speak louder than words.

Because we often deify the work of athletes and celebrities, we expect them to exceed our standards for behavior in other corners of society. Many of you will feel compelled to comment and represent the side of good, old-fashioned values of right and wrong in black and white terms.

Don’t waste your time.

There’s a corner of the world where almost everyone wished society would behave to the highest standards of the rules. However, if most of us are honest with ourselves we realize that there’s an area in our lives where we don’t follow those standards.

I’m not here to judge. While I wish politicians, religious leaders, and the one percenters would behave to the highest standards and not play in the gray area of the rules, I’m too old to believe that it will happen. Competition and the resulting pressures to succeed when stakes are highest influences individuals and groups to push the boundaries of fairness.

I’m not an apologist for the behavior; I’m only stating it exists.

We all play in the gray in some aspect of our lives.

As a driver, I often violate speed limits and roll through stop signs. While misdemeanors, I’m willfully cheating traffic laws. In fact, knowing that a police officer generally doesn’t pull over a driver if the speed isn’t at least five miles per hour over the limit — and really more like 9-12 mph over — I often play in that gray area because I know there’s subjectivity within the enforcement of the rules.

Pushing the gray area of football’s rules is a lot like breaking certain traffic laws. As a fan, it angers me when a player victimizes my team. It’s a source of fascination as an analyst in the same way that a police detective or FBI agent may find criminal acts deplorable but still appreciate the craft.

In order to understand the environment and the people operating in it, you must become capable of separating how you feel about the overall act from appreciating the execution of the deed.

I was friendly with a guy in high school whose student resume was filled with achievements in academics, athletics, student government, and religious and social clubs. He became an executive of a large corporation at an early age. He cheated his ass off in high school.

The first time I tried cheating was in elementary school and I got caught and suspended. Experiencing that reinforcement of right and wrong at school influenced me to the extent that I never cheated again in school.

However, seeing someone get away with it and earn as much or more praise for their accomplishments later on — accomplishments built on lies — was unfair. So much so that I’m tempted 30-plus years later to tell you his name because it’s so ironic when paired with his behavior but it’s unnecessary.

Divorcing myself from the unfairness of the act and looking solely at the execution of the deed, I can appreciate the economy of information that must have been on those little cheatsheets I’d see him unearth from his shirt cuff.

It was wrong. It was also well-planned and a fine display of craft. I could never write that small and see it.

This is the type of cheating levied at the Patriots organization. Player-on-player cheating like Antonio Brown’s behavior is more like playing within the gray area of driving laws.

As an analyst and evaluator of talent, I can appreciate the guile of Brown strategically targeting the back shoulder of the defender shading Brown to the inside. It allowed Brown to play chest to chest with the opponent and close off the official’s line of sight on the activity of Brown’s back arm.

I can admire how Brown’s movement was so economical with its violence that the television crew thought it was a minor push. And, I can appreciate that use of the back arm and tight position allowed Brown to initiate this behavior but draw the cornerback into making contact as well, which leads to the official giving some gray area of hand-checking between the two players.

Brown broke the rules. He also cleverly made it difficult for the official (and everyone else) to see how he did it and created an environment that would make the official more amenable to physical play between him and Jackson.

You don’t have to like the outcome to acknowledge the craft behind it. And if you refuse the acknowledge it, you’re denying yourself the reality of the world you’re studying.

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