Innocent Until Proven Innocent

September 21, 2015

LAST WEEK I co-authored an SI story about why NFL teams don't trust the Patriots. A number of New England fans concluded that the rest of the league is paranoid, the world is just out to get their team, then they defiantly swigged their Samuel Adams Irony Ale.

Patriots fans are not alone, though it may appear that way at parties sometimes. Americans believe that their politicians are corrupt and their coaches are honest. I'm not sure what this says about Americans, but if you have an opinion, keep it down. The rest of us are trying to watch TV.

Fans everywhere believe in the integrity of people they have never met, simply because they wear shirts with the same logos. When people accuse our teams of wrongdoing, we strongly believe in the principle of innocent until proven innocent.

It is inconceivable that a hypercompetitive coach would bend a rule to win a game if that coach happens to work in our city (though if that coach is losing too much, we should fire the dirty bastard). But if that hypercompetitive coach happens to toil in another city, especially a city that is in close proximity to ours but has its own teams and is therefore despicable, then the hypercompetitive coach is obviously cheating.

When it comes to accusations of unfair play, we stretch like Gumby to put a new twist on NIMBY: Not In My Backyard. No rationalization is too far-fetched, no defense too silly.

You see this, most notably, among fans of college sports, where cheating is more common and the bond between fan and team is strongest. If you showed the average college football fan a video of his team's head coach giving $100,000 to a recruit, the fan would spend an hour explaining: "The youngster was obviously raising money for charity, and it just shows what great people our coaches are, and the rules are stupid, and other schools do so much worse, and this is all fueled by jealous people at Auburn, UCLA, Ohio State, Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia, Missouri, Washington State, the NCAA, the federal government, the University of Phoenix and France, and anyway, why are you still talking about this? It happened an hour ago!"

Why do we do this? The fundamental answer is that as soon as we buy our season tickets we have literally and figuratively invested in our teams. When we cheer, we are part of the game. When our team wins, we win. When we decorate the basement with memorabilia, the team is part of us. And so, when you accuse my team of cheating, you are accusing me.

Sure, in the abstract we understand that everybody is flawed. We understand that the most ambitious people are also, logically, the most likely to cut a corner. But our doubts about human character fade as we get closer to home. We will not be convicted by a jury of ourselves. Fans are not the only ones who think this way. Roger Goodell continues to poll well in Roger Goodell's house.

We spend a lot of time watching sports, and it's hard to stomach the idea that one minute of any success we enjoy might be fraudulent. To justify the purity of competition in our minds, we make leaps that would leave Olympic long jumpers envious:

My alma mater has a high ranking in U.S. News and World Report, so we couldn't possibly have an academic scandal. If steroids help you hit home runs, why aren't professional wrestlers in the major leagues? Lance Armstrong beat cancer, so he couldn't be doping.

Sports are a reflection of society, and we like to stare into the mirror and declare that we look good. Otherwise, what's the point of looking?

Even actual judges stop judging when they watch sports. Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the United States, once said, "I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records people's accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man's failures." Sometimes the sections get mixed up. I blame the printer.

Worries about cheating and doubts about character fade as we get closer to our favorite teams. We will not be convicted by a jury of ourselves.

What team or school has the haughtiest fans? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @Rosenberg_Mike

PHOTOCARLOS M. SAAVEDRA FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)