The New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick is known to many for his infamous Spy-gate 2007, in which he videotaped the play-calls of other teams, earning the largest fine ever imposed on a coach by the league.  The act was deceptive, violated league rules, and was in no way a skill tested in the football arena.  With such a reputation, football enthusiasts and sports ethicists have kept a close eye on him and, this past weekend, he was up to something that has whipped everyone into a frenzy.

Sports demand and even celebrate one’s ability to trick and deceive another.  Part of being a good running back includes the ability to cleverly feign running left only to then run right.  Accordingly, a good defender is coached to focus on the ball-carrier’s hips so as not to be duped by such deceptive moves.

On a larger scale, a popular approach to establishing a successful offense often lies in a football team’s ability to create nuanced formations at the line of scrimmage in order to disguise which sort of play will ensue.  Thus, football teams run myriad deceptive plays, within the context of the rules, all under the banner of good strategy.

In last weekend’s playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriots seem to have done just this in employing a controversial formation which yielded three key completed passes en route to a comeback victory.  The formation incited judgments and criticisms of the Patriots for taking trickery too far, along with cries of a lack of sportsmanship and even cheating.

This particular example (which we revisit, below) allows us to examine the ethics of trick plays in the context of sport.

Certain forms of deception and trickery which seem clearly unsportsmanlike include plays in which players feign injury or harm.  The “Fake Heart Attack,” for example, or any sort of faked injury cuts at the core of our humanity and requires us to step outside of the sporting context to attend to our competitor.1

A more common category of unsportsmanlike trick plays involves tactics or actions completely outside the realm of that particular sport.  Some of the more extreme examples of these include basketball’s “Barking Dog,” in which a player gets on his hands and knees and barks to distract the other team during an inbounding of the ball, and football’s “Sideline Hangout,” in which an in-bounds player stands immediately adjacent to the out-of-bounds line near a group of players out of the game pretending to be in conversation with them in order to remain undetected by the defense once the play begins.

But the sorts of trick plays which are acceptable include those which are innovative, within the rules, and a part of the test of the respective sport.  Football has many of these; some as simple as the Double Pass—which the Patriots also used to score a touchdown in Sunday’s game—the Fake Punt, and many others.

Such plays often involve a sound understanding of the game’s rules and then using the rule to create the deception.  A favorite of mine, which our high school’s football team occasionally runs, is the Bouncerooski.  The quarterback makes a pass to a receiver behind the line of scrimmage and slightly behind the quarterback’s position on the field.  This makes the transfer of the ball technically a lateral, and not a pass.  The quarterback throws what appears to be a bad pass, with the ball hitting the ground and bouncing to the receiver (technically a fumble).  The offensive team then stops playing for a moment (i.e. deception).  Once the defense relaxes, the receiver either runs or, more likely, makes a pass to an open receiver down field.

What the Patriots did on Sunday more closely resembles this third category of trick play.  For a full understanding of the play and the nuances of formations in football, this article does a nice job framing it.  The short story is that the formation clearly followed the rules.  In addition, according to both NFL and ESPN analysts, the referees called the situation correctly, providing “reasonable time” for the Ravens’ defense to adjust, as per the rules, allowing 7 to 10 seconds from when the referee announced the ineligible receiver until the time of the snap.  And according to ESPN reporter Mike Reiss, the referee actually did more than that: he could be heard telling the Ravens not only that the receiver in question was ineligible but instructing them not to cover him.2

It may even be the case that we have gone too far in calling this a “trick play” to begin with.  Nearly every play in football ensues from a nuanced formation intended to disguise and deceive the opponent.  This particular play involves a tricky formation followed by a relatively benign pass route.  In addition, another concern with the play involves the prediction that the league will likely change the rules next year to prohibit such formations and that this would demonstrate the unsportsmanlike nature of the play.  But that’s just a part of the natural evolution of a sport.  Rules are made and when someone violates a rule in a manner not fitting to the game the rules are changed in accordance.3

Fake punts, Bouncerooskies, and the Patriots’ Formation-Gate are not new to the sport: many high school coaches commented on various message boards that they’ve used the Patriots exact play, and Alabama ran a very similar play just weeks prior in a bowl game.  They are tricky.  And, as Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh stated in an attempt to condemn the play, “It was clearly deception.”  Though, these tricky, deceptive plays fall under the category of acceptable sorts of plays and follow the exact rules of the game.  Somewhat ironically, the only unsportsmanlike behavior on the field at the time was noted as such explicitly by officials: Harbaugh travelled so far onto the playing field yelling at the referees so as to earn a major penalty against his team for… “Unsportsmanlike Conduct.”

1I argue elsewhere that this insight also informs us, in part, as to what is unsportsmanlike about acts such as “flopping” in soccer.

2It seems to me the Patriots could argue the referee overstepped his bounds here in favor of the Ravens.  Telling a defender to refrain from covering an ineligible receiver more closely resembles actual coaching than it does officiating.

3Thank you to Alexander Carlisle and Josh Calder, respectively, for voicing these insights.