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.

3 Comments » for Deception and Trickery in Sport: The Patriots’ “Formation-Gate” 2015
  1. Danny says:

    Hi Jack,
    Unrelated to the article posted, but I wanted to get your thoughts on the Arroyo Valley girls basketball situation. Coach runs score up 161-2. What are your thoughts? There have been espn analysts on both sides. Here is a local article that puts sportsmanship into the question.
    Thanks again, I enjoy your blog.
    Wrote this comment on my phone so pardon errors.

  2. Jack says:

    Hi Danny,

    Thanks for your comment and question. And, yes, I’d read about this and, for the most part, seems a pretty black and white issue. A score of 161-2 doesn’t treat one’s competitor with the respect inherent in a sportsmanlike competition. A lot of people have asked where one draws the line. That’s a harder question to answer, and one that may be better addressed by those steeped in the basketball culture. I do know that, at least in our local high school league, once a team goes up by 30, it’s uncouth to continue with a full-court press. Removing the press does a few things: A. allows the losing team to maintain control of the ball longer, B. allows the game clock to run, causing the game to end faster, and, C. decreases the points the winning team will score. In addition, having your team fall back to a tight defense still allows the winning team a chance to run the court and play good defense and the losing team a chance to pass the ball and play actual basketball.
    So, this particular case seems pretty easy to evaluate as unsportsmanlike. There are arguments on the other side, and are worth considering:
    A. Even with the losing team putting in the second and then third string, it wouldn’t be fair to them to tell them not to play at 100% because they don’t get to play much and so, when they do, they should have a chance to fully assert themselves.
    B. By playing at one’s best ability, the losing team gets the opportunity to improve because playing against stronger, better players is often a way to become stronger and better oneself.
    C. It could be seen as demeaning and patronizing for one team to back off and take it easy.

    These are interesting positions and should all, I believe, be accounted for in proscribing what a team ought to do when on the winning side of a lopsided game.

    Hope you find that somewhat helpful & thoughtful.

  3. DH says:

    Good post and I agree with many of your points. I’m not sure what transpired in the Divisional playoff game between the Patriots and Ravens was significant enough to warrant a “-Gate” title. Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels did call some funky stuff but tackle-eligble plays have been in football for decades (you mentioned Alabama; I think Baylor also did it in their bowl game). The Edelman TD pass is another example of a play (lateral to a receiver who then throws to a receiver streaking downfield) that is common at all levels of football. This is not cheating contrary to what many casual fans would believe. Sure, its deceptive, but so are play-action passes and disguised coverages and feigned overload blitzes. That’s what makes football endlessly interesting is the strategy and deception behind the game. I admired New England’s tenacity and creativity in that Baltimore game. It’s the playoffs, play to win.