NFL Cheating Scandal: 4 Lessons For CIOs

What can CIOs learn from Deflategate, a cheating scandal involving the New England Patriots?

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

January 21, 2015

6 Min Read
(Image Credit: Wikipedia)

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Unless you truly hate sports and the Internet, you're probably at least loosely familiar with the NFL's latest cheating scandal, Deflategate (though I prefer calling it Ballghazi). If you believe the accusations, what happened is pretty shocking. It also offers lessons for anyone in a leadership position, including CIOs and others in IT, about why people cheat, and what to do about it.

First, let's recap what we know about Ballghazi so far. According to reports, 12 balls were given to an NFL official that were supposed to be used by the New England Patriots offense in a Jan. 18 playoff game. The outcome of this game, played against the Indianapolis Colts, determined which team would go to the Super Bowl. Those balls were inspected and approved by NFL officials as properly inflated 2 hours and 15 minutes before the game. Then, somehow -- perhaps by breaking in to retrieve those balls or by hiring a ninja who is practiced in the dark arts of altering balls on the field -- the Patriots allegedly were able to reduce the air in those balls by over 15%, ostensibly to make them easier for the players to grip in bad weather and to give them an advantage on the field.

Eleven of the twelve balls that the Patriots offense touched were found by league officials to have been deflated. The Patriots are known to be cheating cheaters and lying liars. The same coach, owner, and quarterback are still there because the league literally burned the evidence the first time they were caught cheating. It doesn't take much effort for those who live outside of New England to assume that this is part of a long tradition of cheating and lying by an organization accused of stealing a Super Bowl at least once before.

NFL rules prohibit alteration of footballs once they are approved for game use by a league official. According to NFL rules, a person found guilty of tampering with a football could be fined $25,000 and face additional disciplinary action including loss of draft picks.

So if the recent allegations are true, the team doesn't get to go to the Super Bowl, right? They get fired, right? They're never allowed in the NFL again, right? Isn't that how it works in your enterprise? You cheat or you steal and you go home, right?

Not in the NFL. I'm betting the league will probably try to cover up the scandal, as it did last time, in order to avoid the kind of ethical stain that can kill a league. I'm guessing they'll burn the footballs and say that it was an accident, or conclude that the action didn't affect the outcome of the game. The NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has a phrase he uses often: Protect the shield. The shield, in this case, is the league's logo.

[ Are burned-out workers less ethical than their colleagues? Read Burned-Out Workers Are Dangerous. ]

So, what can CIOs learn from this? How to cheat and get away with it, of course. No, not really.

There is a fair amount to learn, though, about why people cheat, and how to figure out if you're fostering an environment that allows cheating to thrive. Here are some lessons from Deflategate to take to heart in your own workplace:

Beware the "everybody does it" assumption: The first thing to arise from this scandal was a bunch of former quarterbacks admitting they did the same thing and defending the Patriots. Why? I can only assume they were looking for some sort of affirmation or absolution of their own tainted Super Bowl victories, with the idea that if the Patriots weren't tainted, then they weren't either. If you want to discourage cheating and other unethical behavior in your IT department, "everybody does it" can't be something anyone ever thinks. Exchange the "everybody does it" mindset with the "you will get caught and it does matter" rule.

Intent matters more than outcome. "It didn't affect the final outcome" is still considered a good excuse by many sports fans. Some observers are saying that the Patriots actually played worse before the cheating was discovered than they did after the balls were re-inflated to league standards. No harm, no foul, right? Here's the thing: Even if the Patriots were wrong that the deflated balls helped them, they still tried to cheat. If someone steals a password to break into your datacenter, and it turns out they can't find any data to sell, that doesn't excuse their actions, right? Intent matters more than outcome. As a manager, you need to make that clear.

Once a cheater, always a cheater. As humans, we all like to believe in forgiveness and second chances. You can't afford to give those second chances in your IT department. Let someone else do that. You have to get rid of people the first time around, or else you will create an atmosphere where it is OK.

Dire need is not what drives most people to cheat. This is the hardest one for most honest people to comprehend. The New England Patriots won this game against the Colts with a score of 45-7. They didn't need to cheat. They probably didn't need to cheat when they won previous Super Bowls and were caught cheating. Whether it is for the thrill, or because they don't know any better, or for some other deep-seated reasons, the primary lesson is that people don't typically cheat out of desperation. Sometimes they do. But it's dangerous to assume your employees will only cheat on the "big things" and "only when it matters." Cheaters cheat. So, if you catch someone cheating on a small thing, get rid of them before cheat on something bigger. Rest assured they will.

What do you think? Is there anything more learn from this? Did the Patriots cheat? If they did, what should happen to them? What should a manager do with a dishonest employee, especially when the stakes are small? Have you ever had this experience as a manager? Tell us about it in the comments.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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