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In defense of Tom Brady’s willingness to bend the rules to win

<h6>“New England Patriots at Washington Redskins” by Keith Allison&nbsp;/ <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tom_Brady_8-28-09_Patriots-vs-Redskins.jpg" target="_self"><strong>CC BY-SA 2.0</strong></a></h6>
“New England Patriots at Washington Redskins” by Keith Allison / CC BY-SA 2.0

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors’ views alone. For information on how to submit an article to the Opinion Section, click here.

Given Tom Brady’s retirement from the NFL, the sports media commentariat is sure to recycle all the old scandals of so-called cheating that emerged throughout his career. “He deflated footballs,” they will say. “They filmed the opposing team’s signals,” they’ll moan. Trying to lessen his accomplishments by invoking these scandals betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be great — an understanding that may have been applicable before the rise of Tom Brady but no longer applies.

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Fundamentally, what is greatness if not a propensity to “cheat” and get away with it? When you reach the highest echelons of sports, everyone has talent. Most have a single-minded focus on winning that most other human beings cannot muster. So what sets the legendary apart from the simply very good? Athletic talent? Sure, in some cases. Michael Jordan or LeBron James certainly excelled in this manner. But Tom Brady fundamentally changed what greatness means through his win-at-all-costs mentality that included, at times, bending the rules to his advantage. 

None of this is to say Tom Brady isn’t talented. He worked hard, threw with accuracy, and had a drive to win. But his ability to blend these traditional skills with cunning guile and an eye for any possible advantage, pushing the limits of the rules and adapting each time he got caught, was what made him the greatest quarterback of all time. 

Take the “deflategate” scandal. On the back of dubious evidence, he was suspended for four games because the league was sick of him and wanted to send a clear signal that whatever infraction he may have committed was simply beyond the pale. And what did he do? He came back even better, leading his team to a historic comeback win in Super Bowl LI. In this and so many other cases, he showed that greatness is intangible; it’s those jaw-dropping moments of “How can he keep doing this?” that mark Brady’s career at every turn. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts and a lifelong Patriots fan, those moments wouldn’t quite have been the same for me without the constant accusations of cheating that made it even more special each time he showed everyone that he would win no matter the circumstances.

You can debate the merits of the various allegations of cheating all you want. But it’s all part of a healthy sports ecosystem of cheating, getting caught, weathering the punishment, and then readapting to win again. In Brady’s case, he proved time and again that he could bounce back, whether by finding new ways to bend the rules or improving his “traditional” football acumen. There were times throughout his career where he may not have been the most talented quarterback, but his ability to use all the tools in his kit — among them, pushing the boundaries of the rules — to best his competition is the kind of dynamism of which only a GOAT is capable. 

Julian Alvarez is a senior studying Spanish and Portuguese from Boston, MA.  He can be reached at juliansa@princeton.edu.

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