It’s not as if the Patriots’ apparent exercise in ball deflation represents a novelty.
There is no shortage of stories related to efforts by players and teams to gain a competitive advantage by manipulating equipment or uniforms. To varying degrees, the practice is found across all four of the major sports, and certainly in many others as well.
“The concept of pushing the envelope in one way or another that might be considered cheating, or that is considered cheating, isn’t foreign to any league,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for Sport in Society at Northeastern University. “It isn’t foreign to just about any venue or piece of our society.”
Here is a far-from-exhaustive synopsis of some of the efforts to tilt the playing field in the four major sports:
NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE
The controversy surrounding the air pressure inside the footballs used by the Patriots has led to a rush of acknowledgements and suggestions that the practice of manipulating footballs is more widespread than was previously known.
Phil Simms’s recollection of a conversation with Aaron Rodgers about how the Packers quarterback likes to inflate footballs beyond the regulation maximum has gained prominence, as has the admission of former Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson that he paid ball boys to scuff the footballs used in Super Bowl XXXVII.
But quarterbacks tailoring footballs — both within and outside league regulations — is the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to NFL equipment manipulation.
The NFL outlawed the use of Stickum — an adhesive that helped turn Fred Biletnikoff into a Hall of Fame wide receiver — in 1981. But even at a time when advances in gloves have replicated some of the effect of Biletnikoff’s product of choice, players still spray adhesive and tacky substances onto their gloves.
Beyond legal measures such as tightly fitted jerseys and the use of double-sided tape inside of jerseys to combat holding, linemen have been known to apply Vaseline to their arms, legs, or uniforms for the same purpose, while skill position players use Vaseline to make it more difficult to tackle them.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL
The history of manipulating baseball equipment is long and celebrated to such a degree that the sport operates according to unwritten codes when it comes to flouting the rules.
The use of sandpaper (such as the memorable incident in which knuckleballer Joe Niekro was busted with an emery board in his pocket) or sharp objects such as tacks to scuff the ball in an attempt to create unnatural movement is considered verboten. (There is also danger in the latter tactic, as Rick Honeycutt discovered in 1980 when he cut his forehead with a tack he was trying to use to deface the ball.)
Ditto the spitball, even though admitted practitioner Gaylord Perry is enshrined in Cooperstown for a 300-win career achieved in part because of his use — and perceived use — of illegal tactics.
Corked bats have been a frequent path to suspensions as well. Graig Nettles once lost 10 games after SuperBalls came bounding out of his shattered bat. Sluggers Albert Belle and Sammy Sosa were caught using corked bats in an effort to increase their power (although University of Illinois professor emeritus of physics Alan Nathan, among others, has determined that corked bats do not permit players to hit the ball farther).
Yet the use of foreign substances to improve the grip on baseballs and improve control, particularly in cold weather, is a largely accepted practice — to a point. When cameras appeared to catch a green substance inside Jon Lester’s glove in Game 1 of the 2013 World Series, for instance, the Cardinals made it clear that they had no beef with the pitcher, and declined to have the umpires check him or to have Major League Baseball inspect him.
Likewise, when a controversy swirled around Clay Buchholz and the Red Sox pitching staff in 2013 for the use of a sunscreen (Bull Frog) in combination with rosin, no team complained, likely because of the relatively widespread nature of the practice.
But that permissiveness only goes so far. When Michael Pineda’s hand was covered with pine tar in a start against the Red Sox last April, the Sox did not protest, though MLB took it upon itself to initiate a conversation with the righthander about the incident.
When, in the middle of his next start against Boston, a struggling Pineda applied copious pine tar to his neck, Sox manager John Farrell asked the umpires to investigate. The illegal substance was found, resulting in an ejection and a 10-game suspension for Pineda.
“There’s an accepted level of some additive used to gain a grip,” Farrell said at the time. “When it’s that obvious, something has to be said.”
There are questions about whether MLB’s laws about what should and should not be prohibited are sensible. The result is inconsistent enforcement — or sometimes consistent non-enforcement.
For instance, corking a bat, by rule, is cheating in baseball. But, said Nathan, “Should it be cheating? Major League Baseball is funny about that. They have these rules and sometimes the rules don’t make too much sense.
“The corked bat thing might be one of them. The pine tar thing for sure is . . . It’s done. It’s tolerated by everyone. Everyone knows that everyone is doing it. But if you call it to the umpires’ attention, they’re forced to enforce the rules and have to do something about it, but the umpires know what’s going on and they let it go as long as no one calls their attention to it.”
NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE
The 1960s witnessed a hockey equipment revolution with the introduction of the banana-blade stick, which offered the possibility of virtually decapitating (still-maskless) goaltenders thanks to slapshots that represented a form of jai alai.
This resulted in the introduction of rules governing stick measurements, including the curvature of the blades. While banana blades went the way of the dodo bird, players still regularly exceeded the ¾-inch limit. The practice became so common that it was almost never challenged.
But there was a memorable exception. In the 1993 Stanley Cup Final between Los Angeles and Montreal, the Canadiens — trailing, 1-0, in the best-of-seven series, and down, 2-1, in the third period of Game 2 — requested a measurement of Los Angeles defenseman Marty McSorley’s stick.
With the curvature found to be in violation, McSorley was sent to the box with a two-minute penalty. Montreal scored on the power play, won the game in overtime to knot the series, then swept the next three games to win the Stanley Cup.
Plenty of snark over the years has been directed at goaltenders thought to wear pads that are larger than regulation for the sake of increasing their net coverage. Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo and former goalie (and current Islanders general manager) Garth Snow ranked among the most scrutinized.
NATIONAL BASKETBALL ASSOCIATION
The idea of messing with equipment and uniforms is somewhat more challenging in the NBA, given that “uniforms” allow for exposed arms and legs, and the equipment is limited to a single ball.
Barring an as-yet-undocumented usage of springs in shoes, the idea of malfeasance involving what players wear seems a bit difficult to fathom (though it is worth noting that Charles Barkley, perhaps even more unfathomably, has acknowledged keeping Vaseline in his belly button to address chapped lips in games).