In defense of Tom Brady willingness to break the rules in order to win

Given Tom Brady retirement from the NFL, the sports media commentariat will undoubtedly recycle all of the old alleged cheating scandals that arose during his career. They’ll say, “He deflated footballs.” They’ll complain, “They filmed the opposing team’s signals.” Attempting to diminish his accomplishments by bringing up these scandals reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be great — an understanding that may have been applied before Tom Brady rise but no longer is.

What is greatness, if not the ability to “cheat” and get away with it? When it comes to the highest levels of sports, everyone has talent, and most have a single-minded focus on winning that most other people do not have. So, what distinguishes the legendary from the simply very good? Athletic ability? In some cases, yes. Michael Jordan and LeBron James both excelled in this area. But Tom Brady fundamentally altered the definition of greatness with his win-at-all-costs mentality, which included, at times, bending the rules to his advantage.

This isn’t to say Tom Brady isn’t talented. He worked hard, threw accurately, and was determined to win. But he could combine these traditional skills with cunning guile and an eye for any possible advantage, pushing the limits of the rules and adapting each time he was caught, which elevated him to the status of greatest quarterback of all time.

Take, for example, the “deflate-gate” scandal. He was suspended for four games based on dubious evidence because the league was sick of him and wanted to send a clear message that whatever infraction he may have committed was simply beyond the pale. And what was it that he did? He returned even more substantial, leading his team to a historic comeback victory in Super Bowl LI. In this and many other instances, he demonstrated that greatness is intangible; it’s the jaw-dropping moments of “How can he keep doing this?” that define Brady’s career at every turn. As a kid growing up in Massachusetts and a lifelong Patriots fan, those moments wouldn’t have been the same without the constant accusations of cheating, which made it even more memorable each time he demonstrated that he would win no matter what.

You can debate the merits of the various cheating allegations all you want. However, it’s all part of a well-functioning sports ecosystem. Values of the various cheating allegations. But it’s all part of a healthy sports ecosystem: cheating, getting caught, facing the consequences, and then readjusting to win again. On the other hand, Brady has proven time and again that he can recover, whether by finding new ways to bend the rules or improving his “traditional” football acumen. There were times when he wasn’t the most talented quarterback. Still, his ability to use all of his tools — including breaking the rules — to outperform his opponents is the kind of dynamism that only a GOAT is capable of.

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