It seems these days that everyone cheats a little. Mike C. outlined it pretty well on his blog. But Mike was referring to individual cheating. What about team cheating? How far should a team go to win?  The two recent examples I have in mind are the New England Patriots and the McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team.

The Patriots were caught videotaping the NY Jets defensive coaches sending in signals to their team. The idea being that once you knew what a signal meant, you would know what the team was about to do next. The NFL confiscated the video camera and determined that the Patriots were knowingly violating the NFL rule prohibiting such videotaping. Coach Belichick was fined a cool half million dollars while the team was fined a quarter mil. They will also lose either a 1st, 2d, or 3d round draft pick depending on where they finish in the standings this season.

The McLaren-Mercedes Formula One team was found to have in its possession a load of very confidential design documents which belonged to their arch rival, Ferrari. They came by the documents by way of a rogue Ferrari mechanic named Nigel Stepney. At first it seemed like a one time incident and that McLaren stepped up and reported the incident right away. But further investigation showed that communication between Stepney and two McLaren drivers was extensive, with at least one McLaren driver asking Stepney for further information. Clearly McLaren knew any transfer of confidential information was illegal and yet they pursued the opportunity regardless. The Formula One governing body, the FIA, correctly saw this as intent and really threw the book at McLaren. McLaren was docked all their current Constructor’s Championship points and will not be allowed to earn any points for the rest of the season. This is no small thing because the Constructor’s Championship is the one the Formula One teams really care about. McLaren also got hit with a $100 million fine. That’s a tidy sum no matter who you are.

Both these incidents point to a team management so obsessed with winning that it will knowingly violate rules and invite huge punishment upon itself. In other words, they’ll cheat to win. It also leads one to wonder what the management of these two organizations were thinking. Both these teams are currently the best in their respective sports. Neither team needed to cheat to win, yet they both chose to do so. In the case of the Patriots, it can be said that signal stealing is a common occurrence in the NFL and the Patriots have been both the offender and the victim before. But the NFL specifically prohibits videotaping signals and the Patriots knew this. Likewise, in Formula One the teams collect as much information about their rivals as possible. But crossing the line into receiving illegally obtained documents from a Ferrari insider is akin to the difference between military reconnaissance and spying. Troops captured while conducting recon are treated as POWs. Spies are shot.

The thing that strikes me in both these cases is the utter stupidity of those involved. Not only did the Patriots not need to cheat as they did, they could have gotten away with it simply by having their cameraman sit in the stands rather than stand on the sidelines with the rest of the team. The folks at McLaren should have known right from the start that Ferrari would find out about the missing documents and that it would cost McLaren dearly. Not blowing the whistle at the very beginning was just plain stupid. The only explanation I can see for professionals at this level to commit such stupid and useless acts is a complete obsession with winning at all costs. When it gets to that point, you have to wonder if it’s worth playing at all.