Tom Brady’s Punishment: A Refreshing Nod to Integrity and Fairness in a World of Cheaters

I don’t know about you, but there are days when I wonder if integrity and fairness have disappeared from American culture.   Look around.

There is an epidemic of student cheating. People routinely lob insults and lies on the Internet as though they have no personal responsibility, and the old-fashioned legal theories like defamation that would have made such people accountable have been defanged in the Internet era, with only the rare person prevailing.   It turns out the clergy we trusted as adults may have (1) abused children or (2) covered up for the ones who did. (I’m not going to bother with a link on this last point—how would I choose?)

As my career has taken me through the religion culture wars, my trust in American integrity and fairness has taken major hits. Set aside clergy sex abuse for the moment. It turns out that the honest and upstanding clergy and religious entities I believed existed as a child also do not tell the truth when it serves political ends. The end seems to always justify the means.

Again and again, religious entities have lied in the public square to get and support rights they never had before. For example, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in 1993 after religious entities misrepresented the law of the First Amendment to Congress. With straight faces, they claimed that RFRA’s extreme standard was a codification of prior law. Did one of them disclose to Congress that in fact the Supreme Court had repeatedly rejected the RFRA standard in First Amendment cases, including in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah — a mere 5 months before the first RFRA was passed in November 1993? No.

When religious entities entered the courts and public square with RFRA in hand, they routinely claimed that RFRA was passed “unanimously” in 1993 and/or 2000. Not ever true. In fact, it was passed via unanimous consent. That is a charming procedure where a bill can be passed with virtually no one there (as the RFRA of 2000 was in both houses). Take it from me, correcting falsehoods in the public square by religious leaders is challenging: major media and courts have bought into these misrepresentations without blinking an eye.

And what’s up with religious believers being able to argue for religious liberty for things that don’t even violate their faith? In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the owners argued that it violated their faith to provide four types of contraception to their female employees, because they oppose abortion. But the four medications don’t actually cause abortions, according to scientists. Isn’t there something wrong, as a matter of integrity, with that picture—where faith is making scientific claims and the scientific claims are false? I think so.

Professional Sports Leading the Way to Integrity? Yes

The longer I’ve been embroiled in these matters, the more watching professional sports has appealed to me. The beauty of professional sports is that (1) there are rules; (2) rules are enforced on the field; (3) cheaters get punished; and (4) the fans witness right then and there the relationship between rules and cheating. It’s not a perfect system, due to the fallibility of human officials, umpires, and referees, but let me tell you it is pure oxygen compared to the misrepresentations in the culture wars.

The great news this week is that even when the sports infraction is discovered later, there can still be retribution for cheaters. Even if no one knew during the event that a rule had been broken, the rules still matter.

The NFL Restores My Faith in Integrity and Fairness

This brings me to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who was penalized this week for “Deflategate.” He has been suspended from the first four games of the fall season and his team is being fined $1 million. For many, this whole scandal is beyond stupid, because “all” he is alleged to have done was to have the Super Bowl balls deflated for the purpose of getting a tighter grip. But that is what makes this ruling so great!   Even ball deflation matters when it violates the rules.

Even better news is that the story is everywhere, virtually unavoidable. Kids and adults alike are seeing fair play and integrity playing out right in front of them. There are real consequences when you cheat. And this is being permanently inscribed in the history books, regardless of Brady’s self-serving appeal of the punishment.

When I was a kid, I never imagined that someday I would cite the ethics of the National Football League as a good example for our clergy.

But there it is.



Picture Credit:  By Keith Allison   Camera location 38° 54′ 24.48″ N, 76° 51′ 56.52″ W View this and other nearby images on: OpenStreetMap – Google Earth  38.906800; -76.865700 (originally posted to Flickr as Tom Brady) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Marci Hamilton

Marci A. Hamilton is one of the United States’ leading church/state scholars and is a Fox Family Pavilion Distinguished Scholar in Residence in the Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the Academic Director and President of CHILD USA, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to interdisciplinary evidence-based research and tracking of medical, legal, and psychological developments to prevent and deter child abuse and neglect, which she co-leads with Dr. Steven Berkowitz, University of Pennsylvania Medical School, and Dr. Paul Offit, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She holds the Paul R. Verkuil Research Chair at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University, through 2018.