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Patriots blur lines of sports integrity

This is what happens when those in charge allow the line between cheating and gamesmanship to get blurred for so many years.

No longer am I a fan of the most hated NFL team in America.

Hey, it’s something to celebrate.

The Dallas Cowboys aren’t champions of such a label anymore. Or shouldn’t be. You have to be more relevant than just five playoff appearances since 2003 and no Super Bowl trips since 1995 to have the honor of being so disliked by others, even if Jerry Jones remains the owner.

The New England Patriots wear such a badge now.

It is a well-earned title and then some.

It’s what happens when you are led by a guy who wears a hoodie, no matter the temperature outside.

That’s just creepy.

How do you make most of the country root for an arrogant bunch like the Seattle Seahawks, a defending Super Bowl champion that seems to have had as many players busted for using performance-enhancing drugs as they have victories the past few years, over your team in the game of Roman Numerals?

You have a certain coach named Bill and an owner whose best friend is viewed by many a corrupt and lawless commissioner.

New England is back in the Super Bowl for a sixth time under Bill Belichick, and you can imagine how that makes those who loathe all that is the team from Foxborough, Mass., feel.

The Patriots, for what seems like forever now, are perhaps our best example of a professional franchise that defines one of the great debates in sports — the difference between what is unashamedly dishonest or merely gaining any advantage you can without breaking the rules.

There is a huge distinction, by the way, one in no way wrong and the other downright deceitful.

This is where the line gets blurred with New England.

Belichick always has been an eerie sort, smug in his discourse and underhanded in his voyage to sitting atop his profession for some time now, when he’s not sitting in a tree stand dressed in camouflage taping an opponent’s practice.

He’s the best coach, a guy whose team doesn’t need to produce much success over three days of any draft to continue ruling the AFC East and always entering the playoffs as a Super Bowl threat.

But while the perception that New England has cheated for every ounce of its achievements is as foolish as Tom Brady’s offseason wardrobe, it’s on the Patriots that such an opinion exists. They’re hated because if it’s one thing football fans won’t tolerate, especially those with action on games, it’s slimy tactics that make us doubt what we are watching isn’t trustworthy.

That things aren’t equitable for both sides.

We can accept that in the violent, physical, tough-minded world of the NFL, a majority of its players have at one time or another likely dabbled in PEDs. We are immune to the vision of a guy pushing a needle into his arm to gain strength, but God help the team found pushing one into a ball so as to release air from it.

So while certain plays and formations used to rally against the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the playoffs might compare to relaying pitch location or drenching an infield to slow a leading base stealer in baseball as examples of accepted gamesmanship, those who can’t stand the Patriots will lump it all into the same barrel of misconduct.

They will see using plays that even fool referees (not a difficult task, given some of the confused creatures carrying yellow flags in The League) on par with Spygate and now “Deflate-gate.”

It’s not the same thing, of course, but this is the bed New England has made for itself.

This is why it’s the most hated team today.

It doesn’t help that owner Robert Kraft is a leading defender and supporter of commissioner Roger Goodell, whose reputation in the past few years has gone from scratches and scrapes to mortally wounded. The Kraft-Goodell union adds yet another layer of suspicion for those convinced New England can’t win without cheating.

It was like this in the 1990s for the Cowboys. The hating part of things. People can’t stand a winner. They really can’t stand a winner they believe gets over on others all the time.

It was in 2002, after Brady won his first Super Bowl by beating the Rams, that then-St. Louis star running back Marshall Faulk openly questioned how the Patriots knew what third-down and red-zone defensive checks to call against plays the Rams hadn’t run all season.

That was five years before Spygate.

“It’s either the best coaching in the world when you come up with situations that you had never seen before,” Faulk said at the time. “Or you’d seen it and knew what to do.”

The Patriots have been things for a long time. Some of it is gamesmanship. Some of it is cheating.

Problem is, they have become such experts in the field of deception, the line is blurred.

Outcome: Haters gonna hate.

And no one is hated more than the Patriots.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 100.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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