The runners huddled around their coach listening to instructions before a mid-week workout.

The coach reminded them that they were on the honor system when it came to completing the workout as he’d outlined it. He wasn’t going to count every lap or monitor each runner’s effort.

“If you cheat,” he warned them, “you’re only cheating yourself.”

I’ve thought about that high school practice and that admonishment a lot in the past few years. Usually, it comes to mind when some famous athlete gets caught breaking rules — a failed drug test, lying about an injury or altering equipment to get an advantage.

If it’s a popular athlete, say, for example New England quarterback Tom Brady, and an unpopular or obscure rule, like maybe something about how much air is supposed to be in a football during an NFL playoff game, then it seems breaking the rules is a much more forgivable offense.

At least in the eyes of fans.

The most common rationale I’ve heard in determining whether the offense of using flatter-than-normal footballs even warrants our attention is, “Did it affect the outcome of the game?”

If not, and nearly everyone agrees flat footballs or Frisbees, Brady would have led the Patriots to a win in Indianapolis, then get over it.

Come down from the pulpit.

Get off your high horse.

Quit being such a stick in the mud.

If you want this rule enforced, then you must hate the Patriots. (Not to mention the obvious jealousy of people who are unnaturally handsome and successful.)

I admit I devoted a lot more attention to the discussion of the crimes committed and punishments levied after the release of the Wells report than I did actually reading the Wells report.

The only conclusion that mattered to me was the one supported by testimony and text messages that led to the decision by the independent investigators that Brady was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate activity.”

In other words, the evidence indicated that the quarterback knew. What the text messages indicated to me is that deflating the footballs was done at Brady’s behest. When the quarterback likes flatter footballs, the team gives him flatter footballs. If that means breaking a rule that most of us had never heard of until a few months ago, then go ahead and break it.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal. Seems like maybe something akin to excessive celebrating, criticizing officials or tweeting to fans during the game.

But when these situations arise, our reaction to the problem is as important as how the powers that be go about solving the problems. When listening to commentators discuss how unfair Brady’s four-game suspension is, I couldn’t help but think of those track athletes. If one of them doesn't see the value in what the coach asked then why not take a shortcut?

Whether we want it to be this way or not, athletes are heroes to many of us. They grant childhood wishes, show us how to overcome difficult circumstances and bring attention to issues and situations that we desperately need to see.

They play games for millions of dollars and bring us countless hours of joy. Sports, like music or movies, is both an escape and a chronicle of who we are and what we are capable of accomplishing. Sports tear down cultural and political walls and unite us during difficult times. A lot of great things come from the games we love.

And because our games are a reflection of who we are and what we value, rule-breaking matters. I’m not advocating for overly harsh and unforgiving penalties (see the NCAA for examples). But I am asking those who are defending Brady and the New England organization to consider what they’re defending.

I understand why Brady wants to appeal the decision. I understand why the Patriots brass wants to defend the face of the franchise and the organization, even if I disagree with some of the tactics.

What I don’t understand is the rest of us trying to rationalize why it’s OK to break rules. Life and morals certainly aren’t black and white, but both are much more clear than we’d like to make it when it comes to our favorite sports teams and our beloved sports heroes.

While many are chastising the NFL for trying to be the disciplinary force they failed to be last fall during the domestic violence issues, others are pontificating about whether or not this controversy will hurt Brady’s legacy.

For me, the real issue is what are we saying about ourselves? And maybe even more important than that is what are we teaching all of those aspiring athletes? They may never play for money, but will that make a difference when they have the chance to give themselves an advantage?

Broken rules fracture the integrity of any game. Maybe it’s a game that doesn’t really have that much integrity left to lose in the eyes of some; but for a lot of young people, the foremost lesson sports offer is to do your best. What do situations like this do to the value of that concept?

I’ve heard the crime of deflating footballs likened to failing to wear a seatbelt. Well, while you may disagree with whether or not the government should be trying to save our lives, you certainly can’t disagree that the mandatory device does actually save lives.

Maybe I’m just tired of seeing millionaires spend money defending behavior that seems obviously wrong. It may not be illegal, but it’s unethical. It’s against the rules.

If the rule is silly and unimportant, then get rid of it.

But no one, not even a guy as talented and as accomplished as Tom Brady, gets to ignore the rules if you want the games to matter, even as entertainment. If you can't trust the integrity of the games, you can't trust the outcomes. So how can you celebrate the accomplishments? (Example: cycling.)

So while the appeals play out and attorneys and commentators argue about what is right and what is fair, ask yourself who is really being cheated.

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