Patriots, Plagiarists and Playing Favorites

Continuing with the theme of holiday posts, this weekend is the Superbowl, which if television ratings are any indication, is one of America’s most beloved celebrations. When the New England Patriots won the AFC title game, their franchise name — after all, what early Americanist doesn’t appreciate a tricorne hat reference — and their lack of victory post “spy-gate,” intrigued me. But then, “deflate-gate” started, which raises a more specific point about my syllabus, yes, my syllabus. Since I am teaching my own survey course for the first time today, I thought pretty extensively about a cheating policy the past few weeks. Many of my friends and colleagues noted that I settled on a pretty strict position: you plagiarize a paper or cheat on an exam, then you automatically fail the course and will be reported to the department. But, for me, this policy is not about draconian vengeance but rather about fairness, about giving students an equal shot at doing their best work.

So you might say that Richard Sherman scooped me on this point. In a press conference earlier this week, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback stated that if the National Football League’s ongoing investigation does find the Patriots guilty of tampering with footballs, there would not be much in the way of consequences. “Will they be punished? Probably not,” Sherman said, because the close relationship between the league commissioner, Roger Goodell and team owner, Robert Kraft, was an extreme “conflict of interest.”[1] Even if “deflate-gate” amounts to nothing and it turns out that the footballs were fine, Sherman raises a bigger point about the challenges of neutrality in a situation where points matter.

So that my own interests are clear from the beginning, I am a disgruntled New York Jets fan who appreciated the Denver Broncos run over the past few seasons. I am also writing a dissertation on the development of copyright in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The relationship between sports and the history of intellectual property is one I’ve written about before over at the Junto but this idea of preference, while certainly relevant to my study of authorial authority, also resonates pretty significantly in the dynamics of a classroom. Every course has its own specific energy, in which student efforts, abilities and numerical results on the page do not always line up. We tend to build this grey area into our grading rubrics, with five percent here and ten percent there for participation or extra credit. But at the same time, the truthfulness of the grade matters. Why should one student be allowed to cheat or plagiarize and get through the course while another who works infinitely harder to write that paper, to study for the exam, have their efforts cheapened? What is the point of doing the work if someone else does not play by the rules and gets the same result? As part of my job, I owe it to my students to not play favorites.

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, that is not the case with the NFL: a private business in which the commissioner is not beholden to the players or to the fans but to the interests of the team owners who pay his salary. While there are plenty commentators out there calling foul play, there are others describing “deflate-gate” as just a part of gamesmanship, or more critically, ridiculously overblown (pun intended). After all, Bill Belichick, in his own words, is not a scientist. Teaching, like football or any other subjective enterprise, is not a science. And it is precisely because some personalities mesh better than others that objective fairness, whenever possible, needs to be used.

Some students are going to work harder than others, some are going to struggle with the material more than others. It seems that we have a serious obligation to level that playing field as much as possible so that regardless of background or advantages, a student’s work ethic can come through. I certainly understand where more lenient policies come from. Most students who cheat, it seems to me, do it in a panic, out of laziness, or carelessness. But isn’t learning how to handle those types of situations part of this process? Many students who take a history course will not end up as historians but they can learn the completely cross-disciplinary skills of critical thinking that will stick with them way beyond college. “Friday Night Lights,” anyone?

[1] For coverage of Sherman’s comments, see: and



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