Shostack + Friends Blog Archive


Who Likes a Cheater?

fine.jpgIf you don’t follow sports news, the New England Patriots and their coach have been fined about three quarters of a million dollars and a draft pick. This is reported in articles like “Belichick given record fine for video cheating.” (Times Online, UK) That may seem like a lot, until you realize that that’s less than 1% of the fine assessed against the McLaren F1 racing team.

The case broke open in July when a 780-page technical dossier on Ferrari cars was found at the home of McLaren’s chief designer, Mike Coughlan, who later was suspended. Ferrari mechanic Nigel Stepney, who allegedly supplied the documents, was fired.
(Detriot Free Press, “Formula One team McLaren fined $100 million in spying scandal.”)

So why was the fine for the Patriots so low? Apparently that’s the league maximum.

So who likes a cheater? Apparently, the National Football League, who has set their maximum fines low enough that cheating was an irresistible temptation.

We now return to your regularly scheduled security blogging.

Photo: Sabine, “A fine city.”

[Update: My friend Jeff, who is much more into football than I am, asks what the fines are proportioned to team budgets, and points out that this is the stiffest penalty given in NFL history. (“Penalizing the Patriots.”) Proportionally, the MacLaren fine seems to be roughly 25% of an F1 budget, assuming that MacLaren spends as much as the $400MM that Ferrari spends[1]. The Patriot’s financial penalty is less than 1% of the team’s $100MM share of NFL revenue [2]. It’s not clear to me how to compare a draft pick to points, which are the non-financial aspects of the penalties.

[1] Formula 1: The Business of Money
[2] NFL’s Economic Model Shows Signs of Strain]

3 comments on "Who Likes a Cheater?"

  • Wordman says:

    The draft pick thing is hard to estimate, but may hurt worse than the fine. The way the NFL draft works, the worst teams pick first. So, with 32 teams in the league, if the Patriots win the Super Bowl this year, they would normally get the 32nd pick in the draft. The start of the second round of drafting, normally starting at pick 33, will start with pick 32 next year. The Patriot’s first pick would be the 63rd pick. Teams can trade picks, however, which complicates things. The Patriots likely have picks traded from other teams they will be able to use.
    As for the comparison to racing, one important difference is the payoff of the cheating. The benefit of stealing signal information in the NFL is somewhat dubious to me, of use only against a single team and then only on the chance they don’t change their signals. In addition, the time between signal intercept and execution of a play is very short, meaning your team would need either specialized training to watch and respond to the opposing signals, or to shift extremely quickly based on communication from a specialized signal interceptor. It’s possible, but seems unlikely to me that it would be of consistent benefit more than spending that same time training in a more normal fashion.
    In F1 racing, on the other hand, tech documents from an opponent are a massive advantage. They not only would show you strategy of the other team, but also raw knowledge that could be used to improve your own cars. This is even more important in that type of racing, which is all about maximizing the performance of the car while still staying inside the formula.
    In other words, figuring out if a low fine creates an “irresistible temptation” requires knowing not only the size of the fine, but also the cost benefit of the cheating. And in that way, this actually does have a bit to do with security.

  • LonerVamp says:

    I think it helps that coaches were already considering countermeasures to this issue of stealing defensive signals by allowing defenses to use the same radio devices that QBs currently employ with their offensive playcallers. This would outright eliminate signals and put the onus on simply covering your mouth when speaking the instructions. This vote failed to pass as a new rule/allowance this year by only 2 votes, but with this statement and exposure, it will no doubt pass next offseason. There wasn’t much more that could be done as a penalty.
    I think it is more interesting the excessive penalty for the QB coach who had taken HGH than the interest in the Pat’s being under-penalized. But that’s me. 🙂

  • Iang says:

    I also wondered how the F1 fine was so high. I went through the rules and could see no basis in law for it. I would speculate that it is imposed under customary law, that is, if you want to stay in, you accept our judgement.
    But I’d be curious to what the real basis is … any lawyers in the house?

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