The team used a cameraman to record opponents’ signals – a violation of NFL rules, to be sure, but differing only in degree from what all teams do all the time. Sending scouts to spy on opposing franchises, monitor hand signals, decode audibles – this is all part of the modern game. Still, cheating is cheating, and Patriot Nation is duly disgraced and disgusted. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick – a disagreeable genius who puts winning above all else – has always been a master at finding new ways to get an advantage over other teams. At last, his constant pushing of the envelope seems to have caught up with him. Say it ain’t so, Bill. How can we keep on rooting for you? Well, it’s not as though I pulled for the Patriots because I thought they were the most virtuous team in the world. Heck, it was abundantly clear they weren’t when they ruthlessly cut fan favorites to save money, drafted a guy who once stomped on an opponent’s head, traded for the NFL’s biggest prima donna, and got busted when one of their best defensive players was caught using a banned substance. No, I rooted for the Patriots because they were my hometown team; because I grew up rooting for them; because, despite living 3,000 miles away, cheering for the red, silver and blue helped me feel connected to a region I’ll always love. I first took interest in football back in 1985, when my hometown team, the New England Patriots, had a Cinderella season that landed them, against all odds, in the Super Bowl. All of Massachusetts went gaga watching that team’s rise to glory, and it was hard not to get caught up in the excitement. From that time on, I was a loyal Pats fan. For most of these 22 years, maintaining that loyalty hasn’t been easy. With the exception of tremendous success over the past few years, the Pats have traditionally been an NFL doormat. Early on, I learned that being one of their fans meant accepting humiliation. But I never expected humiliation like this. Over the past week, the team has been busted – and severely punished – for cheating. Patriots fans everywhere now find themselves humiliated once again. This is why, as a fan, it’s hard to be objective about such matters. Our emotional investment tends to preclude rational thought. I find that I must consciously resist the urge to downplay the charges against the team. Yet if it were, oh, the hated Indianapolis Colts that committed this infraction, I’d probably be calling for heads. Fans are like that. We really do think every referee’s call against our team is a miscarriage of justice. And a ball that lands outside the lines really does look like it’s in play when your team’s victory depends on it. So, I can admit my biases. Still, damning though the litany of the Patriots’ abuses – dating well before the videotape scandal – may sound, it’s hardly aberrational for today’s NFL. Which points to the bigger problem: Pro football itself. I love the action and the lore, but there’s much about the game not to love: Celebrity egos. Crippling injuries that result in decades of arthritis or worse. Severe head traumas and concussions that can lead some players, like ex-Patriot Ted Johnson, to get early Alzheimer’s. A win-at-all-costs mentality that turns coaches into workaholic, absentee husbands/dads. A billion-dollar industry that’s fueled by and fuels the worst kinds of consumerism and greed. Sleazy halftime shows and sleazier commercials on TV between plays. The games are great, but at what cost? More and more, I feel like the NFL – and the Patriots – are a guilty pleasure. I enjoy watching the games, but I increasingly wonder if I should. I delight in sharing the sport with my young children, and yet I find myself wondering if it’s really a healthy influence. Sports can teach a lot about some important virtues – discipline, sacrifice, sportsmanship, teamwork – but in pro sports today, the NFL in particular, those virtues seem to be increasingly clouded in vice. Still, my loyalty, though tested, endures, at least for the time being. I’ll watch the Patriots’ much-anticipated matchup against the San Diego Chargers tonight, and I’ll root for the red, silver and blue. Old habits and affections die hard. Besides, misery loves company, and now I can connect with millions of fellow Pats fans back East in our shared sense of shame. Plus, in the big scheme of life, it’s only a game, right? And did you see how good this year’s team looks? Chris Weinkopf is the Daily News’ editorial-page editor. He blogs at www.insidesocal.com/friendlyfire, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.orgWant local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!