Who let the air out? And why do we all seem to care so much?

The most tweeted and talked about news of the week has been that the New England Patriots may have cheated Sunday while winning a berth in the Super Bowl. They are accused of letting the air out of balls to gain a better grip. Sports fans seem to be taking this very personally.

We see cheating at high levels all the time: Politicians break laws to stay in power; celebrities cheat on their spouses; Bernie Madoff and other financial wizards cheat their way to wealth.

But sports is supposed to be different. In politics and business, people and companies bend the rules to win. On the playing field, the winner is crowned purely on talent and strategy.

Right?

America’s state religion, for practical purposes, is sports. We hold sports stars to a higher standard when it comes to playing fair, even though we know on a rational level that they cheat, too. Just look at the steroids scandal in baseball for proof.

But we want our sports stars to say it ain’t so.

“One of the most important reasons people watch sports is to gauge their own self-esteem. When their team wins they feel better, and if something tarnishes a win – like cheating – it’s a blow to their self-esteem,” said William Gayton, chairman of the psychology department at the University of Southern Maine, who focuses on sports psychology. “People identify so strongly with their teams. If the teams win, they win.”

And we, as a society, are obsessed with winning. Just win, baby. Winning is the only thing. Nice guys finish last. We’ve heard versions of these mantras all our lives.

OBSESSION WITH WINNING BREEDS UGLINESS

The idea of the Patriots cheating may be especially irritating to people who see the team as the privileged kid who gets away with everything. They’ve won three Super Bowls since 2002 and are perennial winners, and opposing fans look for a reason to hate them.

“The thing that strikes me the most about it is this need to win, to be a winner, and it’s just awful,” said Rabbi Carolyn Braun, of Temple Beth El in Portland, who is a baseball fan. “We talk about how there are winners, and there are losers. I think it’s kind of dangerous, how that (hyper-competitiveness) has bled into other things, like how people talk about minorities or immigrants ‘stealing’ their jobs.”

The basic fact of the “Deflategate” controversy is this: NFL sources have told national news outlets that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the first half of Sunday’s AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts were under-inflated, meaning they had less air than required under league rules.

Big deal, a non-sports fan might say. But to a sports fan who sees the games as an escape from everyday troubles, it’s a huge deal.

“People look to sports for so many things, for a deflection of their own problems, for heroes, to see what leadership looks like. We are a society that loves to elevate people to hero status, and we take a great interest when they fall,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of The Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “When we find that these heroes have the same human fallibility as the rest of us, we overblow those instances.”

ROLE MODELS, AND CHILDREN ON CHEATING

The idea of cheating, for most of us, starts out as a very black-and-white issue. We’re taught in grade school that cheating is bad, don’t do it, period.

Several fifth-graders at the East End Community School in Portland gave answers their parents would be proud of when asked about cheating at recess Wednesday.

“Cheaters never win,” said 10-year-old William Lobor. “So what’s the point of cheating if you’re not a winner on the inside?”

Shai Knight, 11, agreed.

“If I cheated, I wouldn’t feel like I was actually a winner,” she said.

But as we get older and the ideals of the schoolyard are diluted by the realities of a harsh world, we learn phrases like “gain a competitive edge” or “looking for any advantage.” In baseball, players steal signs. In football, players used to use a sticky substance as powerful as Krazy Glue to help them catch balls, before it was outlawed.

One of the teachers at East End Community School, Mat Brown, played college baseball. He can see how there might be a fine line between competitiveness and cheating, as players feel pressure to win.

“In sports, players are always trying to gain that edge. I’ve read now where (other quarterbacks) over-inflate the balls to get the grip they want,” said Brown, 42. “How far can people push the limits and get away with it?”

Brown said he planned to talk to his third-graders about Deflategate and about cheating. He worries about the influence that pro football players caught cheating or bending the rules can have on so many young minds and hearts.

“Whether they like it or admit it, they are role models,” Brown said. “I know from doing baseball camps that the kids look up to players, and I was just a college player.”

Staff Photographer Shawn Patrick Ouellette contributed to this report.