By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 14, 2007
Coach Bill Belichick picked the absolute worst time to cheat, or more to the point, the worst time to get caught cheating. Of course, the New England Patriots aren't the only team that has spied on opponents to gain a competitive advantage. But the Patriots, with Belichick leading the way, already were perceived in a great many football circles as smug, dismissive and manipulative to the highest degree, and they got caught cheating at a time when the boss of the NFL, Roger Goodell, has declared zero tolerance on anything that reflects negatively on the product.
Word late last night was that Goodell had decided on the Patriots' punishment, which wasn't nearly as severe as many were hoping for, or as it could have been. If Goodell can hand out multiple-game suspensions in the name of protecting the integrity of the NFL, then he ought to have hit Belichick with something more than a $500,000 fine, and the Patriots with half that big a fine and perhaps a couple of draft picks. No single pro football player, even one pumped up on steroids, has the impact on a football game that a coach does.
Goodell should have sat Belichick for a game, should have flexed like he has with the players and dished out a punishment that would serve as a deterrent. This isn't, and it's disappointing in the context of his get-tough commissionership.
There's not much of a case to be made on behalf of leniency for the Patriots. The New York Jets' veteran director of security, a former FBI agent, caught them with the unethically obtained videotape. Belichick already has issued one of those phony celebrity apologies that tries to mitigate the circumstances. In another place and time, Belichick probably would have gotten off with a frown and a scolding.
But not now. There's context to everything and the NFL helped create that context. The NFL decided lawless times called for extreme measures, and if there's no tolerance for players to bring into question the integrity of the league, then there should be no tolerance for coaches doing it. As Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer told reporters in Cincinnati the other day, "I hope the commissioner is just as harsh on [management] as he's been on individual players for making mistakes."
It's one of those cases where the league could have justified making the punishment bigger than the crime. The Patriots, if this is all Goodell does, appear to have dodged the perfect storm.
A good number of people already resent the team because they've won three Super Bowls, because they seem to embrace the notion that they're better and smarter and more resourceful than everybody else in the NFL. While the Patriots aren't the source, there are nonetheless no shortage of reports about how superior of character the coaches and players are. Yet there's the matter of Belichick constantly lying about his teams' injuries or refusing to disclose them as the league requires. Belichick thumbs his nose at the league's silly dress code for coaches by wearing those hideous hooded sweatshirts during games. At one point, after winning the three Super Bowls, Belichick wouldn't speak the name of his recently departed lieutenant, Eric Mangini, who dared leave to coach the Jets.
It certainly didn't help the Patriots that the flap involved the Jets and got the New York media all fired up and looking for revenge. If the Patriots had been playing Jacksonville, there wouldn't have been a peep out of the media in New York, where the outrage started.
But this is just the latest episode for Belichick and the Patriots, not the first. The Patriots have been playing fast and loose for years. Paul Zimmerman, the veteran football writer for Sports Illustrated, recounts meetings between league coaches and executives in which they swap stories about their headsets being sabotaged while playing in New England and other signal-stealing anecdotes.
Okay, gaining a competitive advantage is part of sports, right? Signal stealing is a romanticized part of major league baseball. The big problem is that the NFL declared this kind of espionage against the league's rules and Goodell warned teams about it. The Patriots had previously been caught doing the same thing to the Packers. So, in essence, Belichick went right ahead with his video spying. He knowingly violated a league rule, both in spirit and letter. So Belichick needed to go down and go down hard. As the Steelers' Hines Ward said, "Hopefully [the penalty] will be stiff enough that no one else will try it."
Ward will find out officially today Belichick got a nudge, not a pop.
While the coach needs to bear the brunt of the punishment, Robert Kraft, probably the league's most respected owner, should have been hit much harder, too, whether or not he had direct knowledge. He's on the wrong end of what the NCAA used to call "a lack of institutional control."
Usually, fining billionaires means nothing. But look at the $100 million fine Formula One levied against the McLaren team yesterday for spying on and obtaining secret technical documents belonging to its rival, Ferrari. You think McLaren's going to try that again? Had the Patriots been hit with a fine one-tenth of that, $10 million, Kraft would have banned his coaches from videotaping their own sideline. He'd have every piece of electronic equipment in Foxboro trashed.
But Goodell didn't apply the muscle to management he did to labor. He was awfully aggressive (and perhaps justifiably so) with the likes of Chris Henry and Tank Johnson and Adam "Pacman" Jones, but pulled his punch when it came time to fight with one of the fair-haired guys in management.
Normally, I tune out Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter completely, but he made a great point the other day when he told reporters in Miami: "People take a supplement that has a little more than caffeine in it and they call that cheating and suspend you for four games for that? But these guys are videotaping our signals from the sideline? New England went from not being a good team to being a powerhouse. Now I have a question."
Dan Le Batard, writing in the Miami Herald, says that the people who spent much of the summer in outrage over Barry Bonds's chase of the home run record owe Belichick the same treatment because they've both cheated the game. I'm not willing to go that far because steroids are illegal. Still, it's a fair question.
The Dolphins' Jason Taylor brought some balance to the debate when he said: "Stealing signs is not the same as changing the hormone levels in your body in a game that is built on speed, power and quickness. I'm not condoning the cheating part of it, but they are two different things."
But we can agree, hopefully, that both things are bad for pro football and for competition, especially at the highest level. We don't know exactly how much steroid or HGH use helps a slugger and we don't know exactly how much spying hurts an opponent.
Please, stop with the notion that the spying didn't help at all. If it didn't help, why did the Patriots keep doing it?
What we're finding out from the firestorm that has ensued is that even if the punishment is weak, there nonetheless is a taint on cheaters and this time it's Belichick's previously lofty reputation that's taking a big and justifiable hit.