Most football coaches have a shelf life about as long as mayonnaise on a radiator, and few have been celebrated quite as much as Bill Belichick has. The head coach of the three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots has led his team to a remarkable seventy-nine wins in the last six years.
Belichick is famous for not only his coaching acumen but also for his disdain of the media, a unique blend of contempt and ennui. If Barry Bonds were a 55-year-old balding white guy in an oversized sweatshirt with a muffin top hanging over his belt, he would be Bill Belichick. And just as with Bonds, the years Belichick spent trashing the media have finally caught up with him.
The press has been barbecueing Belichick over the sporting briquettes because a Patriots employee was caught videotaping the defensive signals of New York Jets coaches on the sidelines of last week’s NFL opener. Word is the NFL had been prompted to monitor Belichick and the Patriots because so many teams had complained in the off season that last season the Patriots had blatantly videotaped their coaches. As Sports Illustrated‘s Phil Taylor wrote, “Maybe if this were the first example of odd, rather classless behavior from Belichick, it would be easier to dismiss….He may be part genius, but he’s also part jerk.” In the second half of the game, the Patriots outscored the Jets 24-7.
Former Chicago Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka, interviewed about the taping on the DC radio show The Sports Reporters, said, “For anyone who saw that game, in the second half, the Patriots seemed to know every time the Jets were going to blitz and they just picked them apart.”
Now Belichick, the genius, looks like a real jerk. He’s been fined $500,000, the Patriots another $250,000 and either a first-round pick (if the team makes the playoffs) or a second- and third-rounder (if they don’t). NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, after studying the videotape in question, called out Belichick for “a calculated and deliberate attempt” to violate the spirit and letter of the NFL rules.
The irony is that this year the Patriots have perhaps the most talented team in the league with the addition of superstar wide receiver Randy Moss. This has left NFL officials mystified about why Belichick would risk his reputation for a to get an edge against an inferior team like the Jets. As one NFL official told Sports Illustrated football writer Peter King, “It’s like, why did Nixon need Watergate? He was going to win the ’72 election in a landslide anyway. And why does this guy with such a great team need to be doing penny-ante stuff against the rules anyway?”
Watergate is an interesting parallel to the Patriots’ situation. Richard Nixon came from humble beginnings, with a chip on his shoulder, feeling forever victimized by people of privilege. Belichick is a rare coach who neither played the game as a pro nor attended a power football school. After attending Annapolis High School, he spent a year at the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He then graduated from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. That feeling of never quite belonging, of constantly mistrusting the “in crowd” might have driven Belichick to cheat as it drove Nixon.
Belichick now finds himself caught in that grey area that exists between the ethics of sport and the hard-knuckle realities of winning at all costs. Publicly, we are told that “Winners never cheat and cheaters never win.” But in sports, it’s “If you aren’t cheating, then you’re not trying hard enough.” Bobby Thompson, who hit the famous home run in 1951 that lifted the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers, revealed in 2001, with a chuckle, that they were stealing signs that day. People were horrified. We want the right to suspend belief that cheating for most pro coaches, is just strategy under a different name.
“What Belichick did is classic gamesmanship. No matter the sport, someone’s always looking for the extra edge,” wrote Jason Cole for Yahoo Sports. “It’s no different than in baseball when coaches try to steal signs or when batters wipe out the backline of the batter’s box so they can set up a couple of inches deeper against hard throwers.”
Cole may be right. And maybe Sports Illustrated‘s Paul Zimmerman is correct in saying that we excuse “Blue collar cheating” with scuffing a ball or reading a coach’s lips,” but are offended by the higher-tech violations, like an athlete optimizing performance with human growth hormone or coaching staff videotaping opponents.
Pro sports is a zero-sum game, a trillion-dollar business that offers glory and riches for those who can produce victories and the scrap heap for everyone else. Owners–and many fans–are so obsessed with winning that they could care less “how you play the game.”
The question of what is or isn’t cheating in this era of technology-driven sportsmanship is murkier than a London fog. But at some point there has to be a bright line drawn on the turf between playing every angle to win and undermining the integrity of the game. Bill Belichick and the Patriots organization have crossed that line. All fans– especially the fans of New England–should let them hear it every Sunday until the season’s end.