Monday, September 17, 2007

L'Affaire Belichick

To me, the most interesting part of this whole mess is not the fact that the Patriots were systematically videotaping other teams' defensive signals and using them in their playcalling. It's the reaction to the whole thing, and the elements that have been sidestepped in favor of the fecal matter cyclone over the silliest bits of it all.

If Paul Zimmerman's allegations over at SI are true - namely, that the Patriots interfere with other teams' headsets at convenient times - then that's serious. That's an unfair advantage, and seeing as much of the NFL's momentum is built on legal wagering, the one thing the league cannot afford is the appearance of unfair games. Drug addicts, wife beaters, guys who try to run over cops with their SUVs, you name it - all of these are fine, but once the outcome of the games is seen to be in doubt, then the gambling money is going to dry up, and with it, a huge chunk of the interest. No wonder, then, that Dr. Z's allegations haven't been repeated much.

But most of the media squawking has been over either the punishment that Roger Goodell doled out, or other weirdness. For those calling for Belichick to be suspended, I suggest that you get real. Even if he were banned from the sideline and the complex for a week, is there the slightest doubt that he'd somehow find a way to be in constant communication with the team right up to and including gameday? A suspension might have eaten up a few of his off-peak minutes, but that's about it.

The real fun, though, comes from the good and loyal defenders of the Patriots, led of course by the now completely demented Bill Simmons. Simmons has been drinking his own Kool-Aid, made with water shipped out to his LA man-cave from the mouth of the Charles, and somehow has found a way to blame Eric Mangini for the whole mess. Mangini's sin, apparently, is failing to adhere to some weird Patriots code of omerta known only to grinning wannabes who've inhaled the Godfather trilogy too many times while wishing they could grow a colonial-style ponytail like the guy on the Sam Adams bottles. Bill, bubeleh, let me explain this to you. Mangini was the guy who got spied on. The one who got screwed. The fact that he shook Belichick's hand after the game - remember, something Bill initially refused to do back in the day - isn't a betrayal, it's a poker face. You know, poker. That thing you keep on bragging about playing in Vegas. In the end, it doesn't matter. At this point, you either read Simmons for the shtick that he's a real-life escapee from Everybody Loves Raymond, or you got tired of the one-joke routine a while ago and simply check him out for the train wreck factor.

The eloquent Chad Finn, over at TATB, takes the eminently more reasonable approach that no matter what, this is going to take the shine off the Patriots' accomplishments of the last few years, as well it should. Yes, Belichick is a great coach. Yes, they've been a great team. But the fact is, they got caught cheating, and one of the penalties of cheating is that you no longer get the benefit of the doubt. You burn your goodwill. It's that simple. That being said, Finn goes on to raise the classic schoolyard excuse of "everyone else is doing it. Or might be doing it. Or would do it, if they thought they could get away with it."

To which I say, well, maybe, but Belichick got caught. He got caught because he was arrogant, because he was obvious, and because he kept doing it even after a warning that might as well have come gift-wrapped and carried by a phalanx of saran-wrapped strippers. The NFL did everything in its power to avoid catching Belichick cheating, because they didn't want to have to do anything about it, but he forced their hand. There may be other cheaters out there, but they haven't been caught, and until they're caught, Bill's on the island by himself.

Hopefully, he'll stay that way, though I doubt it. There's too much money at stake in the NFL, and the league winks at too many serious infractions in favor of punishing the freakshows like Pac-Man Jones. I'm far more concerned with players being rushed back out onto the field with concussions, or Defensive Players of the Year who test positive for steroids but who win awards anyway than I am about the Patriots doing their own little version of The Echoing Green.
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