Friday, September 14, 2007

Patriots "cheating" - punishment meted out, lynch mob dissatisfied

Full disclosure up front:
- I am a big fan of the New England Patriots.
- I am a big fan of Bill Belichick, as a coach.

That out of the way, my last comments on the mountain-out-of-molehill story of the week:

  • The Patriots broke an NFL rule. They should be punished.

  • The Patriots did not "cheat." At least, not that we know of. Had Matt Estrella been in the twelfth row, or the press box, or a private box with his video camera, it would not have violated the rules. There is no rule against looking at the opposing coaches signalling in plays, watching them with binoculars, having observers write them down. There is no expectation of privacy when signalling plays in, in full view of tens of thousands of people. Given that, I say again, the Patriots did not "cheat." They broke the rules. There's a difference.

  • Would I feel the same way if the story were about, say, the Colts? Well, I'd have preferred that, obviously. This is not fun for a Patriots fan. But I don't think I'd be in the lynch mob in that case, either. They have violated a rule that I think is, frankly, silly. It's a rule for the sake of having a rule. I think that, to the extent that signs are stolen, everyone is doing it. I don't believe that I'd feel significantly different if it had been someone else caught with the camera.

  • I do think, though, that the story, and probably the punishment, would have been significantly different. Bill Belichick is a person with tremendous skills, intelligence, and he's fascinating to listen to when talking football. He's well-read and interesting. He's also, apparently, a jerk, or has been on many occasions. There are a lot of people who are thrilled to have an opportunity to play whack-a-mole with him. So we are treated to the "Beli-cheat" headlines, and all of the people that he's beaten over the years revelling in the "well, of course he beat us - he was cheating!" after-the-fact rationalizations. This story is very different if it's the Houston Texans or Minnesota Vikings. And the punishment is, too.

  • Why is the punishment different? Because you don't have the punishment issued by the commissioner after a week of every media member hammering on how tough the commissioner is, and how hard he's going to be on this transgression. The media spent the week ensuring that Goodell had to either hammer the Patriots or get hammered himself.

  • One of the facts of life is that the media operates in both build-them-up and tear-them-down modes. Those are great storylines, and the media is all about the storyline. Starting in 2001, the Patriots were a classic build-them-up story. There was an absolute feeding-frenzy this week, as everyone who had (very understandably) gotten sick of the Patriots jumped on the bandwagon. There was a spiral of competition to see who could come up with the most vitriol, the highest state of moral dudgeon. It was more than a little bit sickening.

  • Some of the people resenting that on WEEI have spent much of the last two years doing exactly the same thing with Barry Bonds. I'm not one of them, and have criticized that behavior. It was no more appropriate or enjoyable when aimed at Bonds than it is aimed at Belichick and the Patriots.

The football pundits are, as a group, enjoying their dudgeon, competing to see who can, most quickly and firmly bemoan the unbelievable leniency of the commissioner in this case.
SI's Don Banks: sounds a little strange to claim that Bill Belichick got off lightly, in terms of the penalty he received from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell for his role in the Patriots' videotaping incident Sunday at Giants Stadium. And yet, I'm still left with the feeling Belichick dodged the worst-case scenario...

SI's Peter King:
I think the Patriots and Bill Belichick got off lucky.'s John Clayton:
The penalty was too light.

Pete Prisco:
This is the integrity of the game we're talking about. Goodell should have come down harder on the coach.

Mike Freeman:
Somewhere Bill Belichick is feeling a stinging sensation near his hand. It's due to the slap on the wrist.

USAToday's Jon Saraceno:
I would have preferred to see Belichick suspended for multiple games, without pay, and banned from headquarters, and for the team to lose a first-round pick

Poppycock. The Denver Broncos cheated when the went over the salary cap to sign John Elway's last contract. They gained an actual competitive advantage and won two Super Bowls. They lost one (1) second (2nd) round draft pick. The idea that what the Patriots have done warrants a worse punishment completely escapes me. This punishment is all out of proportion to the crime.

Rich Hofmann, of the Philadelphia News, on the other hand, gets it:
The embarrassment for Belichick and his owner, Robert Kraft, was already enormous. This set of punishments - especially the forfeiture of the first-round draft choice, just a gigantic penalty, way more than anyone had a right to expect - will assure that no one will ever use a camera again to do what an observant 12-year-old can do almost as well.

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