Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The NFL is not invulnerable

Terrific article by Gregg Easterbrook from ESPN.com (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=easterbrook/070918&sportCat=nfl&campaign=rss&source=ESPNHeadlines) discussing why the Bill Belichek "tapegate" scandal is a big deal. It eloquently makes the point I have argued for a long time about folks like Pete Rose - the integrity of the game is the bellcow of a profitable sports league. If people don't think it's a fair competition they're watching, they'll stop watching. And even the NFL, the most profitable league in America, isn't invulnerable from that.

I think NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is taking appropriate steps, although I wish he would have punished Belichek and the Patriots a little harder. Cheating, and being blase and arrogant about it, is a big deal, and should be treated as such for the future health of the league. I don't think this is a major threat to the popularity of the NFL - yet.


The situation with the National Football League is a lot worse than people realize, and the only one who seems to grasp this fully is commissioner Roger Goodell. You don't issue emergency orders backed by threats on Sunday morning of a game day, as Goodell just did regarding the New England Patriots' files of cheating information, unless the situation is a lot worse than people realize.

Why is the situation worse than people think? Because the NFL is on the precipice of blowing its status as the country's favorite sport. The whole NFL enterprise is in jeopardy from that single word: cheating. It's the most distasteful word in sports. And now the Patriots have brought the word into the NFL.

Think the NFL can't decline? Fifteen years ago, the National Basketball Association was going up, up, up by every measure and was widely considered the gold-plated can't-miss "sport of the next century." Since then, NBA popularity and ratings have plummeted while NBA-based teams have floundered in international competition. At the moment of its maximum success, the NBA became overconfident and arrogant in ways that need not be recounted here. Key point: There was no law of nature that said the NBA had to stay popular, and it did not.

Today the NFL is king of the hill in sports status, ratings, merchandising and association with the American psyche. There is no law of nature that says the NFL has to stay popular. Overconfidence and arrogance could be the downfall of the NFL, too – and we might be on that precipice. People will always watch and play football, of course. But nothing guarantees that the NFL's version of football must remain the super-successful money machine that it is today. There could be autumn Sunday afternoons in the near future in which the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn't care less what NFL games are being shown. Fifteen years ago, sports-marketing types would have said "impossible!" to the notion that only 11 percent of American households would watch the NBA Finals, which is what happened this June. Plummeting popularity for NFL broadcasts seems "impossible!" right now, but might happen fast enough to make your head swim.

Criminal behavior by NFL players, haughty owners who demand public subsidies, negative press for the union, coaches who snarl at the public instead of acting grateful for their privileged positions, insufferable egotism from multimillionaire athletes: All these things can be overlooked as long as the games themselves are good. If the games themselves are tainted, the NFL could tumble with amazing speed. And now there is a cheating scandal – cheating by the team that presented itself as the epitome of the sport – which calls the games themselves into question.

First we learn that the Patriots were cheating by using video equipment to steal signs, in blatant violation of league rules. Then we learn that even after the scandal broke and Bill Belichick issued his Nixonian stonewalling statement, the Patriots were still keeping sign-stealing videotapes and notes from past games. Surrender of the tapes and notes was the subject of Goodell's emergency order, first reported by ESPN's Chris Mortensen. Sunday night on NBC's "Football Night in America," Goodell threatened more punishment of the Patriots if all cheating materials aren't surrendered, and repeatedly declared it was imperative that NFL games be fair and equal competition. That's exactly the crux of the threat Belichick has created to the league's golden goose.

Consider the Sunday night contest. New England had played San Diego just four games back, in the January 2007 postseason. Perhaps Belichick's cameraman was illegally taping the Chargers that day, and perhaps Belichick illegally used the information against the Chargers on Sunday night. The San Diego coaching staff has changed since the playoff game, so presumably its defensive calls are different. But San Diego's new defensive coordinator, Ted Cottrell, was defensive coordinator for the Bills and Jets, both AFC East teams, in the Belichick period. Perhaps Belichick has spied on Cottrell's calls before and took out the tapes of the spying rather than handing them over as Goodell demanded. Was New England cheating again Sunday night, when the Patriots advanced the ball with such ease it seemed they knew what defense San Diego would be in?

And the Patriots' cheating might have been more extensive than so far confirmed. Fox Sports reported that former NFL players believe Belichick had microphones installed in the shoulder pads of defensive linemen so the Patriots could tape other teams' offensive audibles and line calls. Needless to say, putting microphones on players violates NFL rules. Andrea Kremer of NBC reported that several teams might charge the Patriots this week with having stolen playbooks from the visitors' dressing room. The convenient "malfunction" of visiting teams' headphones at the Patriots' two fields under Belichick seems to have happened far too often to be an IT department error. The rumor mill says Belichick, Richard Nixon-style, has file cabinets of info on opposing coaches and assistant coaches – some gleaned honestly, some obtained by cheating.

It seems more than just an eerie coincidence that Belichick's unethical behavior involves illicit taping, the same offense that made Nixon's actions so sordid. The parallels to Nixon don't stop there. Caught, Belichick – like Nixon – tried to hide the true extent of the prohibited acts; Belichick – like Nixon – tried to claim his prohibited action hadn't been prohibited; Belichick – like Nixon – immediately stonewalled. It would be tempting to break the unhappy tone of this column with a Nixon joke – when the league plays Belichick's tape of the Jets' sideline, will there be an 18-and-a-half minute gap? But for all lovers of the NFL, there's just nothing to laugh about now.

What else is there about New England cheating that the team or league isn't telling us? Are the Patriots one bad apple, or is cheating common in the league? Worst, did the Patriots cheat in their Super Bowl wins? If New England was cheating in the Super Bowl, this will become the darkest sports scandal since Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox. If you don't think Goodell and all owners, including Robert Kraft of New England, are in abject terror of any possible disclosure that the Patriots were cheating in the Super Bowl, perhaps you just don't understand the situation.

The weasel wording of Belichick's Nixonian statement shows the New England coach full of contempt for the NFL fans, and the NFL enterprise, that made him a wealthy celebrity. Belichick declared that his super-elaborate cheating system was only a "mistake" caused by his "interpretation" of the league's rule. Wait, "interpretation"? The NFL rule bans teams from filming each other's sidelines. There's no room for interpretation, it's a ban! Here's the NFL policy, from a memo sent to all head coaches and general managers Sept. 6, 2006: "Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game." Prohibited. There's nothing there to "interpret." Videotaping opponent's signals even after getting this warning isn't a "mistake," it's cheating. Belichick's cheating was not some casual spur-of-the-moment blunder but rather an elaborate staffed system that took a lot of work to put into place and that Belichick worked hard to hide. And you don't hide something unless you are ashamed of it.

Michael Vick tried to deny and stonewall, but at the last owned up and admitted what he did. That's dignity. Belichick is now using weasel words to deny responsibility for his own choices. What kind of example does that set for the young? "Make good choices," football coaches constantly preach to the young. Now, caught, Belichick wants a special exemption to responsibility for his own choices. Belichick also is trying to close the matter by saying he won't talk about it anymore. So he cheated and now unilaterally declares the matter closed because he doesn't want to face the consequences of his own choices. But this is not over and not going away. Before the cheating scandal, Belichick had a reputation for being heartless but a really good coach. Now, he seems little more than a creepy con artist, and it's the refusal to act like a man and take full responsibility that's really offensive. Goodell's draft-choice penalty against the Patriots – either a first or a second and a third – is the highest draft penalty ever imposed in the NFL. The severity of this sanction shows how seriously Goodell takes the violation. If more disclosures are coming, there might be a lot more punishment of the Patriots. And unless Belichick comes clean and stops lying about his cheating, this event should disqualify him from consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame – it is, after all, not the Hall of Cheaters.

Will Belichick even be in coaching by season's end? When the Vick dogfighting scandal first broke, most football pundits, and most in the Atlanta and league offices, thought there would be few repercussions. Then they thought Vick would have to make some kind of apology. Then they thought he'd need some leave of absence. Then they thought he'd be suspended for a year. Now they wonder whether he'll ever be allowed to play again. By acting Nixonian, Belichick is accelerating his fall from grace. Today, Belichick and New England are trying to pretend the scandal is over. It would not surprise me in the slightest if, before the season ends, Belichick resigns, or is suspended, or is fired by Kraft, or even is permanently barred from the league. Belichick's head might be necessary to preserve the integrity of the game. Surprisingly soon, sacrificing Belichick to save professional football might seem an attractive option, even to Kraft. Remember, there is no law of nature that says the NFL must remain popular.

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