Everyone but the pope has weighed in on the question of Bill Belichick’s honor, or lack thereof. Some may deem that still more proof that only a pretty dumb country could regularly feature so much heat on a subject capable of yielding so little light.
On the other hand, the charm of sport -- and maybe, in the end, what most verifies its usefulness -- is its role as an extended metaphor illustrating our manners, mores, and values. That was the whole idea when the games were first organized and taken seriously. It’s what the Brits had in mind when they feverishly embraced the spectacular notion that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton!”
Ah, so it isn’t just about who won and thereby has the right to cavort and swagger, or who lost and must suffer to be seen as physically or even morally weak. So there is more to it, after all. You mean, in the end it’s about principles and discipline and spirit and character and that something called “sportsmanship” is the glue that holds it all together? What a marvelous notion!
It was on that quite grandiose premise that the monumental growth of the games in the 20th century was joyously received and voraciously indulged to the point where sport shapes the bedrock of every culture under the sun while making a lot of people of dubious worth both very rich and very powerful. That’s why this loud and messy argument about the ethics of a football coach has real meaning and unsuspected depth.
Some argue it’s Belichick’s tough luck to have been the one thus ensnared neither because he is the first to cheat nor the only one now cheating. I emphatically disagree. That it should be Belichick on the griddle is neither unfair nor inappropriate. He’s perfect for the role as well as most deserving.
Football is the national game. That’s something football insists upon and all the polls confirm. The most successful coaches of the NFL, where the game is played to its zenith, are cultural lions as well as absolute despots. No other coach still roaming the NFL’s sidelines better personifies all the complexities of the role than Belichick. He bestrides the game and he’s done so with a decided hauteur bordering on disdain. Moreover, to those to whom much is given much is expected. There’s nothing new about any of that. Still more to the point, Belichick has seemed to be asking for it.
In the days that have followed the incident in the Jets game the indictment of Belichick has spread much beyond the so-called “video-gate” transgression. The list of suspicions is long.
Several coaches have openly wondered why they have so much trouble receiving clear radio signals in Foxborough. Is jamming opponents’ sideline communications another Belichick dirty trick? Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, arguably the country’s most knowledgeable football reporter, thinks so. Mike Wilbon, highly respected columnist of the Washington Post, asserts that in the official league councils, the Patriots “with Belichick leading the way” are seen as “smug, dismissive and manipulative to the highest degree.” Bob Cook, a Chicago football writer, reports that Belichick recently and with notable bitterness tried to intimidate the Vikings to keep them from plucking Patriots off the waiver wire. Skip Bayless, a Dallas columnist, says “several” NFL coaches have told him they suspect the Patriots bug their hotel rooms when they visit Foxborough. Wilbon adds, “Then there’s the matter of Belichick constantly lying about his team’s injuries or refusing to disclose them as the league requires.” That’s been a joke around the NFL for years. Much is being made of his nasty treatment of assistants who move on and his petty condescensions with the media, which should be the least of the concerns.
Around the country he’s getting pounded. “Genius or Phony,” reads a typical headline. “Bellicheat” is the new nickname of choice and it has been emblazoned across the land. In Boston, where deference to His Worship has been axiomatic for seven years, there has been a reluctance to probe details of his conduct, let alone re-examine his attitudes and personality. The Globe has been particularly circumspect. Lord, how we miss Willie McDonough. Still, it’s clear that it’s a new day. On the front page of the Herald, he was branded “a coward.” That is strong stuff and doubtless, to the supremely proud Belichick, rather devastating.
Belichick has been permanently damaged by this. But not in Boston which has become the most parochial sports town in America. It’s amusing to recall how we used to sneer at the yahoos in Gainesville, Florida and Columbus, Ohio and Norman, Oklahoma whose devotion to their silly teams exceeds the bounds of a reasonable allegiance, becoming mindless. We used to think they were hicks. Now we are just like them. “My team right or wrong!” (As long as it remains a winner, of course.) It is a variation on that old and pernicious nationalism that has made such a mess of global geopolitics over the last millennium or so. Our nation can do no wrong! Our team can do no wrong! Both fallacies spring from the same warped mentality.
As long as Belichick keeps conquering he’ll be bigger than ever in this town and it will fast become heresy to dare question his ethics. You got a brilliant illustration of all that just the other night in the dramatic romp over the Chargers. The wave of adulation it inspired sounded like something borrowed from Nuremberg. If he keeps winning, few in this intensely provincial region will want to hear that their coach is some sort of Nixonian twit.
But elsewhere it will be different. There’s anger out there up and down the Republic, folks. I can guarantee it. As for the historical record -- surely very precious to Belichick and even more so to Owner Kraft and his clan -- you can forget it. In the historical record, a big bloody asterisk has been attached to this incipient Patriots “dynasty” and it will be -- I am dead certain -- impossible to erase. If it were only about “video-gate” there would be doubt. But there are all those other issues. Most have made up their minds. He’s played smack into the hands of his foes and they’ll never let him off the hook. Belichick is smart enough to realize all this even as he was arrogant enough to let it happen. That is sure to gnaw at his innards for a long, long time.
It wasn’t the smartest thing he ever said, but Bob Kraft was not entirely off the mark when he initially quipped that the firestorm engulfing his team has been fed by the envy of the teams they’ve been kicking around the last six years. The lead dog is always an easy mark. Resentment breeds nastiness. That’s why ever greater success obliges ever more prudence, no matter what your dodge may be. That’s why you should never stoop to conquer. To his credit, Kraft quickly backed off from the self-pity, swallowed his pride, and acknowledged the error of his coach’s ways. But you can bet the ranch the coach will never do that because he simply doesn’t know where to begin.
And the irony remains that it was all so foolish. Few believe he needed to cheat to win. But he obviously believed that. Otherwise, why would he have done it? The comparisons to the behavior of Richard Nixon, that other misguided zealot who was obsessed with winning at all costs, are fascinating. And like Nixon his problems may have only begun with the botching of a simple little cheating caper gone awry. If that’s the case who would weep, save for those who actually believe that the only thing that matters is winning?