“This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field.”
— NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots
One question, Commissioner: How on earth can “calculated, deliberate attempts” to engage in dishonest competition not result in a suspension?!?
One of Belichick’s own players was caught cheating the game when he tested positive for banned substances during training camp last month. The punishment for Rodney Harrison’s violation of league rules that prohibit gaining a competitive advantage through artificial means was a four-game suspension without pay. Simple math tells us that Harrison is losing one-fourth of his 2007 salary, missing four of the Patriots’ 16 games. He is alsobarred from the team’s facilities during his suspension, costing him valuable preparation time for when he returns to the team in Week 5. It is a fitting and just punishment.
In the coaching office, however, head coach Bill Belicheater has been fined $500,000 for gaining a competitive advantage through artificial means, which is less than one-eighth of his $4 million-plus salary, and he will not miss a beat when it comes to preparing and coaching his team to victories this season. A fitting and just punishment? Please.
Belicheater positioned a cameraman on the opposing team’s sideline where he could videotape the team’s defensive play-calling signals, which is no less heinous than if he had hired a flown a helicopter over another team’s practice facility and videotaped their game plans. Hell, he may as well have paid a credentialed reporter in the opposing city to watch and take notes during practice, for use in designing effective counter strategy.
In other words, this is not some minor infraction. We’re dealing with the competitive balance of the sport here and it is virtually impossible that this is Belicheater’s first offense. Many of the Patriots’ previous victims are combing through their losses and recalling the Pats’ uncanny prescience when it came to having just the right play called against just the right defense in crucial situations.
Commissioner Goodell, in his second season leading the NFL, has been busy earning a reputation as a tough disciplinarian. He has shown zero tolerance for players in trouble with the law, suspending the Tennessee Titans’ Pacman Jones for an entire season, the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chris Henry for eight games, and the Atlanta Falcons’ Michael Vick indefinitely for their assorted transgressions. Yet when it comes to the Patriots and their institutional espionage — which is far more damaging to the integrity of the league than any individual player’s legal missteps — Goodell has found his soft side.
The commissioner argued that stripping the franchise of a draft pick next year — a first-round pick if the Patriots make the playoffs, a second and third if they don’t — is “more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension.” And while it’s true that forfeited draft picks are one element of an appropriate punishment, what makes Goodell think he’s limited to a choice between A and B? What’s wrong with C? Why not All of the above?
The bottom line is that the Patriots’ cheating may very well have led to wins that would have been losses over the last several years. A truly appropriate punishment would be one that costs the team in the long run (the forfeited draft picks) while also hurting them now, in the same season they were caught red-handed. Having Belicheater serve a two to four game suspension, one in which he is banned from team facilities for the duration — just like Rodney Harrison’s — would cost the Patriots immediately, while simultaneously sending a message to the rest of the league that “fair play and honest competition” really do matter.
Sports personality Bob Frantz is a regular contributor to The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com.