How do you solve a problem like Billghazi?
If the NFL concludes the New England Patriots intentionally deflated 11 of the 12 footballs—heretofore known as a “Belichick’s Dozen”—used during Sunday’s AFC Championship Game defeat of the Indianapolis Colts, what should the punishment be?
First, before anything else occurs, the National Football League needs to film a public service announcement featuring former A-list actors holding deflated footballs, weeping and beseeching, “No more.” Next, the league must revisit its football inspection policy. Cupping the pigskin from below and then saying “Cough” is clearly insufficient.
After those measures are taken? If the Patriots are guilty, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell needs to ban New England coach Bill Belichick. At the very least, Goodell needs to ban Belichick for Super Bowl XLIX on February 1, and then he should determine how many more games the suspension should cover.
Listen, I get it: The Patriots won 45-7 last Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the venue’s name is the only suggestion that it was a close shave. Tom Brady and Gronk and the rest of the team would’ve beaten Indianapolis tossing a rugby union ball. That is hardly the point. Not even close.
To argue that the under-inflation, or deflation, of the Patriot footballs had no effect on the outcome of the game is to imply that cheating is a necessary evil. It’s tantamount to equating cheating to poor weather or injuries or the fact that I picked the Colts to win. Cheating is not a necessary evil, though; it’s a scourge. To argue that “everybody does it” is to condone it.
The amusing aspect of Billghazi and Spygate is that Belichick, 62, the man at the helm in New England since 2000, doesn’t need to cheat. He is an outstanding coach, arguably the greatest football coach of the 21st century. But, entering a home playoff game armed with one of the all-time stellar quarterbacks, Brady, and the ineffable dynamo that is Gronk (tight end Rob Gronkowski), he allegedly ordered some hapless minion to deflate a dozen or so footballs in order to gain—what is the term?—an advantage.
First there was Spygate, of which Belichick was found guilty. The Patriots were docked a few draft picks, and Belichick was fined $500,000. Now there is this alleged malfeasance. And who knows what else betwixt? Belichick does not cheat because he feels that it is his team’s only chance to win. Belichick cheats because he is addicted to the thrill of gaining an advantage over his opponent, ethics be damned. He’s the millionaire who cannot bear to watch even a T-ball game unless he has $10 on it. He’s Thrill Bill.
Which is unfortunate, because, as the titular head of an NFL franchise, he is accountable for the behavior of that team on the field. This is a coach who, five days after one of his players rushed for 201 yards in a game (at Indianapolis!), effectively sat that player (Jonas Gray) for the remainder of the season for oversleeping for a Friday practice. Gray immediately apologized—and blamed a dead cellphone battery—but Belichick cast him out as a pariah for the remainder of the Pats’ Super Bowl run. Gray has rushed for an average of 10 yards per game in the eight games since that mishap and has sat out half of them, though he is fully healthy.
Belichick’s interpretation of integrity regarding following the rules seems rather obvious, no? He had no problem imposing a draconian punishment against someone whose actions, in Belichick’s mind, threatened the sanctity of his team. I imagine you are three steps ahead of me here...
You’re going to hear pundits and fans telling you to quit being so naive, but almost all of them will be Patriots fans. The formula works thusly: deny guilt for as long as it is possible that your side may be innocent. Then, if your side is found guilty, either point out a flagrant violation of rules or law by some other party or cynically inform your accuser that this is how the real world works and that they need to quit being so naive.
It’s far simpler than that: Sports, and I am referring only to the games themselves, is the one haven in life where the concept of fair play is presumed as an inviolable concept. When Crash wins the Oscar for Best Picture, we understand there is an agenda behind it. When FIFA awards Qatar the World Cup, we smirk at the chutzpah of soccer oligarchs.
The games themselves, however, should never be compromised. Not by players who might be willing to fix them nor by coaches who cheat. An epic contest like Sunday’s Green Bay-Seattle game loses all value if we discover the outcome was in any way scripted or if one team knowingly operated outside the rules. And to those who offer the lame bromide “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’,” I can only respond, “You ain’t cheatin’ very well if you are getting caught.”
And the best way to avoid getting caught cheating? It’s foolproof: don’t cheat.
Belichick, as everyone knows, orchestrated a sophisticated system of cheating in the past. Does anyone at the league office understand head coaches? They are massive egotists. Bill Belichick has been to five Super Bowls, and he has taken teams there with a sixth-round quarterback (Brady) and an undrafted wide receiver (Wes Welker). Would a few surrendered draft picks or even a $1 million fine deter him?
Of course not. The NFL has only one chip it can play, only one item of value that it can take away from Belichick that he would truly miss: the status of being an NFL coach. Roger Goodell needs to strike at Belichick where he lives: his ego.
Ban Bill for the Super Bowl…and beyond. That would let the air out of his reputation.