September 20, 2007

Patriots and Belichick Cast Black Eye on Sports World

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“If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.”
Should the Philadelphia Eagles be sporting Super Bowl XXXIX rings right now? (YES!) Sure, I’m biased, but it seems that after last week’s fiasco that revealed Patriots head coach Bill Belichick was using sideline video spying tactics in a game against the New York Jets, most of the NFL is asking the same question: did we deserve to win?
As much as I would love to go back to that fateful January day in 2005, unfortunately, the past is the past. However, that hasn’t stopped fans and players alike from looking back to a game where it seemed as though the Patriots knew every play at the snap. And now, I guess we know it didn’t just seem that way; they probably did.
Conveniently, I was in Boston this past weekend and was able to get a sense of how Patriots fans feel about the latest sports debacle striking home. To their credit, they stood by the team and Bill. Not that I promote cheating, but if something like this happened in Philly, I’d definitely be disappointed but I wouldn’t give the Eagles or Andy Reid the cold shoulder. After all, as LaDainian Tomlinson so eloquently stated, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Anyway, the Patriots still annihilated the Chargers on Sunday, presumably without any sly cameramen on the prowl and the Eagles still lost on Monday night, also, presumably (and hopefully) without cheating.
Perhaps what is most shocking about this whole incident is that it’s not that shocking at all anymore. After a summer tainted by names like Michael Vick, Tim Donaghy and Barry Bonds and article after article riddled with words like human growth hormone, steroids, dog fighting (seriously?) and betting, what sports fan is truly surprised by this latest catastrophe? They should really form a support group for all the commissioners (who are probably not entirely innocent themselves) who clearly don’t know how to deal with the spotlight shining so unceremoniously all over them. Recall David Stern at the Donaghy press conference or Bud Selig when Bonds hit home run number 755.
Many people are wondering how this Belichick cheating scandal will affect the NFL. Well, for one, the other coaches (and there are probably other coaches) who have been using similar tactics are going to curb their sleazy ways, at least until people have sufficient time to forget all about what the Patriots hope will be a minor blip on their otherwise successful resume. That will probably happen when the next embarrassing sports controversy takes over ESPN’s headlines. (By my count, it looks as though the NHL is next in line, so watch your back, Gary Bettman ’74.)
The real question is not how severely Coach Belichick should be punished or whether the Patriots deserve their reputation as one of the best teams in the NFL (much to my chagrin). Rather, I think the real question is what needs to be done to clean up the world of professional sports. Everyone knows the system sucks but most sports fans are willing to ignore the B.S. in exchange for immediate athletic entertainment. How long can we continue having unwarranted faith in a commitment to the unwritten (and written) rules of sportsmanship that are clearly falling so painfully short?
As long as staggeringly large sums of money are involved, it’s going to be hard for the professional sports world to clean up its somewhat tiring act. It’s easy to pass judgment from afar, but the kinds of reforms that will actually work are probably unrealistic, at least in the short term. Sure you can ban cameramen from shooting on certain parts of the field and test for anabolic steroids or HGH, but how do you ensure that referees aren’t calling games so they can win a bet or prevent overpaid quarterbacks from senselessly killing their dogs? The lack of a cure-all remedy definitely casts a grim shadow over the thrill of watching your favorite game. But in the end, fans have been accepting this sort of unforgivable behavior for decades and they’ve, well, forgiven it. Why should now be any different?
Maybe the solution doesn’t lie with the owners, GMs, coaches and athletes, but instead, with the fans. The fans are the ones paying their hard earned dollars to support these teams, so perhaps it should be the fans who raise the bar and force the franchises they support to perform at a higher, more dignified, more sportsmanlike standard of conduct.
Or maybe, the Eagles should just start cheating too, so they can finally win the Super Bowl they should have won three years ago … or maybe so they can just start, um, winning?