Why Bill Belichick’s Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime

During last Sunday’s opener of the National Football League (NFL) season, the New England Patriots were caught videotaping signals of their opponent, the New York Jets.

Thursday night, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined Patriot’s coach Bill Belichick $500,000. In addition, the team will forfeit a draft pick; and the Patriot organization will pay an additional fine of $250,000.

The punishment is far too light.

Over my thirty year career as a professor, I have had to deal with my share of clear-cut cases of cheating by students. Adjudicating these cases is never pleasant or easy. However, I’ve had two principles to help guide me in these cases—I do not move to the penalty phase until there has been adequate opportunity for the cheater to sincerely accept responsibility for his or her behavior. In my experience, without an acceptance of responsibility the student does not cooperate and has no possibility for redemption. Secondly, the very minimum penalty is that the student gets no credit for any questionable work.

Given this, let’s return to the insignificant penalty imposed on the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick. Keep in mind that this is a team that has won three Super Bowl championships in recent years, and they have been suspected of cheating for many years.

There are many accounts of Belichick’s abusive, unsportsmanlike, and cheating behavior. His crimes have been rewarded by the organizational culture in which he works. Many have charged that the Patriots operate by the principle, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Apparently winning is all that matters to the Patriots.

NFL policy prohibits videotaping opposing coaches giving signals. Last year, the NFL’s Ray Anderson sent a memo to teams reminding them of their obligation to abide by that rule. The New York Times reports that “the memo is believed to have been generated in part by suspicions that the Patriots had videotaped coaches at several games last season.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote to the Patriots: “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.”

This is part of Belichick’s response:

As the commissioner acknowledged, our use of sideline video had no impact on the outcome of last week’s game. We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress.

Part of my job as head coach is to ensure that our football operations are conducted in compliance of the league rules and all accepted interpretations of them. My interpretation of a rule in the constitution and bylaws was incorrect.

Belichick claims his infraction was a matter of interpretation. Does that sound like a man who is accepting responsibility?

And what of Belichick’s claim that his cheating did not affect the outcome? Goodell did indeed claim that because the tape was seized early in the game, the outcome was not affected.

Of course this is an absurd rationalization. A game is emergent; any sequence of plays can affect the whole in unpredictable ways. In any case, that Belichick was caught early in the game is of no relevance. It is like a burglar, caught by the police as he is breaking into a home, arguing that his crime was inconsequential.

In almost every single plagiarism case that I have encountered, acceptance of responsibility is neither immediately nor easily obtained. Yet a professor has obligations not only to uphold professional standards for the school, but also to facilitate a non-trivial punishment for the cheater—one that allows for redemption and growth. Goodell, as a public leader, has even more of an obligation to do the same.

Here is what I would recommend. In addition to the penalty imposed, the Patriots should forfeit last week’s game—there should be no credit for questionable work. The Commissioner should hire an impartial investigator with subpoena power to question officials and players in the Patriot’s organization. Should evidence be found of cheating during other games, those games should be forfeited too.

Belichick should be suspended and required to spend time being coached by a living master of principle-centered coaching. Such a person is former UCLA coach, John Wooden. Wooden is a man whose coaching record will likely never be equaled and he accomplished that by putting principles first.

There are many who believe that cheating is a necessary aspect of sports and that critics should lighten up. Such beliefs are a sad refection of society-at-large. Those beliefs are a lie. They denigrate the accomplishments of every champion and coach who puts principled behavior first. A win is transitory, but what we value lives forever.

John Wooden, Hank Aaron, Roger Bannister, Bobby Jones, and legions of other principle-centered champions, known and unknown, have understood that wins which inspires others can be only be achieved through integrity. These champions didn’t compromise their values, for they knew that a life lived with integrity is far more important than winning.


10 Responses to Why Bill Belichick’s Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime

  1. Skate says:

    The sad part of this penalty is that it does not address the real problem. To understand the Belichick approach to winning Is that you push the rule book to the limit. Thats why they have won 3 championships. They are the NFL darlings, and never get penalized like other teams for the exact same infraction. During the first two playoff games against the Colts, I have never witnessed more defensive holding in one game in my life, than the Patriots did to the Colts. This was by design. Belichick knew the officials would never disrupt the flow of the game by throwing constant flags, and they did not. This allowed the Patriots to take a victory from a superior team! He is only a genius, when it comes to his interpretation of the rules. He knows how much he can bend them. Even when a new rule is made just for him (videotaping) He understands the risk/reward value and knows just what he can get away with! So even when the NFL says absolutely no video taping, he tests them on the very first game of the season. Will this be the last infraction from Belichick. No!!! he will find another loop hole and exploit it. He may even video tape again, but next time he will not be caught!

  2. Belichick is only the most visible symbol of the win at any cost mentality. Today the New York Times ran a story on high school players being pressured by this mentality, coaches and even their own parents, to play with concussions. See http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/15/sports/football/15concussions.html

  3. Ariel says:

    I appreciate your recent posts, Barry. Your assessments on what is wrong in the world of sports, airlines, business, and the economy, are spot on and are timely reflections of a larger, society-wide problem.

    Belichick’s punishment does not fit the crime and that allows the rest of us to continue to blithely ignore the erosion of ethics, integrity, and personal responsibility that is so prevalent today. Thanks for the reminder of those great sports heroes who not only played to win, but held themselves to the higher standard of winning and losing with integrity! They are truly examples worth emulating.

  4. Thanks Ariel. The trend is indeed alarming. Fred Kofman explains that:

    Most people believe that happiness is an outcome, a result that accrues to the winner. This is just not true. Although the outcome is important, happiness depends more on the process. Happiness comes from integrity rather than success, from behavior in alignment with essential values rather than winning or losing. If you want to do business (or sports) consciously, you need to enact the universal virtues of wisdom, courage, love, justice, temperance, and transcendence and seek success beyond success.

  5. Bob Gast says:

    For the most part, integrity is an atrribute that goes unnoticed when it is a core part of an organization’s (or individual’s) daily operations or way of doing business.

    Much like a goalie in soccer who is most noticed when a goal is scored, the focus of integrity tends to become an issue when we see a lapse of it. The attention to the issue of integrity and ethics seems to go immediately from non-existense to 24/7 coverage when there is a lapse (Hewlett-Packard, Enron, WorldCom-MCI, Belichek, Barry Bonds-Baseball steroids…). There is then restrospective analysis work that seeks to segregate symptoms from root causes. A collectively short attention span in the aggregate results in extreme over-reactions that allows us to get back to business as normal with the belief that we have dealt with and corrected the problem.

    In the long term, organizational frameworks and professed individual codes of conduct will only result in the illusion of reform until such time that we collectively learn to value the quiet benefits of integrity over the loud publicity of winning. Ironically, without the former, the value of the latter becomes pointless.

    Bob Gast

  6. Exactly Bob! Without integrity winning is hollow. Yet the winning at any cost mentality is so strong, that even in non-tournament golf we see a need that some players have to “cheat” their score down by not counting some strokes.

  7. […] I read Fleming’s words, I couldn’t help but recall my last blog post on Bill Belichick. Belichick’s ambition, in Fleming’s terms, is not driven by the need to develop one’s gifts; […]

  8. Diane says:

    Barry if you’re so righteous where is your proof on this statement that you made.

    “There are many accounts of Belichick’s abusive, unsportsmanlike, and cheating behavior. His crimes have been rewarded by the organizational culture in which he works. Many have charged that the Patriots operate by the principle, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.” Apparently winning is all that matters to the Patriots”

    If you’re going to make a claim(s) you must have the proven facts to back it up and if you don’t then your words are falsely spoken and could ruin someone’s reputation. No one has the right to do that to another person. If you knowingly write or speak falsely about another you are defaming ones character, and you have become a known liar. I’m astonished that you are a professor, but then again I’m not. Professors and teachers use to influence us to be truthful and respectful. I’m sure you expect this from your students even though your sending out mixed messages to them. Remember this:There certainly can be conflict between types of integrity, particularly where the demands of a profession interfere with personal and moral integrity. This can be a very thin line.

  9. Diane,

    There are many types of writing. There is academic writing for journals or books where “claims” are footnoted and then there is informal writing such as my blog.

    For this post I read numerous articles about Belichick’s behavior in the New York Times and other sources.

    I assure you that Belichick’s reputation is already ruined and that I had nothing to do with it. His conduct ruined his reputation. My post is simply a report on that.

  10. Dk says:

    i think he shoulb be kicked out of the nfl organization

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: