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.