One of the great things about sports is that they allow you to forget about the tediousness of everyday life, even if only for a few hours a week. On some level, sports serve as a poor man's therapy; a means of escaping the real world, living vicariously through 20-somethings with God-given talents that are both awe-inspiring and depressing. Awe-inspiring because these … kids, are so mesmerizing in their athletic genius; depressing because by comparison, your job will never be that singularly exciting. And that, really, is what distinguishes us -- Joes humping average jobs because that's what Average Joes do -- from them -- athletically gifted souls elevated to deity status because of their physical gifts.
Keeping sports separate from real life is a great coping mechanism for many of us, and for me, it's always a shock when reality creeps in and destroys my conception of Fantasy Island. That's been happening with a lot more frequency in recent months. And I don't like it.
The usual chain of events goes something like this: rumors surface that well-respected sports figure has perpetrated some heinous act against humanity; details are leaked in fits and starts; the truth finally comes to light; said well-respected sports figure plunges to pariah-status in the time it takes the 24-hour news cycle to inundate us with phrases like "dogfighting" and "illegal videotaping"; the sports world is turned upside down; and the fans are left dazed and, well, confused wondering if absolutely nothing is sacred.
The bottom line: sometimes, real life sucks.
I purposely stayed away from the Michael Vick-dogfighting drama because, frankly, I found it utterly depressing, depraved and disheartening. The whole ordeal was too close to the six-o'clock news for my tastes, and I chose to deal with it by not dealing with it.
Then, earlier this week, the New York Jets accused the New England Patriots of illegally videotaping the team's defensive signals during last Sunday's game. Unlike the Vick affair, I didn't immediately tune it out, though. For starters, the purported offense, while shocking, doesn't compare -- on any level -- to the atrocities committed in the Vick case. And although it violated my Fantasy Island rule, there was also the "We got him" Eureka moment that made the potential for Schadenfreude too great to ignore.
Then there were the charges: the sheer brazenness of the allegations were almost enough to make you think no self-respecting sane person would consider -- even momentarily -- perpetrating such a imbecilic act.
But here's the thing: first, it's not clear that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick is sane. As the details slowly emerge, his behavior seems much more sociopathic than rational.
Belichick, or, as I like to call him, the Unabomber, is easy to hate. Winning does that, though. If Belichick, in his current form, won five games a year, he'd be Matt Millen; he may not be a likable sort, but unless you're a fan of the team in question, it's impossible to hate someone who is so utterly inept at his job. If anything, you feel sorry for them. But Belichick is not Millen; he's the anti-Millen. He rubs people the wrong way, doesn't seem particularly fazed by his behavior, and he wins. A lot.
But it's how he wins that is so infuriating. During the 2005 regular season game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Patriots tackle Matt Light went down with broken leg. As is commonly the case, if an injury looks serious, both training staffs will attend to the player. For Belichick, apparently, the health of his team is secondary to revealing any injury details. Unabomber screamed for the Steelers' trainer to get away from his player because, well, Pittsburgh might gain some kind of advantage by knowing the extent of Light's injury. As if the visual evidence -- Light holding his leg and needing to be carted off the field -- wasn't enough to allow the Steelers' staff to figure that out.
Then there are the ridiculously useless press conferences, where Belichick is fond of one-word, monotone non-answers to seemingly innocuous questions. Or worse, his whiny demeanor on the sidelines, particularly if the Patriots are losing.
With this as a backdrop, I found great pleasure in watching Unabomber squirm these past few days. But now that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as meted out the punishment -- a $500,000 fine and a first-, or second- and third-round picks depending on how the Pats finish in the standings -- I'm troubled. Not by the slap on the wrist by the usually no-holds-barred commissioner, but by the reaction of Patriots' fans. For much of the last week, their rallying cry has been some form of: "EVERYBODY IN THE NFL CHEATS. IT'S NO BIG DEAL!!!" In some sense, I can understand the response: it's a defense mechanism. Fair enough, I guess, but how can an entire fan base support a coach who thinks cheating is okay? I mentioned this elsewhere, but it's worth repeating:
"All the machinations Belichick had to go through to pull all of this off … that's a lot of premeditation.
I'm neither Jewish nor Catholic, but guilt is a driving motivator in my life (maybe being a repressed Southern Baptist has everything to do with that ... thankyouverymuch Jerry Falwell). I couldn't live with myself if I knew I had to cheat (or at least felt I had to cheat) to beat my opponents.
I'm half-kidding, but maybe Billy needs a little therapy to deal with his mommy issues."
Yet despite this, New England fans are lining up to defend the guy. A guy, I might add, who would've been fired on the spot if he pulled similar shenanigans at just about any other job on the planet.
And this reaction -- this unwavering denial in the face of the facts -- got me to thinking about the Steelers. Specifically, as a Steelers fan, how would I react -- or how do I think I would react -- if last year, we found out Bill Cowher had employed similar tactics? Or worse, what if following Sunday's Browns beatdown, Romeo Crennel accused Mike Tomlin of illegally videotaping his defensive coaches for in-game gains?
I'll never know for certain, but I have an idea of how I might respond. If it's 2006, and Cowher's hauled before Crime Dog Goodell and found guilty, I'd be sick. I probably wouldn't be burning up the keyboard calling for him to resign -- or, at the very least, for the commissioner or the Rooney's to suspend the hell out of him -- but I'd be thinking it. And under no circumstances (that come to mind, anyway), would I bust out the "hey, everybody's doin' it!" argument. I can understand the rationale for such an argument -- it goes back to the first few paragraphs of this column: life is hard enough without having your sports heroes suffer from fallibility issues. It's a way of dealing, I think … or that's my optimistic take on it, anyway. It very well could be that these fans are jerks, think it's perfectly fine to blatantly cheat to win, and have willingly sold their souls for three Super Bowls. To each his own, I guess.
If Crennel had leveled these charges against Tomlin (something that I can't see ever, ever, ever happening, but just for the sake of discussion), I'd declare the season lost and hope he would resign. If not, I'd pray the Rooney's would can him, acknowledge the mistake, and reassure fans that, to borrow a phrase from the late Bart Giamatti, no one is bigger than the game.
The funny thing is that Belichick scammed his way to three Super Bowl titles doesn't really bother me. He's got to live with those demons, and there's no amount of spinning he can do to convince me that he mistakenly videotaped opposing coaches with the sole intent of deciphering their defensive signals. That's like mistakenly sleeping with somebody who's not your wife -- it doesn't even sound good in theory. What bothers me the most, I think, is that people are so blinded by winning -- and by association, money -- that they're willing to overlook almost anything. It's a sad commentary on real life. Unfortunately, in this case, it's crept into the sacrosanct realm of sports. I just thank God I'm a Steelers fan.
'Thank God I'm a Steelers fan'
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