Monday, September 17, 2007

Roger Goodell and Bill Belichick – Goodell stands by his decision

After spending most of the day listening to National Football League media pundits assail his disciplinarian slap on the wrist in response to Bill Belichick and the football operations department of the New England Patriots being caught cheating last Sunday during their season opening game against the New York Jets, NFL commissioner Goodell put on a brave front Sunday night when he agreed to appear at the end of NBC’s pre-game show.

Other than in the heart of Patriot Nation (and even many in New England believe Belichick wasn’t punished) Goodell’s decision to take away the Patriots 2008 first round draft pick (assuming the Patriots make the playoffs), fine Belichick $500,000 and fine the Patriots $250,000 was far to lenient for persona Goodell has established for himself – a no nonsense commissioner ready to bring the hammer down on anyone who causes any damage to the image of the National Football League.

How tough was Goodell’s Sunday – this comment from former Cincinnati Bengal and current NBC commentator Chris Collinsworth opened NBC’s football broadcast Sunday evening. "I think Commissioner Roger Goodell blew this one. Bill Belichick should have been suspended without question. The violation of the league rules occurred in this football season and yet the punishment hit only their wallets and future draft choices. There is nothing that impacted this season. He should have been suspended for at least the Jets game because that's where the violation occurred and, in my opinion, a playoff game. This was a great opportunity for the Commissioner to lay down the law like he's done with the players and he didn't do it."

"I don't agree with that. I respect Cris a great deal but I don't think that's appropriate here. It's my job to make sure that all 32 teams are operating within the same rules and a level playing field and that's what I've tried to do here with this penalty is make sure that all teams are playing by the same rules. There is no question in my mind that a first round draft choice, which is unprecedented, will send a message to all 32 clubs that you are going to play by the rules. That's the important message here. It's a significant penalty to the franchise and Bill Belichick,” Goodell reacting to Collinsworth’s comments. "People are going to have differences of opinion but what I have to do is make sure that I maintain the integrity of the NFL and allowing each team to be on the field playing with the same rules is the critical point."

One point Goodell made clear Sunday evening – he was told the Patriots in no uncertain terms if additional facts come out that reveal the Patriots cheating went beyond the stealing of signals; Goodell reserved the right to access further punitive action against the Patriots.

Andrea Kramer reported Sunday evening (as did other broadcast media earlier in the day) the Patriots may have indeed violated additional NFL rules last Sunday.

"A high ranking NFL official told me that the Jets will very likely request an investigation by the league into the Patriots use of unassigned and uncoordinated
radio frequencies during their game last week. These kind of frequencies can be used to listen to or record audio. The crux of the claim is that there was a second camera stationed right next to the one shooting the Jets defensive coaches sending in their signals. This second camera may have been used to illegally record audio that is suspected to be Patriots defensive linemen wired up so as to capture the Jets audibles and offensive line calls. This would be another clear violation of NFL rules."

Former NFL general manager Charley Casserly picked up on Kramer’s report earlier in the day offering some pretty strong statements regarding how Bill Belichick “helps’ prepare his team each week.

“There are a couple of things: First of all, wireless frequencies. The Patriots asked for three wireless frequencies to be used on their Patriot television show. However what they did was change to other frequencies, other channels, which is against League policy. Also during the game, Jets had trouble with their coach-to-quarterback system. One of these (Patriots) channels was close to the Jets coach-to-quarterback system. You can't deliberately interfere with another team’s coach-to-quarterback system. Now, many other teams have had trouble when they’ve played the Patriots with their coach-to-quarterback system. I asked the League, is there any specific knowledge that the Patriots deliberately interfered with the coach-to-quarterback system of the Jets. They told me no, but they said they reserve the right to make another case against the Patriots if other facts come forward.

“An NFL coach told me he got this from an ex-Patriot coach. What the Patriots would do is send someone into the opponent's locker room looking for information. In one specific game the opponent had left their opening plays on the board, this person brought them back to the Patriot coaches.

“I've been told by a number of people in the NFL that Bill Belichick keeps a library on each defensive coordinator to use against them in the future. The NFL has requested the Patriots and Bill Belichick to turn over all videotapes and notes with videotapes. One of the things they're looking for is that library.”

After Goodell announced his fine and taking away of the draft pick(s) Thursday night, Belichick was predictably tight-lipped in regard to Goodell’s decision. Belichick rationale made perfect sense, let everyone else talk about this, we (the Patriots) won’t become active participants in the debate. That didn’t stop Patriots owner Robert Kraft from releasing the following statement Saturday – on behalf of the entire Patriot organization.

"This has been an extremely difficult week for our organization. The most troubling part for me, personally, is the impact these actions have had on our fans. We have spent the last 14 years developing and building a franchise that people could embrace and support. The loyalty of our fans has been the most rewarding aspect of owning the team. I am deeply disappointed that the embarrassing events of this past week may cause some people to see our team in a different light.

"After reviewing the facts of the past weekend, the commissioner has made a determination that our franchise engaged in activities that violate the league’s rules. He has determined the punishment and I accept it.

"I believe that Coach Belichick always tries to do what is best for the team and he is always accountable for his decisions. He has been a very important part of what our organization has accomplished over the last seven years. In this case, one of his decisions has resulted in a severe penalty for our franchise. He has paid a heavy price and so has our organization. He has apologized for his actions. I accept his apology and look forward to working with him as we move forward.

"It has been a distinct privilege to be involved in the National Football League since 1994. I am passionate about the league because it represents the ultimate in competition. To this end, the integrity of the game and competition between the 32 teams is of paramount importance to me. Whenever the commissioner believes that the integrity of the league’s competition is compromised, he must act decisively to protect it.

"In addition to our fans, I also feel for our players. I know how hard our players work and prepare for every game and their accomplishments speak for themselves. I look forward to returning all of our focus and energy to the field.”

Bill Belichick has stood and delivered for Robert Kraft. The five previous seasons before Belichick arrived in New England the Patriots were “good” but far from being great. The team averaged 9 wins per season between 1995 and 1999 and has averaged 11 wins a season in the seven years Belichick has been the teams’ head coach. Coaches are hired to be fired, deliver wins, make it to the playoffs, win the Super Bowl or you’re on the outside looking in. In the last seven NFL seasons Bill Belichick has delivered everything that was expected of him and a great deal more. And Robert Kraft – when Belichick took over the Patriots before the start of the 2000 season Forbes Magazine’s annual financial valuation for NFL franchises determined the Patriots had a subjective value of $464 million. Seven years later in the latest Forbes list released Thursday evening, Forbes believes the Patriots are now worth $1.2 billion. Kraft who purchased the team in 1994 paid $172 million. The value of Robert Kraft’s initial investment 13 years ago has increased by more than $1 billon and Kraft one of the NFL real powerbrokers owes most of that to what Bill Belichick has delivered on the football field.

Late Sunday ESPN’s Michael Smith broke the news that Belichick who has one more year left on his current Patriots head coaching contract, has reached a long-term extension that will keep him with the Patriots through the 2013 season. According to Smith that while financial terms weren’t available (standard practice in contacts) Belichick is currently being paid $4.2 million per year, but his annual salary likely will increase to between $6 million and $8 million annually.

In July, Belichick told New England-area reporters, "I don't talk about contracts, but I would say I like working here, I like the organization -- ownership, coaches, scouts, players, and the guys I work with. I appreciate the opportunity to work here and it's a good situation. I don't see that changing anytime soon."

In 12 seasons as a head coach with the Browns and Patriots, Belichick owns a regular-season mark of 111-81. Only Hall of Famers Tom Landry (20), Don Shula (19), Joe Gibbs (17), and Chuck Noll (16) have more playoff victories than Belichick's 13, all but one of which has come at the helm of the Patriots. The Patriots have won five AFC East titles over the past six seasons along with three Super Bowl championships.

Given how much success Bill Belichick has enjoyed on the football field none of this should surprise anyone – in an era where the words “coaches are hired to be fired” has become synonymous with coaches everywhere, Belichick’s record speaks for itself (see above).

And what about the Patriots sponsors – you had better believe they are standing by their team, and their head coach according to a weekend Boston Herald report.

“This is the time when the Patriots organization needs the support of its corporate sponsors the most,” a Bank of America spokesman said yesterday.

Bank of America, the offical bank of the Pats, issued the declaration of support a day after the National Football League slapped the Pats and head coach Bill Belichick with $750,000 in fines and yanked away a draft pick for the Camera-gate scandal.

“We’ve offered the Kraft family and the New England Patriots our support, and we’ll do what we need to do to forge ahead to emerge even stronger,” said Bank of America.

Other major corporate sponsors also stood by the team yesterday.

“The Krafts are a world-class organization and when you partner with an organization, you partner with all they do in the community for the fans,” said Eric Kraus, spokesman for Covidien, which sponsors Patriots press conferences. “This will blow over and I don’t think this will tarnish the organization’s brand in any way.”

Kraus, a former spokesman for Gillette Co., added, “I don’t think you will see the trucks pulling up and pulling the letters off Gillette Stadium anytime soon.”

Michael Norton, a spokesman for Gillette, said there have been no discussions at all within the Procter & Gamble unit about the implications of the Patriots cheating scandal.

“Coach Belichick in his statement apologized and took full responsibility. He apologized to everyone on the team and to the fans. He made a blanket apology.”

Delta Airlines, in a brief statement, said it would continue as a Patriots sponsor. A spokesman for Savings Bank Life Insurance said the company, which signed a sponsorship agreement with the Patriots earlier this month, is excited about its new partnership.

“We have no current plans to change,” added a spokesman for Fidelity Investments, which sponsors the Fidelity Investments Club House section of Gillette Stadium in Foxboro.

While Americans are a very forgiving society it’s hard to forgive and forget when it comes to Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. The Patriots have become a money-making machine and make no apologies (nor should they) for the success they’ve enjoyed both on and off the football field. Still some of the comments offered from around the National Football League over the weekend suggest some of the more respected “Lords of the Pigskin” believe Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots legacy may have been tainted.

“I feel sorry for a lot of people involved,” Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy offered at his press conference Friday. “I feel sorry for some really good people on the Patriots that are going to be tarnished by this. I look at Tom Brady and Richard Seymour and Troy Brown -- those are guys I talk about to our team: the way you do things, the way you want to represent the NFL.

“We have two (former Patriots) on our team, Adam (Vinatieri) and Dan Klecko, that are the same way. They’re going to be linked now with negative. That’s too bad.”

“Every time I’ve talked to Bob Kraft, he presents the type of image I know what he wants to present,” Dungy said. “I feel bad for him. He’s going to have to answer questions. He’s going to have to answer questions all the time, from here on out.

“When headsets go wrong, which they go wrong everywhere -- headsets go wrong at our stadium -- but when they go wrong up there now, he’s going to have to answer, ’Is it something that just happened or is it planned?’ ... That’s too bad. I feel bad for him.”

How much of the negative reaction to Bill Belichick, the New England Patriots and Roger Goodell’s reaction is based at least in part in what Kraft suggested when the news first broke late last week – professional jealously. If teams’ can’t beat the Patriots on the field are NFL teams casting aspersions on the Patriots because they can’t beat the Pats – no that isn’t the point, but this is.

In the five months since Goodell announced the NFL Player Conduct Code with the support of NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw has included the suspensions of Michael Vick, Adam “Pacman” Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson – four football players whose on-field abilities suggested they were good enough to play on Sunday’s but lost that right when their off-field antics forced the NFL to suspend them.

By no means should the deviant behavior of Vick, Jones, Henry and Johnson be compared to what Bill Belichick has done, but none of the players’ actions threatened the integrity of the National Football League, and clearly what Bill Belichick has done directly challenges what is in the best interests of the National Football League.

It wouldn’t be fair to compare the havoc Tim Donaghy has reigned on the National Basketball Association to what Bill Belichick stands accused of, but both me are guilty (to varying degrees) of knowingly breaking the rules of their respective sport to gain an unfair advantage. Shame on you Bill Belichick, your team looks to you for leadership, your team was good enough and instead you choose to break the rules of the game. Shame on you Bill Belichick, your team deserves better.

"You look at the New England Patriots, and you wonder, 'Have they been cheating all this time? Have they been getting an unfair advantage for their football team?' " said ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth. "It makes you wonder how much a factor that was during their three championship years."

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: ESPN.com, NBC Sports, CBS Sports and The Boston Herald

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