The NFL’s Enron?
pblackwell, Thu, September 20th, 2007
As soon as the New England Patriots were done manhandling the Mangini-led New York Jets in the 2007 season opener, the accolades started raining down again.
Bill Belichick is a genius. Tom Brady is a god. Randy Moss is unstoppable. The Patriots are too good, too smart, too loaded to do anything other than land in the Arizona desert on the first weekend of February and reclaim Vince Lombardi’s silver reward.
Only one problem – someone caught a Patriots employee videotaping the Jets’ defensive coaches, trying to pick up their signals and relaying them down to the field.
Suddenly, everything New England has done in the last six years, dating back to their unlikely win as a double-digit underdog to the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, has been called into question, for good reason.
Several aspects to this story need to be explored. As far as the punishment goes (a first-round draft pick if the Pats make the playoffs, a $250,000 fine for Belichick), it was fair, but a suspension of some kind would have helped, too.
To his credit, Roger Goodell acted quickly, but is it enough of a deterrent? This whole law-and-order thing from the commissioner is nice, but it won’t hold water for long if players feel like they get far more scrutiny – and far more punishment – for their misdeeds than coaches or management that do things which threaten the integrity of the game itself.
It also begs to be asked again – did the Patriots need to do this? If they’re so good, as shown against the Jets and again in a subsequent romp of San Diego, then no bit of chicanery is required. Just go out there, win big, and don’t cut corners.
And beware the hypocrisy out there from Belichick’s defenders. These same folks are likely to light into anyone and everyone in baseball that might have taken steroids while breaking home run records. You can’t trash one bit of cheating, and condone the other.
Back to the main point, though. As the videotape scandal gained traction and dominated the football talk for days, one analogy kept coming back, forcing all of us to swallow a four-letter word – Gate – used far too much to describe any scandal of recent times.
True, there are eerie parallels to Watergate. Belichick, like Richard Nixon, is not, by most accounts, the warmest and friendliest guy on the planet. And when he interacts with the media, the cold fish turns even colder. He projects this “Evil Genius” image quite well, so any accusation against him, no matter how trivial, might stick.
Plus, this involves tapes. No matter how many illegal things Nixon and his men conjured up behind the closed White House doors, it would not have mattered had he not taped the conversations. It was the revelation of these tapes that proved Nixon a liar and, ultimately, forced him out of office.
Yet in considering all this, a full week after the exposure, another scandal came to mind – something more recent, something just as sinister and, incredibly, something without a “Gate” attached to it.
You might have heard of Enron, the Houston-based energy giant that went from the top of the Fortune 500 to bankruptcy and dissolution in a span of months because its executives cooked the books in a way no company in America had done before.
Both a book, and a documentary film about Enron’s downfall, was titled “The Smartest Guys in the Room”, which was an apt title, given the way Enron was hailed as a corporate miracle, right up to the moment it all went kaput.
Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, Andy Fastow and the rest of Enron’s brass pulled the collective wool over Wall Street and the business community at large. They boasted of record profits and endless innovation, when in truth they were finding new and creative ways to hide mountains of debt while making off with millions they were all too eager to spend.
The sad part of all this was the way Enron’s antics were glossed over. Banks, accounting firms, creditors, investment firms, the business media at large – all worshipped at the Enron throne, telling the world how amazing and wonderful these guys were.
Sound familiar? This is just about what we, who follow sports for a living, have done with these New England Patriots throughout the Belichick area. Time and again, they’ve been called the best organization in the NFL, the most adept at finding talent in the draft, the most skilled at coaching the game – in other words, the smartest guys in the room.
Of course there’s a difference between business and sports. No one is about to take away the three Super Bowl rings New England has earned. And no one’s life savings was flushed away, unlike the millions of dollars in 401(k) funds that Enron squandered.
There’s a lesson in all this, one as old and simple as life can offer. In any profession, no one is as great as people say they are, or as terrible and vile. The truth always lies in between. None of us is without merit or without fault.
Cosmic justice can come on other fronts. If you hate what Belichick and his New England minions have done, root for the Colts, or Steelers, or Broncos, or any other team that can keep the Patriots from an appointment in Glendale this winter.
And even if New England claims a fourth Super Bowl crown, the shadow of this scandal will linger. As we’ve seen in so many other sports, people don’t like it when their championships carry a tinge of fraud to it.