CAUGHT VIDEOTAPING the signals of New York Jets' coaches in Sunday's game, New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick apologized Wednesday to "everyone who has been affected, most of all ownership, staff, and players." He did not mention fans, which is unfortunate, because they too have been embarrassed by the team's violation of league rules against taping. Responsibility for that violation lies with Belichick himself.
Patriots fans have taken great pride in the team's winning of three Super Bowls in six years. Until now, fans could believe that it was the superior choice of players and better training and game plans that have made the team the closest thing to a dynasty the league has seen in years. It is dispiriting to learn that rule-breaking might have been part of the winning formula. If National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell confirms that Belichick cheated, the penalty - including loss of future draft picks - should be stiff enough to deter other coaches from putting winning above sportsmanship.
The NFL owes much of its appeal to its belief in balanced competition - on any given Sunday any team has a chance to beat another. Buttressing this is its practice of equally dividing national television receipts among teams and placing a salary cap on them. Championships are won by astute moves on and off the field, not by stratospheric payrolls. But in the drive to find any possible edge over an opponent, the league has to draw the line at tactics taken more from James Bond than George Halas.
Green Bay Packers officials have identified the Patriots cameraman in Sunday's incident as the same one who was ordered off the sidelines for illegal taping in a Patriots-Packers game in Green Bay last November. That should have been a warning to Belichick that other teams were onto his tricks.
Football insiders have been speculating about just how the taping would help, and whether it is meant to assist during the game being taped or a subsequent one against the same opponent. If in fact the Patriots were taping Packers coaches, it would seem to have been aimed at helping in that game, since there was little chance the Patriots would meet the Packers again last season.
Videotaping the Jets was wrongheaded from the first. Not only had the league put out a directive against the practice, but both the Jets head coach and video director had recently worked for the Patriots and could be expected to be alert to this kind of espionage. Also, the fact that the camera was confiscated in the first quarter and the Pats still dominated in the rest of the game showed how unnecessary the rule-breaking was. From a standpoint of both ethics and smart gamesmanship, the taping was a blunder. The Patriots should be able to win on a level playing field, without cameras. Leave "let's go to the tape" to the sportscasters.