NFL commissioner Roger Goodell dropped the hammer on the head of Bill Belichick last night. The cheatin' camera the Patriots used against the Jets last Sunday is going to cost the coach a half-million dollars and maybe worse . . . a first-round draft pick.
With all the timing of a Red Sox late November Friday evening ticket price increase (the NFL made its announcement long after dinner and just a few minutes before President Bush addressed the nation on the war in Iraq), the league last night slapped Belichick and the Patriots upside the helmet.
The cash doesn't really matter. Belichick is out $500,000 (maximum fine allowed by the league), and Bob Kraft will have to fork over an additional $250,000. But the news that the Patriots will lose a first-rounder if they make the playoffs (a second- and third-rounder if they don't) is a devastating blow to the coach and the franchise.
There is no more gray area now. Those claims that "everybody does it" and "the Patriots didn't need surveillance to beat the Jets" ring hollow. The Commish has spoken, and his ruling ensures the Patriots will pay a steep price for their transgression.
In many ways, the damage was done before last night's sanctions were announced. Having Belichick and the Patriots outed as "cheaters" will always be the worst part of this. There's a legion of people waiting to harpoon the arrogant New England organization, and this episode has armed Patriot critics with weapons they can use forever.
There are so many layers to the scandal.
Let's start at the top with Kraft. Old Amos Alonzo is always there for the trophy presentations and ring ceremonies. His press guide bio, lengthy enough to fill a Ken Burns PBS series, holds that "Kraft is now widely recognized as one of the most respected and influential owners in sports." Kraft's bio in last year's guide said the Patriots "are often referred to as a model franchise."
So where is Kraft now? He was last seen at a supermarket event Monday where he hinted that the Pats were being targeted because they are top dogs ("When you're successful in anything, a lot of people like to try to take you down").
We can't expect Kraft to come forward during Rosh Hashanah, but someday soon the owner is obligated to explain this mess. Ownership needs to be accountable. To use an old Watergate question (and the parallels are almost infinite), "What did Kraft know and when did he know it?"
Kraft could have made some points by punishing his coach in advance of the NFL sanctions instead of falling back on the old "everybody is out to get us" defense. But the owner of the "model franchise" did not choose that path.
And what about his players? What must they think of all this? Patriot players have long been reminded that their skills are almost irrelevant to the brilliant system that enables them to succeed. The message has been "most of you are interchangeable parts and we can win with other people if you choose to leave." Their achievements are minimized.
Now they get hit with the double whammy. Because of the arrogance of the coach and his minions, the championship deeds of the players are reduced again.
Now enemies of the Patriots can claim that all those championships were won because of cheating, which, of course, is untrue. Patriot players have a right to be furious about this development.
Notice how many rival players, coaches, and executives have pounced on the Pats and Belichick this week? There's been a rush to pile on, a frenzy of Patriot hate. It's residue of seven years of coaches being reminded that they are stooges - they will lose to the Patriots because Belichick and his guys are smarter than everybody else.
And that's why we have heard from a parade of players saying, "The Patriots seemed to know exactly what we were going to do when we played them."
Mercy. It's a joke. The pathetic Steelers, who never could come to grips with the fact that the Pats were better, are now using "Cheatgate" as an excuse for blowing the AFC Championship game at home in 2002. It'll never end now.
Getting caught in this stupid stunt has emboldened all those who were legitimately flattened by the Patriots in the last seven years. And it's never going to go away.
It's not fair, of course. Videotaping the other sideline is probably a tactic used by a lot of teams and no doubt it's been done for a long time. The competitive gain is certainly debatable and the punishment seems excessive, given that the Patriots had the misfortune to get caught.
Doesn't matter. Rafael Palmeiro came up positive for steroids only once, but it was enough to invalidate his 569 home runs and it will keep him out of the Hall of Fame.
"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," stated the commissioner.
So there you go. Belichick blew it when he flouted the rules and tried to rub it in against Eric Mangini and the Jets. It was absolutely unnecessary - truly Nixonian.
A draft pick is lost and Belichick and the Patriots must live with the label of "cheaters." The Lombardi trophies are tarnished and every team the Pats trample forever has a one-size-fits-all excuse.
It's a sad chapter in the long history of New England sports.