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Bob Ryan

It's fair to say fair play is taking a hit

Email|Print| Text size + By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 16, 2007

In the wake of the Mitchell Report, a little handshake doesn't seem like a big deal, does it?

In both cases, we're talking about human nature, aren't we? We're talking about honor. We're talking about decency. We're talking about respect for the game. We're talking about an honest attempt to gain a competitive advantage, as opposed to a dishonest one. We're talking about Doing The Right Thing.

Not that we didn't know already, but we have learned from former Senator George Mitchell that a fair number of major league baseball players were naughty boys during the past two decades. In some cases they were breaking the law. In every case they were violating the unwritten, but quite viable, law regarding the Spirit Of Fair Play. We can't change anything. It happened. We are now left to decide how we feel about it.

Did we really need to know? I think so. Benign neglect was getting us nowhere. We all knew bad stuff was going on. Now we have a clearer idea, although by no means do we have a complete picture. As ESPN's Jayson Stark points out, 88 names constitutes less than 2 percent of all players who have appeared in major league box scores since 1985. Some very obvious names were missing from the Mitchell Report.

It's a start, OK?

And what is it all about? It's not just records. For every All-Star-level player whose name surfaced, there were several hangers-on. The sobering reality of the Steroids Era was (I suppose I should be saying "is") that it wasn't just about the Barry Bondses wanting to separate themselves from the garden variety superstars or the Roger Clemenses wanting to be power pitchers until the day they die. It was far more about the 11th member of a pitching staff or a backup to the backup catcher wanting to get or keep a precious major league job.

That they would be doing so at the expense of a clean-liver trying to go about things the right way was something the cheaters preferred not to think about. I'm sure most of those low-enders regarded themselves as moral beings. But survival is our most powerful instinct, or so we're told. If I cheat to keep a job and you don't, tough. My family's gotta eat, you know?

Now we know professional football is getting off easy in all this. A generation ago a 300-pounder was a rarity, a conversation piece. Now every NFL team has 10 to 15 of them. We're heading for 400-pounders, if we haven't been there already (Does the name Aaron Gibson ring a bell?). I rather doubt that good eatin' and long hours in the weight room account for all of it.

It's just hard to get worked up about those monstrous linemen. Who really cares? In football, not all positions are created equal when it comes to attracting attention. We can't quantify anything for guards, tackles, and centers. It's not like baseball, where every action has a public accounting. Coaches may grade players after studying the game films/tapes/whatever, but the rest of us follow the ball, and only the ball.

We know an offensive lineman is good because someone else tells us so. I can't tell you one thing Larry Allen or Walter Jones has ever done that the next thousand guys haven't, but if I had to identify the best lineman of the 21st century those are the names I'd give you, all on lots and lots of say-so. Meanwhile, if Bonds hits one 475 feet, I can relate to that.

But football is loaded with cheaters. If these guys are loading up on 'roids or fraudulently obtained human growth hormone, they're probably breaking the law, and they're definitely violating the unwritten rules concerning the Spirit Of Fair Play.

Speaking of cheating, we come to Spygate.

We're told that what the Patriots were caught doing is common. We're told all kinds of things, actually. Jimmy Johnson was quoted by USA Today as follows: "This was throughout the league for many years. I did it a few times myself. But I didn't think I got much out of it. So I stopped doing it."

Whoa. I didn't think I got much out of it. Aren't we told that in pro football every little bit of competitive advantage is important, however minuscule? Isn't that little bit of "not much" worth going after? Was Johnson just covering up for Bill Belichick, a known buddy? Just asking.

In the same USA Today piece, Boomer Esiason shoots down the idea that the Patriots could have benefited from any knowledge gained by training a camera on a defensive coordinator. "There was always the acceptance that this was going on and you had to change the signals," he said. "I guarantee that any coach worth his salt was changing his signals in the Super Bowl."

If this is as much a matter of common knowledge as Messrs. Johnson and Esiason claim, then what is this business between the Jets and Patriots, and specifically between Belichick and onetime protégé Eric Mangini, really all about?

The truth is that no one on the outside knows for certain. We know - and yes, we know - Belichick hates the Jets, so we can surmise that he was far from pleased when his defensive coordinator left New England to take that particular job. Then we hear hilarious, hard-to-believe stories about changed locks and assorted bad fictional intrigue, and next we have a side-splitting perusal of limp-wristed handshakes and half-hugs. But none of it leads us to the kind of vindictive behavior on the part of the Jets that winds up with the Patriots being hit with a record league sanction after a season has begun.

At the very least, Mangini thought a code had been violated. Taken to the fullest extent, he thought the Patriots had perpetrated a heinous crime, which is hard to substantiate if we accept the expertise offered by Johnson and Esiason. But the league sure backed him up (while messing up the draft-pick issue, much to our local delight).

We may never know what Bill Belichick thinks. He still hasn't copped to anything, not really.

It's easy to demonize Belichick, but it seems to me they're both off the track. They each love and respect the game, and they each have a personal code of what we shall call pigskin ethics, and each guy sees a violation or two on the other side. The Spirit Of Fair Play is at stake here.

What they need is a quiet dinner and a couple of bottles of good red, by themselves, away from the fray. Right now they each look ridiculous. A perfunctory wet fish handshake today isn't going to mean anything. Better they tell us before the game it ain't gonna happen. That would show real respect for the game they each profess to love.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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