The Bill Belichick Scandal: A $1.7 Million Fraud?
Will Oursler, who died in 1985, was a funny, low-key guy with a muffin face and a nasal, lispy voice. The author of 45 books, he was a frequent guest on late-night talk radio shows. I knew him in the 1960s when he and his wife, Adelaide, lived in a posh Sutton Place apartment on the East Side of Manhattan where they threw wonderful parties.
Will had a lot of friends—the great, the good, the not-so-good and the positively seedy. One of his seediest acquaintances was Robert Harrison, the notorious muckraking editor of Confidential (“Tells the facts, names the names!”), precursor to the current crop of supermarket gossip tabloids. I remember meeting Harrison at one of the Ourslers’ parties. He sported a silver cigarette holder, was rail thin with gray hair, a gray suit with gray shirt, gray tie and gray complexion. He frequently glanced at himself in the mirror over the mantelpiece and sucked his teeth. I asked him if all the stories about the monkey business of celebrities were true. “Look kid,” he snapped, “if I wasn’t true, we always had something worse on the guy.”
“Come up with an idea for Confidential and I’ll publish it,” Harrison used to say to Oursler all the time. “You can make a lot of money.”
Will, whose beat was religion and inspirational topics, felt appearing in a sleaze magazine that dealt with the sexual exploits of the rich and famous would be ruinous to his career. But Harrison, the second most powerful press lord in the United States (Henry Luce was No. 1), kept badgering Oursler. In desperation Will came up with an idea that would get Harrison off his back and made an appointment to see him.
“How about a story on signal stealing in major league baseball?” Will suggested brightly. “That could be a big story.”
Harrison’s beady little eyes glazed over, and he said nothing. Will continued to press his case for an exposé on dishonest practices of “America’s favorite pastime,” and Harrison sat mute. Finally the publisher said, “Thanks, Will, I’ll call ya.” He never did.
Little did Will Oursler know that the unsavory business of signal stealing in professional sports would be a huge story 40 years later.
“The Shot Heard Round the World”
I’m not talking about the New England Patriots shamefully videotaping the defensive signals of their opponents. Sports Illustrated called the following story the second greatest sports moment of the 20th century. (The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team win over the Russians topped the list.) From Joshua Harris Prager’s exposé in The Wall Street Journal, Jan. 31, 2001:
Bobby Thomson, the New York Giants’ third baseman, stands poised in the batter’s box. In the bottom of the ninth inning in the final game of a playoff, his team trails the Brooklyn Dodgers 4-2, with two men on base. Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca’s fastball hurtles toward him. Mr. Thomson swings, he connects, and the ball sails over he left-field wall and into history.
That home run capped an unprecedented comeback by the Giants, propelled the team to the 1951 World Series, and secured Robert Brown Thomson’s name in American lore.
Months shy of its 50th anniversary, Mr. Thomson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” echoes ever louder. ...
It turned out that the Giants had devised a system of stealing the opposing team’s signals during home games. Coach Herman Franks, peering through a spyglass from a perch in Manager Leo Durocher’s locked office, would focus on Dodger catcher Roy Campenella’s crotch and read the finger signals he was making to the pitcher. Beside him was a button that rang a buzzer in the center field bullpen.
Sitting in the bullpen was backup catcher Salvadore Yvars, easily seen by the batter just over the pitcher’s left shoulder. One buzz meant a change-up, whereupon Yvars would cross his legs. Two buzzes would signal a fastball and Yvars would sit motionless, which is precisely what happened at 3:57 p.m. when Ralph Branca—who was 13-12 for the season with 118 strikeouts and a 3.26 ERA—unleashed that historic pitch.
In the words of announcer Russ Hodges on WMCA:
Branca throws. There’s a long drive. It’s going to be—I believe! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant! Bobby Thomson hits into the lower deck of the left-field stands. The Giants win the pennant! They’re going crazy! Oohhh-oohhh!
Sign stealing in baseball is no big deal. Just last month Spencer Fordin, a reporter for the official Major League Baseball Web site, MLB.com, wrote that “stealing signs is an age-old baseball tradition that is still practiced in virtually every clubhouse—though players generally don’t admit it on the record.” It wasn’t until 1961 that MLB outlawed the use of mechanical devices for stealing signs.
Signal stealing in professional football is a zebra—a horse of a very different color.
The Belichick Conspiracy
Judy Battista’s story in The New York Times that linked Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting with the New England Patriots’ stealing the signals of its competitors is stupid, sappy journalism that would never have gotten by a competent editor.
Michael Vick was a renegade—an individual—a single bad actor—just like Pete Rose (suspended from baseball for gambling). Other individuals in professional sports who recently disgraced themselves:
* NBA referee Tim Donaghy (throwing games for payoffs from the mob)
* Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis (obstructing justice in a murder investigation)
* Titans cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones (who started a brawl at the Las Vegas Minxx Gentlemen’s Club & Lounge that resulted in a triple shooting)
* Raiders quarterback Daunte Culpepper and three teammates (arrested for indecent lewd and disorderly conduct aboard a yacht on Lake Minnesota)
* Athletes in all sports—amateur and professional—stoking themselves up to their eyeballs on steroids and other performance enhancing drugs
Quite simply, in my opinion, the Patriots’ spy system was not an individual act. Rather wasn’t it a conspiracy at the highest level of corporate management that could have defrauded the opposition’s players out of the Super Bowl winning prize money?
In 2004, Matthew Estrella, a 26-year-old communications major from Fitchburg State College landed a job with the Patriots as their “video guy,” hired to roam the sidelines with a camera. According to NFL rules, “no video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches’ booth, on the field or in the locker room during the game.” They also say all video for coaching purposes must be shot from locations “enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead.”
In a September 6 memo to all NFL general managers and head coaches, Ray Anderson, the league’s EVP of football operations, said:
Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room, or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.
At the game on September 9, where the Patriots pasted the Jets 34-18, Estrella’s camera was confiscated during the first quarter, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell determined that he was spying on the defensive signals of the Jets.
“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,” Goodell said in a letter to the Patriots.
A word not used by Commissioner Goodell: “conspiracy.”
The bad news for Coach Bill Belichick: he was personally fined $500,000 (roughly 12% of his $4.6 million yearly salary). The good news for Belichick: the fine is tax-deductible. The Patriots also were hit with a $250,000 fine and must forfeit its first round draft pick in 2008.
“I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick,” Commissioner Goodell wrote. “I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice, or multiple draft choices, is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension.”
The Conspiracy as Seen by This Eagles Fan
Let me say at the outset, Peggy and I are rabid Philadelphia Eagles fans and—like all Philadelphians—are crazed for a championship of some kind. We were crushed by the 24-21 loss to the Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl. In reviewing that Super Bowl XXXIX, Dan Gelston of the Associated Press wrote on Sept. 13, 2007:
Sheldon Brown and the Eagles hoped a blitz would rattle [quarterback] Tom Brady. One problem: Every time the Eagles rushed Brady in the Super Bowl, the Patriots nullified the defensive attack with screen passes. Lots of them. On almost every play defensive coordinator Jim Johnson called for a blitz, the Patriots used the short pass to confuse the Eagles. After the Patriots beat the Eagles 24-21 in 2005 to win the Lombardi Trophy, Brown thought the Patriots beat them with nothing but sharp offensive playcalling. Now, he’s not so sure.
The time line: The Patriots’ “video guy” Estrella was hired in 2004. The spy system could have been in place. But even if it were brilliant strategy in 2005—the intuitive genius of the defensive coordinator—it is clear from Commissioner Goodell’s accusation that a conspiracy was in place at the beginning of the current season. By breaking the rules, the Patriots were on track to reach their division championship and very likely win their fourth Super Bowl in seven years.
A $1.7 million Fraud?
What did the loss of Super Bowl XXXIX mean to the Eagles, apart from not being able to sport a Super Bowl ring and cash in on lucrative product endorsements? For the 53 members on the team roster, the winners’ bonus was $68,000 per player, while each member of the losing team each took home $36,500—a difference of $31,500. By cheating, it seems to me that the unholy trio of Coach Bill Belichick, defensive coordinator Dean Pees and video guy Matthew Estrella were on track to defraud the losing Super Bowl players out of $1.7 million.
What did the Patriots’ victory in Super Bowl XXXIX mean to Eagles quarterback Donavan McNabb beside the loss of $31,500?
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was the champ, while McNabb was the chump. In the words of late-night Philadelphia sports talk show host Paul Jolovitz, McNabb was “first loser.”
In terms of history, poor old Donovan McNabb is George McGovern to Tom Brady’s Richard Nixon.
As a pissed off Eagles fan, I have serious questions:
* What is the difference between the Estrella-Pees-Belichick conspiracy and that of Ken Lay and Jeffrey Skilling of Enron? Did not the Patriots’ trio knowingly break league rules just as Lay and Skilling broke accounting rules? (Skilling is in jail. Lay conveniently died before he was sentenced.)
* If this was indeed a conspiracy that defrauds opposing players out of prize money (not to mention the happiness of millions of fans) should not the Justice Department be looking into this, just as it did with Enron, Tyco and Adelphia?
* Isn’t a tax-deductible $500,000 fine for Belichick and no suspension—not even for one game—a slap on the wrist when Super Bowl losers are deprived of $1.7 million?
* What is the message that such light punishment for cheating sends to millions of children across the country, who are starry-eyed over sports and sports heroes?
*Why weren’t Belichick, Pees and Estrella barred from football forever?