His transformation from Cleveland disaster to guru complete, his legacy as a Hall of Fame coach secure, Bill Belichick standing diminished in front of his public would be considered incongruous, but for the times in which he lives.
He coaches arguably the best football team in the universe and is busted for videotaping a team he'd already mashed in the playoffs a year earlier, a childish offense that may cost him dearly. By apparently cheating against a clearly inferior opponent -- and his former protégé Eric Mangini -- the coach with more offensive weapons than the Pentagon joined a notorious list of famous head-scratchers. Belichick's actions now echo those of Winona Ryder, the fabulously rich shoplifter; Barry Bonds, better than anybody walking the earth, but who reportedly took steroids, though unknowingly, anyway; and Kobe Bryant, sex symbol to a million women yet who was accused of rape -- a case later dismissed.
Belichick is now viewed as a person who because of some weird, destructive mix of arrogance (because he obviously didn't think he would be caught) and insecurity (because he felt he needed to steal signals to win in the first place) unnecessarily undermined his own achievements.
The Patriots' 38-14 win was largely untainted, for the tape was confiscated in the first quarter. Still, there will be much conversation about how, if at all, this strange episode will affect the already polarizing Belichick, or if his past accomplishments -- Super Bowls, for example
-- will be cast in a different, harsher light. But as we watch Belichick, it will be just as important to watch NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
How Goodell administers punishment of Belichick and the Patriots this week will say much about his commissionership, for the Belichick case offers Goodell a high-profile opportunity to show he is capable of imposing hard sanctions on infractions of varying nature.
It is currently unclear what is on the confiscated tape. Belichick apologized Wednesday but did not say exactly for what he was sorry. But the practice of stealing signals in football does not fall under the rubric of gamesmanship, as it does in baseball. Baseball teams don't have 700-page playbooks, as does Washington associate head coach Al Saunders. Nor do baseball players use parts of their offseason to devise game plans for opponents, and their teams aren't threatened with the loss of draft picks for relaying back to the hitter the next pitch will be a curveball. Technological espionage, however, is unacceptable in both sports. During parts of the 2003-05 seasons, opposing scouts were convinced the Boston Red Sox were stealing signs using a center-field camera.
Should it turn out that the New England tape is damaging, and Belichick and the Patriots cheated their way to an opening day win, Goodell's response will be revealing.
If he is to be taken seriously and as anything more than a hammer for management, Goodell needs to levy a serious penalty on Belichick and the Patriots, for in today's sporting climate -- Tim Donaghy, Troy Glaus, the Tour de France and the growing, disturbing talk of tennis match fixes -- upholding the integrity of the sport is just as important as suspending a player for a DUI.
The Patriots face possible sanctions, quite probably the loss of draft picks as punishment. What needs to happen, if indeed it is proved the Patriots incongruously cheated their way to an opening day victory against an inferior opponent? The Patriots should be put at some disadvantage during the regular season. Goodell should suspend Belichick two games -- ban him from the sidelines, the locker room and coaches' meetings -- and should not allow him to work on game plans, participate in practice or communicate with his team for two weeks.
With the players, Goodell's position is established. He is the Law and Order Commissioner. His first platform, the issue upon which he has chosen to stake the first chapter of his commissionership, is player conduct. His record to date -- his approach to Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, Pacman Jones and Michael Vick -- is clear. Even many players refer to him as the league's top cop. They understand his mission and fear his authority.
But Goodell now must sanction perhaps the league's most visible team, with a powerful owner. Robert Kraft may not be a household name to those outside of the 617 area code, but along with Jerry Jones in Dallas, Daniel Snyder in Washington and Jeffrey Lurie in Philadelphia, Kraft, with his signature zeal, is part of the league's emerging big-money revenue clique. Goodell must, in effect, show he is willing to treat Belichick's white-collar, high-tech transgression in a similar manner as Frostee Rucker's violent crime. Ostensibly both can affect how the paying customer views the legitimacy of the sport.
Violence is clearly more visceral, and certainly in the outside society violent behavior cannot be equated to breaking the rules of a game. Inside the sport is another matter, where punishment is based on negatively affecting the health and welfare of the sport. Belichick and the Patriots apparently violated a league rule in place to ensure fair contest, the root of the sport.
If Goodell does not act decisively, he will only confirm a basic truth about the commissioner-player relationship in all professional sports -- that he works for management. Of course, it has always been this way, the fiction is that the commissioner is anything but the collective employee of 32 owners. That will change only when the players have a say in who receives the jobs Messrs. Goodell, Selig, Bettman and Stern now hold.
Until then, Goodell must act. Failure to do so will prove him to be more union antagonist than impartial arbiter, the protector of football interests on all sides. If he lets Belichick off easily, Goodell will be less Law and Order Commissioner and more Company Man.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.