Thursday, September 13, 2007

Musings from the Meadowlands – On Hippos, Hubris and Hope

I had my first taste of tailgating at the Meadowlands this past Sunday. I was the guest of a motley crew of diehard Jets fans – mostly New York City firefighters and police officers, with a few construction workers thrown in. You can imagine the abuse I took before the game - munching on tailgate fare while sporting my Patriots cap and Boston Marathon volunteer jacket. When we all reassembled in the parking lot after the game, it was a different kind of conversation!

A lot happened on the field – and on the sidelines – that day when the Patriots defeated the Jets 38-14. Let me offer my thoughts on the day’s events and the aftermath in the form of a three-part alliterative rant on Hippos, Hubris, and Hope.

Hippos – When the New England Patriots signed NFL Bad Boy, Randy Moss, during the off-season, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, imagining a motivated Randy Moss as an additional weapon to add to Tom Brady’s arsenal made me – and most Pats fans – drool with anticipation. On the other hand, this football organization has presented itself as one of character and pride – and Randy Moss – for much of his career – seemed to epitomize the very opposite of the kind of player the Patriots typically draft, develop and trade for.

My theology is such that I understand both original sin and grace, so part of me was hopeful that with him working and playing under the tutelage of a disciplinarian like Bill Belichick, Moss could take advantage of the “grace” and expiation being offered by the Patriots’ welcoming him with open arms. I was cautiously optimistic that Moss might emerge – not only as a force on the field – but as a model NFL citizen.

Moss missed much of training camp with injuries, and it was uncertain whether he would be able to put on his shoulder pads for the opening game at The Meadowlands. So, imagine my delight, sitting high above the 30-yard line in picturesque East Rutherford, New Jersey – hard by the skeletal beginnings of what will be the Xanadu entertainment and retail complex – when Tom Brady and Randy Moss began to put on a passing clinic. The highlight was a glorious 51-yard pass for a TD that had Moss lining up on the Patriots own 49 yard line. He scampered like a gazelle downfield, blowing by three Jets defensive backs, who were left looking like the dancing hippos from Disney’s classic film, “Fantasia.” That play, and Ellis Hobbs’ earlier record-setting 108 yard kick-off return, seemed to cut the heart out of the Jets – and their fans. By the middle of the 4th quarter, most Jets fans had fled to the parking lot and the healing libations on ice in their beer coolers.

Hubris – I did not have much time to savor the Patriots victory on the field, for by the time we drove out of the parking lot, the radio was beginning to report early hints of what is becoming known as “Spygate.” Someone with Pats credentials was caught on the sidelines filming Jets defensive signals – a clear violation of NFL rules. We have learned in the past few days that Pats’ videographer, Matt Estrella, playing “Apprentice” to Belichick’s “Sorcerer” (sticking with the Disney film theme!) was indeed openly violating a rule that had been reinforced this season with a memo to all NFL teams.

Another Disney film gives us yet another perspective on the Pats sideline shenanigans – the song “A Whole New World from “Alladin.” Consider these lyrics and apply them to the mindset of Belichick and Estrella as they concocted their scheme:

“A whole new world
A new fantastic point of view
No one to tell us no
Or where to go
Or say we're only dreaming.”

The Patriots have long been suspected of bending and breaking the rules to gain competitive advantage, but this was the first “smoking gun” incident in which the cameraman and the organization were caught red-handed.

Talk radio in Boston has been rife with uninformed fans and cognoscenti alike chiming in along a broad spectrum of opinion:

“All is fair in love and war.”

“What’s the big deal; everyone is doing it”

“Cheating is cheating”

“They should have to give back their three Super Bowls!”

I have asked myself, “Why?” Why would Belichick, a consensus first-ballot Hall of Fame Coach, risk his reputation and legacy to gain a small advantage? The only satisfactory answer is hubris – overbearing pride and self-confidence. The Greek gods took delight in sniffing out hubris and humiliating the offending mortals. It was hubris that lay at the heart of Nixon’s disgrace and the Watergate scandal and cover-up. Nixon was riding high and was assured of re-election. He did not need to send a team of burglars into the Watergate complex to spy on the defensive signals being sent from the sidelines by the Democratic National Committee. But he could not resist the temptation to be too clever by half and to pile on the Democrats.

It was hubris that drove Barry Bonds, already assured enshrinement in Cooperstown as one of the greatest players in baseball history, to inflate his body and his statistics by taking anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing substances. And his legacy will forever be tainted with the stain of scandal and cheating and arrogant pride. And so it will be with Belichick. What a shame. The Patriots’, under the enlightened leadership of the Robert Kraft family, have – more than any other sports franchise I am aware of – embodied the principles of “The Medici Effect.”

(see review )

Like the Renaissance innovators of old, the Krafts have assembled a team of the best and the brightest from a variety of disciplines – coaching, strength training, medicine, contracts, finance, accounting, architecture, marketing, public relations and player development. Their innovations in running a model franchise became the envy of sports franchises in every sport. How ironic that Belichick, who cut his coaching teeth at the U.S. Naval Academy watching his father coach at an institution renowned for honor and integrity, should become the “Peck’s Bad Boy” of NFL coaches. How ironic that Belichick himself is in need of the kind of grace and expiation he offered a few short month’s ago to the former miscreant, Randy Moss.

As a sports fan, I am angry that cheating has become second nature for many athletes and coaches alike. As a Patriots’ fan, I am embarrassed and saddened that a pall will hang over the celebration of each victory in the future, and a shadow of doubt will continue to haunt and to hover over the exploits of the past.

Hope – Let’s put things in perspective. While Moss was gallivanting into the Jets backfield, while Estrella was spying on the Jets’ sideline, and while Belichick was getting into the Jets’ head by sticking it to his former protégé, Jets’ coach, Eric Mangini, something of note was happening on another NFL field. Buffalo Bills Special Teams player, Kevin Everett, suffered what doctors termed a “catastrophic and life-threatening cervical spine injury” while making a tackle during the second-half kick-off against the Denver Broncos. The early reports from doctors were grim, holding out little hope of recovery – and questioning his ability to survive the injury.

In the past several days, to the delight and shock of all the experts – Everett has been able to move all of his limbs and there is hope of a miraculous recovery. He is not out of the woods, and he and his family are in need of continuing support and prayer.

Let me conclude this long-winded disquisition by returning to the theme of Disney animated films. In “Pinocchio,” Jimmy Cricket sings these words that were part of the background music of my childhood.

“When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Fate is kind
She brings to those to love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true”

So, here are my wishes:

That Kevin Everett will miraculously rise from his bed to walk with his head held high and live a healthy and satisfying life.

That Bill Belichick will come down from his lofty perch behind the podium at Gillette Stadium and walk more humbly. That he will learn from his time of playing naughty with the ruffians on Pleasure Island, and from his time of chastening in the belly of the whale of public disgrace and media scrutiny. That he will become less “wooden” in his approach to others and will become a “real boy” under the forgiving paternal guidance of Geppetto Kraft.

That we will not walk away from sports because of the scandals, but that we will come to a place where we can all once again enjoy sports – playing, coaching and watching – as a healthy and honest way for men, women and children to test themselves and stretch themselves to achieve both victory and personal satisfaction in an atmosphere of fair play. Is that possible, or have we come full circle and we are back to “Fantasia”? I hope not.


Anonymous said...

Dr. Chase,

You get an "A" on this assignment. I'm going to hang this on my fridge.

- Professor Mike

Matthew said...

Thanks Al. Wonderful perspective, as always. My respect for Coach Belichick has taken an enormous plunge this past week. I can only hope that he follows your perfect advice in his quest for redemption....winning a Super Bowl without spying on another team's signal-calling certainly won't be enough.

- Matt Argersinger