Why Wasn't Belichick Suspended?

Josh Wright —  14 September 2007

An assistant coach takes a substance banned by the NFL to treat diabetes. He is fined one third of his salary and suspended for 5 games. An NFL head coach violates an NFL rule concerning videotaping the opposition during a game from the sideline for fear that such conduct might impact the outcome of the game (though it did not in the case at issue so far as we know). Coach Belichick’s punishment: $500,000 and no suspension. The Patriots’ organization was also fined an additional $250,000 and a few draft picks (a first round or both a second and third round draft pick depending on whether the Patriots make the playoffs). What gives with not suspending Coach Belichick?

Don’t get me wrong, $500,000 is nothing to laugh at (Belichick’s annual salary is reported to be somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million). It’s a real fine and real punishment for some very troublesome conduct. But in light of the NFL’s harsh punishment of the Dallas Cowboys’ quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, I’m not sure that failing to suspend Belichick is really defensible if one cares about consistency. There has been lots of very interesting discussion(see, e.g. Adler, McCann, Rapp, and Yen) about the appropriateness of the fine. ESPN’s John Clayton argues that it was too light without a suspension. Others have argued that it was appropriate because of the pre-season warnings NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gave about precisely this sort of sideline videotaping. Some have expressed that the lack of suspension was appropriate because Belicheck’s absence would have an impact on the outcomes of games.

Presumably, the reason Wilson was fined so harshly was because of the potential of distributing the banned substance to players and the league’s desire to send a strong message about such substances because they can give an unfair competitive advantage (see Wilson’s take on the suspension in this story from ESPN’s Ed Werder). Wilson apparently was able to convince the league that he was indeed using the banned substance for himself and not to distribute to players or else he would have been banned for life. So one cannot distinguish the two on the grounds that Wilson’s conduct actually had an impact on competition. The defense that Belichick’s suspension would have an impact on the field does not seem sufficient to justify the decision either. The notion that suspensions impact on the field performance shouldn’t shock anybody. That is what suspensions are designed to do. Besides, Commissioner Goodell acknowledges that he believes the loss of draft picks will have a more serious impact on the field than suspending the Coach. So far, I can’t think of a persuasive reason why it makes sense for Wilson to face a serious suspension and a serious fine (actually larger as a fraction of his salary) while Belichick only faces the fine.

The most obvious answer lies in the loss of draft picks. In fact, Goodell relies on the severity of the draft pick punishment to justify the decision not to suspend the Coach:

I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick. 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.

This may be true. It may hurt the Patriots more to lose the draft picks than to lose Belichick for a couple of games — but this is debatable. But this answer still does not square the personal punishments of Wilson and Belichick. Belichick, after all, admits that the decision to continue to videotape was his decision based on his incorrect interpretation of the NFL constitution and bylaws.

By the way, I’m hoping Belichick spells out what it was about the following rule that made videotaping on the sideline acceptable: “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.”

3 responses to Why Wasn't Belichick Suspended?

  1. 

    I think that Belichicks punishment wasn’t hard enough because he broke the rules. If Belichicks absence wouldn’t make a difference, suspend him for a game and lets find out. That was his decision to videotape the Jets and he knew it was wrong. Belichick doesn’t see any other head coach violating the rules, so neither should he.

  2. 

    Thanks for the comment John. While I don’t agree with it at the end of the day, I think it a perfectly reasonable position that the drug policy is of greater relative importance than the videotaping policy to justify the disparate sanctions. Here’s why I don’t necessarily buy this line of reasoning.

    First, Wilson’s position of influence as a quarterbacks coach is certainly not greater than Belichick’s as the head coach. Further, I don’t see the performance enhancing drug policy as a higher league priority than the policy against cheating and other conduct that might have an impact on the outcome of the game. I think a reasonable case can be made that the cheating policy is actually more important. That said, I understand why the league may want to take a hard line on the drug policy. So the real question is why not Belichick? But I don’t think the relative influence of the coaches or the underlying importance of the policies justify the different punishments.

    Second, I don’t believe the individual v. team distinction gets you there either. After all, the benefits of any enhanced performance accrues not only to the individual but also to the team. Of course, in reality neither Wilson’s HGH use or the Patriots videotaping actually impacted anything on the field. Further, I’m fairly comfortable with Belichick taking a personal hit on this. He’s responsible for the decision to the videotaping. The NFL made a point to say this was not allowed. And of course, Belichick admitted that it was his erroneous interpretation of this rule that led to the violation. It makes sense to me that he bear some of the responsibility for the violation.

  3. 

    The justification for the Wilson penalty is that because of his position of influence, his conduct undermines an important league policy against performance enhancing drugs. Performance enhancing drugs are a threat to the health and well-being of players. It should be noted that the 5-game suspension was one game more than players typically get for the same infraction.

    Now, why would Belichick get a lesser sanction? I think the league recognized that the intent behind the violation was to benefit the Patriots as a team, and therefore the weight of the sanction should fall on the team, not the individual who authorized the infraction. I personally believe that, for this reason, it would have been fully justifiable to impose no sanction on Belichick at all — his actions were for the benefit of the Patriots and should be imputed to the Patriots.

    However, politically, the league could not let Belichick off with no punishment, so they imposed a stiff fine.