Photo by Beth
So there I was the other day at Jiffy Lube, where the only things to read are Car and Driver and ESPN: The Magazine. I picked up an issue of ESPN featuring a teaser line on its cover: "Why You Shouldn't Hate Bill Belichick."
Written by Tom Farrey, the article is an attempt to draw parallels between the Hooded One and the Social Darwinist movement of the early 20th century. Along the way, it also attempts to link Tony Dungy to Muscular Christians, and throws in the twist that New England stadium namesake King C. Gillette was a Utopian Socialist, the political opposite of a Darwinist. (I smell a scandal!)
Let me say first that I appreciate stuff like this. There aren't enough attempts to link football to its wider cultural and historical context among sportswriters, especially as compared to baseball. On the other hand, I do have to say that if you're defending Bill Belichick by making obscure comparisons with historical figures, perhaps you're damning him with faint praise.
Personally, I think people shouldn't hate Bill Belichick because we don't know Bill Belichick. Yet, paradoxically, that's also the real reason I think some people hate him.
He denies us the right to know him. He defies our demands that he appear vulnerable, at least sometimes. Some people appear to take this personally and hate him because of it, and at the same time they anoint other less successful coaches, like the sainted Tony Dungy, as somehow more deserving. (For another example of this preoccupation with personality over performance, look no further than the sentimental vote for Brett Farve that made Tom Brady's election as this year's league MVP, appallingly, not unanimous.)
Hence Bill Belichick's vicious-cycle relationship with the public at large: he reserves the right to tell it when something is not any of its business, and also not to tell it why. The public responds with a volley of personal invective meant to provoke him into a debate, Belichick refuses to take them up on it, and the cycle of frustration continues.
As long as we're connecting the world of sports to our wider cultural context, why not question what it is that makes us require deep interactions via the media with an NFL coach whose job is not-- as one friend of Belichick's was quoted as saying in the ESPN article-- to work for the media?
I thought that same friend had the best take on the situation as a whole: "Over the last seven years, [the Patriots] have been the best team in football. If anybody has any intelligence whatsoever, that's how they'll remember the team and the coach."
Interestingly enough, that friend was Bobby Knight. And he does have a point, no matter what he's done to undermine it with chair-throwing, player-choking antics. (I certainly hope no one would go so far as to put any behavior of Belichick's in the same category.)
What's more, I do think people will remember this year's Patriots that way. In fact, I fully anticipate the day when the same people who currently excoriate Belichick and the Patriots for their perceived crimes against congeniality will look back with nostalgia on this era of football as the Golden Age, with Belichick as its Lombardi. They'll also probably be crowing about how dishonorable the game has since become.
P.S. ESPN made a really smart move with this article by enlisting the "stat stars" at FootballOutsiders.com to create a statistical evaluation of the top coaches in both leagues, in a sidebar that was probably more valuable than the feature article it accompanied. The good news for Pats fans, as the Jags advance in the playoffs, is the scouting report on Jacksonville head coach Jack del Rio: "Against evenly matched opponents, he too often gets outcoached."