|ROGER GOODELL Swift judgment|
When Roger Goodell was appointed commissioner of the NFL, he declared he would preserve the integrity of the league by expecting its participants to take responsibility for their actions.
It's safe to say at this hour the commissioner is a man of his word.
In his short tenure as pro football's top boss, he has proved to be unflinching in his role as the taskmaster, ruler in hand, ready to rap the knuckles of truants who reflect badly on the product.
Make room, David Stern. You finally have competition in that elite circle of top sports commissioners. The NFL has placed its future in a no-nonsense disciplinarian who continues to enforce his policy of accountability, whether you wear one of the top-selling jerseys in the NFL or run one of the most envied franchises in football.
By laying the hammer down on the Patriots and their contrarian coach, Bill Belichick, Goodell has sent a message that no one - not even one of his signature teams - will be exempt from following the guidelines set forth by his league.
The penalties Goodell levied against the Patriots are weighty: the loss of a first-round draft pick if the Patriots make the playoffs (can you say when the Patriots make the playoffs?), a $500,000 fine for Belichick, and a $250,000 fine for the Patriots.
Naturally, few people are satisfied with his judgment. New England locals are outraged the videotaping of signals has warranted such serious sanctions. National pundits derided Goodell's ruling as too lenient, arguing Belichick should have been suspended in addition to the fines and loss of the pick.
In the days leading up to Goodell's ruling, a number of league observers predicted the Patriots coach would skate. They cited the popularity of the Patriots in general and the power and prestige of owner Robert Kraft in particular. Kraft and Goodell enjoy a close, solid relationship. In fact, New England's owner was one of the major proponents of elevating the former league attorney to his current lofty position.
Kraft was also shrewd enough to ally himself closely with former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, prompting conspiracy theorists to wonder aloud why, say, a pivotal playoff game in January 2002 in Foxborough was scheduled for a Saturday night, which meant bone-chilling cold, and, as it turned out, a fair amount of fluffy white precipitation, conditions that clearly benefited the home team. Fair or unfair, it was perceived in some NFL circles that Kraft, through his cozy relationship with Tagliabue, was a "favored" owner who could secure such advantages for his team.
That is a perception Goodell could ill afford. It was imperative he make an impartial, consistent judgment in the case of the Patriots. His players and their battered union leadership had already begun to chastise him as a commissioner who was too closely aligned with management and ownership. Had he gone soft on Kraft and, by association, Belichick, his credibility as an across-the-board disciplinarian would have taken a serious hit.
So Goodell sent the same message he sent Michael Vick, Adam "Pacman" Jones, even his mentor, Steelers owner Dan Rooney, whom he fined last season for criticizing the officials: If you break the rules, you're busted.
It surprises me how many NFL observers believe the Patriots got off too easy. The calls for Belichick's suspension were understandable and predictable, but consider this: If you asked him whether he'd prefer to serve a two- or three-game suspension or lose the draft pick, you can bet he'd take the suspension. The first-round pick could turn out to be Ty Warren or Laurence Maroney or Daniel Graham. It could be a loss that reverberates for years, especially when considering how well New England's brain trust drafts.
I was also amused at how quickly and frivolously people dismissed the staggering fine of half a million dollars to Belichick, and the $250,000 fine for the team. All I can say is those of you who can sneeze at that kind of coin must be printing money in your basement (in between calling the local talk radio show, of course).
Goodell's beef with Belichick was clearly not based solely on his decision to videotape the comings and goings of the New York Jets last weekend. When the league sends out a memo reminding everyone of the taping policy, it's a reasonable expectation the teams will adhere to those guidelines. Belichick's brazen disregard for that warning is the reason he finds himself embroiled in this mess.
It's difficult to discern the long-term effects of Videogate for the Patriots. The loss of the draft pick is far-reaching, but my guess is the controversy itself will take its natural course. If New England keeps on winning, this, too, shall pass. And, as we learned long ago, Belichick has little or no interest in how he is perceived.
In the short term, you have to like New England's chances tomorrow night against the Chargers. With the proper motivation, they could revert to playing the Rodney-No-Respect card (Harrison, not Dangerfield). Too many people have questioned their integrity this week, and that's never a good idea with this proud collection of veterans.
It's absurd to suggest all of New England's success is invalidated because of Belichick's cheating videotape ways, particularly since few - if any - of the players even knew it was happening. However, it's also absurd to suggest it's had no bearing at all. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.
Goodell's ruling also fell somewhere in between what most people, from one end of the spectrum to the other, hoped would happen. That's usually an indication you've been fair.
The Patriots weren't the only matter on Goodell's docket this week. His visit to backup Bills tight end Kevin Everett, who, after a helmet-to-helmet collision last weekend is hoping he'll walk again someday, was touching.
Hey, even the commissioner likes a break from the ruler once in a while.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.