Who Watches the Watchers?

“Well, can the people on TV see me or am I just paranoid?”

— Rockwell, “Somebody’s Watching Me”

The place of genius is a tricky one when it comes to sports. Fundamentally, the spectacle of athletics foregrounds the body over the mind. That’s not to say that thinking isn’t an important, or even integral, part of sporting competitions. But in the age of the hyper-stylized, HD-televised highlight reels, slam dunks predominate in favor of more subtle strategic maneuvers. Put simply, in today’s sports world, we’re looking at muscles over minds.

That is, unless, one can hype athletic knowledge and experience until it becomes a spectacular, supernatural attribute. Enter New England Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick. Hailed as an unqualified “genius” by NFL commentators, fans, and players alike, Belichick invokes a second coming of Albert Einstein reincarnated to divine theory of rushing (instead of the old theory of relativity). Such praise is due to the recent successes of his team, which include six division titles, four conference championships, and three Super Bowl wins — all during Belichick’s tenure as coach. The team’s greatness, and Belichick’s accolades, reached a new pinnacle last year as the Patriots went undefeated during the regular season and accomplished a feat that had not been pulled off since 1978.

As a result, Belichick has been variously lauded for his football “I.Q.”, celebrated as a “coach’s son” (which always implies an insider’s knowledge of, and appreciation for, the game), and cast as a sports mastermind who possesses unsurpassed insight into the game. Even his game-day wardrobe (sweatshirts in various stages of wear — among a coaching group who tend to eschew ties for neon windbreakers, Belichick is by far the worst-dressed) helps to make the case that he, like Einstein, is trying to free his mind up for maximum efficiency by eliminating all thoughts of fashion and other, less pressing, concerns.

Despite his efforts, though, pressing concerns beyond football eventually found their way to Belichick’s doorstep. After their opening victory of the 2007 season, it was revealed that the Patriots were illegally videotaping their opponents’ signals. Details of the infraction emerged slowly over the course of the Patriot’s undefeated season, and were synthesized in the press under the title “Spygate”.

In addition to the 2007 opener, rumors began to circulate that other, past Patriots’ wins, including their Super Bowl XXXVI victory over the St. Louis Rams, were gotten dishonestly thanks to illegal taping. Much as any sports controversy plays out these days, denials were issued, assurances made, and lawyers mobilized.

The investigation made headlines off and on for the duration of the season. For their part, the Patriots kept up their unbeaten streak, right up until their improbable loss to the New York Giants in this most recent Super Bowl. In the meantime, league commissioner Roger Goodell carried out a prolonged, disjointed inquiry that is, of this writing, still not officially concluded.

Matt Walsh, a former video technician with the team under Belichick, claimed to have evidence of prior wrongdoing. To date, however, the team has only been found guilty of taping the first game of 2007 (against division rivals the New York Jets). The punishment was a $250,000 team fine and loss of a first round draft pick for the team, and a fine of $500,000 for Belichick personally. Tellingly, Goodell had all evidence of the Patriot’s wrongdoing destroyed after pronouncing his verdict. As Walsh’s most recent meeting with Goodell has apparently produced no new evidence, this is the likely extent of the issue.

All the while, Belichick’s position as a coaching genius has remained relatively unscathed. Half a million dollars is no small amount of money, but when it’s measured against recent league action taken against some players, it amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist. Take Adam “Pacman” Jones, for example, who was suspended by Goodell for a full year without pay after having been questioned — not arrested — by the police in a number of incidents. For his part, Belichick retains his job, his salary, and goes into the 2008 season with a team favored to repeat much of its past success.

What’s more, many in the mainstream media have bent over backwards to give Belichick the benefit of the doubt. He was afforded an interview on the CBS Evening News, for example, to deliver his side of the story. Such prime-time, network news treatment of a sports figure under siege is unprecedented. Where was Pacman’s CBS interview?

Furthermore, the Boston Herald, which initially reported that the Patriots had taped the Rams during their Super Bowl game, printed a full, front page retraction of the allegation. By contrast, most apologies, when they concern players, are barely given room on the back of the sports page — if they are printed at all. The case against Belichick, though, was both tentatively asserted and dramatically retracted, leaving the coach safely in his position as head of the team and enjoy the full and vocal confidence of team owner Robert Kraft.

Even those who have spoken out against Belichick have reinforced his genius. The Boston Globe‘s Bob Ryan, for example, wrote a criticism of the coach that compared him to “Richard Nixon. Brilliant. Tormented.” Such a claim (for either men) is certainly debatable, but it’s more troubling is its praise of Belichick’s (elevated, though troubled) mind, even while condemning his actions.

Of course, there are those detractors and critics who call for further investigations and stiffer punishments (the most vocal among them bearing some grudge against Belichick for past defeats). As well, Senator Arlen Specter has stated the need for an independent investigation — highly improbable given the impending election season in Washington. Neither Specter, nor Belichick’s critics, though, has been able to affect much in the way of results.

What, then, is insulating the coach from more severe recrimination? One strong possibility may lie with his title. In a scandal about illegal acts of looking, the attention has quickly shifted away from what’s fundamentally at work in “Spygate” — that is, sightlines.

As a head coach, Belichick’s position is one of overseer, with many of the racial implications (given the demographic disparity between African American players and predominantly white coaches) imbedded in that term. In the popular imagination, it’s his job to organize the team and ensure their productivity on the field. The coach’s gaze, in essence, articulates in particular a kind of authority that helps football’s spectators to understand what they are watching: namely, bodies at work under the direction of a central authority.

Such a construction goes a long way to explaining why coaches so often are awarded the blame for a team’s failure, or full credit for its success. Regardless of his players’ talent, or lack thereof, a coach is usually given accolades, or censure, for the players’ abilities on the field.

The head coach, then, does more than just decide whether to punt the ball or go in on the fourth down. He represents an organizing presence in relation to which the players and their performances are understood, the brain that articulates the on-field brawn.

Belichick, as an oft-dubbed “genius,” represents then the ultimate expression of this idea. The Patriots success, for many, results from his unparalleled oversight as their coach. Spygate, in this light, is really just a case of overzealous coaching. Belichick apologists would argue that, by looking in ways that weren’t allowed, the coach was being merely too much a coach. He’s not flaunting physical menace or lasciviousness, as is stereotypically ascribed to misbehaving black players. Instead, he’s just overstepping his institutionally constructed and culturally encouraged sense of authority.

Ironically, league commissioner Roger Goodell, through his own failure as the league’s head overseer, is reinforcing this notion of the primacy of the coaching intellect. In a league where (predominantly white) authority figures are needed to intellectualize and give order to the hyper-stylized physicality of its (predominantly black) players, no brain is more lauded than Belichick’s. It should come as no surprise, then, that Belichick remains, for all intents and purposes, beyond the reach of meaningful punishment. After all, it’s his job to cast his brilliant insight over the game and its players. In exchange, the league turns a blind eye to his excesses.