Products of the system

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The National Football League's greatest rogue philosopher offered the most succinct and enduring mission statement about the league and the game of football.

"Just win, baby," Oakland Raiders managing partner Al Davis always says, cutting to the chase like no one else.

There is no honor in the NFL. This is our most violent game, a cut-throat, all-out, win-at-all-costs sport where cheating – be it holding on the line, bumping in the secondary, or injecting a drug in the corner of a weight room – is, if not applauded, at the very least accepted.

Each sport has a culture and what people raise hell about in baseball, golf or basketball is mostly shrugged off in the NFL. That this is far and away our most popular sporting pursuit – the new national pastime – says as much about America as it does about the league's morals.

So what to make of the NFL's present-day coaching deity, Bill Belichick, the one who has won three of the last six Super Bowls but now is embroiled in a cheating scandal?

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has "determined" that a New England Patriots employee videotaped the New York Jets defensive signals in a 38-14 victory Sunday, according to ESPN. The commissioner awaits the Pats' defense later this week.

So is Belichick the greatest Machiavellian mind in this ruthless game, one who just happened to get caught this time? Or is he just a lout and a cheat?

Is he an NFL problem or is he the NFL; a byproduct of a business where a coach that doesn't seek every last advantage is doomed to fail, like an honest politician?

"I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, 'If you're not cheating, you're not trying,' " said San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson.

Here's the thing with Belichick: this charge fits perfectly with everything we know about him on and off the field. He's no angel, a lifetime of drama that ranged from backing out of contracts, feuding with mentors (Bill Parcells) and protégés (Eric Mangini) alike and even giving the tabloids plenty of fodder for his, ah, extracurricular behavior, if you will.

But it also fits with everything we know about the NFL. Don't coaches hide their mouths when they speak, use multiple sideline signalers and guard playbooks with their lives? Wouldn't they sell their soul to know what an opponent is thinking?

"Really, it's nothing new," said Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin about signal stealing. "When you see offensive coordinators covering their mouth – and that's been going on a long time – that's one of the reasons why that's done.

"You hear rumors of things of that nature," Tomlin said, noting it often comes from the "New England family." "In terms of confirming it, it's never been confirmed in any instance to my knowledge. But usually where there is smoke, there's fire. Those rumors are founded on something. So it's not totally shocking, no."

Not shocking, perhaps. But embarrassing? Absolutely. The Green Bay Packers claim they caught a Patriots employee videotaping their signals a year ago and complained to the NFL.

If New England's defense is as feeble as expected, then the franchise should be punished. The rules are the rules, no matter how often they are broken; no matter the base culture.

Goodell should take a draft pick or even suspend Belichick, who's iron-fisted leadership means no employee would dare try this without his knowledge. Stealing signals via the human eye is one thing. Having an employee use a video camera speaks to an operation that is both brazen and premeditated.

It also shows the depths these coaches will go for a competitive edge. When properly executed, the advantage would be considerable. But in this instance, the risk/reward variable seems painfully small since the Patriots are more than capable of whippin' the Jets all on their own.

Perhaps that's just football. Whether Belichick is actually worse (or better) than any other coach in the league is difficult to determine. All of these coaches are nuts. To be an NFL coach is to work endless 100-hour weeks, sleep in your office and go bleary-eyed looking for the slightest flaw in an opponents’ Tampa 2. Then you wind up losing because a kicker goes wide right.

They sacrifice everything in their lives in pursuit of victories. The casualties are easy to see: health, marriage, children, sanity. It's why NFL football coaches, despite being multimillionaires, are perhaps the single most miserable group of people you'll ever know.

If you are willing to virtually abandon your wife and kids to win a game, what won't you do?

The NFL isn't alone here. Cheating is everywhere. And it can be confusing, each sport has a different culture. In golf, you can't improve your lie an inch, yet in soccer flopping is considered a skill. In baseball, cheating pitchers are colorful but corked-bat hitters are condemned. In NASCAR, a crew chief that isn't pushing the legal limits of engineering isn't doing his job. College sports is often hailed for its "purity," yet illegal recruiting is so prevalent former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian once surmised, "Nine out of 10 teams are cheating, the other is in last place."

So why expect anything less in the NFL? Fans want victories and nothing else. There are no illusions of purity here. They'll gladly cheer for players who can range from miscreant to felon. The players themselves will vote peers who have been busted taking performance enhancing drugs into the Pro Bowl.

Nobody cares. Nothing matters. If you're not cheating, you're not trying. Just win, baby.

That's the NFL. And that is the world that would lead someone such as Bill Belichick, someone with so much to lose, to insanely risk his reputation on the long shot that a small advantage might provide just one more victory he probably would have gotten anyway.