Some headline writers labeled it a “death stare.”
It was an apt description of what happened when Dana Jacobson of CBS Sports asked New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick a question a couple Sundays ago: “I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask, what was the final straw with Antonio Brown?”
Belichick grumbled his stock answer when faced with questions about the former All-Pro receiver who was cut by the Patriots after being accused of sexually assaulting two women and threatening one of them via Twitter. Said Belichick, “We’re focused on the Jets today.”
Jacobson accepted his answer, said thank you, and tilted her microphone back toward Belichick for what presumably would have been his closing courtesy — a thanks, a goodbye, even a nod. But no.
Just the stare. And then the coach walked away, saying nothing.
It was rude, completely unprofessional, and more. It was intimidating. All in all, it was repugnant, especially with a woman holding the microphone.
And the coach’s unspoken message was clear: How dare you ask me about something as trivial as sexual assault and cyberthreats when I have something as important as a football game to prepare for?
To people who follow NFL football, those kinds of replies might not be a surprise, especially coming from Belichick, the ultimate win-at-all-costs coach. Even before his Patriots took a big risk by signing the troubled Brown, they were caught up in two major cheating scandals: Deflategate, which involved the deflating of footballs for a competitive advantage in a playoff game, and Spygate, which involved spying on an opponent’s sideline (the New York Jets, by the way.)
But when something as serious as sexual assault and cyberthreats intrudes on our sports, it’s not OK for anyone in a position of authority to dismiss it by saying they’re simply focused on the game. Especially a coach, who should be a leader of boys or men. A real leader has to recognize when it’s time to say or do the right thing.
Looking back on a painful period at Penn State, it’s why a lot of people, me included, were so disturbed by Joe Paterno’s reaction to the Jerry Sandusky child rape scandal. According to the book “Paterno” by Joe Posnansky, when Paterno’s son pressed him about what he knew about Sandusky, the coach said, “I’ve got Nebraska to think about, I can’t worry about this.”
Sadly, our sports can corrupt our thinking, and Belichick’s boorish behavior and his “focused on the Jets” line reminded me of this. It also started me thinking about why I see value in sports — because I do — and how badly sports need better spokespeople and role models. In other words, people who understand what matters in life.
The value? At the professional level, sports can foster community bonding, civic pride and economic development. In our schools, athletics promotes regular exercise, teamwork, practice and dedication. They also help our kids understand how to perform under pressure.
That is, unless they do harm to our mind, body or soul.
Belichick’s death stare also started me thinking about one of the greatest athletes to ever lace up a pair of spikes, one who believed in cultivating the mind, body and soul.
Unfortunately, in the digital-cable sports era, many fans don’t know who Roger Bannister was, but they should. In 1954, Bannister became the first person to break a barrier that was once considered unbreakable, the four-minute mile. On a wind-swept track in England, he ran it in 3:59.40. So he’s a historical figure in the annals of human sport, for sure.
And he ran that sub-four minute mile as a medical student, and get this: Soon thereafter, he devoted his life to medicine, not sport. He spent the rest of his days as a neurologist before dying last year at the age of 88.
Bannister knew what mattered in life.
Consider him the anti-Belichick.
The Patriots won their sixth Super Bowl last season, and they remain a powerhouse, which means they may end up going down as the greatest dynasty in NFL history. But Belichick shouldn’t be remembered as the greatest coach. History shouldn’t treat him as kindly as the coaches of other NFL dynasties, such as Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, Chuck Noll of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers.
Instead, Belichick should be remembered as a flawed coach, because of his significant flaws as a human being.
Richard Fellinger is an author, former journalist and fellow in Elizabethtown College’s Writing Wing.