byClark Booth

Everyone but the pope has weighed in on the question of Bill Belichicks honor, or lack thereof. Some may deem that still more proof that only a pretty dumb country could regularly feature so much heat on a subject capable of yielding so little light.

On the other hand, the charm of sport -- and maybe, in the end, what most verifies its usefulness -- is its role as an extended metaphor illustrating our manners, mores, and values. That was the whole idea when the games were first organized and taken seriously. Its what the Brits had in mind when they feverishly embraced the spectacular notion that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton!

Ah, so it isnt just about who won and thereby has the right to cavort and swagger, or who lost and must suffer to be seen as physically or even morally weak. So there is more to it, after all. You mean, in the end its about principles and discipline and spirit and character and that something called sportsmanship is the glue that holds it all together? What a marvelous notion!

It was on that quite grandiose premise that the monumental growth of the games in the 20th century was joyously received and voraciously indulged to the point where sport shapes the bedrock of every culture under the sun while making a lot of people of dubious worth both very rich and very powerful. Thats why this loud and messy argument about the ethics of a football coach has real meaning and unsuspected depth.

Some argue its Belichicks tough luck to have been the one thus ensnared neither because he is the first to cheat nor the only one now cheating. I emphatically disagree. That it should be Belichick on the griddle is neither unfair nor inappropriate. Hes perfect for the role as well as most deserving.

Football is the national game. Thats something football insists upon and all the polls confirm. The most successful coaches of the NFL, where the game is played to its zenith, are cultural lions as well as absolute despots. No other coach still roaming the NFLs sidelines better personifies all the complexities of the role than Belichick. He bestrides the game and hes done so with a decided hauteur bordering on disdain. Moreover, to those to whom much is given much is expected. Theres nothing new about any of that. Still more to the point, Belichick has seemed to be asking for it.

In the days that have followed the incident in the Jets game the indictment of Belichick has spread much beyond the so-called video-gate transgression. The list of suspicions is long.

Several coaches have openly wondered why they have so much trouble receiving clear radio signals in Foxborough. Is jamming opponents sideline communications another Belichick dirty trick? Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, arguably the countrys most knowledgeable football reporter, thinks so. Mike Wilbon, highly respected columnist of the Washington Post, asserts that in the official league councils, the Patriots with Belichick leading the way are seen as smug, dismissive and manipulative to the highest degree. Bob Cook, a Chicago football writer, reports that Belichick recently and with notable bitterness tried to intimidate the Vikings to keep them from plucking Patriots off the waiver wire. Skip Bayless, a Dallas columnist, says several NFL coaches have told him they suspect the Patriots bug their hotel rooms when they visit Foxborough. Wilbon adds, Then theres the matter of Belichick constantly lying about his teams injuries or refusing to disclose them as the league requires. Thats been a joke around the NFL for years. Much is being made of his nasty treatment of assistants who move on and his petty condescensions with the media, which should be the least of the concerns.

Around the country hes getting pounded. Genius or Phony, reads a typical headline. Bellicheat is the new nickname of choice and it has been emblazoned across the land. In Boston, where deference to His Worship has been axiomatic for seven years, there has been a reluctance to probe details of his conduct, let alone re-examine his attitudes and personality. The Globe has been particularly circumspect. Lord, how we miss Willie McDonough. Still, its clear that its a new day. On the front page of the Herald, he was branded a coward. That is strong stuff and doubtless, to the supremely proud Belichick, rather devastating.

Belichick has been permanently damaged by this. But not in Boston which has become the most parochial sports town in America. Its amusing to recall how we used to sneer at the yahoos in Gainesville, Florida and Columbus, Ohio and Norman, Oklahoma whose devotion to their silly teams exceeds the bounds of a reasonable allegiance, becoming mindless. We used to think they were hicks. Now we are just like them. My team right or wrong! (As long as it remains a winner, of course.) It is a variation on that old and pernicious nationalism that has made such a mess of global geopolitics over the last millennium or so. Our nation can do no wrong! Our team can do no wrong! Both fallacies spring from the same warped mentality.

As long as Belichick keeps conquering hell be bigger than ever in this town and it will fast become heresy to dare question his ethics. You got a brilliant illustration of all that just the other night in the dramatic romp over the Chargers. The wave of adulation it inspired sounded like something borrowed from Nuremberg. If he keeps winning, few in this intensely provincial region will want to hear that their coach is some sort of Nixonian twit.

But elsewhere it will be different. Theres anger out there up and down the Republic, folks. I can guarantee it. As for the historical record -- surely very precious to Belichick and even more so to Owner Kraft and his clan -- you can forget it. In the historical record, a big bloody asterisk has been attached to this incipient Patriots dynasty and it will be -- I am dead certain -- impossible to erase. If it were only about video-gate there would be doubt. But there are all those other issues. Most have made up their minds. Hes played smack into the hands of his foes and theyll never let him off the hook. Belichick is smart enough to realize all this even as he was arrogant enough to let it happen. That is sure to gnaw at his innards for a long, long time.

It wasnt the smartest thing he ever said, but Bob Kraft was not entirely off the mark when he initially quipped that the firestorm engulfing his team has been fed by the envy of the teams theyve been kicking around the last six years. The lead dog is always an easy mark. Resentment breeds nastiness. Thats why ever greater success obliges ever more prudence, no matter what your dodge may be. Thats why you should never stoop to conquer. To his credit, Kraft quickly backed off from the self-pity, swallowed his pride, and acknowledged the error of his coachs ways. But you can bet the ranch the coach will never do that because he simply doesnt know where to begin.

And the irony remains that it was all so foolish. Few believe he needed to cheat to win. But he obviously believed that. Otherwise, why would he have done it? The comparisons to the behavior of Richard Nixon, that other misguided zealot who was obsessed with winning at all costs, are fascinating. And like Nixon his problems may have only begun with the botching of a simple little cheating caper gone awry. If thats the case who would weep, save for those who actually believe that the only thing that matters is winning?