This is my Wednesday column.
The 49ers are off the hook. They can thank the Patriots.
Until Monday, the Niners were the NFL team with the worst history of cheating and paying for it.
Until Monday, the Niners had received the largest fine in the history of the league. The NFL fined owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr $1 million for “conduct detrimental to the league” in 1999.
Gov. Edwin Edwards of Louisiana had been extorting DeBartolo to obtain a riverboat casino license, and DeBartolo failed to report him. That’s a felony. DeBartolo pleaded guilty and had to give the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo, and her husband, John York.
Before Eddie gave the Niners away, his ownership group was notorious. The NFL fined Eddie’s vice president, Carmen Policy, $400,000 for violating the salary cap in 1997 and 2000.
And in 1990, the NFL fined the 49ers $500,000 for violating the league’s corporate ownership policy.
In a span of 10 years, the Niners racked up almost $2 million in fines.
Who cares anymore?
That was then. There’s no indication the Niners are like that now. Their new ownership group mostly stays out of trouble. Which means the Patriots have replaced the Niners as the biggest cheaters in the NFL. Go Patriots!
On Monday, the NFL fined the Patriots $1 million for failing to cooperate in the investigation of “Deflategate” — the Patriots’ use of deflated footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship game.
The league also suspended Tom Brady for the first four games of 2016 and stripped the Patriots of a 2016 first-round pick and a 2017 fourth-round pick.
All of this just eight years after the NFL fined Patriots head coach Bill Belichick $500,000 for spying on the Jets’ defensive signals.
Is cheating the Patriots’ legacy?
NFL vice president of football operations and former player Troy Vincent suggests the Patriots were deflating footballs even before the AFC championship.
“While we cannot be certain when the activity began,” Vincent wrote in a press release addressed to the Patriots, “the evidence suggests that Jan. 18 was not the first and only occasion when this occurred, particularly in light of the evidence referring to deflation of footballs going back to before the beginning of the 2014 season.”
Vincent addressed the following statement to Brady: “Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question.”
Talk about a carefully-worded statement. Vincent accused Brady of tarnishing the public’s confidence in the game. That’s serious. That’s what Pete Rose did when he bet on baseball, and that’s what Mark McGwire did when he took steroids. Vincent is calling Brady the worst kind of offender.
And just to rub it in, Vincent called Brady “otherwise respected.” Which suggests everything Brady has accomplished in his career — four Super Bowls, two MVPs, 10 Pro Bowls — all falls under the “otherwise” category, which is secondary to his primary legacy — being a cheater.
Yes, a cheater. Deflating footballs is like an entire baseball team using corked bats, or one basketball team shooting into a bigger hoop than the opponent. That’s not a game. That’s a farce.
Here is the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a game: “A diversion of the nature of a contest, played according to rules, and decided by superior skill, strength, or good fortune.”
Of course, teams are supposed to look for edge over the opponent. That’s where skill and strength come in. But the Oxford English dictionary doesn’t say anything about breaking rules.
The key phrase in the definition is “played according to rules” — rules both teams must agree to. The 49ers have abided by the rules since York took over the team. They don’t seem to have a culture of cheating.
Well, there was that tampering thing back in 2008. Allegedly they contacted Lance Briggs’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, during the 2007 season when Briggs still was under contract with the Chicago Bears.
The NFL did not fine the Niners for this — they merely took away a fifth-round draft pick. Gave them a slap on the wrist.
And the man who tampered no longer is with the 49ers. Scot McCloughan was the general manager at the time, and he was the offender. Now Trent Baalke is Niners’ GM, and McCloughan is the GM of the Redskins.’
During Baalke’s tenure as GM, the Niners have not tarnished the league’s integrity. They’ve only tarnished their own. Since 2012, the 49ers’ players lead the league for the most arrests: 11.
It’s the Niners’ business if they want the public to perceive them as a bunch of criminals. To the Niners’ credit, they’re taking steps to change that perception. They say they want to win with class and, as far as we know, they didn’t draft a single criminal this year. That’s progress.
The 49ers are striving to be above reproach. The Patriots aren’t. They’re seem to be striving to cheat and get away with it.
The Niners don’t seem to seek an unfair edge over the opponent. They seem delighted to win simply by being bigger and stronger.
That’s the Niners’ edge, but only time will tell if it becomes their legacy.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.