THE STORY was told after the death of Wellington Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants and an NFL patriarch. It was the story of how the Giants' bench came to be positioned in their home stadium.
For decades, that bench has been on the sunny side of the field - at Giants Stadium, and at the Yale Bowl before that, and at Yankee Stadium before that, and at the Polo Grounds before that. The reason was that Wellington's mother, way back when, saw her young son sniffling on the sideline during a loss to the Frankford Yellow Jackets and decided that she wanted him to stand in the sun and stay warm; no lie. This was in the days of leather helmets, by the way, but it has stayed the same for eight decades.
At Giants Stadium, this means that the bench is across the field from the press box. In the 1970s, Giants defensive coordinator Bill Arnsparger complained to his bosses that opposing teams were stealing his signals and asked that the team's bench be moved to the opposite side. Mara refused.
"Get better signals,'' he said.
Which is a long way of saying that Bill Belichick is not the devil. The New England Patriots' coach might be arrogant, and he did violate a league directive about technology-enhanced surveillance. The suspicion was clear that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was going to have to smack him around in a significant way because of how bad it looked, and Goodell did just that last night, taking away the Patriots' first-round draft choice in 2008 if they make the playoffs, second- and third-rounders if they miss the playoffs, plus a $500,000 fine for Belichick and a $250,000 fine for the Patriots.
This was a big wallop. The draft-choice penalty is enormous. But if that is the extent of the violation, a man and a camera focused on the opponent's defensive signaling, Belichick did not do anything that lots and lots and lots of other coaches do - he just did it with a camera.
He did not break some solemn code of integrity. What he did was violate a league directive that attempts to regulate the lack of integrity that has been a part of this sport forever.
There is a reason we never saw Andy Reid's lips move for years and years on the sideline, hidden behind that laminated Chinese restaurant menu from which he called the plays. There is a reason that the Eagles' defensive coaches have attempted to block the press-box view of their signaling in recent years, first with a couple of large gentlemen positioned strategically in front of the signals, and now with a couple of large gentlemen holding towels in the way, and next week maybe with a couple of large gentlemen holding bed sheets - king size, perhaps.
There is a reason why some teams employ two guys who signal in plays simultaneously - one with fake gesticulations, one real. There is a reason that pretty much every visiting team in the NFL, outside of Giants Stadium, faces the press box.
It is because they all try to decipher the other team's signals, and they always have. It is not against the rules. It is not considered cheating, not by anyone.
You are allowed, from the press box or the sideline, to have a guy stand there and watch the signals and write down, "First down . . . hat, belt, chest, fist pump,'' and then match that up with what the defense did and try to figure out what's coming. You just can't use a camera to help you.
However the information is compiled, by hand or by video, it is hard to believe that this stuff could be deciphered quickly enough to be of much value during a game. It is easy to see how this might help the next time you played a team, though, if the team were stupid enough to use the same signals.
But there obviously is some value in it or Belichick would not have been so brazen. You knew he was going to get hammered here by Goodell because of the public-relations problem he has created for the league - a league, by the way, that should have eliminated all of this by giving the defense the same radio helmets that the offense has, and hasn't done it mostly because it is too cheap.
The embarrassment for Belichick and his owner, Robert Kraft, was already enormous. This set of punishments - especially the forfeiture of the first-round draft choice, just a gigantic penalty, way more than anyone had a right to expect - will assure that no one will ever use a camera again to do what an observant 12-year-old can do almost as well.
Because this has been going on forever. I have seen it happen here, with this very franchise; horrors. It was back at the Vet, back when the main press box - which had the sweetest view in the league, along with a leaky ceiling - was right next to the box occupied by the Eagles' coaches. Only a sheet of clear Plexiglas separated the two.
I don't remember who was the head coach at the time, but there was an assistant coach with binoculars, and he was looking awfully intently at something between plays and then writing stuff down. He was not bird-watching. It didn't take me long to figure out what he was doing, and it didn't even register at the time.
Stealing signs? Of course - except it isn't stealing, not really, not when you do it in front of 70,000 people. Bill Belichick might be arrogant and foolish, but he did not invent this.