Bill Belichick, “Beli-cheat,” and Some Thoughts about Ethical (Make that Unethical) Practices


It’s the playoffs.

The New England Patriots pulled out a win, quite impressively. Seattle dominated. And here in Dallas, on this playoff morning, we are all on pins and needle, wanting the Cowboys to beat Green Bay…

So, I did a little early morning football reading/surfing, and came across the Rodney Harrison defense of Bill Belichick against the Don Shula charge of “Bill Beli-cheat.” (read about it here).

And, I got to thinking about ethics.

First, the obvious. I have made some mistakes in my own life. I have not always lived up to my intentions. (Or, maybe, I have in fact lived down to my bad intentions). And, I think it’s likely I’m not alone. To use Christian terminology, “all have sinned… there is none righteous, no not one…”

But, I think we have increasingly become a society that embraces (yes, “embraces” is the right word) unethical behavior as a business success strategy. And, maybe Bill Belichick is an example of a much larger societal practice.

Winning coach - definitely. Cheater (at least, cheater in the past) - also, definitely.
Winning coach – definitely. Cheater (at least, cheater in the past) – also, definitely.

Put it in clear, simple terms. Bill Belichick cheated. What he did was knowingly wrong. And he did what he did in order to gain an advantage that was against the rules. And, though some would argue against this, it probably helped him win. If it did not help, why do it? And, so far (this could change this year), he was won no Super Bowls since he was caught cheating in this manner. So, maybe, his cheating was a key factor in his winning the big one…

What he did when he did it was wrong, and he knew it was wrong. Dubbed “spygate,” it brought the largest fine in the history of the NFL against a coach, and the maximum fine allowed. (Read the Wikipedia summary here).

But, this approach is widespread, going far beyond cheating in sports. A company – even an entire industry — knows that it is lying (“nicotine is not addicting”), gets caught, and only then changes that specific practice. Maybe paying big penalties in the process. But, the money made while the practice continued meant that the behavior was, in fact, so very profitable, and thus could be seen as a good business strategy.

This is more widespread than we want to acknowledge. Company after company knows that what it is doing is wrong. But, even though what they do, what they “practice” as the normal course of doing business, is wrong, and can bring a significant penalty, it is still so very profitable to do this wrong action. In other words, the company makes much more money in the long run, even after paying all fines and penalties. Unethical behavior as a business strategy.

It’s quite a long list. Recently, we’ve seen it with General Motors, now Honda. And, in the not too distant past, W. R. Grace. And don’t forget the West Virginia Mining tragedy and the utter disregard of safety practices. (read this article).

Here’s one specific story from Texas. A few years ago, a gasoline company called SunMart intentionally set their pumps to dispense less than a full gallon of gasoline when the pump indicated that a gallon had been dispensed, in many of their outlets. (In other words, this was intentional, and company wide…) Read the details here. Here’s a key excerpt (note: “Abbott” was then Attorney General Greg Abbott of Texas. He is now the Governor).

“The jury’s verdict reflects a significant and well-deserved rebuke to SunMart’s fraudulent pump calibration scheme,” Abbott said. “After carefully considering the evidence during an eight-week trial, the jury concluded the defendant illegally set its gasoline pumps to deliver less than a full gallon of fuel.”

So, why does our society accept as a matter of course such unethical practices? And, make no mistake, such society acceptance is a reality. So, why?

It appears to me that, as a society, we “accept” cheating, even fraudulent practices, even life-threatening practices, in pursuit of greater profit. The money made, even after the fines and penalties, makes the practices “acceptable.”

What do I mean, “acceptable?” Bill Belichick still has his job. SunMart is still in business. As are many other companies that have received “harsh penalties.”

And, (personal comment)—I’m pretty bothered by this reality.

2 thoughts on “Bill Belichick, “Beli-cheat,” and Some Thoughts about Ethical (Make that Unethical) Practices

  1. First of all, I love your work and value the expertise you provide. In regards to this article, Bill Belichick did not cheat. He used trickery all within the legal requirements of the game. After all football is just a game with offenses/defenses constantly trying to gain an advantage. I played football for years and the coaches were constantly trying to add in a wrinkle that was deceptive and sneaky but all within the rules. The same as Belichick.

    Equating what the Patriots did to ethics in business is quite a stretch.

    However, I do agree 100% with your assertions on businesses operating unethically. Many practices deserve that label.

    But how about the game of sales and procurement. Are not we both deceptive into what the “true price” is to try to either get a lower price or maintain a higher profitability? Is it not a game just like football? Is it unethical –I don’t think so.

    Maybe that’s the problem. It’s like the Tipping Point where at 211 degrees and below, it’s a game but if you go 1 degree further it’s boiling.

  2. Frank, I really like, and appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comment.

    I do wonder if you mis-read my post. I was not referring to what Coach Belichick did this weekend with his “trick play.” That was “trickery,” but certainly within the rules.

    But I was referring to his practice of video taping opposing teams practice sessions, now more than a decade ago. This was clearly against the rules, and he was fined with the largest fine ever for a coach. I do consider it unethical (cheating) when a coach violates the clear rules of the league. (I suppled the link to the Wikipedia article about this in my post).

    But, as we both agree, the bigger picture is what is disturbing to me. And, though there are all sorts of advantages taken in sales and procurement, there are practices that one can follow, and lines that one should not cross.

    i suspect that anyone wrestling honestly with where such a line should be is at least thinking about “what is ethical here?” And, that is a good thing.

    Thanks for your comment.

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