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Grant Cohn: Bill Belichick's destructive impact eroding NFL's popularity

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick speaks to the media following the AFC championship against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots won 24-20. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

GRANT COHN,

The NFL would be better if Bill Belichick never coached.

I write that even though I look forward to watching his team, the New England Patriots, play in the upcoming Super Bowl. I appreciate his mastery of football schematics. I consider him the best coach in NFL history.

But, his legacy is negative.

Nothing can change that.

Belichick already has achieved more personal success than any other NFL coach. He has seven Super Bowl rings — five as a head coach and two as a defensive coordinator. But, his personal success came at the expense of the league. Damaged its integrity. Took advantage of its spirit. Made it less relatable to fans.

Belichick is like Al Davis in certain ways. Davis was one of the most successful people in NFL history, but he also moved the Raiders without permission from the rest of the league, and subsequently sued the NFL. That’s his legacy. Suing the league is very bad.

Belichick cheated. That’s even worse.

You remember what he did. From 2000 to 2007, Belichick videotaped other teams’ defensive signals. And his lifelong friend, Ernie Adams, decoded them. For eight seasons, the Patriots illegally stole teams’ signs and knew what plays opposing defenses were running before they ran them.

In 2007, Belichick’s former defensive coordinator, Eric Mangini, told on him. The league fined Belichick $500,000 — more than it had fined a coach ever before. And it fined the Patriots $250,000, and took away their first-round pick in 2008.

Imagine if Mangini hadn’t blown the whistle. Imagine if Belichick had never have gotten caught. He might be stealing signals in the upcoming Super Bowl.

His violations are no different than Barry Bonds taking steroids or Pete Rose betting on baseball. Those two players were great for long periods of time, but they are not in the Hall of Fame because they dishonored baseball.

Belichick dishonored football.

His destructive impact on the NFL goes far beyond ethics and cheating.

He took advantage of the NFL, and undid everything that made it the most popular league in America.

When Pete Rozelle became the commissioner, Major League Baseball was the most popular. Rozelle’s vision was to grow the NFL by humanizing football coaches and players — many of them anonymous backups hidden behind facemasks. Rozelle had a background in public relations. He was a student publicist in the University of San Francisco’s Athletic Department.

Under Rozelle, the NFL became king because his vision for the league was welcoming and generous.

Rozelle created an open league with as much access for media and fans as possible. Teams invited journalists to watch practices so they could better understand the team and the sport. Coaches invited writers into their offices so they could get to know each other.

Belichick essentially ended all of that, and although head trauma may damage the league’s future, rightfully so, Belichick’s utter secretiveness — you’d think he’s running the Pentagon — also hurts the NFL.

Belichick doesn’t let the media watch his practices. So now, most coaches close their practices, too. They want to be like him, want to be like the best. And, they’re afraid someone might be spying, because Belichick spied. He created a culture of paranoia in the NFL. Now that paranoia is all pervasive.

Bill Walsh never closed a practice to the media. George Seifert closed only one in eight seasons as the 49ers head coach.

These days, teams want the media and the fans as far away from the coaches and the players as possible. So many topics are off limits to media. You’d think they were covering national security. Press conferences have become exercises in avoiding questions. Players are afraid to say anything that deviates from the head coach’s manifesto.

The NFL has become sterile and impersonal.

We don’t really know the players anymore. We know their jersey numbers and their stats. And when they get hurt, we forget about them. Next man up.

Belichick set the tone for the entire league. Because of him, the NFL may not be America’s most popular sports league a few years from now.

The NBA may take over.

That league is following Rozelle’s playbook. The NBA wants as much media coverage as possible, coverage of a personal nature. Wants fans to feel they know the star players. Wants fans to care as much about the strained relationship between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the result of the game when those two play each other. Compare an open coach like Steve Kerr to Belichick, the ultimate closed coach.

I have a 7-year-old nephew who loves basketball. Can tell me all about Steph, KD, Draymond, LeBron, the Greek Freak. Like they’re his friends.

Meanwhile, my nephew couldn’t tell me the name of one football player other than Tom Brady. Couldn’t care less about the NFL.

This is Belichick’s legacy.

Grant Cohn covers the 49ers for The Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.