Friday, September 14, 2007

Belichick, PFT, and "Mistakes"

So regular readers of this blog probably realize that PFT ( tends to get on my nerves, yet I cannot stop checking the site. They do a great job of commenting on daily news in the world of the NFL, but along with these comments comes a smugness that they know how everything really is. Pacifist Viking has talked about their discussion of Tiki Barber, etc. But one thing that really annoyed me today was their discussion of Bill Belichick and his public statement that can be found here.

Specifically they get into the semantics of the word "mistake." They make a contention that a "mistake" implies that an action was not consistent with an individual's character. Now I believe I understand where they are coming from. A person could not claim that something like a "bookkeeping error" was a mistake if the person's character shows that they consistently were "fudging" the books in order to make the numbers look better, etc. In other words the creative accountants surrounding the Enron scandal were guilty under the law because it was not a "mistake" but rather it was a reflection of their lack of character in bookkepping. Under this understanding of "mistake" PFT is probably correct to be upset by Belichick's use of the word mistake. In their minds this action is consistent with his lack of character (moral uprightness) when it comes to coaching and competitiveness within the NFL. They are correct in these terms and Belichick could not escape punishment for his actions. But guess what neither him nor Michael Vick (who they also criticize for using the term mistake in his apology) were claiming the word "mistake" in terms of not being culpable for their actions. Neither Vick nor Belichick said "I made a mistake, I shouldn't have to be punished because it was a mistake."

Rather, both Belichick and Vick were admitting a "mistake" in different semantical terms. For them the use of "mistake" referred to "an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc." They were correct to use the term "mistake" in this way. Both of them made an error in action which was caused by poor reasoning or carelessness.

The problem with PFT is that their criticism is based upon a rigid understanding of the term mistake as only having one meaning in all situations. Both Vick and Belichick were not claiming that "mistake" meant they were not guilty because the action was out of character, rather they were both admitting that their reasoning or judgement in performing the action was faulty and that the action was wrong. It was a mistake.

I could go on to deconstruct their statement, "Folks, it wasn't a "mistake." A "mistake" is forgetting to ask the waitress to hold the mayo." Because really in terms of what they later say, that a mistake is an action out of character, they would have to first prove that the person forgetting to ask the waitress to hold the mayo was someone whose character included the quality of never forgetting something. But isn't it true that they are using "mistake" here in a different sense. I think so, but hey maybe I am wrong. Either way I was annoyed by the commentary of PFT.

Underlying all of this commentary by PFT is a position that they hold. They essentially claim that a person cannot be contrite or apologize if the action taken was within their character. Essentially they are claiming that character is a static thing and that outside influences or opinions cannot cause an individual to understand that they were wrong and their actions within their character were wrong. That seems plain absurd to me because I have seen plenty of people change over time and become "better" people after realizing their actions or thoughts were wrong.


  1. The problem is they treat the word "mistake" according to a scale, while the word "mistake" doesn't imply degree. There are minor mistakes and there are major mistakes. Forgetting to ask for mayo? Mistake. Getting involved in a long, drawn-out war? Mistake. Each is a mistake, because the word mistake doesn't mean "error on a small scale"--it just means an error, which can include big errors, too.

    A further problem comes when PFT assumes a mistake must be a one-time error (for example, Vick didn't commit a "mistake" because he engaged in criminal behavior over a period of years). To me, that's still a mistake: it's just a much bigger mistake. It was a major mistake. I suppose you could define it as a long series of mistakes, but I'd say doing it at all could still be described as a mistake.

    Certainly the word "mistake" is a mild word that downplays behavior, as opposed to "crime," "bad deed," etc. One could quibble with the word choice as an attempt to deflect responsibility. It is not, however, denotatively inaccurate.

    Without attempting to inject my own political/moral views (though my name is a giveaway), let's use an example that I hinted at above. Critics of the war in Iraq will often use the word "mistake" to describe the war. "This war is a mistake." "This war was a mistake from the beginning." Now this is a war that took a long time to plan, and has been going on for even longer. It continues. If a war critic calls the war a "mistake," he/she is not saying it is a small, minor oversight. A war critic is not saying that it was a one-time error out of character with the decision makers. He/she is calling it a mistake, one that is carried out over a long period of time, and (likely) one that is within the character of those who made the decision to go to war. The word still fits. It doesn't imply degree of error, and it doesn't imply a one-time, out of character error.

  2. Alright, I like to provide an example.

    Here is what Barbara Boxer writes today:

    "This war is the biggest foreign policy mistake ever"

    If you used PFT's logic, this would be incorrect use of the word. The adjective "biggest" means there can be different sized mistakes. And she is referring to a major war that has been going on for over four years--it's not a one-time, careless error, but a long-term, perpetual mistake. And it's an error with moral implications--it's not a matter of forgetting to ask for mayo, but a mistake that costs lives.

    I don't think Boxer is misusing the word itself--and thus I'm not sure Belichick is misusing the word.

    But I can still see the point that somebody breaking a rule is trying to minimize it by calling it a "mistake"--but it's also sort of what one would expect a person to do.

    (Hey, everybody, here's what you get at this blog--intensive examination of the meaning and context of a single word. Fun stuff).

  3. Anonymous5:17 PM

    "Potentially on the track to be very good."

    That was the statement by Florio over at PFT about the winner of the Lions or Vikings in their little video preview.

    Potentially on the track to be very good? Heck...I am potentially on the track to being the president of the united states. I have determined I hate the word "potentially"

  4. Anonymous7:38 PM

    Hey, one can parse excessively, and Belichik probably is technically correct in the use of the word "mistake", but it seems to me tht a truly contrite person is more likely to say "I engaged in wrongdoing", as opposed to "I made a mistake". What bothered me more was his implication that this "mistake" was at least in part due to his misinterpretation of the rule(s) involved, as opposed to a willful decision to break a rule. I ain't buyin' it.

  5. I agree with you on that Anon: saying he misinterpreted the rule would be like telling an officer you interpreted "Speed Limit 55" differently.

  6. I think Vick and Belichick meant to say they made a Boo-Boo not a mistake.Vick had like 120 mill Boo-Boo, Belichick and Pats had 750k Boo-boo plus future draft picks.
    A mistake would be a 1 time transgression and not truly realizing it as such.
    Pats,Belichick,Vick all cannot claim their actions as a mistake.They knew their actions was wrong but choose to walk that line with the hope of not getting caught.Just depends if you want sugar coat it or not.Boo-Boo with sugar major screw up without.

  7. any apology from a public figure is just public relations. i don't believe people at the bottom ever change they simply do a better job of fighting off impulses or covering up impulses or find different outlets for those impulses. nixon always believed he was right and those who snitched were wrong. i suppose the only mistake BB believes he made was getting caught.


  8. Anonymous1:31 PM

    RK is right: people don't change.

  9. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Dead authors commenting on the blog...You know the blog has arrived when that happens.

  10. Gotta agree with you for the most part RK.Except for the people at the bottom.I believe 95% of those raised with good values stay to those values and raise their children with those values.
    We are all faced with choices and no one forces us to make them.When I used to have the time I would spend an hour or 2 in the local courtroom. 1 Judge in particular was best for cracking me up.But a defendant would go forth in front with the excuse I had no choice.Big mistake(truly what can be called a mistake.)The Judge would go on a 5 min tirade of what the defendant could have done differantly followed by the Max.The rest following this poor person would have no excuses for some reason lol.
    Belichick offers no real apology and your right Rk, he shows only remorse at getting caught.Every Defense out there is going to change their signals just on the what if factor.When that happens and if the Pats start a downward spiral.Everyone is going to believe he cant win without cheating.