Cheater at Duke: no spin, just truth

October 03, 2007|By RICK MAESE

The man on the other end of the phone had messed up. He broke the rules. Helped stacked the deck for another team. Cheated.

Big whoop by now, right? In a time when ethics in sports are as fluid as a waterfall, to really draw our ire, you have to do a bit more than share some measly game footage.

But this man wasn't Bill Belichick, who was busted for taking illicit video, or Isiah Thomas, who a jury says sexually harassed a woman, or Mike Winters, the umpire who reportedly goaded Milton Bradley into a confrontation. No, this man is openly admitting to his misdeed -- apologizing for it in clear, concise language that wasn't first run through a public relations ringer.

"I definitely feel bad about it," Mitch Wilkens told me yesterday. "It's something I shouldn't have done."

I nearly dropped the phone. Wilkens clearly hasn't read the updated 2007-08 Sports Crisis Management Manual (Subtitled: "Moving the Subterfuge and Trick Plays from the Practice Field to the Press Conference Podium").

"I did it," he said.

Wilkens, 32, is in his fourth season as video coordinator for the Duke football team. Before that, he held a similar position for the Maryland program for three years.

Ensuring that Maryland-Duke relations remain as icy as possible, Wilkens admitted yesterday to breaking Atlantic Coast Conference rules about sharing video with a nonconference opponent. He said he sent a tape of a Maryland football game to Rutgers officials before the Scarlet Knights hosted the Terps on Saturday in Piscataway, N.J.

Wilkens wouldn't delve into details but did say he was unaware that conference rules regulated the sharing of footage. "There are teams in the league that have done it to us in the past," he said.

The shared footage didn`t stop Maryland from shocking then-No. 10 Rutgers, an upset Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen probably wouldn`t mind the entire nation watching a couple of times. But still, the Terps were angry.

In response, Wilkens did what no one in sports seems to do: He fessed up. He picked up the phone yesterday and called his former boss.

"I called and apologized and told [Friedgen] that I was the one who did it," Wilkens said yesterday. "He asked me if [Duke coach Ted] Roof knew what I did. I said no. He asked if Coach Roof knew now. I said I just got out of his office. He asked what Coach Roof said. I said he was upset and disappointed that I did this. Coach Friedgen said, `I'm mad that you did it, but I appreciate you calling me personally.'"

This isn't to dismiss what Wilkens did. The Terps have enough problems without having to worry about whether ACC schools are conspiring against them. These video indiscretions, while not nearly on a par with the Patriots' Spygate last month, similarly cut at the trust of a sport.

As it concerns the Patriots, Belichick stammered and moved his lips, yet said very little. It worked -- he has mostly escaped scrutiny and inspection, as the league closed the case, and, for all we know, the evidence is shredded, bagged and resting at the bottom of the Hudson River right now.

As it concerns Maryland, it's mostly Friedgen's trust that was compromised. (He closed Terps practice yesterday, guarding his secrets like Frodo protecting a ring.) Plus, the integrity of the ACC, which, as of yesterday, had no formal punishment planned for Wilkens or Duke.

I don't believe Wilkens thought he was undermining the Terps. Teams trade film all the time. Coaches subscribe to ESPN, too. This isn't some archaic time when word of State University's wing-T offense travels by horseback and takes five days to make its way across the prairie to next Saturday's opponent.

It's the understated aftermath of Spygate Lite that intrigues me most, if only because honesty, sincerity and especially accountability are like endangered species on our sports landscape.

When an embattled coach, athlete or any sports figure opens his or her mouth, I have a long checklist. Odds are the speaker is protecting a contract, a future endorsement, an image, a legacy, a legal strategy, a lie, a teammate, a coach, a post-retirement broadcasting career ...

Way, way down the list, stuck to the bottom like gum on the sidewalk, is this fading notion of truth. We don't protect it, we don't acknowledge it and I would bet many wouldn't even recognize it if it wore a name tag.

In sports, I'm sure the incentive to lie is almost always more lucrative than the truth. You can ensure your future, win a lot of games and become very rich. Monetarily rich, at least.

"I did it," Mitch Wilkens said.

As long as athletes boast and brag, those three words will have a safe and secure spot in our sports lexicon. But as an admission of guilt, they're near extinction. To talk to sports wrong-doers is to watch the English language tap dance before your eyes. Some might suggest it's like chatting up a politician. I think it's more like interviewing an inmate. Everyone's innocent these days.

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