As if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't have enough wayward players to worry about, Jets coach Eric Mangini was caught on camera in a New Jersey restaurant last week meeting a known mob boss who has wagered large sums of money on his team.
Fishy, no?
Yet a call to league headquarters Thursday to find out how Goodell planned to deal with Mangini generated this kind of response:
Fuhgedaboutit.
Before going any further, let's clear up a few things.
That was indeed Mangini and his wife, Julie, on HBO last Sunday night dining out, and the plates of food set out in front of them were real, too. Everybody and everything else, from Tony Soprano to the restaurant itself, the Nuovo Vesuvio, was fictional.
After a cameo on ``Sesame Street'' last year, Mangini decided to add some dramatic bona fides to his resume by playing himself on last Sunday night's episode of ``The Sopranos.'' That's one of the show's rules. Lauren Bacall, Ben Kingsley, Nancy Sinatra and Lawrence Taylor all went along. So did Mangini.
And so in the next-to-last show of the long-running series, the Jets coach is glimpsed dining at a restaurant owned by Soprano's childhood friend, Artie Bucco.
At one point, Bucco ventures over to the table where Soprano and his wife, Carmella, are sitting.
``Tone, you know who's in tonight?'' Bucco asks, before mangling the answer to his own question. ``Man-genius.''
Soprano has to explain to Carmella who Mangini is.
``It's the Jets coach, sweetie,'' he says. ``I should go say hello.''
And Tony and Artie do, walking over to the table where Mangini is dining as the camera pulls back for a long shot.
``Playing me eating dinner is a real stretch,'' Mangini joked during a telephone interview with The AP's Dennis Waszak, ``but I worked with an acting coach and I think I really nailed it.''
So did just about everyone else.
Despite not speaking a word, an art Mangini learned from mentor Bill Belichick and honed during his own news conferences, he turned out to be a very believable prop. And not everyone is happy about that.
``Look, I know it's not real,'' Anthony Fucilli wrote on Scout.com, ``but they were able to use his association with a mob boss and gambling on the Jets and tie it all together.
``The NFL has done it's best to disassociate themselves from gambling. You just wonder what Coach Mangini was thinking, or in this case, not thinking.''
That's easy.
``I've liked the show since it started and to have the opportunity to be part of it, especially here at the end, it was just a great opportunity,'' Mangini said.
He also knew exactly what he was getting into.
``It's not like Tony and I had any previous affiliation or subsequent affiliation. It was more or less just meeting another person at a restaurant who happened to be a fan of the Jets.''
Co. thought about it, and whether a few months into a ``get-tough'' campaign launched shortly after he took office in September, the commissioner still had a sense of humor.
After all, Goodell has already suspended Tennessee's Adam ``Pacman'' Jones for the entire season, Cincinnati's Chris Henry for eight games and Chicago's Tank Johnson for a minimum of six - all for various run-ins with the law.
He's also waiting for an investigation to conclude the extent of Michael Vick's involvement in a pit-bull fighting ring before deciding whether Atlanta's star quarterback will cool his heels on the sideline for a number of games.
So besides being busy, the league office hasn't been a particularly mirthful place of late. But a league spokesman chuckled when asked whether Goodell was planning to critique Mangini's acting style.
``No, no, not at all,'' Greg Aiello said. ``What coach Mangini did was harmless. ... In addition to the other things 'The Sopranos' is known for, it's known for a sense of humor.''
And generally speaking, the NFL isn't.
So credit Mangini with having enough good sense to recognize an offer he couldn't refuse, even if neither the cast nor the script ever sufficiently explained why Mangini was dining at a restaurant in New Jersey instead of say, Long Island.
``It could have been after a game,'' he told his local newspaper. ``We didn't explore the motivation very deeply.''
---
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org

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