When Bill Clinton lied about sex — under oath and directly to the nation's face — we let him off the hook. When Rep. Jim McDermott...

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When Bill Clinton lied about sex — under oath and directly to the nation’s face — we let him off the hook.

When Rep. Jim McDermott lied about disclosing Newt Gingrich’s private cellphone conversation — possibly violating federal law — his constituents excused him. Some gave him a standing ovation.

But when UW football coach Rick Neuheisel lied about looking for another job and betting in basketball pools, he got fired.

Clearly society has no fixed standard for what should happen if you don’t tell the truth.

It’s what a jury must figure out in Neuheisel’s civil trial, going on in a Kent courtroom. How bad is it to lie? What should the punishment be?

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I went to the trial for a few days, talked with onlookers and read over court documents. My bias coming in was that Neuheisel, who sued contending he was wrongly fired, didn’t have much of a case.

For starters, he is Slick Rick. A charming, talented coach who sometimes pushes the rules to the breaking point.

When he was cited for dozens of recruiting violations from his previous job at the University of Colorado, a UW memo described him best. Neuheisel is prone, it said, to being “inappropriately creative.”

Maybe that explains his complex dances with the truth. The UW says it had the right to fire him for a single “act of dishonesty.” And it had many from which to choose.

The coach lied repeatedly to his bosses, the press and the public in early 2003, when he denied interviewing for a job with the San Francisco 49ers.

Less blatant, but still a lie, was when he told NCAA investigators in June 2003 that he hadn’t gambled in two betting pools when, in fact, he had.

Yet as I sat in the courtroom, watching as Neuheisel’s lying words were blown up, displayed on the big screen and analyzed by teams of lawyers, I began to think: So what?

Does it really matter that he lied about a job interview? His layers of fibs about the 49ers were troubling mostly because they were so pointless.

As for lying to the NCAA, it’s a smaller matter than it’s been made out to be. E-mails presented at trial suggest NCAA officials were out to get him. Yes, he should have told the truth from the start, or said, “No comment, I’m getting my lawyer.” But the NCAA eventually found he had been truthful enough, and it cleared him of the gambling charge.

The UW probably had a contractual right to fire Neuheisel.

But were they right? Neuheisel has a point that the school doesn’t punish lying consistently. And it seems the UW had another agenda when it went into high moral dudgeon over him — namely, sacrificing him so the NCAA would leave the school alone.

Now I wonder if some on the jury will agree with Curtis Hansen, 78, an Auburn man I met watching the trial. He said: Give Neuheisel a couple years’ pay and be done with it.

“I don’t think all this stuff about him lying is very important,” he said. “He’s just a football coach.”

Right. It’s not like he’s the president or something.

Reach Danny Westneat at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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