Sunday, February 03, 2008

Super Bowl XLII – Spygate everywhere on Super Sunday

On what should the crowning achievement of one of the greatest single seasons by any team in sports history the New England Patriots poised to win Super Bowl XLII and become the second team in NFL history to go through an entire NFL season undefeated; instead find themselves having to deal with the continued fallout from Spygate. After the Patriots opening weekend win at Giants Stadium against the New York Jets, Jets head coach (and former Patriots assistant coach) Eric Mangini charged the Patriots with stealing his teams’ singles.

On September 10, Belichick was accused by the Jets of authorizing his staff to film the Jets' defensive signals from an on-field location, a violation of league rules. The Jets confiscated the video camera used by video assistant Matt Estrella to film the signals during the game and filed a complaint to the league office, detailing the accusations.

Two days later, Belichick issued a statement "to apologize to everyone who has been affected," and also stated that he spoke with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell about Belichick's "interpretation of the rule." Page 105 of the 2007 NFL "Game Operations Manual" states, "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game...All video shooting locations must be enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead." Belichick stated that he believed that if footage so collected was not used during the game, its collection was legal, as the NFL Constitution and Bylaws stipulate that "...any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited...that might aid a team during the playing of a game."

There have been suggestions that the videotaping goes back at least to the Patriots first Super Bowl winning season of 2001. An unknown source reported that the Patriots secretly videotaped the Rams prior to Super Bowl XXXVI, a game in which they narrowly beat the heavily favored Rams.

On September 13, Belichick was officially fined $500,000–the largest fine ever imposed on a coach in the league's 87-year history, and the maximum permitted under league rules. The Patriots were also fined $250,000. Additionally, the Patriots forfeited their first round draft pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. If the Patriots had missed the playoffs, they would have instead forfeited their second and third round selections in the 2008 draft. Goodell said that he fined the Patriots as a team because Belichick is effectively the team's general manager as well as head coach, and exercises so much control over the Patriots' on-field operations that "his actions and decisions are properly attributed to the club." Goodell considered suspending Belichick, but decided that taking away draft picks would be more severe in the long run. The Patriots officially clinched their fifth straight AFC East title on November 25, in the process becoming the first NFL team to be docked a first-round pick. However, Goodell allowed the Patriots to keep the high first round pick that the team obtained in a 2007 trade with the San Francisco 49ers.

Belichick later issued a statement in which he apologized for what he called a "mistake" in his interpretation of the rules. However, he denied ever using videotape to gain an advantage while a game was underway.

On September 16, Goodell ordered the Patriots to hand over all notes, tapes, and other materials related to the incident, threatening further discipline if the Patriots did not comply. On September 20, the NFL announced they had received and destroyed the requested materials, but never revealed there contents.

Much of the talk surrounding Spygate died down towards the end of September, with the notable exception of some ill-conceived remarks from Hall of Fame coach Don Shula on November 6. Shula was the head coach for the 1972 Miami Dolphins the only team to go through an entire NFL undefeated, a feat the Patriots hope to accomplish today.

Shula said, "The Spygate thing has diminished what they've accomplished. You would hate to have that attached to your accomplishments. They've got it. ...I guess you got the same thing as putting an asterisk by Barry Bonds' home run record. I guess it will be noted that the Patriots were fined and a number-one draft choice was taken away during that year of accomplishment. The sad thing is Tom Brady looks so good, it doesn't look like he needs any help."

Patriots’ defensive end Richard Seymour responded, saying "I really don’t pay too much attention to it...Nothing that I’ve done or I’ve seen this team do should have an asterisk by it."

Safety Rodney Harrison also dismissed the comments: "It really doesn’t matter. We have a lot of respect for [Shula] and he’s entitled to whatever he thinks. It just doesn’t matter."

After New England completed the regular season unbeaten, Shula commended the Patriots for doing "a great job concentrating on each week's opponent and not letting any other distractions interrupt that focus."

That was until political opportunism reared its ugly head Thursday.

U.S. Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, commented on the incident and the NFL and Roger Goodell's decision to destroy the video tape evidence to the New York Times.

“That requires an explanation,” Specter told The New York Times. “The N.F.L. has a very preferred status in our country with their antitrust exemption. The American people are entitled to be sure about the integrity of the game. It’s analogous to the C.I.A. destruction of tapes. Or any time you have records destroyed.”

Specter was quoted in a letter to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as saying, "I am very concerned about the underlying facts on the taping, the reasons for the judgment on the limited penalties and, most of all, on the inexplicable destruction of the tapes."

Specter also said he could call Goodell to attend a congressional hearing on the league's antitrust exemption (not the first time Specter has made that particular threat), at which time Goodell would also be asked to comment on the destruction of the tapes received from the Patriots. Congress maintains the right to subpoena Goodell and further investigate the situation because under this antitrust exemption, the NFL is a federally regulated monopoly subject to the oversight of Congress.

According to The New York Times report Specter first wrote Goodell on November 15. A month later having not heard from Goodell Specter wrote a second letter to Goodell.

Joe Browne, the N.F.L.’s executive vice president for internal affairs, told the New York Times, “The irony is that we have been in contact with the senator’s office several times in recent weeks.” He added that “the issue of these letters was not discussed.”

Mr. Specter called Mr. Browne’s response “untrue.”

“It’s the same old story,” Mr. Specter said in the New York Times report. “What you did is never as important as the cover-up. This sequence raises more concerns and doubts.”

That led to Friday’s annual NFL commissioner (Roger Goodell’s) State of the National Football League address and question and answer period. With many important issues needing to be addressed – Goodell was forced to defend his actions in regard to Spygate throughout his 45 minute press conference – leading off with the question of the Patriots legacy in the midst of Spygate and Senator Specter’s actions.

“I don’t think it taints their accomplishments. The action that we took was decisive and it was unprecedented. It sent a loud message to not only the Patriots, but every NFL team that you should follow the rules and you better follow the rules. I think what they did this season was certainly done within the rules on a level playing field. I think their record is extraordinary. As we all know, it’s never been done before at 18-0. I think they should be congratulated on that.

“As it relates to Senator Specter, of course I am more than willing to meet with the senator. I think there are very good explanations for the reason why I destroyed the tapes or had them destroyed by our staff. They were totally consistent with what the team told me. There was no purpose for them. I believe it was helpful in making sure our instructions were followed closely, by not only the Patriots, but also by every other team. I think it was the appropriate thing to do. Our discipline sent a loud message, and I think the team should be congratulated on their success.”

This isn’t the first time Senator Specter has set his sights on the National Football League. On December 8, 2006 Senator Specter suggested Specter said he would introduce a bill in the new Congress that would repeal the NFL’s antitrust exemption under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961.

He claimed that he wasn’t afraid to tackle the commercially and politically powerful NFL. “I think I’ll have a lot of company, and that is the football fans of America, who are being gouged,” he added after chairing a hearing on sports-programming issues.
Senator Specter represents the State if Pennsylvania – the home of Comcast Communications one of three major cable carriers who refuses to heed to the NFL’s demands the NFL has set for the NFL Network.

The NFL’s cable-carriage demands have upset Specter. "This is the NFL exerting its power … right down to the last nickel,” he told Multichannel News in November 2006.

During his press conference Friday Goodell was asked about the state of the negotiations between the NFL and Comcast.

“Unfortunately, there aren’t any new negotiations. We believe that the NFL Network is very important to us. It’s an important strategy. It’s giving more fans more football. It promotes us on a 24-7 basis, 365 days of the year and it’s high-quality programming. It deserves to go to a broader audience. Very few of the cable operators, two or three of the largest cable operators, want to put it on the sports tier, which we don’t believe is the right thing for our fans. They’re just finding another way which they can charge our consumers more money. We think it should be available on a broader basis. We think it’s pretty clear that the demands of the NFL are much broader than a sports tier. We’re objecting to that. I certainly hope it’s going to be resolved in negotiations.”

The media’s focus throughout Friday’s Goodell presser only began with the ‘specter’ of Senator Specter. One erstwhile member of media wanted to know how far back the evidence against the Patriots went, and what if anything did the NFL gain by destroying the infamous Patriots Spygate tapes.

“We did speak to a number of different people who were either directly involved or not directly involved. I believe there were six tapes, and I believe some were from the preseason in 2007, and the rest were primarily in the late 2006 season. In addition, there were notes that had been collected, that I would imagine many teams have from when they scout a team in advance, that we took, that may have been collected by using an illegal activity, according to our rules. We wanted to take that information and destroy that information, also. We did that. They may have collected that information within the rules of the NFL, but we felt it was appropriate, since we couldn’t determine it, that we take all of it.

“I think (destroying the tapes) was the best way to make sure that the Patriots had followed my instructions. I wanted to make sure that that bit of information did not appear again. If it did appear, I would know that they didn’t hand me all the information. They certified to me, in writing, that they gave me all the information on tapes or notes, and that there was no further information relating to this incident or any other taping of games. Not having those tapes out there prevents a potential leak, like unfortunately it did. Now I know that if something arises, that I wasn’t told the truth.”

A fair question – by destroying the Spygate tapes would the NFL in anyway create the impression of a ‘cover-up’?

“In fact, we thought we had locked it up, and it got out five days later. That was one of my concerns. We thought that we had a chain of command that would not have been broken when we discovered that this activity was taking place. We aggressively pursued it. We obviously were the first to tell the media about it, so we’ve been very open about it. Unfortunately, that weekend, it appeared on television and we were disappointed in that. We didn’t want there to be any question about whether this existed. If it shows up again, it would have to be something that came outside of our investigation and what I was told existed.” Goodell commented.

A feature in Sunday’s New York Times asked several prosecutors their reaction to how Goodell dealt with Spygate.

“Generally speaking, an investigator would not leave it up to the subject of the investigation to voluntarily select what evidence it wishes to turn over,” said Mathew Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor who helped investigate a cabinet member in the Clinton administration. “Allowing the subject of an investigation to determine what is incriminating can obviously undermine the integrity and credibility of the investigation.”

“Just because the request was made that way doesn’t mean the investigation is completely bogus, but it puts an awful lot of responsibility about the subject of the request to be as truthful as possible, and if they are not, then it undermines the investigation,” said Tony West, a defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor in Northern California.

One of the silliest questions Goodell was asked relating to Patriots Spygate – was the Patriots Super Bowl XXXIX win over the Philadelphia Eagles legitimate. Goodell sidestepped the question but sent a clear message regarding how he feels about Patriots Spygate five months after he believed the incident had ended.

“I’d give it to you, and the same way I’ve said it from day one. This incident is now almost five or six months old and I think we’ve been very forthright in it, and I don’t believe it affected the outcome of any game. Coaches prepare for people being able to intercept their signals and they make modifications and changes. Andy Reid is a very smart coach and I’m sure he did the same.”

At the same time Goodell made it clear – he believed the Patriots had crossed a line and had to pay a price.

“Because you have rules that will promote fair sportsmanship. You have to have that in the game of football. You have to have that in most sports, and it’s important that everyone work and operate on a level playing field. In this case, that didn’t happen and that’s why we issued unprecedented discipline.”

Saturday former Matt Walsh former Patriots ‘video assistant’ added more than his two cents to the debate telling ESPN he was surprised the NFL didn’t contact him during their investigation into the Patriots practice of videotaping NFL games.

"If they're doing a thorough investigation -- they didn't contact me," Walsh told ESPN.com. "So draw your own conclusions. Maybe they felt they didn't need to. Maybe the league feels they got satisfactory answers from everything the Patriots sent them."

"No, the league has never called me," he said. "Neither have the Patriots. And really, I would be surprised if they did. Then all of a sudden -- I don't know how much the league or Patriots know about my stance or how I feel about things -- for them to put in a call to me, what are they going to say? Are they going to try and threaten me? Or say, don't talk about it? Then, they are putting themselves out there and looking bad as far as if I turn around and say, 'Hey, guess what, the league called me and said [we're] gonna take away your pension if you say anything about this.'"

"Obviously, Mangini knew what was going on and it had been going on for a while," Walsh told ESPN. "They tried to catch them doing it last year and weren't able to. So they were just waiting for them to throw the camera up this year on the sideline. But afterwards, I get the impression the league said to them, 'Hey, kind of back down from this; let us take care of it,' because Mangini probably could have come out and said more, made more of a deal out of it if he wanted to."

If Specter is serious about holding Congressional Hearings into Patriots Spygate – Walsh told ESPN he is prepared to testify.

"I wouldn't lie to them about anything, and especially because I don't know what they have," Walsh said. "I don't know what evidence they have. So there is no reason for me to lie to anybody, anyways. It is one thing for me to say, 'Hey, look, just not gonna talk about it.' It is not like a felony or crime or something where I got to go on a stand in court and swear on a Bible or something. It is the kind of thing where for me, personally, it could potentially do more harm to talk about it than not talk about it.

"But if the league contacted me and said, 'Did you do this? Did you do that? …' Maybe they have evidence I did, so I am not going to say, 'No, I didn't.'"

Is Spygate much to do about nothing? Absolutely not! At the heart of any sports event played at any level is the belief of a fair contest. The sports industry faced a number of difficult issues in 2007. From the use of performance-enhancement drugs, too the field actions of Michael Vick too disgraced former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleading guilty to charges he had worked with gamblers on fixing NBA games -- 2007 wasn’t a year to remember for sports and let’s be clear – Patriots Spygate was near the top of sports major transgressions in 2007.

Will Spygate taint the Patriots legacy? Not to a great extent. The sad truth about what the Patriots did during their season opening game against the New York Jets, the Patriots where a better team than the Jets and didn’t need any help to beat the Jets that day. The same goes for the Patriots Super Bowl XXXIX win, the Patriots where a better team that day than the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots are a once in a generation sports team and should be appreciated for their excellence.

What about the actions of Arlen Specter. Sports and politics make strange bedfellows. What exactly is a highest ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee paying any attention to Patriots Spygate?

The United States of America is in the midst of a determining who will represent the Democrat and Republican parties in November’s Presidential election. The United States of America is currently fighting to defending ‘lady liberty’ in Iraq, an action that continues to divide many Americans. The American dollar continues to lose its value against most major international currencies. Millions of Americans are facing the real possibilities of losing their homes forced to default on their mortgages.

Better than questioning Spygate – maybe someone should be asking why the ranking Republican on the Senate Judicial Committee isn’t focused on the real issues the United States of America and Americans are being forced to deal with. Is Arlen Specter acting in the best interests of those who elected him? That will be left to the voters when Senator Specter runs for reelection.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The New York Times, ESPN and Wikipedia

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