After months and months of hype and overkill about "Spygate," former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh finally met with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It turns out that there is no tape of St. Louis' walkthrough prior to Super Bowl XXXVI and, in fact, little new information about this media created "scandal." The Patriots broke the letter of a silly, poorly written NFL rule and they have been heavily disciplined for those actions. It is wrong to break rules but anyone who believes that this taping is why the Patriots have dominated the NFL in recent seasons is being foolish; it is extremely unlikely that the Patriots were the only team doing this, so whatever advantage they supposedly gained is somewhat mitigated by whatever advantage other teams gained by engaging in similar conduct. Let me clearly state that this by no means makes what the Patriots did right and anyone who is caught breaking any rule should be punished--but trying to steal publicly available signals by various means is a widespread practice; after all, that is why coaches send out dummy signals and try to disguise the signals that they use.
The Boston Globe's Mike Reiss wrote an excellent summary of what is known about "Spygate." There is no question that the Patriots violated NFL rules; after all, that is why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished the team and Coach Bill Belichick in an unprecedented fashion. When Belichick initially spoke with Goodell months ago he insisted that he honestly misinterpreted the rule and Goodell has said that he believes Belichick, even though this does not excuse Belichick's conduct. Belichick said that he had the tapes made in order to consult them for use later on and that he thought that the NFL's rules only prohibited such taping if the information from a tape was used in the game from which the tape originated. Reiss quotes the relevant rule (I added the bold text):
Constitution & Bylaws: “Any use by any club at any time, from the start to the finish of any game in which such club is a participant, of any communications or information-gathering equipment, other than Polaroid-type cameras or field telephones, shall be prohibited, including without limitation videotape machines, telephone tapping, or bugging devices, or any other form of electronic devices that might aid a team during the playing of a game.”
If you read the bold text a certain way then you could understand it to mean that taping/electronic devices cannot be used to help a team during a game but that it is not prohibited to use information gathered by those devices to prepare for a future game. Admittedly, this is a thin reed to stand on but the text of that rule could have been written more clearly.
Quarterback Drew Bledsoe was a member of the New England team that beat St. Louis in the Super Bowl. Here is what he thinks about "Spygate": "To be honest with you, my take now is the same as it's always been. Every team in the league is trying to do everything they can to get ahead. I'm sure most, if not all, are bending the rules in some way, shape or form. This just happened to be one that was very public, and the organization has been reprimanded for it. As a player here, I never did see anything other than what was already reported. Was it a violation of the spirit of the rules? Absolutely, it was, but I think all of that has been readily acknowledged."
Reiss' article also includes this interesting nugget about Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who has been the driving force making "Spygate" such a huge, overblown story: "...any mention of Specter, in my opinion, must include his strong financial connections to Comcast, while noting that the cable company is currently at odds with the NFL and NFL Network."
The Patriots have issued the following statement regarding the Goodell-Walsh meeting:
For the past 3 1/2 months, we have been defending ourselves against assumptions made based on an unsubstantiated report rather than on facts or evidence. Despite our adamant denials, the report ran on February 2, 2008, the day before Super Bowl XLII. That game was the second-most watched program in television history and it is unfortunate that today's news will not also reach an audience of that size.
We hope that with Matt Walsh's disclosures, everyone will finally believe what we have been saying all along and emphatically stated on the day of the initial report: "The suggestion that the New England Patriots recorded the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough on the day before Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002 is absolutely false. Any suggestion to the contrary is untrue."
I stand by what I wrote nearly three months ago about "Spygate":
It would be a lot simpler if the NFL simply permitted teams to film anything that is publicly available. Signals that teams use on the sidelines during a game are not issued with an expectation of privacy. If the Patriots did film a private walkthrough then that is wrong, although it is still not clear what exactly they would have gained by doing this.
My take on this matter mirrors my opinion about the Roger Clemens case: if Belichick truly gained a significant competitive advantage by cheating then he should be punished--and if Walsh is lying and/or the Boston Herald's report is not true then they should be punished for slander.
5/14/08 UPDATE: The Boston Herald has issued an apology for erroneously reporting that the Patriots had taped St. Louis' Super Bowl XXXVI walkthrough. The Herald's false article came out just before New England's 17-14 loss to the New York Giants in this year's Super Bowl.