Thursday, September 13, 2007

It Isn't Cheating if You Can Get the Same Information Sitting in the Stands

I was about to write an 800 word explanation of why the whole "Patriotgate scandal" is even more played out than the custom of attaching "gate" to the end of a word every time there is a controversy--and then I found out that's King Kaufman had already authored such an article, calling the situation "an early leader for dumbest controversy of the year honors." Kaufman points out that the NFL has many rules that don't make sense--including very specific rules about sock length--because "the NFL likes rules."

Then he gets to the heart of the matter: "My understanding of spying must be different from the NFL's. Watching a guy flapping his arms while standing in the middle of 70,000 people and in front of a national TV audience doesn't qualify. Even if you point a camera at him. I mean another camera, aside from all the legal cameras that can be pointed at him. For the price of a ticket--assuming the Patriots as an organization can't find a free ticket somewhere--the Pats can put a guy in Row 12 with a video camera and record the opposing team's defensive signals to their heart's content. But because the guy's standing on the sidelines it's cheating? Kinda nutty, don't you think?" The most important thing to consider, as Kaufman rightly notes, is this: "Where a team has an expectation of privacy, it should get privacy. A guy standing on the sideline and flashing semaphores to the middle linebacker can't expect privacy." If the Patriots or anyone else placed a listening device or a hidden camera in an opponent's locker room then that would absolutely be spying and would be worthy of a drastic punishment--but making such a fuss over a guy standing on the sidelines with a camera filming something that literally the whole world can see is just plain silly.

If what a Patriots' employee did on the sidelines of the Patriots-Jets game violates the letter of some nonsensical rule then I agree with Kaufman's very sensible solution: "Punish the Patriots if that's what it takes to keep the suits--and various Pats haters around the world--happy. Then get rid of that rule."

The idea that this in any way taints what the Patriots have accomplished during the past few years is absurd. For one thing, I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of how a team would get any kind of real advantage by doing this--mind you, I have heard some attempted explanations but they were less than convincing. Let's think about this logically (which means that if you are a Jets fan or a Patriots hater please kindly set aside those biases for the next couple minutes). You only play a team once a year--or twice in the case of a division rival. There is obviously some lag time between when the signals are filmed and when they are decoded. Then the decoded information has to be relayed to the players on the field in a way that they can make sense of it. By that time isn't the game already over? If a team is smart then it is not going to use the same signals all year long, so the "intelligence" that was gathered in the first game should be useless if and when those teams meet again. ESPN's Bill Parcells proposed a great solution for any team that is worried that its signals are being intercepted: assign a number to each of your play calls and give the captain a wristband; signal a number for the appropriate call from the sidelines during the game--and then change the numbers the next week.

This whole "scandal" seems like something that Eric Mangini and the Jets cooked up to make the Patriots look bad and possibly get them in trouble with the league. I will be very interested to see what conclusion the NFL reaches about this situation and what punishment, if any, it hands down.

Another aspect of this story that is worrisome is how quickly all of the pundits and talking heads jump to conclusions before the matter has been settled. The NFL has yet to definitively state that whatever the Patriots did was in fact against the rules, so why are people already speculating about New England having to lose draft picks or even forfeit the game? This is just another example of what is wrong with the way the mainstream media works (and this kind of reporting is still wrong even if it turns out that the Patriots are guilty and receive punishment for their actions, because the writers and commentators who are shooting off their mouths now have no way to know at this point what all of the facts of the case are).

Consider how Kevin Everett's injury has been reported: first we are told that he may die and will almost certainly be paralyzed, then we are told that he is making a great recovery and might walk out of the hospital. Would it not have been more considerate to his family--and more accurate--to simply stick to reporting the known facts? He sustained a serious spinal cord injury and was rushed to the hospital for surgery. This was not a matter of national security that required reporters to be skulking around digging up every rumor that they could find and then broadcasting it to the nation--and shame on any doctors or medical personnel who violated Everett's right to privacy by publicly speculating about his case (unless they received permission from his family to do so); that applies to those who are actually treating him and goes double to anyone who is offering an "expert" opinion without even examining him.

Another less serious example is the ongoing sturm and drang about Eli Manning's shoulder. I feel like I am watching a soap opera: instead of "Days of Our Lives" there should be a voiceover intoning, "These are the days of Eli's shoulder." Everyone who watched the Cowboys-Giants game or who saw the highlights knows that Manning injured his shoulder and could not finish the game. Obviously, he has to get an MRI and consult with doctors, so why is ESPN's Chris Mortenson telling us on Monday that Manning will be out for four weeks? The Giants immediately denied his report but Mortenson sternly said that he stands by his story--as if he is investigating a serious corporate or government cover up. Mortenson then added that if Manning plays next Sunday that means his story was wrong. No, really? Let's have less "days of Eli's shoulder" and more real reporting: if you don't actually know something then don't report it--and standing by your story only to say that if Manning plays that means you were wrong means that you don't actually know anything about what you are talking about.

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