Monday, February 25, 2008

"Spygate": Much Ado About Nothing

When the so-called "Spygate" matter first became publicized, I declared that it was "even more played out than the custom of attaching 'gate' to the end of a word every time there is a controversy." Five months later, my opinion has not changed--and the members of the NFL competition committee apparently agree with me. "In my mind, it was yesterday's news," committee chairman Rich McKay said last week. New York Giants President John Mara added, "I'm tired of hearing about it. It's been thoroughly investigated, thoroughly handled."

Not that it should matter, but I doubt that Patriots Coach Bill Belichick is the most popular person among his NFL peers, due to his success against them and his less than gregarious personality. If Belichick had really done something that seriously threatened the competitive balance in the NFL, don't you think that the coaches and executives from other teams would be jumping at the chance to put him in his place?

People make a big deal over how significant a punishment that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell levied against Belichick personally and against the Patriots. The real issue here is simply one of power and control. The NFL has many rules great and small and the league becomes very perturbed if any of those rules are not followed to the letter. The loss of a first round draft pick and the heavy fines sent a message throughout the league: don't think for one second that you can step the slightest bit out of line as long as Sheriff/Judge/Executioner Goodell is on the case.

Here is the exact wording of the rule in question: "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."

Belichick refused to talk about the details of the case while the season was going on but now that it is over, Belichick told Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe exactly what the Patriots had been doing and why he thought that it was permissible: Belichick focused on the phrase "that might aid a team during the playing of a game" and thus he was filming the signals that teams used for future reference, not for use during that same game. He emphatically denied that he ever made halftime adjustments based on the results of such filming, adding, "My interpretation was that you can't utilize anything to assist you during that game. What our camera guys do is clearly not allowed to be used during the game and has never been used during that game that it was shot." He said that on a scale of 1 to 100, the impact of such videotaping on the Patriots' preparations was a "one." Of course, many people would respond to that by wondering why Belichick and the Patriots bothered to do such videotaping at all. Belichick's answer to that is, "Why do anything? Why study tendencies? Why study stances?"

The "Spygate" matter had pretty much died down until Senator Arlen Spector decided to start grandstanding on the eve of the Super Bowl and then disgruntled ex-New England employee Matt Walsh claimed that he had information that could be damaging to the Patriots. Walsh has offered no proof to support his assertions and refuses to do so unless he is indemnified against being sued by the Patriots. While Spector basked in the attention being showered on him and Walsh enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame, the Boston Herald reported on February 2 that an anonymous source said that the Patriots had taped the St. Louis Rams' walkthrough before Super Bowl XXXVI. Belichick told Reiss that this accusation is completely false: "In my entire coaching career, I've never seen another team's practice film prior to playing that team. I have never authorized, or heard of, or even seen in any way, shape, or form any other team's walkthrough. We don't even film our own. We don't even want to see ourselves do anything, that's the pace that it's at. Regardless, I've never been a part of that."

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.

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