By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2
You're sick of Spygate. I'm sick of Spygate. The NFL's owners are sick of Spygate, because it is making the goose that laid the golden eggs less valuable by the day.
But things are going to drag on until commissioner Roger Goodell or the owners take the steps necessary to bring Spygate to a close. Changing their story week by week doesn't close Spygate. Rationalizations and doublespeak don't close Spygate. Admitting only what you have been compelled to admit doesn't close Spygate. The reason Spygate keeps dragging on is because the guilty party -- New England coach Bill Belichick -- has not been punished in any meaningful way.
Belichick cheated and lied, and so far has gotten away nearly scot-free. Not only does Belichick continue to run a team that has systematically cheated for (we now know) eight years -- a team that engaged in "a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition," to quote Goodell -- he shows not one whit of remorse, except over being caught. Belichick just spoke about Spygate on CBS News. He didn't sound like a blameless hero who wanted his reputation back, he sounded like he was angry that people were questioning him.
A man of dignity, who is caught cheating, would resign. Had Belichick shown dignity and resigned, this week's humiliating media circus in New York over former Patriots videographer Matt Walsh would never have occurred. Spygate would already be behind us. "Cheaters! Cheaters!" the crowd at Radio City Music Hall chanted when New England's name went on the clock at last month's draft. "Cheaters! Cheaters!" crowds will chant next fall when New England takes the field, if the cheater Belichick is still running the show. The way to stop that, and bring Spygate to a close, is to suspend the person responsible.
The $500,000 fine assessed against Belichick is a token sanction at his income level. The draft choice fine against the Patriots penalizes mainly the team's fans, who are not responsible for what happened. Patriots players are in effect being punished for their coaches' actions by having their reputations harmed. Suspending Belichick for at least a year would constitute a serious penalty where none has been imposed so far, and show pro football is serious about integrity. Unless the NFL wants its message to the young to be, "Go ahead, cheat and lie, no one will punish you."
Whatever case Belichick might have had in his favor dissolved with Walsh's testimony, which Goodell said he accepted as truthful. Though Walsh did not have evidence of illicit taping by New England during the Rams' Super Bowl walk-through -- the Boston Herald has retracted its claim to this effect -- what Walsh did have was damning.
First, Walsh offered firsthand indications Belichick always knew what he was doing was wrong. Walsh told Goodell, and then Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, that he was instructed to avoid detection and use cover stories if asked why he was taping. If Patriots coaches really believed an activity was allowed by league regulations, they would have let the staff do it openly. Belichick's primary explanation, given in February to the Boston Globe -- "I felt there was a gray area in the rule and I misinterpreted the rule" -- has always failed the straight-face test, since the rule reads, "Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent's offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches' booth, in the locker room or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game." Find a "gray area" there to misinterpret. Belichick's alternative explanation, given last fall when Spygate first broke, then expanded on Friday to CBS News, was: "I made a mistake. I was wrong." Years of sneaky cheating are not a "mistake." Even Goodell said this week, "I'm pretty well on the record here that I don't accept Bill Belichick's explanation" that he merely "misinterpreted" rules. Let's call Belichick's claim what it is: a lie.
More important is the issue of whether New England benefited from cheating. Goodell has contended any benefits the Patriots derived were minor at most. But why would the Patriots clandestinely break a rule for eight years, engaging risk, if they never obtained any benefit? They weren't making a PBS documentary! Walsh testified that he took the videotapes directly to Ernie Adams, Belichick's right-hand man. If the tapes merely had been for some kind of historic archive, they would have gone to a video room clerk: Instead they went straight to the top. Walsh told Goodell and Specter that a former New England quarterback said the sign-stealing operation allowed Patriots coaches to know an opponent's defense 75 percent of the time. Note that Goodell, in his news conference about Walsh, never mentioned this revelation. Specter had to point it out.
Belichick has tacitly admitted that the taping helped: His September 2007 statement says, "We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress." Not while the game was in progress -- but later, after Adams analyzed the tapes, in the next meeting. At his press conference, Goodell was asked why the Spygate tapes the league obtained last fall -- the ones rapidly destroyed -- were never shown to anyone. Goodell's answer: "We were in the second week of a season where those tapes potentially could have had competitive consequences." There could not have been "competitive consequences" unless videotapes of sign-stealing can help a team win a game.
It is unfair to the Patriots to say, as some of the sportstalk world is now saying, their Super Bowl run was the result of their cheating. No one who knows football doubts that most of the success New England has achieved in the past eight seasons was earned on the field, by the performance of the players. In some weeks this season, the Patriots were performing so phenomenally well that if all the coaches had left the building at the start of the second quarter, the players would have won the game anyway.
But many NFL contests turn on as little as a few snaps. If cheating allowed the Patriots to come out ahead on a couple of more snaps per game than they otherwise would have, that could shift outcomes in their favor. All four New England Super Bowl appearances of this decade have been decided by three points. Change one or two plays in Arizona this February, and Belichick joins Chuck Noll at 4-0 in the ultimate game; change one or two plays in each of his previous appearances, and Belichick joins Bud Grant and Marv Levy at 0-4. How many NFL owners would surrender a first-round draft choice and a fine equal to one player salary to exchange results over the past eight years with the Patriots? New England kept cheating because it was benefiting from cheating, and the price paid so far is trivial.
Gradually, the NFL is creeping toward honesty on Spygate. Last fall, the league destroyed the evidence and stonewalled at every turn, refusing to say anything about what was in the tapes. This time around, the NFL posted Walsh's handiwork on the Internet for all to see. NFL Network aired Specter's press conference denouncing the league. NFL.com posted Specter's anti-NFL floor statement to the Senate. On NFLN, Rich Eisen, Marshall Faulk and Rod Woodson discussed in detail the unflattering nature of Walsh's revelations. This trend toward openness is a positive sign.
But there is more to be done in reforming the NFL. Until Walsh's name surfaced in The New York Times two days before the Super Bowl, the league refused to say anything about the destroyed New England documents. Slowly Goodell began to answer questions, but he's far from an open book. Specter still had to drag out of Goodell the league's acknowledgement that the Pats' cheating went back to 2000. When a 78-year-old man on chemotherapy has the entire NFL reeling, that means football reform is far from complete.
Is a Mitchell Report for professional football -- an independent commission with prosecutor-like powers -- the answer? That is Specter's contention, and he must be taken seriously, considering how much he and his staff have brought into the light of day in just a few months of part-time investigation of Spygate.
But a Mitchell Report for the NFL would cause this unpleasantness to drag on for years. And the situations are different. Steroid use in baseball was a problem of national scope, because home run hitters with instant biceps were causing teens and young adults to want to inject themselves with steroids, ignoring long-term health risks. Inaction on steroids in baseball could have caused long-term damage to public health. Plus, prior to George Mitchell's assignment, it seemed likely steroid use was pervasive in major league baseball, justifying an investigative commission with a sweeping mandate. With Spygate, the worst-case outcome is a decline of the NFL as America's favorite sport. If the NFL goes into a cycle of decline, this will be awful for those who love the sport, but have no impact on the nation as a whole. And unlike baseball, where signs of steroid use were many, there are no similar indications of pervasive cheating in the NFL. This suggests an independent commission to investigate pro football is not necessary.
What is necessary is a serious suspension for Belichick. Suspension for a season would actually be a mild penalty. Belichick's lack of remorse creates an argument for a lifetime ban. Why should the 99 percent of NFL players, coaches and front-office officials who are honest sportsmen be tarred by association with a few who are not? There's no "right" to coach in the NFL -- if you thumb your nose at the rules, you should be held accountable. Just like everyone breathed a sigh of relief on the day Richard Nixon left office, including his own supporters, everyone who loves football will breathe a huge sigh of relief on the day Belichick is finally punished and the sport's integrity is restored. Suspending Belichick would be a fitting last chapter to Spygate, bringing the matter to a close. Unless, of course, you would prefer that Spygate go on and on and on.
Footnote: In Friday's Washington Post, NFL reporter Mark Maske quotes former Giants quarterback Phil Simms contending that stolen signals are no guarantee of victory: "'I've been in games where we knew every signal, every call by the other team, and we still lost,' Simms said by telephone yesterday. 'We [the Giants] had the San Diego Chargers' signals in 1980. We knew every signal. We knew every play. We were calling out what they were going to do: 'Here comes this. Here comes that.' They still scored 44 points.'" After more Simms quotes, the article moved to other matters. Who was on the New York Giants' coaching staff in 1980? Bill Belichick and Ernie Adams.
In addition to writing Tuesday Morning Quarterback, Gregg Easterbrook is the author of "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse" and other books. He is also a contributing editor for The New Republic, The Atlantic Monthly and The Washington Monthly.