NFL Not Playing Fair On Spygate

By David Steele
Updated: May 12, 2008

BALTIMORE — Everybody wants Spygate to go away. That’s understandable. Especially when “everybody” includes the NFL itself.

But we have to accept that, and this, too: The final resolution will not be fair. Everything about this unsavory affair, from the first revelation of the New England Patriots’ illegally taping opposing coaching signals to the NFL’s clumsy explanations of its every investigative half-step, has reeked of unfairness.

It’s too early to judge everything about this situation because the latest round of evidence against the Patriots just arrived at the NFL offices, and Tuesday, ex-Patriots employee/tape smuggler Matt Walsh gets his day in front of both Roger Goodell and the NFL commissioner’s arch-nemesis, Sen. Arlen Specter.

Since Walsh delivered his collection last week, the NFL has raised more doubt about its handling of it. A spokesman insisted it was all material the league already knew about, without even having looked at it, after which it was reported that Walsh had more on hand (offensive signals, not just defensive) than what the NFL had previously acknowledged.

Forget that for now, though, and think about how the league announced the case closed, handed out the penalties and burned the evidence last fall. Based just on that, the punishment has hardly fit the crime.

Big fine to team and coach, plus forfeited first-round draft pick? That’s about what a team would expect for talking to a player on another team before he became a free agent.

Tampering with a still-employed player vs. tampering with the integrity of the sport, all of its participants and, maybe, its championship game and showcase event. Some fines and a pick, and let’s move on and sell some authentic replica jerseys.

The NFL and the Patriots get annoyed every time a new set of questions is raised, often from the old, hastily answered questions. Sunday’s New York Times brought a new set of inquiries — it reported the Patriots have surfaced as the impetus for discussions of rule changes in the league’s competition committee more often than any other franchise since 2000.

Also, the Times reported, the Patriots sparked frequent references in the regular updates of the NFL’s confidential game operations manual — that is, the rule book.

Simply put: League officials are in a constant race with the Patriots to stay ahead of the latest cheating techniques and have been throughout the bulk of coach Richard Milhous Belichick’s tenure.

Which coincides with the period when the Patriots became the NFL’s first true dynasty since the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s, and the only one of the free-agency era.

Yeah. It’s because of all that clever drafting and salary cap management. And nothing else.

One hates to break out the cheesiest of Oliver Stonesque conspiracy cliches, “That’s what they’d like you to think.” But … that’s what they’d like you to think. That’s sure how the NFL is acting in the way it has handled this from Day One.

The NFL can’t possibly believe it’s in its best interest to keep sending the message that the league has something to hide, but that’s exactly the message it keeps sending, intentionally or not.

We’re left with no choice but to decide whether the NFL is crooked or inept.

Yet sending messages is exactly what the NFL has seemed intent on establishing as its collective persona ever since Goodell arrived and posed as the gunslingin’ sheriff kicking out the criminal players.

You deprive a player of a year of his livelihood and a year of his earnings — after lengthy investigation, face-to-face interviews and deliberation — and you tell the world you care about the image of your sport.

Give cheating on the scale of the Patriots’ actions the quick once-over, slap them on the wrist and then try to justify the speedy verdict in the face of mounting additional evidence, and you tell the world you’ve got a double standard about your own image.

All that said, the NFL is giving no indications that it will lay even another thin layer of punishment on the Patriots for their stunningly lengthy history of bending the rules, no matter what else emerges from Walsh or anyone else.

It’s not fair. But in hindsight, we probably shouldn’t have expected it to be.