Protecting The Shield

By Bryan Burwell
Updated: May 16, 2008

ST. LOUIS — Imagine the predicament that Roger Goodell finds himself in. His natural instinct as the commissioner of the National Football League is to protect the product at all costs.

He calls it “protecting the shield,” that distinctive red, white and blue symbol that has served as the NFL’s logo for decades and is immediately identified with the country’s most popular professional sport.

Yet now Goodell finds the task of honoring his own bold directive to be increasingly more demanding, and thornier than ever. It was easy to protect the shield when it was so uncomplicated as slapping a bunch of law-breaking knuckleheads upside the head to the cheers of a ticket-buying populace and approving media.

But this Spygate scandal is not so easy to navigate. How does Goodell continue to dig into the troubling details of how the New England Patriots became one of the league’s great dynasties while at the same time acting on his primary directive to “protect the shield”?

How can he be expected to turn into a bulldog investigator who provides full public disclosure of every potentially salacious aspect of the scandal, even when he knows those results could ultimately soil the very integrity of the business Goodell feels so honor-bound to safeguard?

A few days ago, I raised this point in print and on Goodell’s own NFL Network airwaves, wondering if he had hastily declared that Spygate “was over because he said it was over.”

I wondered how much he was wrestling with these conflicting interests of uncovering the whole truth while keeping the dirt off his precious NFL shield.

However, on Wednesday, Goodell sent word to me through one of his top aides that he clearly disputed that contention. “The commissioner never said ‘it’s over’ or dismissed anything,” said senior vice president of public relations Greg Aiello in an e-mail.

“To the contrary, he reminded everyone that he has said from the beginning that if there is new evidence of violations he would look into it. … Commissioner Goodell did not attempt to make anything go away.

He put out the facts. He called the press conference, directed that the tapes be shown to the media, asked Matt Walsh to address the media (he declined), reported what Matt Walsh told him, and answered every question.”

The commissioner believes he has done everything he was supposed to do. He correctly points out that his original investigation determined last September that Patriots coach Bill Belichick broke the rules and that Goodell never accepted Belichick’s flimsy excuses that he misinterpreted the rules.

So why does it still feel like this is being fast-tracked to a convenient conclusion without a truly categorical final chapter?

Understand, I am an unrepentant conspiracy theorist. It’s in my nature as a reporter to be skeptical. So pardon me if I’m not as eager to close the chapter on Spygate as everybody else in NFL clothing seems to be.

They all keep saying the same thing over and over again. It’s over. Let’s move on. Even Mike Martz, the most suspicious coach I’ve ever known, apparently is chugging the NFL Kool-Aid.

On Thursday evening, the San Francisco 49ers finally released a prepared statement from the former Rams coach. In it, Martz said that after taking to Goodell, he was “satisfied” with the NFL’s efforts.

“What I’ve said all along and what my only concerns were if A): If the walk-thru was filmed or B): If it was purposely scouted for information. If so, then that is an issue that the league needs to pursue.”

“I’m very satisfied that this was not the situation in this instance whatsoever. … I’m very grateful for Commissioner Goodell to take the time to talk to me about this. It’s time to put this situation behind us.”

Now that video spy Matt Walsh is talking, and more importantly, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is listening, putting it behind us won’t be that easy. In an interview with HBO’s “Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel,” which aired Friday, Walsh raises more questions, like how much more of this scandal has not been voluntarily revealed by the NFL?

For instance, was Walsh the only Patriots staff member roaming the sidelines during that Rams’ walk-through (which, according to Marshall Faulk, was a very detail-intensive practice), and was he the only one gathering scouting information?

We know already that the league held back on information about how long the Patriots had been secretly videotaping opposing teams (Goodell originally did not reveal that the taping had gone on since 2000). So if he initially wasn’t forthcoming with that, is there anything else he’s conveniently withheld?

If the Patriots didn’t bug the Rams’ walk-through, did they have tapes of the Rams from that Nov. 18 regular-season game, and did they use those tapes to gain a distinct advantage in Super Bowl XXXVI?

In what other Super Bowl games did the Patriots use illegal video to gain an advantage?

If there was any doubt whether this illegal system gave the Patriots a competitive advantage, when you read the transcripts of the “Real Sports” interview, there is no doubt. Walsh tells of a conversation with the unnamed backup quarterback after the game with Tampa Bay in 2000:

“The quarterback, you know, later told me that within two to three seconds of when (Tampa Bay defensive coordinator) Monte Kiffin sent a play call into (Tampa Bay safety) John Lynch, Drew Bledsoe had it in his helmet,” Walsh said.

When Walsh asked how much the tapes helped, the quarterback replied “Probably about 75 percent of the time Tampa Bay ran the defense that we thought they were going to run.”

So the Patriots cheated for seven years, won three Super Bowls, created a dynasty and all it cost them was a $750,000 fine and the loss of one late first-round draft pick.

Who says crime doesn’t pay?