Remember Spygate? It was the old New England Patriots cheating scandal before the current New England Patriots cheating scandal, and according to a heavily reported ESPN story, Roger Goodell’s ham-fisted handling of the first is the only reason the second exists.
According to interviews with more than 90 sources and a review of internal NFL documents, ESPN reports that Bill Belichick and the Pats not only recorded opposing teams’ signals from 40 different games from 2000 through 2007, but "during pregame warm-ups, a low-level Patriots employee would sneak into the visiting locker room and steal the play sheet, listing the first 20 or so scripted calls for the opposing team's offense." And according to ESPN, Goodell knew all about it — and did very, very little.
To understand why this report is such a big deal for Goodell, et’s quickly jump back to 2007 for a Spygate refresher. A year into Goodell’s tenure as NFL commissioner, the Patriots were caught recording the Jets' defensive signals, which is totally against the rules. Goodell, who ESPN points out won the job as NFL honcho with the support of Patriots' owner Robert Kraft, acted quickly to punish the team, levying a couple fines and docking them a draft pick. He hoped the league would quickly move on and, to ensure that, had NFL suits destroy evidence of the Pats' cheating.
Naturally, much of this didn’t sit well with the rest of the league’s owners, many of whom “would conclude it was as if Goodell, Kraft and Belichick had acted like partners, complicit in trying to sweep the scandal's details under the rug," according to ESPN.
So why does this ancient history matter now? Because it goes a long way toward explaining how discrepancies in football inflation became the dumbest controversy in the history of sports. You see, when Goodell decided to come down hard on the Pats, or at least try to come down hard on the Pats, for Deflategate it was largely because he failed to do anything about Spygate. He was trying to appease the league’s owners not named Robert Kraft. As one owner put it to ESPN, Deflategate was the league’s “makeup call.”
Read the full ESPN story if you want all the gritty details on how the Patriots spied on teams from 2001 to 2007. And read it if you want to understand how much relationships influenced the Defaltegate debacle. And read it if you’re looking for a great piece of investigative journalism about something that really doesn’t matter at all. Or maybe better yet, don’t read it, because football is something we watch for fun and even if the NFL is a run by billionaire chimpanzees in old man suits, the product is still good and that’s really all that most fans care about.
Photos by AP Photo/Michael Dwyer