Wednesday May 14th, 2008

While I sat listening to Sen. Arlen Specter on Wednesday outline why he believes an independent investigation of Spygate is now necessary, I was trying to discern just where such an inquiry would fit in the grand scheme of things when it comes to unresolved matters of national import.

I decided after a short period of contemplation that an outside investigation of the Patriots' illegal taping practices would, in terms of urgency, fall somewhere below those still ongoing inquiries into the 2006 firings of U.S. attorneys by attorney general Alberto Gonzalez and the Justice Department, the meltdown of the nation's mortgage industry due to sub-prime loans, the current administration's definition of torture, and the NSA's standards for domestic warrantless wire-tapping. And let's not even count that lingering, messy debate over the validity of our pre-war intelligence. That's such old news.

Look, I happen to agree with the always-skeptical senior senator from Pennsylvania that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has an inherent conflict of interest whenever he undertakes to investigate his own league. Since last September, I have said Goodell erred badly when he chose to unwisely destroy the six videotapes and written materials that NFL investigators confiscated from the Patriots, a move that only ensured conspiracy theorists had the lack of transparency they need to thrive and prosper.

But let's all strive for a little perspective, please. I don't think it's necessary to throw this baby out with the bath water. The NFL's Spygate investigation certainly has not been flawless. But it has not been fatally flawed either, and that should be the standard for calling for an outside body to investigate.

It always sounds weighty and critically important to call for an independent investigation -- and Specter has made quite a career for himself doing so, just Google his name and the word "investigation'' -- but the act of doing so doesn't mandate that one is called for. Conversely, Goodell's serving at the pleasure of the same NFL teams that he sits in judgment over doesn't guarantee his decision making will be compromised or lack for objectivity.

I clearly heard Specter, who cut his teeth as a veteran of the Warren Commission, still has doubts about the depth and conduct of the NFL's investigation. I heard he's incensed that his home-state Steelers got spied on, that he's dubious about the league letting a Patriots attorney sit in on its questioning of Matt Walsh in New York on Tuesday, and that he feels "stonewalled'' by some 24 members of the Patriots organization or league officials that his office tried to personally contact and question regarding Spygate. Then again, Specter must have some appreciation for the art of stonewalling, having served in the Senate for as long as he has and seen administrations in both parties hone their skills in that department.

What I didn't hear from Specter was some solid and specific rationale for the reasonable doubt he continues to hold in regards to the NFL's investigation. And I'm talking more than just putting the league's entire inquiry under the heading of lacking in objectivity and leaving it at that.

If the NFL for the past three-plus months had declared it had no interest in listening to whatever Walsh had to say, based on it having already penalized the Patriots and closed its books on the Spygate case, I would be among those strongly suggesting the NFL didn't want to know what it didn't know. But Goodell and the league spent months negotiating with Walsh to get him to New York -- despite their hunch that it wouldn't be that fruitful -- and then the ex-Patriots video assistant wound up shedding very little new light on the story the league already knew.

Even if the NFL version of the Mitchell investigation was conducted for the next eight months, is it likely we'd find ourselves learning of a significantly different version of the Spygate saga than we know today? I highly, highly doubt it. We'd be in almost the exact same position we're in now, knowing the Patriots illegally taped opponents dating from 2000, debating just how much of a factor illicit scouting played in their dynasty this decade, and seeing the taint to New England's legacy in varying shades, depending on personal perspective.

Such an investigation would not remotely rise to the same level of significance of baseball's open-ended inquiry into its long-suspected steroid craze. That investigation largely defined an entire era of the sport, and helped spark clean-up reforms that addressed the very veracity of the game's competition. While there are some parallel integrity-of-the-game issues inherent in the Patriots' case, keep in mind it was one team -- albeit this decade's dominant one -- and not a league-wide culture or practice. No one debates that point.

Again, a sense of perspective is required to reach such a conclusion, and, sadly, perspective is often a luxury in the age of the 24/7 news cycle, where it's demanded the headlines change almost hourly, with the story always furthered. But sometimes enough is enough. Sometimes there is no conspiracy, and no further sensational details to be learned. Sometimes it really is time to move on, having learned what we needed.

After all, Spygate has made its mark and changed the game. It wasn't swept under the rug, and as ugly chapters go, it won't soon be forgotten. The NFL has made changes to its practices to help ensure its technology will be used legally and on a level playing field. Teams are much more wary of cheating today than they were before last September. As for the Patriots, their coaches or employees won't be able to swing a lens in any direction from now on without having all eyes upon them. Belichick and Co. certainly have that coming.

But an independent investigation of Spygate, dragging the story out another six months or so and assigning it even more importance than it ever deserved? That's an idea whose time has not come. Here's hoping it never does.

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