The Never-Ending Story

Spygate has ruled the headlines for months. Now it's time to turn the page
May 25, 2008

MAYBE WHAT we needright now is a long and expensive investigation into the special-teams careerof Marshall Faulk. At the end every citizen will know exactly where Faulk linedup on the St. Louis Rams return team during the 2002 Super Bowl. Then we canall relax and go back to paying $4 a gallon for regular unleaded.

Or not.

How Faulk enteredthe conversation about the New England Patriots' videotaping scandal, and howhis return duties piqued the interest of a senior U.S. senator, illustrates thebizarreness of the scandal itself. Last week former Patriots video assistantMatt Walsh went to Washington, D.C., and told Pennsylvania Republican ArlenSpecter that he watched—but never taped—the Rams' walk-through before the 2002Super Bowl. Walsh noted that Faulk was returning kickoffs, information he saidhe gave to then New England assistant Brian Daboll. Daboll denies talking toWalsh about the walk-through, but Walsh says Daboll asked follow-up questionsso he could diagram the formation.

This small detailin the game plan, which one might think would be of interest only to colorcommentators, unleashed Specter's inner Madden. "It's significant that[Daboll] questioned him about it, pursued it and was very interested in whatMarshall Faulk did," Specter said. "One of my staffers did the researchand found that Marshall Faulk had only returned one kick in his entire career.I think it's significant that he made diagrams and pursued thequestioning." (Faulk did return one kick during the Super Bowl.)

The revelationabout Faulk's role on the return unit gave Spygate yet another incarnation. Itis hard to find any topic not involving Britney Spears that can hold thepublic's interest for more than a week, but Spygate is heading into a ninthmonth of newsbreaks. What started as a football story has evolved into a mediastory and now a political story.

On May 14 Spectercalled for the NFL to initiate an independent investigation aimed at thePatriots and modeled on Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report—with perhapsWalsh reprising the role of Brian McNamee and Bill Belichick playing a lesscolorful version of Roger Clemens. There would be one fundamental difference,though, between the reports. The use of performance-enhancing drugs by bigleague role models can be viewed as an important public-health issue. The theftof signs and formations by NFL coaches cannot—though Specter did make the casethat kids may follow the example of the Patriots. "If you can cheat in theNFL, you can cheat in college, you can cheat in high school, you can cheat onyour grade school math test," the senator said. "There's nolimit."

It is commendablethat Specter, an unabashed Eagles fan, is willing to fight to protect theethics of competitive athletics. But Congress could use its power in otherareas of sports—by scrutinizing readily available sports supplements thataren't regulated by the FDA, perhaps, or by studying the legality andrationality of using public funds to finance stadiums. There are significantdigital-age First Amendment issues relating to how much control leagues haveover who covers their games and how the news and images they generate can beused, and there is the wisdom of granting pro leagues antitrust exemptions. Andwhat about the NCAA? It enjoys a controversial tax-exempt status even thoughcollege sports is clearly a big business.

Spygate feelsweightless by comparison, although it has been a drag on reputations. RogerGoodell, who spent his first two years as commissioner strengthening disciplinein the NFL, has been accused of going soft on the Patriots. The Patriots, whopresent themselves as the league's model franchise, have invited charges ofhypocrisy. Walsh, now an assistant golf pro in Hawaii, lost credibility whenBelichick told CBS Evening News last Friday that he was fired for "poor jobperformance." And the Boston Herald, which broke the story in February thatthe Patriots taped the Rams' walk-through, on May 14 had to apologize on itsfront and back pages. (SORRY, PATS the front-page headline wailed.) The Heraldreporter who wrote the story published a 1,448-word mea culpa last Friday,which included a blow-by-blow of his flawed reporting and the acknowledgmentthat his mistakes are "something I'm going to have to live with for therest of my life."

Even with all thatcollateral damage Spygate was ready to fade away last week. After a 3 1/2-hourmeeting with Walsh on May 13 netted, said Goodell, "no new evidence,"the commissioner said he would close his investigation. Patriots owner RobertKraft, after the Herald's apologies, said, "You see that this is nonsenseand we were unfairly accused, and we're moving on."

His celebration wasmore premature than his team's 2007 plan to trademark "19--0." Specterhad done his own three-hour interview with Walsh and said he came away with alot more damaging material than Goodell. He learned that Patriots players wouldoften memorize the opposition's signals, watch for them and pass them to thenoffensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who relayed them to quarterback TomBrady.

Such dirty tacticsare, alas, not unusual in pro sports, where ayou-ain't-trying-if-you-ain't-cheating ethos has long reigned. Football teamshave been bending rules since the beginning. In The Best Game Ever, the bookabout the 1958 NFL Championship (SI, April 28), Mark Bowden writes that theColts spied on the Giants in the week before the showdown: Scout Bob Shaw saton a roof near Yankee Stadium, watching Giants practices through binoculars.Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, certain that the Giants also had spies, refused totalk about plays in the locker room because he feared it was bugged.

The Patriots, assecretive as any team in modern sports, teched-out the espionage. There isdebate in football circles about how much advantage, if any, they gained.Still, Goodell fined them and Belichick a total of $750,000 and stripped themof a first-round draft choice. Maybe Specter, a former prosecutor, is right,and the punishment was not severe enough. Maybe further investigation iswarranted. But what if an investigation morphs into congressional hearings? Asdarkly amusing as it might be to watch executives and coaches squirm throughMark McGwire moments on Capitol Hill, it's time to turn to more pressing issuesin sports.

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A football scandal has evolved into a MEDIA ANDPOLITICAL ISSUE

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

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