Sports Outside the Beltway

Patriots Cheating Scandal Could Get Worse

Gregg Easterbrook believes we’ve just seen the tip of the iceberg on the cheating scandal involving the New England Patriots and that it could knock the NFL off its perch as the world’s most popular sports league.

And the Patriots’ cheating might have been more extensive than so far confirmed. Fox Sports reported that former NFL players believe Belichick had microphones installed in the shoulder pads of defensive linemen so the Patriots could tape other teams’ offensive audibles and line calls. Needless to say, putting microphones on players violates NFL rules. Andrea Kremer of NBC reported that several teams might charge the Patriots this week with having stolen playbooks from the visitors’ dressing room. The convenient “malfunction” of visiting teams’ headphones at the Patriots’ two fields under Belichick seems to have happened far too often to be an IT department error. The rumor mill says Belichick, Richard Nixon-style, has file cabinets of info on opposing coaches and assistant coaches – some gleaned honestly, some obtained by cheating.

It seems more than just an eerie coincidence that Belichick’s unethical behavior involves illicit taping, the same offense that made Nixon’s actions so sordid. The parallels to Nixon don’t stop there. Caught, Belichick – like Nixon – tried to hide the true extent of the prohibited acts; Belichick – like Nixon – tried to claim his prohibited action hadn’t been prohibited; Belichick – like Nixon – immediately stonewalled. It would be tempting to break the unhappy tone of this column with a Nixon joke – when the league plays Belichick’s tape of the Jets’ sideline, will there be an 18-and-a-half minute gap? But for all lovers of the NFL, there’s just nothing to laugh about now.

What else is there about New England cheating that the team or league isn’t telling us? Are the Patriots one bad apple, or is cheating common in the league? Worst, did the Patriots cheat in their Super Bowl wins? If New England was cheating in the Super Bowl, this will become the darkest sports scandal since Shoeless Joe and the Black Sox. If you don’t think Goodell and all owners, including Robert Kraft of New England, are in abject terror of any possible disclosure that the Patriots were cheating in the Super Bowl, perhaps you just don’t understand the situation.

The weasel wording of Belichick’s Nixonian statement shows the New England coach full of contempt for the NFL fans, and the NFL enterprise, that made him a wealthy celebrity. Belichick declared that his super-elaborate cheating system was only a “mistake” caused by his “interpretation” of the league’s rule. Wait, “interpretation”? The NFL rule bans teams from filming each other’s sidelines. There’s no room for interpretation, it’s a ban! Here’s the NFL policy, from a memo sent to all head coaches and general managers Sept. 6, 2006: “Videotaping of any type, including but not limited to taping of an opponent’s offensive or defensive signals, is prohibited on the sidelines, in the coaches’ booth, in the locker room or at any other locations accessible to club staff members during the game.” Prohibited. There’s nothing there to “interpret.” Videotaping opponent’s signals even after getting this warning isn’t a “mistake,” it’s cheating. Belichick’s cheating was not some casual spur-of-the-moment blunder but rather an elaborate staffed system that took a lot of work to put into place and that Belichick worked hard to hide. And you don’t hide something unless you are ashamed of it.

This is indeed worrisome, especially combined with other recent scandals involving athletes and even referees in other sports.

During last night’s Cowboys-Bears game, for example, there were three absolutely dreadful calls against the Cowboys in the first half, along with several questionable calls and non-calls that seemed to go one way. It certainly crossed my mind that the fix could be in.

Those fears were allayed when the Cowboys pulled away and won in a blowout in the second half. Still, that it even struck me as a real possibility is bad news for the game.

It’s not just my boosterism kicking in, either. SI’s Peter King:

I think this is my advice to officiating czar Mike Pereira after viewing a day of football Sunday: You have got to talk to your crews this week about some of the biggest phantom calls in recent times. They were all over the place, particularly from Ron Winter’s crew Sunday night. A phony interference call on Terrell Owens and a terrible illegal-block-in-the-back call on Jason Witten … those calls just can’t be supported on video. And they weren’t the only ones Sunday.

Quite right. Just bloody awful. The question is whether the officiating is incompetent or rigged. Neither answer redounds to the League’s benefit.

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