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Opinion
Spygate ad nauseam

By Clark Booth
Posted: 5/23/2008

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On the one hand, this bizarre business that threatens to be eternally remembered as “Spygate” may come down to the statement uttered succinctly by Bob Glauber, sports pundit of Newsday, who wrote; “Is that all there is?”

But on the other hand -- as Columnist Harvey Araton writes in the New York Times -- it just may be appropriate for Bill Belichick, alleged smartest football guy in the western world, to get beached for a year so that he can bone up on his ethics. One year of exile, Araton contends, would be a reasonable rebuke to Belichick for his “decade of sins” which have resulted in “embarrassment to the league in perpetuity.”

Glauber is a pro who knows the game cold. Araton holds the distinguished ‘‘Sports of the Times’’ chair of sporting journalism once occupied by no less than the likes of John Kieran, Arthur Daley, and Red Smith. Neither is your ordinary tabloid rabble-rouser. You can tell by the casual way Araton flings around cool words like ‘‘perpetuity.’’ More to the point, one quotes them to demonstrate both the extremes of the argument and the rage with which it seems to be consuming the toy departments of the Republic. In an age when we have real problems to worry about, ranging from killer earthquakes to superpower meltdowns, the petty flaws and eccentric whims of a despotic football coach dominate the give and take around the water cooler. Only in America!

Must confess to having had a certain ambivalence about this matter all along. Have had trouble making up my mind as to whether it is grave or farcical. Are we talking moral turpitude here or is it mere ragtime? It has seemed a tough call. But the matter in which it has been handled, their reactions, their pious protestations, and their too often too clever misrepresentations have in the end tipped the scales against the Patriots, in my book; Boss Belichick above all, obviously, but the franchise too. Collectively, it strikes the alarm bell that always sounds when you begin to suspect, “Methinks they doth protest too much!”

Especially damning is the repeated assertion of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who, in characterizing whether or not he believes Belichick’s side of the story, stated again last week; “I’m pretty well on the record here that I don’t accept Bill Belichick’s explanations.” There are nastier and angrier and less equivocal ways to make the point, but there is no ducking its meaning. Goodell believes Belichick is a liar. Period! Having said that at least three times now, how can he predicate any of his conclusions based so extensively on such evidence that he has gleaned mainly from Belichick?

How can he be sure the video-taping and other ‘‘violations of competitive integrity,’’ as Goodell likes to call these high crimes and misdemeanors, did not continue between the 2002 season, when rogue videographer Matt Walsh was canned, and last September, when a luckless successor to Walsh got caught red-handed thus opening up this bottomless can of worms? It certainly matters whether there were eight transgressions, or 28, or 48. How can he be sure that other, anxious-to-please, young, low-end gofers, who have remained totally in the tank, weren’t guilty of even more outrageous behavior authorized by the coach. How can he be sure that Belichick never used the wrongfully obtained intelligence in the very games it was obtained which would surely have afforded him a competitive edge? Goodell certainly can’t accept any of these crucial contentions and then turn around and say he doesn’t believe Belichick is telling the truth.

It is this rather obvious contradiction that both motivates and justifies the rage of that near legendary Senate bulldog, Arlen Specter. There’s no question that the aging and ailing Republican from Pennsylvania has ulterior motives. He’s been nit-picking the NFL for years. He’s tight with Comcast, the cable behemouth that is at war with the NFL over television rights. He’s grandstanding for his football-mad constituents, both the dizzy adherents of the Steelers, a known victim of the Patriots unethical practices, and the daffy devotees of the Eagles, who strongly suspect they may have been. All of this is true. But that doesn’t mean Sen. Specter doesn’t have a valid case.

You mess with this guy at your peril. He made his mark as a prosecutor and his intense combat in the field dates all the way back to his tenacious work on the Warren Commission. It was tactically unwise for Goodell to pronounce the inquiry ‘‘over’’ without so much as bothering to review his findings with Specter who, as ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee is not some junior solon from the backwater. It was even more foolish of Bob Kraft to gleefully announce his redemption and vindication based on the tentative revelations of the ex-employee his own organization has been roundly denouncing. It was unworthy of Kraft and he should have known better. And now he has to face up to the reality that it ain’t over until it’s over, as Yogi would say.

Because Arlen Specter won’t give up. He has termed Goodell’s conclusions “ridiculous” and said “they wouldn’t fly in a kindergarten.” That’s derisive stuff and Specter is not your run of the mill political hothead who spouts off willy-nilly. Moreover, he has mentioned the magic words that send shivers up the spines of every NFL commissioner and his brother moguls and those words are “anti-trust exemption.” He’s suggested that this priceless protection that has long been the key to the NFL’s fabulous success is always subject to review. Goodell and his buddies will cooperate. Specter will get the “objective investigation” (his words) he’s demanded. The NFL has no choice.

Goodell seems earnest in his efforts and more sincere than his predecessors. But he’s made mistakes, some of them dumb. He never should have destroyed the ‘‘evidence’’ garnered last September. It aroused suspicions among lovers of conspiracy theories, which includes the majority of us. And he has too often appeared to be too anxious to get the thing over with, an impression compounded by his rush to judgment within minutes of his long-awaited date with Walsh.

And then he was further made to look inept when Walsh -- sarcastically characterized by Araton as “the prized student in the New England Patriots film noir studies program” -- promptly scored heavily on two major points in ‘‘personal’’ interviews with the Times and HBO. Walsh noted that if the taping was of no importance and provided little intelligence, as Belichick, has been insisting, then why did he keep doing it? And he observed that if Belichick really didn’t realize wrongs were being committed, as he has contended, then why did everyone associated with the monkeyshines go to such extremes to cover them up. Both points are valid and neither of them appears to have been entertained by Mr. Commissioner.

Belichick’s furious response was to refute Walsh on CBS, unwisely resorting to anger, indignation, and contempt in the process. He sneers at what he deems Walsh’s pathetic attempt to suggest they were “buddies” (Belichick’s term). It’s hardly germane. Nobody in his right man assumed any such thing. For nine months, Clan Kraft has been trying to minimize Walsh. What they haven’t successfully explained is, why if he were such a loathsome, incompetent, and unpleasant employee did they keep him associated with the team for six years (1997-2003)? Is it the Kraft’s policy to carry ne’er-do-wells on their payroll out of the goodness of their corporate hearts?

One can gladly concede the original charges were fairly trifling. As usual, it is the strained explanations and lame justifications woven into a botched attempt to cover the thing up that has landed them in real trouble. ‘Tis ever thus and I will not burden you further with the historical precedents and parallels which have become almost cliches other than to suggest that comparisons of the personality of Bill Belichick and Dick Nixon are, unfortunately, not exactly far-fetched.

Let the investigation continue. The Patriots and their inscrutable coach have more explaining to do.