Yesterday, Don van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, who are two pretty good journalists regarding football despite working for the same company as Chris Mortensen, released an in depth report about why the NFL has so little trust for the Patriots for the latter’s cheating ways that went beyond the scope of what we thought. I wanted to take a day to digest everything, because it would have been pretty hard to respond thoughtfully and with a clear head yesterday, and I often try to take time to get my thoughts together on the site, because this site is way more about analysis than news. (No, Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, those are not the same things.)
This site’s slogan is “Blind Love and Thoughtful Analysis of Boston Sports.” That’s pretty hard to do right now. I saw the hashtag #BoycottESPN trending on Twitter yesterday, and I also saw many say that the report proves that the Patriots are a scum organization. Both are obviously way too extreme, but finding where in the middle this truth lies is really testing how I can love this team passionately and still be rational at the same time. Sometimes in sports, that battle comes up in your head, and this is a very prominent example of one of those times. I have 2 main points to make about the report.
(I shouldn’t tease my own column, but don’t worry, my 2nd and 3rd points are really short, so don’t get concerned that you’ll lose your entire day after you see that the first one is pretty detailed.)
1.) The Patriots clearly have cheated in some ways over the years during the Belichick era. I always try to believe that one is innocent until proven guilty, and the phrase “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” is often stupid, as Judge Berman rightfully proved to us. But where there’s this much smoke there’s gotta be a spark somewhere, even if it’s small. And the report does say that it’s clear that Belichick and Adams taped a lot of games, and the NFL did destroy most of them for a reason.
The question for me is (and always has been), how egregious is this cheating in the scope of the NFL? I tend to look at infractions that way in all sports. Everyone should be punished for breaking the rules no matter what, whether it’s Spygate or anything else. But for the legacy discussion or the overall moral judgment of the organization, the context matters a ton. Here’s a quote from the report that isn’t being talked about enough: “The shared view of Belichick and Adams, according to many who’ve worked with them, is this: The league is lazy and incompetent, so why not push every boundary?”
And what about this quote from John Madden in this YouTube clip?
This mindset that Belichick and Ernie Adams had, expressed in the quote above, would definitely explain to me what happened with Spygate. Just about every team taped the signs of the opposing coaches right up until about 2006. However, the Patriots were so damn good at it, as the report says, that the NFL wanted to put a stop to it all — which is fine, the league has every right to do that as long as they don’t retroactively punish anyone, which they didn’t here. In 2006 and 2007, the league warned every team and in particular the Patriots not to do it anymore, but Belichick ignored the memo, which was his colossal mistake and one that he deserved to pay for with a huge fine and the loss of a 1st round pick. After reading this report, it makes more sense to me why Belichick would ignore the memo: He and Adams didn’t believe that the NFL would actually care at all. Remember, Belichick’s now the first guy to be an NFL assistant coach for 20 years and a head coach for 20 years, so he’s been around forever. He believed that none of this cheating/gamesmanship stuff mattered, which was obviously an arrogant mistake to believe in the case of the Spygate memo. But that’s the perspective that BB comes from, and it does help put in context exactly what the Pats were doing and how bad it was.
The rumors that the Pats would steal playbooks and cross the wires of the other team’s headsets certainly concerns me, although I’m far less convinced of it. Whether you’re a Pats fan or not, if you want to judge the Pats based on these transgressions that are clearly breaking the rules but I don’t think are as egregious as the report wants to make them seem, then fine, be my guest. I have no problem with that mindset at all. But my opinions on the kind of cheating that so many others are doing are usually a little more liberal, for lack of a better word. Same thing I think about steroid users in baseball or football (remember, using steroids is technically cheating in football but no one remembers any of the non-superstars who get busted for juicing) or Red Auerbach letting the entrance from the TD Garden to North Station open during the middle of winter so his opponents would freeze up. I already knew the Pats were cheating by way of Spygate, and while this report does make it seem a little worse than expected, it doesn’t change my opinion as much as most non-Patriots fans think it should.
2.) This report and many of the reactions seem to suggest that the Patriots got off easy for Spygate. Anyone who thinks that is a lunatic. They lost a 1st round pick because of it, and NFL GMs generally love 1st rounders more than their own children. And given that the OTL report stated that the Deflategate ruling was a make up call of sorts for the league against the Pats, and given that there was no real evidence of the balls actually being under inflated according to unbiased scientists at Harvard, MIT, Columbia, Stanford, and other organizations like even the Washington Post and New York Times, we can say that the Pats were also docked a 2016 1st rounder and 2017 4th rounder for Spygate as well. So they didn’t get off easy. It was the most harsh punishment in league history up until Deflategate. And if anyone wants to say that they dodged a real punishment for having their organization being morally bankrupt, remember, Bill Belichick was fined twice the amount for Spygate as Ray Lewis was for obstructing justice in a murder investigation.
3.) Anyone who says they’d care just as much if this were another team is lying. Unless a fan you know actually gets worked up about Antonio Gates or whoever else getting busted for roids and hates Jerry Rice for using stickum on his gloves, they don’t care this much about cheaters unless it’s the Pats. Always remember: