Matt Walsh had his fifteen minutes of fame this weekend. The former New England Patriots video assistant-cum-Hawaiian golf pro coolly handled the first two steps in what, these days, has become an all too common three-step scandal progression cycle in big time sports: (1) you're center of an investigation (2) you're center of media attention. (3) A book contract completes the cycle.
Walsh's interview on HBO Real Sports which aired Friday night and his New York Times website Q&A published earlier that day made public substantially the same things he privately told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) earlier that week: The Patriots systematically and surreptitiously, and in violation of NFL rules video taped several other team's (Dolphins, Bills, Browns, Steelers , Chargers) defensive play-calling signals from 2000-2002. This is in addition to the original "Spygate" incident last season, where the Patriots were caught taping the Jets.
Astonishingly (to me, at least), Roger Goodell emerged from his meeting with Walsh last week un-phased by it all. "As I stand before you today," he told reporters "I don't know where else I would turn." That's sounds like either a jaw-dropping lack of investigative imagination or somebody who's covering up. Coming from the same Roger Goodell who inexplicably destroyed all tapes (from 2006 and 2007) and notes (dating back to 2002) surrendered by the Patriots after the Jets incident, I'd say something smells fishy.
Senator Specter thinks so too, but I'm inclined to agree with George Vecsey that full-blown congressional hearings looking into the matter of pro football teams spying on one another is not exactly the best use or even a good use of taxpayer money.
So if we don't want to make a federal case out of it and the NFL Commissioner isn't up to his fiduciary duty to protect the integrity of the league, who should push the investigation of Spygate? Channeling Deep Throat, the pivotal informant from Spygate's tapes-and-cover-up namesake, why don't we "follow the money"?
What about the NFL owners? If your team had fallen victim to the Patriots during the Bill Belichick era, wouldn't you be a little outraged? If you could prove your team could've went to the playoffs, or the Super Bowl or won the Super Bowl but for the Patriots using illegally obtained information to defeat you, then wouldn't it also follow that your franchise lost out on all kinds of concomitant financial gains; less merchandise sold, less tickets sold, less luxury boxes sold, etc? Starting with the teams we know have been taped, each one of them has a valid tortious interference claim. That's double damages plus attorney's fees. But do you hear one NFL owner piping up? Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney called it a "non-issue". Remarkably, no other NFL owners have commented on the matter. If this were Red Sox instead of Patriots, George Steinbrenner would be apoplectic. Follow the money: I can only believe that owner's bottom lines were unaffected but could potentially be affected if Spygate enlarged and damaged consumer confidence in the NFL. Spygate or no Spygate, they sold tickets and still have many more to sell. The integrity of the dollar trumps the integrity of the game.
But hear me loud and clear: Spygate is not a victimless crime. I'm not going wax all high-minded right now about cheating, the integrity of the game or what it means to kids. (Though, I could.) No, Spygate is about real people and tangible harms done.
If you did a thorough investigation, I bet you could find defensive coordinators who were fired because of how badly their decisions looked after playing the Patriots, and subsequently that firing not only placed that coach further down on the play scale for his next job but cost him a potential promotion or head coaching job. Maybe it put that coach out of football completely. For all we know that coach may have devised a brilliant defensive game plan. We'll never know because he was cheated. Don't the Patriots owe him something? I believe a good lawyer would say yes.
Spygate likely ruined careers. How many defensive backs were cut after Tom Brady lit them up, knowing before he got out of the huddle where the one-on-one isolation would be? How many defensive players were upbraided in film sessions after a Patriots game because they looked so inept against the Patriots? Defensive captains who strategized with their defensive coaches on play calling lost games to the Patriots and consequently lost the respect of their teammates -- a precious thing that once lost is extremely difficult to win back; something that definitely harms one's professional reputation. Or, how about players who lost playoff and Super Bowl bonuses because those contractual goals were cancelled by Patriots victories? Follow the money: Agents for these players have at minimum a colorable claim for lost wages and lost potential earnings. Where is Drew Rosenhaus when you need him? Why isn't agent/attorney Leigh Steinberg on his soapbox right now, articulately explaining the ripple effect Spygate had on player's performances which affected their free agency, their negotiating positions and their market value. Agents make a living out of creatively monetizing everything that happens on the football field involving their client. If they can't figure out a Spygate claim on behalf of their individually harmed clients then they should join with other agents in a class action suit.
I'm not concerned in the least with what happens to Bob Kraft and Bill Belichik. They'll be okay no matter how this thing shakes out. I care about the people who play by the rules -- the ones who try hard every weekend to win games, perform well and improve their lot in life. Spygate is not just about the Ram's walk-through practice before Super Bowl XXXVI. It's about the quiet cumulative negative economic effect on many NFL players and coaches most of whom are not marquee names. That's why Spygate matters. That's why it's important. That's why "somebody" ought to investigate why on earth Roger Goodell would destroy evidence, why he is not pursuing further investigation with prosecutorial zeal and why he isn't completely pissed off about the humiliating position in which the Patriots have put him and his league.
That "somebody" should be the NFL Players Association. They are the perfect entity to take legal standing on behalf of their cheated constituency. And with collective bargaining agreement negotiations beginning tomorrow in Atlanta, now would be a good time to bring it up.