The NFL Vs. The Patriots: Why Spygate Is Back In The News

Download Audio

Eight years ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell punished the New England Patriots for filming the signals of opposing coaches during games, a scandal that became known as Spygate.

In May, Goodell handed a four game suspension to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal. The suspension has since been nullified, though the Patriots paid a $1 million fine and forfeited two draft picks.

In a story for ESPN The Magazine, Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham argue there’s a connection between Goodell’s handling of the two scandals. They joined Bill Littlefield.

BL: Don, would you explain, please?

DVN: Well, we started reporting this story back in May, and very early on Seth and I were hearing from league owners, people around the league, executives, that people were pleased with the way Deflategate was going. People said this was a make-up call for Spygate, behavior that was far more serious than a little air let out of footballs. We decided to look at the two investigations forensically, carefully, and that's what we did in this piece.

Exactly what would have been found out, Bill, I don't know. I just know that congressional investigations are not things that Roger Goodell and the NFL usually like.

Don Van Natta, Jr., co-author of 'Spygate to Deflategate'

SW: It's a great mystery. I don't know if he did it because he didn't want to know. And this is his first crisis as a commissioner, and I think he just wanted it slipped under the rug as quickly as possible. And contrast that with this Deflategate investigation which was outsourced, lasted months, cost millions of dollars, they interviewed 66 people. It's quite a bit different.

BL: Don, your investigation also turned up some troubling details beyond the taping — allegations the Patriots stole playsheets before games from the opposing locker room, that they jammed opponents’ radio signals before critical plays. What are you hoping readers will take from the story?

DVN: Well that information is really important to understand the context. We had members of the competition committee in the NFL tell us that basically from 2001 to 2007 most of the complaints that they got were about the Patriots. It just shows you the sort of level of paranoia, anger, resentment — and the anger in particular was directed at the league office and Roger Goodell and the way this investigation was wrapped up so quickly.

BL: You talk about the level of paranoia about the Patriots, but there's another kind of paranoia evident in your article, I think, and it's Roger Goodell's paranoia about interference in the league, specifically by Congress. He says Congress could ruin the league if there were an investigation. What is he afraid of?

DVN: Well that's a good point, Bill. Arlen Spector, the late senator from Pennsylvania, was quite angry at the way the NFL conducted its Spygate investigation. And he was calling for a thorough investigation by Congress where Congress would bring everybody on Capitol Hill, including the commissioner, to testify under oath. And if you lie to Congress, that's a federal offense.

BL: I'm just, I'm still curious! What was he afraid of? What could an investigation have revealed?

DVN: Well, it could have revealed all sorts of things that actually our story revealed. Exactly what would have been found out, Bill, I don't know. I just know that congressional investigations are not things that Roger Goodell and the NFL usually like.

BL: Seth, the Patriots released a statement in response to your story. What did they say, and did it surprise you?

SW: Well, there was a perception that the Patriots had taped a walk-through shortly before they played the Rams in the Super Bowl that kind of started their run under Bill Belichick. The Patriots were obviously very sensitive to the idea that a Super Bowl was ever compromised, and their statement basically said, "We didn't tape the walk-through, we never did."

DVN: Yeah, and by the way, Bill, let me just say, we never allege in our story that the Patriots taped that walk-through. We sent the Patriots two dozen questions eight days before our story was published. They only chose to deal with a handful of those questions on the record, and most of them they chose not to answer.

BL: Roger Goodell seems to have lost one of his biggest supporters among the owners, that would be Patriots' owner Robert Kraft. Goodell’s contract expires in 2019. Do you think he makes it to the end of his term?

DVN: I'm not sure. Goodell is 0-for-5 in appeals of his disciplinary matters. The Ray Rice debacle last fall created a lot of negative headlines for the league, but the metric that's most important for Roger Goodell is revenues. And the revenues keep growing, and Goodell has set the goal, if you will, of $25 billion in annual revenues by 2027. The league is, I believe, gonna hit that mark, and that's the standard that most owners judge Roger Goodell by.

BL: All right, I have to ask you guys one more question. Many people were relieved when a federal judge finally ruled on Brady's suspension last week because it meant, just maybe, we could finally stop talking about Deflategate! And then your article comes out. Do you feel bad about this at all?

SW: No, because I feel like that football fans, in Boston and elsewhere, have spent the entire offseason wondering why one of the game's greatest ambassadors is being smeared because some air might — might have been let out of footballs. And I think that we set out to answer that question as best we can.

DVN: Certainly, I know the story is not very popular in New England, but, you know, there's nothing more important, I would hope, to NFL fans than the competitive integrity of the football games that we all watch every Sunday. And this story goes to the heart of that and shows how this commissioner weighed that.

This segment aired on September 12, 2015.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live