A mere ten days ago, ESPN published a blockbuster story about alleged rampant cheating by the New England Patriots between 2000-2007.

According to ESPN, what the world came to know in 2007 as the relatively limited “spygate” scandal – the intermittent illegal taping of other teams’ signals – was the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper and more pervasive campaign of dirty tricks carried out by the Pats. While the spygate revelations resulted in the levying of fines against coach Bill Belichick and the team, as well as forfeited draft picks, the new ESPN reporting claimed that the NFL went easy on New England. In fact, as Don Van Natta, Jr and his colleagues wrote, other NFL owners have been resentful ever since 2007 that Commissioner Roger Goodell, both out of deference to his friend, Pats’ owner Robert Kraft and because the larger scandal would have seriously embarrassed the league, orchestrated a cover-up of the Pats’ transgressions.

All of this provides essential context for the NFL’s pursuit of Tom Brady in the latest -gate scandal, deflate-gate. Van Natta, Jr. and associates say that Roger Goodell’s decision to suspend the Pats’ quarterback for four games – a serious punishment by NFL disciplinary standards – was a belated attempt to mollify other owners still grumbling over the league’s earlier kid-glove approach.

For about 48 hours last week, the story dominated sports media coverage, raising anew serious questions about the circumstances under which New England won its first three Super Bowl titles in the early 2000s. But as intensively as the sports world picked over the cheating revelations, ESPN bombshell report dropped out of sight almost immediately.

Though many Patriots fans viewed the story as yet one more unfair attack on their beleaguered franchise, motivated by resentment and jealousy because of all their success, the real indictment pointed at Goodell and associates. Indeed, not that it has much left when it comes to disciplinary matters, but the commissioner’s and the league’s credibility should have been destroyed by the Van Natta expose. When Goodell was asked last Monday, on Mike and Mike, whether he’d been aware of the just-released report and whether there was any truth to claimed connection between spygate and Brady’s suspension, Goodell answered, “not that I am aware of.” Given Goodell’s central role in both matters, “not that I am aware of” is a virtual non-sequitur. It’d be as if someone asked Goodell whether he’d had an extra-marital affair, and he responded by saying, “not that I’m aware of.”

So, the question is: once the story aired, did NFL officials hound ESPN into dropping it? How could such significant disclosures, right at the start of a new season, vanish into thin air so soon after first appearing, especially given the excruciating minutiae ESPN picked over day after day in the months-long deflate-gate saga?

The answer might be that, for all that Goodell has bungled in the past few years, the cheating story threatened to do more damage to his credibility than any of the more recent controversies.

I find disappearing of this story, given its obvious magnitude, to be very puzzling.



  1. I am not a Pats fan but I did think it was a really poorly done piece. They went on for about 10 paragraphs with one disgruntled person before spending about a half paragraph devoted to two other sources saying that it didn’t actually help. I felt they had a story that they wanted and fitted their reporting to it and tried their best to ignore what didn’t fit their story. That being said I am sure the NFL leaned on ESPN, they have done so in the past and Goodell is just terrible.

    Regardless of how useful the cheating was, I have long wondered why anyone has an issue about it except for the rampant dislike of the Pats. A lineman or CB will hold on basically any given play in the NFL. That is blatantly cheating and is just part of the culture. I don’t really feel that what we actually know about the Pat’s cheating rises above the general abhorrence of allowing fair play. Look at the shenanigans teams pull with injuries… they are all telling lies (which is also cheating) and everyone knows it. Look at how players argue for calls that they know they shouldn’t receive (trying to get something through fooling the refs when you didn’t earn it on the field seems like cheating that also happens on every play). I’ve felt for years this was all much ado about nothing due to how many people dislike the Pats (and I’m an Eagles fan).

    1. Jon,

      I thought more of the piece than you did (though maybe that’s my own anti-Pats bias). But I am suspicious that the piece disappeared just because it had some holes in it. Given Goodell’s own inability to assert clearly that there was no connection between spygate and the punishment Brady received for deflate-gate, I strongly suspect the story’s asserted connection between the two is correct. And that’s a serious indictment of the NFL. Of course, none of it really seems to matter. The game is more popular than ever and is making more money than ever. And the only real threat to the league isn’t Goodell’s disciplinary incompetence – it’s the long-term health issues.

      1. I really distrust journalism (we see it a lot in sports and politics) where everyone will only speak confidentially. If any of these people were willing to come forward I would be a bit more accepting of the journalism. I did think it was preposterous that they spent so much time with one disgruntled ex-employee and gave such short thought to the counter-examples that did not fit their narrative. That being said, I am willing to believe that the NFL would go to any lengths to pressure its partners into withdrawing negative coverage which is what you were talking about. My real issue wasn’t on the NFL aspect of the story but on the Brady/Pats aspect.

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