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Lingering "Spygate" should not simply go away

Matt Walsh
Photo: ESPN

On Tuesday, former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh will meet with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss his knowledge of how the Patriots cheated and violated league rules over a seven year period which saw them win three Super Bowls. Prior to this meeting, Walsh handed over eight tapes to the NFL, each showing the Patriots violating league rules and recording the play-calling signals of five teams in six games. One of those games was the 2002 AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh.

Back in late 2007, when the "Spygate" saga began, Bill Belichick was fined and the Patriots were docked a first round draft pick for taping the NY Jets in Week One. After the punishment was leveed, Belichcik was ordered to hand over to the league all tapes that showed New England recording opponents signals. Belichick gave up six tapes, which the league destroyed. None of the tapes Walsh handed over were duplicates of those original six tapes. The NFL's response to Walsh's tapes is:

"The tapes are consistent with the findings of our prior investigation. There are no tapes of any opponent walk-throughs, no Super Bowl tapes, none of that.

"So, again, these are tapes of opponents' coaching signals. It's what we already knew and, as [ESPN] reported back in September, Belichick admitted to the commissioner [Roger Goodell] that he had engaged in this practice dating back to 2000."

So, those are the facts, as we know them. What is also known is Bill Belichick was not fined and the Patriots were not docked money and draft picks because of taping that dated back to 2000. They were punished because they taped one opponent (the Jets) and got caught doing it red-handed after a letter came out the week before warning them not to engage in it. The Patriots ignored this warning, did it anyway, and got caught.

Again, they were punished for taping one opponent: The Jets. At least, that is what we (the paying fans) were told.

Today, because of Matt Walsh, there is actual, physical proof the Patriots cheated, going all the way back to 2000 (Belichick's first season). We have a Conference Championship Game tape, which regardless of how the NFL spins it immediately calls into question the integrity of that game. If I'm a Steelers' fan, I'm livid. Hell, as a Colts fan I'm already livid that the Patriots cheated prior to both playoffs games with the Colts in 2003 and 2004. If they taped any of those games, my head might just explode.

It is important to point out that the NFL did not willingly divulge the fact that Belichick was taping since 2000. Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter muscled them to do it. The stupidity the NFL has displayed in handling this is best exampled by the whole "Rams Super Bowl walk through" tape. Apparently, Matt Walsh was not the source of John Tomase's story in the Boston Herald, which stated that an unnamed source had a tape, which the Patriots recorded, showing the St. Louis Rams' walk through prior to the Super Bowl in 2002, which the heavily favored Rams lost to the Patriots. What is amazing is the NFL seems to think that this tape, and only this tape, would constitute "additional evidence" against the Patriots even though there is now physical proof the Patriots did indeed tape a playoff team just two weeks before the Super Bowl: The Steelers in the 2002 AFC Championship Game.

Roger Goodell has only himself to blame for botching this embarrassment.

The NFL backed themselves into a corner here, and they only have themselves to blame. If they had suspended Belichick in 2007, this entire thing would have blown over by now. The way it looks now, the punishment precedent against coaches and owners for blatantly violating league rules for a seven year period is essentially a $1 million dollar fine and a first round pick. Meanwhile, for players, if you violate league rules just three times, it's an automatic one-year suspension.

If I'm the Player's Union, I'm equally as pissed as Steelers fans.

And as much as I respect people like Bill Polian and Dan Rooney, they are 100% wrong. This should not just "go away." As a fan, I feel no need to simply "move on." There is an injustice here, a feeling of inconsistent standards of fairness. When the rules are uneven, it makes the playing field uneven. If the playing field is uneven, I stop watching the sport. Millions of other fans see it the same. Just ask the MLB and the NBA. Regardless of whether or not the taping affected the outcome of games, the perception is there is a double standard between coaches blatantly violating league rules and players blatantly violating league rules.

Hell, one could make an argument that the standard is uneven between coaches who violate rules. Remember, Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Wade Wilson was suspended five games and fined $100,000 for receiving a single shipment of HGH. Goodell had no sympathy for Wilson, saying:

I suspended him for five games because I think a coach should be held to a higher standard. That is why I approached it that way. They all understand the rules, and I think we did what was appropriate in Wade Wilson's case, and I'm comfortable with that.
Apparently, Goodell holds Wilson to a higher standard than he does Bill Belichick, or at least a different one.

If the NFL is serious about enforcing rules and being fair, then Bill Belichick should be suspended. Roger Goodell is not going to do that though, because people like Patriots owner Bob Kraft pay Roger Goodell to do his job. What Goodell has to do here (and again, he brought this on himself) is ignore the pleas from owners and do what is moral and responsible in order to maintain the integrity of the game for the fans: Suspend Belichick a number of games for the 2008 season. Remember, Roger Goodell said this during his 8 minute interview with Bob Costas after the Patriots were punished:

My job here, Bob, is to make sure that all 32 teams are operating within the same rules (and) on level playing field. That’s what I tried to do here with this penalty - is to make sure that all teams are playing by the same rules.
We assume Goodell said this knowing the Patriots had been cheating since 2000, as the NFL stated recently it knew this when Walsh handed over his 8 tapes. At the time, we fans (and certainly not the media) did not know Belichick was cheating since 2000. If someone like Costas had known that prior to his his interview with Goodell, he would have eaten Goodell alive because the punishment (1 draft pick, $1 million dollars) does not meet the crime (seven years of cheating). I'm assuming Costas (like the rest of us) thought the penalty was for the one violation against the Jets, because at no time did Costas bring up the fact that Belichick had been cheating since 2000 during that interview, and it is because I suspect Costas did not know, just like the rest of us. It took an Arlen Specter investigation to bring that out. Thus, Goodell now has egg on his face.

If Goodell does not suspend Belichick for his multiple violations, then fans will forever question the integrity of the league, its owners, and Mr. Goodell. Either the rules are inconsistent, or the NFL deliberately tried to hide the fact that Belichick has a long record of cheating. Either way, the league will be seen as people who can easily dish out punishment to others, but will close ranks around their own when they are deserving for punishment as well. Such a perception can kill a sport. As our economy gets worse and people have less and less disposable income, they will be less likely to pay for a league that has uneven rules.

As for the Patriots, this has little to do with "getting back at them." In the eyes of many fans, their Super Bowls in 2001, 2003, and 2004 are tainted. Bill Belichick's legacy is severally damaged to the point where he would be a controversial Hall of Fame inductee rather than an automatic bid (like, say, Tony Dungy). For someone like me, that is punishment enough, but suspending Belichick is not about revenge or anything like that. Right now, Mr. Goodell's words regarding "all teams are playing by the same rules" ring hollow. If he wants them to mean anything, Belichick must get suspended for part of 2008. This is about establishing a sense of fairness, which currently does not exist and, without it, could damage the integrity of the NFL for decades.