Cover-up in Patriots case?
Thursday, September 27, 2007
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Twelve days is what the National Football League figured to be the length of your attention span on what has become known as the Bill Belicheat affair, 12 days from righteous indignation to final news cycle. But the truncated Belicheat Tapes timeline, from confiscation to unexplained destruction, might be entering a second phase.
Swift justice is revered only in its literal sense, after all. Not if it is long on swift and short on justice.
The league can pretend all it wants that videogate is yesterday's news, but a lot of its own employees, in board rooms, video dens and locker rooms coast to coast, definitely would have appreciated a more thorough airing of the matter, specifically regarding two salient questions:
If the league first told the Patriots Sept. 13 it wanted all tapes illegally procured and all notes related to them, why did New England not comply until Sept. 17?
What turned up on those tapes that forced their complete destruction on or before Sept. 20?
"I have no idea, but I'd hoped they'd used those tapes to teach other organizations about what they did," Steelers wideout Hines Ward was saying yesterday. "I don't know why you would throw them in the fire. A lot of players are wondering about what happened.
"That's kind of like Area 51. Who knows what's happening there?"
Here's why some remain curious a week after the league announced the destruction of all materials related to the Patriot acts. On the night of the 16th, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who should have suspended Belichick rather than just fine the coach and the organization and take away a draft pick or two, appeared live on NBC with Bob Costas. This was the night before the Patriots complied with the order to turn over the evidence.
Costas asked Goodell if he would increase the penalties if the evidence contained more of what the league suspected.
"If I find out newer information that is different from what I have," Goodell said, "then, yes, absolutely."
In other words, Goodell was prepared to approach the tapes and notes as part of an ongoing investigation. Then the evidence arrived. Within 72 hours, all of it was destroyed.
Short of revealing that the Patriots' illegal taping had in some way impacted 1-to-3 Super Bowls, what conceivably appeared on the tapes to merit their near immediate destruction? Maybe it wasn't short of that at all.
In direct e-mails to ESPN's Gregg Easterbrook this week, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello denied there was evidence of the Patriots cheating in the Super Bowl in response to Easterbrook's direct questions. But the other plausible explanation for destroying evidence, so that it could not be used again by the Patriots (what -- after a daring midnight break-in at the league's Park Avenue headquarters?) or by someone in the league office with access to it, someone who might wind up working for one of the 32 clubs, are not anywhere near as compelling.
Can you imagine the outcry had David Stern quietly destroyed the evidence gathered in the case against former NBA referee Tim Donaghy four days after going on TV to pledge a full investigation?
Which brings us to Salient Question No. 3.
Since the Patriots have won three Super Bowls, and since their considerable slice of recent NFL glory is already tainted to whatever degree its consumers deem appropriate, and since there would be an intense interest on the part of no less than three of its member clubs -- Super Bowl runners-up Carolina, St. Louis and Philadelphia -- as to the specifics of the actual breadth of Patriot turpitude, wouldn't it serve the league's better purposes to state definitively that the evidence showed no Super Bowl shenanigans whatsoever?
Unless, of course, the league cannot honestly say such a thing.
"My imagination races," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said yesterday. "You could definitely win some big games with that style of offense if you had the defensive calls. If you know what a team is doing, that's not just an advantage, that's total domination. Can you imagine if Dick LeBeau knew what plays were gonna be run?"
For the record, New England did not totally dominate in any of its Super Bowl victories, winning by three points in all three games. Then again, the slimmest of margins can be the result of some fat advantage.
"That would be a tragedy for our sport," Ward said. "Especially to the Super Bowl. It would be a devastating blow."
Indeed it would, and I guess you're just supposed to hope that is not the reason all evidence of the Patriots' cheating is no more.