Pats' tapes are gone, but questions remain
By Gregg Easterbrook
Special to Page 2
Reader Abhijit Kumbare of San Jose, Calif., writes, "It is very fishy that the NFL immediately destroyed all the evidence submitted by the Patriots." Steve Libenson of New York writes, "Consider what the press reaction would have been if David Stern had collected all the evidence about the ref altering games, then immediately destroyed that evidence without saying what it showed, and did so four days after going on national television and promising to get to the bottom of things."
Fishy, indeed. On Sunday, Sept. 16, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went on national TV and promised he would get to the bottom of the Patriots' sign-stealing. Four days later, the NFL announced all videotapes and other spying materials compiled by the Patriots had been obtained by the league and destroyed. Goodell, who until then had been very upfront in addressing the Beli-Cheat scandal, didn't go back on television to say what the tapes contained; the commissioner has been in radio silence about the Patriots since the files arrived at the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters. The league acted in a hurry to dispose of damning documents, but has not revealed what was in the tapes and notes, nor said why there was a rush to get rid of them.
The lack of answers leaves several questions hanging out there. Chief among them: Is it possible the Patriots' tapes showed some evidence of New England cheating in a Super Bowl?
This weekend, in an e-mail exchange with NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, I asked twice whether the Patriots' documents contained evidence of cheating in the Super Bowl, and Aiello twice declined to either confirm or deny the existence of such evidence. The first time, he changed the subject with a detailed response about the original penalty; and the second time, after I protested he hadn't answered my questions, he replied, "I did answer your questions to the extent I'm going to answer them."
As a matter of logic, refusing to deny something is not the same as admitting it. But if the Patriots' tapes and documents contained no indication of cheating in the Super Bowl, it would be strongly in the NFL's interest to publicize this. Instead, the New England documents were shredded within roughly 48 hours of the NFL receiving them -- see timeline below. The rapid shredding occurred although Goodell said nothing about plans to destroy the materials when he was on national TV vowing his purpose was "maintaining the integrity of the NFL."
After Aiello twice declined to say what the Patriots' materials showed, I heard from him a third time Sunday. He wrote in an e-mail that my assumption the tapes contained indications of Super Bowl cheating is "wrong," then wrote, "There is no such evidence regarding the Patriots' Super Bowl victories." So, is this the denial that I've been seeking? But wait: Three days earlier, the NFL destroyed the evidence. I asked Aiello whether he meant there is no evidence now of New England cheating in a Super Bowl -- that is, after the destruction of the files -- or whether examination of the materials positively affirmed no cheating. He did not reply.
Aiello's "There is no such evidence" phrasing calls to mind what Richard Nixon's attorney general John Mitchell dubbed the "non-denial denial," an assertion that seems to say something but doesn't. On Sunday, I asked Aiello whether the league would make a simple, declarative statement that the spying files proved the Patriots did not cheat in a Super Bowl -- and have not heard back from him. I assume this is not because he has forgotten: I've heard from Park Avenue sources that the fact I am asking these questions is very much on the NFL's radar. I have known Aiello professionally for years and, like others who deal with him, have always found him skilled, knowledgeable and forthright. It's very odd to be getting a "non-denial denial" from him now.
I further asked Aiello who had examined the New England materials before they were destroyed, and he would answer only "senior members of the league office staff." I asked when the materials actually arrived at league headquarters -- How long were they there before being destroyed? -- and he would not answer. I asked whether the materials had been inspected by anyone conversant with the game plans and signals the Rams, Panthers and Eagles used against Bill Belichick's Patriots in the Super Bowl; football signs and terminology are cryptic, so it would help to have a skilled eye. Aiello wouldn't answer that. I asked who had ordered the tapes and notes destroyed, and he wouldn't answer that, either.
And I asked, if there was nothing incriminating in the New England documents, why was the league in such a hurry to shred them? First, Aiello wrote, "The purpose of destroying the tapes and related documents was to eliminate any advantage they might have given the Patriots going forward and ensure a level playing field for all 32 teams." But the league announced last week that the Patriots "certified in writing" that no copies of the materials exist. If the sole copies of the sign-stealing materials had been sent to the league office, it would be impossible for these materials to give the Patriots any advantage. When I pointed that out, Aiello countered that the reason for the destruction was "so that our clubs would know they no longer exist and cannot be used by anyone." Again, if the sole copies were being held by the league, how could any club use the material?
Rose Mary Woods, who reviewed the Patriots' tapes for the NFL.
Aiello further said Tuesday Morning Quarterback was wrong to assert, in last Tuesday's column, that Goodell issued an "emergency" order on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 16, mandating New England turn over all illegally obtained videotapes and sign-stealing materials. Aiello explained Goodell actually issued that order Thursday, Sept. 13, but that the existence of the order did not become known publicly until the morning of Sept. 16, when it was reported by Chris Mortensen on ESPN. I regret the error.
Aiello said the heavy penalties assessed the Patriots on Sept. 13 were for "the totality of the conduct" in multiple instances of sign-stealing over several years, not for "one tape seized at the end of one quarter of one game," meaning the tape taken from the Patriots in their season opener at the New York Jets.
It is unclear why, if Goodell on Sept. 13 issued an order for the surrender of all New England spying tapes and materials, the league said nothing about that directive at the time. More important, come Sunday night, Sept. 16, Goodell told Bob Costas of NBC that the Patriots had not yet complied with the order that we now know was issued Thursday and that he would "absolutely" impose additional penalties on the Patriots if they did not comply promptly. This means there were at least 72 hours in which New England was failing to abide by a high-profile direct order from the commissioner of the NFL -- and in that time was doing with its spying materials, well, lord knows what.
Here is a timeline of events so far:
Sunday, Sept. 9: During the Patriots-Jets season opener, security officers seize a video camera a team official on the New England sideline was using to film signal-calling on the New York sideline. NFL rules forbid filming the opponents' sideline or recording opponents' signal calling. Clubs had been reminded of this prohibition by a strongly worded directive sent from league headquarters in September 2006.
Thursday, Sept. 13: Commissioner Goodell declares the Patriots guilty of "a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid long-standing rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field." He imposes on New England the strongest penalty in NFL history: loss of a first-round pick (if the Pats make the playoffs), or second- and third-round choices in the 2008 draft (if New England fails to reach the postseason); a $500,000 personal fine against Belichick; and a $250,000 club fine. Goodell orders the Patriots to turn over all videotapes and other materials obtained in violation of NFL rules, although this part of his decision is not publicly announced.
Sunday morning, Sept. 16: On ESPN, Chris Mortensen reports Goodell's directive that the Patriots surrender all videotapes and notes containing cheating materials.
Sunday evening, Sept. 16: On NBC's "Football Night in America," Goodell says New England has not yet complied with his order to surrender all illegal materials, adding the Patriots will be penalized more if the materials don't arrive soon.
Monday, Sept. 17: Asked whether he will surrender videotapes and notes to the league, Belichick answers, "Of course." Asked by The Boston Globe whether NFL headquarters has received the Patriots' materials, Aiello answers, "We don't have anything else on the matter to report right now."
Sometime between Monday night, Sept. 17, and Thursday afternoon, Sept. 20: The New England materials arrive at league headquarters.
Thursday night, Sept. 20: The NFL announces all of the Patriots' materials have been destroyed, disclosing nothing about their contents.
The history of scandals teaches us that when the point is reached that everything has come out, then the principals apologize in public and tell all. When the point has not yet been reached that everything has come out, there is usually stonewalling, denial and weird Nixonian/Clintonesque statements. The destruction of evidence and the lack of answers about what the evidence contained, leaves me wondering if there is something very important about the Patriots' spying scandal that has not yet come out.