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The Never-Ending Story
Lee Jenkins
May 26, 2008
Spygate has ruled the headlines for months. Now it's time to turn the page
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May 26, 2008

The Never-ending Story

Spygate has ruled the headlines for months. Now it's time to turn the page

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MAYBE WHAT we need right now is a long and expensive investigation into the special-teams career of Marshall Faulk. At the end every citizen will know exactly where Faulk lined up on the St. Louis Rams return team during the 2002 Super Bowl. Then we can all relax and go back to paying $4 a gallon for regular unleaded.

Or not.

How Faulk entered the conversation about the New England Patriots' videotaping scandal, and how his return duties piqued the interest of a senior U.S. senator, illustrates the bizarreness of the scandal itself. Last week former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh went to Washington, D.C., and told Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter that he watched—but never taped—the Rams' walk-through before the 2002 Super Bowl. Walsh noted that Faulk was returning kickoffs, information he said he gave to then New England assistant Brian Daboll. Daboll denies talking to Walsh about the walk-through, but Walsh says Daboll asked follow-up questions so he could diagram the formation.

This small detail in the game plan, which one might think would be of interest only to color commentators, unleashed Specter's inner Madden. "It's significant that [Daboll] questioned him about it, pursued it and was very interested in what Marshall Faulk did," Specter said. "One of my staffers did the research and found that Marshall Faulk had only returned one kick in his entire career. I think it's significant that he made diagrams and pursued the questioning." ( Faulk did return one kick during the Super Bowl.)

The revelation about Faulk's role on the return unit gave Spygate yet another incarnation. It is hard to find any topic not involving Britney Spears that can hold the public's interest for more than a week, but Spygate is heading into a ninth month of newsbreaks. What started as a football story has evolved into a media story and now a political story.

On May 14 Specter called for the NFL to initiate an independent investigation aimed at the Patriots and modeled on Major League Baseball's Mitchell Report—with perhaps Walsh reprising the role of Brian McNamee and Bill Belichick playing a less colorful version of Roger Clemens. There would be one fundamental difference, though, between the reports. The use of performance-enhancing drugs by big league role models can be viewed as an important public-health issue. The theft of signs and formations by NFL coaches cannot—though Specter did make the case that kids may follow the example of the Patriots. "If you can cheat in the NFL, you can cheat in college, you can cheat in high school, you can cheat on your grade school math test," the senator said. "There's no limit."

It is commendable that Specter, an unabashed Eagles fan, is willing to fight to protect the ethics of competitive athletics. But Congress could use its power in other areas of sports—by scrutinizing readily available sports supplements that aren't regulated by the FDA, perhaps, or by studying the legality and rationality of using public funds to finance stadiums. There are significant digital-age First Amendment issues relating to how much control leagues have over who covers their games and how the news and images they generate can be used, and there is the wisdom of granting pro leagues antitrust exemptions. And what about the NCAA? It enjoys a controversial tax-exempt status even though college sports is clearly a big business.

Spygate feels weightless by comparison, although it has been a drag on reputations. Roger Goodell, who spent his first two years as commissioner strengthening discipline in the NFL, has been accused of going soft on the Patriots. The Patriots, who present themselves as the league's model franchise, have invited charges of hypocrisy. Walsh, now an assistant golf pro in Hawaii, lost credibility when Belichick told CBS Evening News last Friday that he was fired for "poor job performance." And the Boston Herald, which broke the story in February that the Patriots taped the Rams' walk-through, on May 14 had to apologize on its front and back pages. (SORRY, PATS the front-page headline wailed.) The Herald reporter who wrote the story published a 1,448-word mea culpa last Friday, which included a blow-by-blow of his flawed reporting and the acknowledgment that his mistakes are "something I'm going to have to live with for the rest of my life."

Even with all that collateral damage Spygate was ready to fade away last week. After a 3 1/2-hour meeting with Walsh on May 13 netted, said Goodell, "no new evidence," the commissioner said he would close his investigation. Patriots owner Robert Kraft, after the Herald's apologies, said, "You see that this is nonsense and we were unfairly accused, and we're moving on."

His celebration was more premature than his team's 2007 plan to trademark "19--0." Specter had done his own three-hour interview with Walsh and said he came away with a lot more damaging material than Goodell. He learned that Patriots players would often memorize the opposition's signals, watch for them and pass them to then offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who relayed them to quarterback Tom Brady.

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