Roger Goodell should probably not say any more things about spygate or deflategate until he gets his story straight. The NFL commissioner was asked about a blockbuster ESPN report on his mishandling of the twin New England Patriots cheating scandals on Tuesday morning, and he denied one of the report’s key findings. That denial, however, is contradicted by the league’s own statements.
Tuesday’s Outside the Lines lays out in devastating detail how the NFL botched its 2007 spygate investigation, which looked into accusations that the Patriots were illicitly videotaping opposing teams’ play calls, or signal stealing. The report also makes the case that frustration among league owners at the NFL’s mishandling of spygate resulted in Goodell handing down a harsher-than-normal punishment in the “deflategate” scandal that has engulfed the team since January. As one NFL owner told OTL, the since-rebuked punishment was a direct response to the league’s failure to adequately investigate the previous scandal. "It's not surprising that there's a makeup call,” the owner said. Another longtime executive described how a number of owners wanted Goodell to "go hard on this one."
In an interview with ESPN’s Mike & Mike shortly after the report broke, though, Goodell was asked how the league’s actions in the 2007 scandal impacted its actions in this one, and he denied that it did.
“I’m not aware of any connection between the spygate procedures and the procedures we went through here,” Goodell said. “We obviously learn from anytime we go through any kind of a process—try to improve it—get better at it. But there’s no connection in my mind to the two incidents.”
That claim, however, is contradicted by the league’s own letter to the Patriots that announced the punishment this past May. In that letter, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent explicitly stated that part of the reason for the extraordinary level of discipline for the alleged football deflation was the team’s past behavior.*
"Here, there are several factors that merit strong consideration in assessing discipline. The first is the club's prior record,” Vincent wrote to the Patriots. “In 2007 the club and several individuals were sanctioned for videotaping signals of opposing defensive coaches in violation of [league rules] … this prior violation of competitive rules was properly considered in determining the discipline in this case.”
The OTL report includes multiple off-the-record sources blaming the signal stealing for their teams’ big losses to the Patriots, including in the Super Bowl. As previously reported, the NFL destroyed the evidence that showed how the Patriots taped opposing team’s signals from the sidelines in violation of league rules. The new report, which claims taping occurred in at least 40 games in total, offers new details about how the materials were destroyed and the extent of what they showed:
Inside a room accessible only to Belichick and a few others, they found a library of scouting material containing videotapes of opponents' signals, with detailed notes matching signals to plays for many teams going back seven seasons. Among them were handwritten diagrams of the defensive signals of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the notes used in the January 2002 AFC Championship Game won by the Patriots 24-17. Yet almost as quickly as the tapes and notes were found, they were destroyed, on Goodell's orders: League executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room.
Former Sen. Arlen Specter, who investigated the NFL’s process at the time and publically called the NFL’s investigation “fatally flawed,” had jotted the words “cover-up” in his handwritten notes, OTL reveals.
According to OTL, when Deflategate broke, owners wanted strong action against the Patriots this time around. After years of mishandling other disciplinary matters—such as the Ray Rice domestic abuse case—Goodell obliged and he was able to shore up his position by doing so. That Goodell would deny that this history was even a factor in the latest case—when Vincent’s statement to the contrary was cited just last week in a ruling by Judge Richard Berman, who overturned Tom Brady’s four-game suspension—shows that he’s more interested in obfuscating on the subject than in even feigning to offer a reasonable explanation. It’s well past time for him to leave his position, but if Goodell insists on staying then the least he could do is make sure his excuses make sense.
*Correction, Sept. 8, 2015: This post originally misstated Troy Vincent's title as NFL executive president.