Coverup always worse than the crime — as Patriots and NFL now experiencing

ESPN today published a dramatic, if not surprising, chronicle of New England Patriots’ organized cheating over the last 10 years and the NFL’s efforts, in the person of Commissioner Roger Goodell, to cover it up.

Interviews by ESPN The Magazine and Outside the Lines with more than 90 league officials, owners, team executives and coaches, current and former Patriots coaches, staffers and players, and reviews of previously undisclosed private notes from key meetings, show that Spygate is the centerpiece of a long, secret history between Goodell’s NFL, which declined comment for this story, and Kraft’s Patriots.


The story recounts how Patriots’ coaches, from Bill Belichick down, made unfair use of videotaped opponents’ signals. When that became public, as a result of a New York Jets’ sting in 2007, it was portrayed as an isolated event. But now, according to ESPN and its sources, it appears anything but. A secret room existed with videotapes shot surreptitiously of other teams’ signals and plays.

Didn’t you just know that Deflategate was a minor sideshow? Just like the legendary break-in at National Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate, described at the time as a second-rate burglary, was the loose thread that unraveled the weave of a whole administration, forcing a president to resign.

Would Pats quarterback Tom Brady really have destroyed his phone and 20,000 text messages because he took some air out of a few footballs? Would the Pats leaders react so indignantly to such a minor crime if they didn’t realize how much really serious stuff could come out in a thorough investigation?

Deflategate is like members of a gang wanted for multiple murders getting caught shoplifting.

This latest documentation of Patriots’ wrongdoing and the complicit cover up by Goodell, Pats’ owner Robert Kraft and others, could cost Goodell his job. It could taint the Patriots’ Super Bowl legacy as well. And if the NFL were the NCAA, and the Pats were Penn State, the Pats would have all their wins taken away.

The crisis is immense. While it’s impossible to clearly judge what effect the Patriots’ cheating had on specific games, it’s probably safe to assume that the cumulative gain won them some games they might not otherwise have captured. A couple of games each season could mean no playoffs. No playoffs, no Super Bowl.

Now it was Goodell’s turn. The league office lifer, then 49 years old, had been commissioner just 18 months, promoted, in part, because of Kraft’s support. His audience [the league’s owners and head coaches at a 2008 meeting in Florida] wanted to know why he had managed his first crisis in a manner at once hasty and strangely secretive. Goodell had imposed a $500,000 fine on Belichick, a $250,000 fine on the team and the loss of a first-round draft pick, just four days after league security officials had caught the Patriots and before he’d even sent a team of investigators to Foxborough, Massachusetts. Those investigators hadn’t come up empty: 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.

In the context of the Patriots’ operations, no wonder they all see Brady’s inflation preferences as insignificant. They were running a wholesale cheating operation for years.

Once again a crisis envelops an organization and individuals previously held up as the models of success, decorum and fair play.

Heroes be damned.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs and Crisis and Reputation Management at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with eight offices in the East. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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