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Rotten Replay

A Specter is haunting the NFL.

By 5.23.08

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We've all heard about football's Spygate scandal by now. It has been this offseason's dominant story. The New England Patriots videotaped the rival New York Jets' defensive signals, in violation of league rules. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell fined head coach Bill Belichick a record $500,000 and stripped the Patriots of their 2008 first-round draft pick as punishment.

Spygate has stayed in the news because more evidence was revealed by Matt Walsh, a former Patriots employee. He revealed that the Patriots were signal-stealers for a good seven seasons. Spygate might not be as big a deal if the offender was a losing team. If a team cheated and still couldn't win, clearly it couldn't have helped that much.

But this is the Patriots. They won three Super Bowls during their seven years of signal stealing. They nearly won a fourth last season, losing to the New York Giants. The Patriots have won more games than any other team in football since Belichick took over in 2001.

Now the federal government is stepping in, though no one is quite sure why. Sen. Arlen Specter, never one to shy away from the cameras, has personally involved himself in Spygate. He thinks the league has been dragging its feet, and wants the federal government to launch an independent investigation.

SPECTER PUTS FORWARD a classic slippery slope argument. Like any good political issue, it turns out that Spygate is all about the children.

According to Specter, "If you can cheat in the NFL, you can cheat in college, you can cheat in high school, you can cheat on [a] grade-school math test." In other words, a sitting U.S. Senator actually thinks that Bill Belichick might be responsible for children cheating on their math tests.

This is not the first time that Sen. Specter, defender of children, has wanted to tell sports leagues how to run their businesses. In 2005, he threatened to investigate Major League Baseball over the steroids scandal that was starting to break. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig politely ignored Specter's grandstanding and began his own independent investigation.

The investigation culminated in the Mitchell Report. It named 89 players who probably used steroids. It laid out some recommendations for keeping the game steroid-free, which baseball is starting to implement. MLB and its fans are starting to put the Steroid Era behind them. The game is moving on.

Specter isn't. In a recent constituent newsletter he chided that steroid-using players set "a very, very bad example." More ominously, he wrote that "We'll be watching very closely to see what baseball does with our oversight powers through the Judiciary Committee."

Now Specter is on the cusp of using those oversight powers on the NFL. Fortunately, Commissioner Goodell isn't easily intimidated. Like Selig, he is calling the Senator's bluff. He has decided against a Mitchell-style independent investigation. He thinks Spygate is best handled as an internal league matter, and he may be right about that.

What's more, Goodell stuck to his guns when he met with Sen. Specter for a browbeating.

MAYBE SPECTER SHOULD listen to his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, on this one. After all, they are four-time victims of illegal Patriot cameras.

Team chairman Dan Rooney said, "We consider the tapes of our coaching staff during our games against the New England Patriots to be a non-issue. In our opinion, they had no impact on the results of those games."

The best way for the NFL to handle Spygate is in a way that satisfies the fans, not the Senate. The NFL lives and dies by fan interest. Football is an incredibly lucrative business. Annual revenues are over $6 billion.

If Goodell doesn't make the fans happy, or they think the game has lost its integrity, they will stop paying attention. What that means is that the NFL has every incentive to handle Spygate the right way. Sen. Specter doesn't.

Not everyone is happy with how Goodell is handling Spygate, of course. Check any sports-related message board and stand back.

But the NFL's integrity rests with the league, not with Sen. Specter. He would do well to drop the Spygate issue and turn his attention to more important, less telegenic concerns.

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About the Author

Ryan Young is Fellow in Regulatory Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.