In my last post, I praised the NFL for providing fans with the best possible product. One week later, it seems that I may need to revise that statement. If the New England Patriots really cheated, the fallout might be worse than you think.
As ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported yesterday, “NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has determined that the New England Patriots violated league rules Sunday when they videotaped defensive signals by the New York Jets’ coaches.”
While league officials deny that a decision has been made, expect Mortensen’s reports to be confirmed, as he is extremely credible. New England head coach Bill Belichick issued a vague apology yesterday, suggesting an admission of guilt. Sports Business Daily is now reporting that the league will announce its ruling by this Sunday.
If that’s the case, then Goodell faces a very tough decision this weekend. It will be interesting to see how the second-year commissioner, already known for taking a hard stance on player misconduct, treats a potentially explosive situation involving one of the most high-profile teams in the league.
New England backers have been quick to defend and deflect. They say that other teams are doing it too, and point to individual players that have been caught breaking the rules. Sorry, Bill Simmons, but Shawne Merriman’s positive test for steroids last year doesn’t give the Pats a free pass. This isn’t just gaining a competitive advantage — it’s insider trading. It’s knowing, through illegal means (not Belichick’s genius), the actions of another party before they take them and using that information to your advantage. Like steroids, it calls into question the legitimacy of what happens on the field. And, while Merriman is only one player, this is tantamount to an entirely juiced team.
Clearly, I believe that Belichick and the Patriots deserve to be punished. However, I also believe that Goodell will be walking a fine line when he makes his decision. Long-term suspensions for individual players including Pacman Jones, Chris Henry, and Tank Johnson have generally been viewed as positive steps toward cleaning up the sport. But if Goodell punishes the Patriots severely, the fans will notice. More people will start thinking like me — whether I’m right or not. It doesn’t seem now like fans will ever leave the NFL, but many will if they start doubting the quality of the product. Just ask the MLB.
On the other hand, Goodell could give the Patriots a slap on the wrist and sweep the scandal under the rug. If that happens, it’s likely the fans will too. As long as it doesn’t happen again, we’ll forget and move on.
The question Goodell faces is: Which one is better for the NFL?