by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

"History repeats itself, and that’s one of the things wrong with history.” --Clarence Darrow, famous attorney

With the NFL moving quickly toward its 100th anniversary in 2019, we find it amazing how the nation’s sports media can act with such collective indignation when presented with a story such as ESPN’s recent expose’ on the lengths to which the Patriots might have been bending the rules in recent years. Judging by the reaction of some of the nation’s sportswriters, you would likely assume that such shenanigans began with Bill Belichick’s infamous “Spy-gate” episode in 2007, spilling into more-recent memory with this year’s Tom Brady/deflated football controversy.

While we are not in a position to confirm, or refute, any of the new information that has surfaced in the latest allegations, we do know that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and anyone else involved with the Pats certainly didn’t invent the sort of supposed gridiron espionage and chicanery that has dominated countless sports news cycles ever since “Deflate-gate” was born after last January’s AFC title game between New England and Indianapolis.

Indeed, as long as they’ve been playing games in the NFL, and probably as long as athletic events have been contested, examples of rule-bending have been commonplace. NFL lore in particular is chock full of underhanded tactics by high-profile sorts. None other than league founder, and Chicago Bears owner-coach, George Halas, was long suspected of spying on other team’s practices. And there may not have been a more paranoid sort in NFL history than one of Halas’ disciples, George Allen, who would routinely seal off the practice areas of his teams as if they were CIA headquarters. Tarpaulins covering golf driving range-sized screens would drape Redskin Park in Chantilly as protection from any potential interlopers. During his days with the Rams, Allen would also employ his own detective to constantly patrol the team’s practice facility at Blair Field in Long Beach, always believing that every leaf that rustled might belong to the enemy. Many NFL oldtimers believe Allen’s peculiarities were likely motivated by his own behavior, as he was long suspected of authorizing his own spy missions on opponents, a la mentor Halas. Goodness knows how many football PSI levels might have been slightly altered by coaches and players thru the years, too. And if guilty of the various shenanigans to which he is accused, Bill Belichick would also seem to have some distinguished company.

While whatever the Patriots might have been doing in recent years is not the first example of NFL rule-bending, most puzzling to us is how the league has been needlessly plumbing new depths of p.r. ineptitude regarding the Deflate-gate fiasco. In truth, we at TGS long ago became bored with the storyline, but upon prodding from a succession of our normal sports talk show appearances, in which Deflate-gate has been an unavoidable subject since mid-January, would rather quickly conclude that whatever the scandal at the core of Deflate-gate was, it was a mostly-manufactured one.

While we believe Brady probably knew what was going on with the footballs last January, and who knows how much longer, it was tough to prove. Even if concrete evidence wasn’t so elusive, the NFL’s punishments wouldn’t seem to fit the misdemeanor. Still, there always seemed to be something else at the root of the NFL’s aggressive policing, as ESPN’s recent reporting suggests. And as the Deflate-gate storyline progressed, its origins also became more blurred, as we are no longer convinced that it has been a show produced by commissioner Roger Goodell. In fact, there is mounting evidence that Goodell was hardly the driving force behind events of the past several months, that instead it might be spearheaded by a collection of aggrieved owners who have secretly seethed against the Patriots, dating to the Spy-gate days of 2007 (as suggested by recent ESPN reports), or perhaps NFL Executive VP and General Counsel Jeff Pash, Goodell’s legal consigliere whose influence at league offices is considerable.

No matter, the face of the NFL’s clumsy assault against the Patriots and Tom Brady has been Goodell. And we remain particularly perplexed at just how awkwardly Goodell has handled this entire affair, which we suggest might be more appropriately labeled “Clumsy-Gate” instead. After all, when Judge Richard Berman lifted the Brady suspension two weeks ago, it was Goodell who was handed the most stinging rebuke. Partly, we suggest, due to style points, of which Goodell possesses remarkably few...which has always surprised us greatly about the commish.

Why? Simply, it would not seem that Goodell should be as uncomfortable as he appears, either at the podium or in an interview. After all, it wasn’t as if he was raised outside of the limelight. Roger’s father, Charles Goodell, was a prominent and high-powered attorney who would be elected to the US House of Representatives in the early ‘60s from the “Silk Stocking” district on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Though just a grade-school-aged boy at the time, young Roger would then watch as his father would be appointed by Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to the New York US Senate seat vacated by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in 1968. The elder Goodell, as the GOP nominee, was then victimized by one of the great political upsets of the past century, as third-party candidate Jim Buckley (William F.’s brother) scored a startling win in 1970 NY Senate race. Young Roger had a unique front-row seat to the rough-and-tumble arena of national politics, which should have helped prepare him for his eventual calling.

Goodell’s grooming for the NFL continued in college at Washington & Jefferson, not far from Pittsburgh, where he would become familiar with the Rooneys, who would become valuable allies when he eventually began to climb the corporate ladder of the NFL. But he has never acquired the smooth gloss, and slickness as a media performer, as did another NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle (whose p.r. background proved invaluable in that regard). Even marrying an on-camera media professional, Jane Skinner, for years an anchor at WNBC-TV in New York and with Fox News, has not eliminated Goodell’s stiffness at the podium and with the mic.

We are not always anti-Goodell at TGS; in fact, we came to his defense in one of our memorable editorials last season (“Symbolism and the Sports Media,” which can still be found on our website). Regarding Deflate-gate, our suspicion, and one supported by some knowledgeable observers, is that Goodell, and the league, might not only have it out for the Patriots, but also might have been motivated by the overwhelming negative press received during the Ray Rice controversy of a year ago, and desperately looking for a new scandal to showcase an upgraded, get-tough policy. While maybe not the primary factor of the NFL and Goodell’s actions, don’t be surprised if you hear reference to our take on proceedings as the league prepares to appeal Judge Berman’s decision.

Regrettably, the national sports media have allowed themselves to again be hijacked by a story of dubious origin and motivation. Due in part to the overwhelming coverage received, this sideshow ended up in federal court, where taxpayers become a party to the absurd proceedings. Meanwhile, the NFL stumbles along and is fast approaching FIFA-like levels of ridicule from the public.

When will this madness end? Not for a while, we’re afraid. Now the Patriots might be back in the crosshairs due to new accusations, and there is still the matter of Goodell’s appeal of the Brady ruling. We can hope we’ve heard the last of Deflate-gate, but something tells us we haven’t.

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