Friday, February 01, 2008

Specter and Spygate: Feigned Outrage, To Be Sure

So two days before the New England Patriots play in the Super Bowl, Senator Arlen Specter (R, Pennsylvania) is demanding that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell explain why the League destroyed evidence relating to the "Spygate" scandal of earlier this year. To which I — no Boston fan, I emphasize — have to say, You've got to be kidding me. And I've got company in London's Globe and Mail.

You may remember in Week One of the NFL season, New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini complained that the Patriots had cameras trained on the Jets' sideline to record hand signals the Jets' coaching staff was making to players on the field. Goodell found that the Patriots had violated league rules, and he ruled the violation to be a flagrant one, because it came on the heels of an explicit directive the League had issued in a memorandum earlier in the week. Much teeth-gnashing and garment-rending followed. Pats head coach Bill Belichick tried to dismiss his team's violation as a simple misinterpretation of the rule. Players on other teams attributed playoff losses to the Patriots' cheating. There was much discussion of whether the use of cameras at issue here really confers a meaningful advantage, and of course there were a steady stream of excuses served up by callers to Boston sports radio on the order of "Come on — everybody does it." (As if Chuck from Quincy would be in a position to know . . .)

The Pats were docked a first-round draft pick and the League personally fined Belichick $500,000 — a non-negligible amount of money. A Jets fan filed a class action, claiming he and similarly situated football fans who bought tickets to Jets/Pats games were deprived of fairly-contested play and should get their money back. Oh, the outrage.

For those of us who could give a crap about pro football, the New York Jets, and the New England Patriots, the "Spygate" story was flatly uninteresting, much ado about nothing, a scandal hardly deserving of the "-gate" suffix that was so quickly attached to it.

But for those of us who find our sensibilities offended daily by the sad, silly personages who purportedly represent our interests in Congress — well, now we do have to dignify this subject matter, because over the past few years our earnest legislators in Washington have learned that they can score points with constituents by taking on organized sports.

First it was steroids in baseball — this is an ongoing matter of concern for the United States Congress, which holds Major League Baseball's exemption from the antitrust laws in its back pocket, so empowering it to haul the sport's august personages (and its Commissioner) into the Capitol for regular beratings.

Last year the hot topic was sports on television. As Opening Day approached and it became clearer that MLB's sale of exclusive Extra Innings programming rights to DirecTV would result in something close to a nationwide blackout of out-of-market baseball games, John Kerry got involved. Because of the NFL Network's ongoing negotiating beef with Big Cable TV, the Patriots' final regular season game against the Giants would have been available only to a limited audience. Pressure from Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island Congressmen, along with a joint letter from Senators Specter and Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont), prompted Goodell to relent and make the game broadly available on the networks, so the nation could actually watch New England finish off a perfect 16-0 season.

Now Specter, citing his concerns for the "integrity" of pro football, is waving the NFL's antitrust exemption in the air, crying Look at me! Look at me! Let's put aside for just a minute whether the National Football League and Major League Baseball are comparable American "institutions." I recognize that people actually like to watch the NFL, and for the sake of argument I'll accept that point. But the gap in magnitude between the steroid scandal and Spygate is dramatic. For starters, steroids are controlled substances under federal law. Second, we gather that the use of steroids in baseball was so pervasive as to severely threaten the health of players, distort the outcomes of games, and destroy the sport's hallowed record book. Third, there is abundant evidence to suggest that team owners and league officials willfully turned a blind eye to the scandal, notwithstanding the abundant violations of federal law and the enduring threat to the integrity of the game.

Spygate is a simple instance of one team cheating, arguably to no substantial advantage. This is not a matter in which the Commissioner's Office was complicit, by commission or omission: Goodell absolutely hammered the perpetrators. The Giants stole signs down the stretch in their historic overtaking of the Dodgers in 1951. Gaylord Perry threw spitballs. Sammy Sosa and Albert Belle corked their bats. Bill Laimbeer played dirty. All that sucks. Now is it Congress's business? Humph and hardly.

I wrote to friends a couple weeks ago about my ambivalence on Congress's involvement with the steroids issue:

I'm of two minds about this. For starters, Congress is pathetic. They're not only venal, self-absorbed, and perspectiveless — they're lazy. They slap together a rewrite of the federal government's surveillance powers at the last minute so they can go on vacation — no worries, they tell us: the law only applies for six months. By then they'll have their act together. Right. And these jackasses yesterday couldn't even be bothered to know anything about the subject matter of their questioning. It's real easy to criticize Bud Selig, but it's even easier to pronounce his frickin' last name correctly. So I'm with you on one score, Mark: when you consider how seriously Congress takes its time off and how not-seriously it takes it work hours . . . well, yes, it demonstrates a bit of a priority gap for them to preoccupy themselves with hearings like this. To be fair, though, it's just one committee. I believe they do it because feigning outrage and abusing people while they're under oath is what they're good at. It gets them in front of cameras and allows them to perform. Of course, it also reveals many of them to be jackasses when they arrive utterly unprepared and then participate anyway — any one of us would be fired from our jobs if we didn't bother to prepare ourselves for work.

* * *

But I agree with Bob, too: this is a situation that Congress is peculiarly situated to help solve. MLB had absolutely no interest in policing itself until players were called to testify back in 2004. Once McGwire and Sosa humiliated themselves and the sport before Congress, the union and the league and commissioner's offices finally got on the same page and implemented an aggressive testing policy. Congress does its worst when it legislates, to be sure, but it does its best when it threatens to legislate — any institution with half a brain will walk through fire to avoid letting these bumbling idiots get their hands on it. Congress has a hook here: the antitrust exemption it's given baseball in light of its status as the national pastime. It can regulate if it wants to. Nobody wants that to happen. So calling the bad actors and nonactors to the carpet here isn't the worst idea in the world.

I know you don't think much of the sport, but baseball is an important part of our national heritage, and a lot of people in this country care about it. If [Congress] can make some noise at the last minute and help prompt the NFL to show the Patriots-Giants game to a national audience — because it expects to be historic — then certainly this is within the purview of Congress, if not its very limited range of competence.

To that I don't have much to add, except that we shouldn't be surprised that our Congressmen continue to stick their noses deeper and deeper into organized sports. It's really the perfect subject matter for them: (1) sports inflames the passions of Americans, so with sports you're assured of appealing to voters' most deeply-held beliefs (as opposed to appeals about the genocide in Darfur, which are just boring); (2) big, contemptible monied interests are involved, so you can call people in for hearings and humiliate them to general applause; and (3) the stakes are hardly life-and-death, as in the larger scheme of things, sports are meaningless — so there is no great importance in solving the problem or appearing to manage it competently.

So go get Roger Goodell, Senator Specter. Because, as you say, Goodell's exercise of discretion as Commissioner of the NFL to destroy the Spygate tapes really is "analogous [to] the CIA destruction of tapes" of its pressure-based interrogations.


Mithridates said...

Don't belittle the entire subject, Phutsie. After all, getting the NFL to broadcast the Pats-Giants game was arguably John Kerry's single greatest achievement.

But more importantly, when watching the game, try to live through it. While this study doesn't actually go into whether it's the eating of fatty food or the stress that causes the rise in heart attacks during big games, the magnitude of the difference in rates does suggest there's something there.,0,5762926.story

And the study was on even-keeled unexcitable Germans. You gotta believe there's double the affect for Americans - not to mention that the vast majority of us are already in the "at-risk" category due to our excessive girth.

So have a happy, scandal-free, and healthy Super Bowl!

Phutatorius said...

Could it be the sudden, random appearance of — gasp! — women's nipples in the middle of the broadcast?

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