Seven years ago, an eventually-retracted report from the Boston Herald that the Patriots videotaped the Rams’ walk-through practice prior to Super Bowl XXXVI surfaced two days before the Patriots faced the Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Though the team has never publicly claimed that the intense distraction that emerged was a factor in the eventual loss that prevented a 19-0 season, there’s no way the NFL’s immediate launching of an investigation on the Friday before the title game didn’t have at least some impact on the franchise.
This time around, the latest controversy involving a team that for whatever reason keeping tripping into these issues arose two weeks before the Super Bowl. And it quickly has become a major distraction, both for the team and for the league.
At some point (the sooner the better), the Patriots need to forget about it and focus on the task at hand. No one will be taking away their AFC title, which would have been easily secured regardless of whether the balls were filled with fluid, flubber, or flatus. But the situation has created a vague sense of gloom regarding what could happen at some point after the Super Bowl.
During Tuesday’s PFT Live on NBC Sports Radio, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent said that the league hopes to complete the investigation into this game-integrity issue within the next two-to-three days. However, that doesn’t mean findings will be announced or punishment issued before the Super Bowl. So the Patriots possibly will enter final preparations for the game uncertain as to what eventually will come.
For the league office, the fumes of the Ray Rice investigation make it clear to everyone involved that anything other than a thorough, fair, and transparent process will jeopardize jobs. Commissioner Roger Goodell, who received multiple public statements of support from Patriots owner Robert Kraft during the Rice fiasco, may feel conflicted about the actions that need to be taken to protect the integrity of the game — and regarding the natural sense of loyalty to an extremely influential owner who stuck his neck out for Goodell at a time when the torches-and-pitchfork crowd was banging on the castle gates.
Goodell may feel compelled to take strong action simply because Kraft supported the Commissioner so fervently. In October 2006, only a couple of months after Steelers owner Dan Rooney helped spearhead Goodell’s election as Commissioner (and personally delivered the news to the new boss of the sport), Goodell fined Rooney $25,000 for saying that the officials in a Steelers-Falcons game “should be ashamed of themselves.”
It’s a no-win situation for Goodell, given the Rice controversy. Slam the Patriots, and he’ll be criticized for trying to insulate himself from criticism by going too soft on a team whose owner did him a favor during the biggest threat to Goodell’s employment. Excuse the Patriots, and he’ll be criticized for looking the other way as a favor to a friend.
Another problem for Goodell arises from the question of whether other teams are doing the same thing. In 2012, the NFL ignored that issue and other obvious practical questions arising from the Saints bounty scandal. The Saints had been caught red-handed, and Goodell became determined to make an example out of them, even if the system that distributed relatively small amounts of cash for legal hits that knocked opponents out of games meshed with the pre-existing incentive in football to disable the best players on the other team. Eventually, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue subtly chastised Goodell for trying to change the culture of the sport by throwing the book at one team.
With the Saints, the NFL opted not to explore the rabbit hole but to fill it with cement. It would be unfair to do the same thing to the Patriots, if (as it appears) other teams have taken liberties with the ball in order to make it conform to the preferences of their quarterbacks.
The investigation and its aftermath needs to consider these issues and any other questions that reasonably flow from the relevant facts. Given the Rice case, it’s critical that the league demonstrate the ability to conduct a good investigation and to adequately and fairly dispense justice. Even then, many will question the legitimacy and credibility of the league’s efforts.
That’s one of the clear byproducts of simply acknowledging a massive mistake and moving on with significant changes to the organization. In other matters of significance, folks will assume that further mistakes are inevitable.
Ultimately, it’s no surprise, as reported by Chris Mortensen of ESPN, that the league is “disappointed … angry … distraught” by the discovery that 11 of 12 Patriot balls were two pounds underinflated on Sunday. Coming on the heels of the clumsiest series of off-field blunders in its history, the NFL now must find a way to adequately address an on-field issue in a way that will be fair to everyone involved and that will promote public confidence in the league at a time when many members of the public have little faith that the league office can handle such issues properly.