Scandals Can't Stop the NFL's Money Machine

Whether it's Deflategate, Spygate or domestic violence, the league looks out for itself.

He's not worried.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images News

Turns out, Deflategate was actually about Spygate. And NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's mishandling of two of football's most notorious recent scandals has somehow managed to strengthen his standing among the league's owners.

An extremely thorough report by ESPN's Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham reveals new details about the 2007 scandal known as Spygate, in which the New England Patriots were caught videotaping the opposing team's signals during a game against the New York Jets. Among their key findings was that the spying actually spanned 40 games over seven seasons, from 2000 to 2007.

The report also alleges an extensive cover-up by the NFL to downplay the scandal: The league reportedly wasn't concerned with ascertaining how much spying had affected games, and it quickly destroyed all the evidence its investigators found. (Perhaps the greatest thing to come out of the ESPN report is the image of NFL officials literally stomping on videotapes in a conference room at Gillette Stadium.)

There's a ton of information in the article, which cites more than 90 sources, some on the record, and primary documents such as private meeting notes, but it all boils down to this: The NFL's handling of the controversy caused a lot of resentment and distrust among the other 31 teams, whose owners felt Goodell was playing favorites with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a key figure in the commissioner's inner circle. The feeling that the league allowed a culture of cheating to persist in New England created pressure for Goodell to appease the other owners and come down hard on the Patriots the next time they got in trouble.

That's how we ended up with the ridiculously overblown scandal known as Deflategate, in which the Patriots were accused of tampering with footballs to the benefit of their quarterback, Tom Brady. In an overreaction of epic proportions, the league initiated an elaborate investigation, suspended Brady for four games, levied a $1 million fine on the Patriots and defended its decision bitterly in federal court. As one owner told ESPN, Goodell's hardline stance on Deflategate was "a makeup call."

The report seems to back up the allegations that the Patriots had a "culture of cheating": "Numerous former employees say the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team hotel for playbooks or scouting reports," it says. But it also exposes an interesting irony. Deflategate has been a disaster for the league's public messaging, demonstrating flaws in how it disciplines players and revealing the nearly unchecked power wielded by the commissioner. Yet Goodell has actually seen his position strengthened among the only people whose opinions matter: the owners. Many of them viewed Goodell's "tough" stance on Deflategate as a sign of solidarity.

If anything, the report confirms just how much the NFL is designed to protect itself. One anecdote is particularly telling: After Senator Arlen Specter called for Congress to investigate Spygate -- not that the country was dealing with anything more pressing in the spring of 2008 -- Goodell called Mike Martz, the former coach of the St. Louis Rams, whose career fell apart after his team lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. Goodell, fearing the repercussions of a congressional inquiry, convinced Martz to write a statement backing his Spygate ruling and asking everyone to just move on. But Martz told Van Natta and Wickersham that the version of the statement released to the public had been "embellished quite a bit." Representatives from other teams had reportedly been asked to write similar statements. Despite their ill will toward the Patriots, the league's owners closed ranks in the face of a serious external threat.

And that's why, no matter how many reports of incompetence and corruption are published, the NFL will continue chugging along. ESPN released its report one year after the world first saw the video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice punching out his fiancee, and it's hard to say much has changed since. There's a new personal conduct policy that wasn't collectively bargained and a union that has been given new life by recent victories in appealing player punishments. There's a league disciplinary strategy that's based on optics more than fairness. There's some conflict and jealousy among the owners, but when push comes to shove, they'll stop their squabbling long enough to stand in unity with the league. Whether the issue is spying or deflating footballs or domestic abuse, everyone falls in line to protect football's perpetual money machine. "This is the way things should be done," one executive told ESPN. "Keep the dirty laundry in the family."

"There are a lot of people who actually think in 20 years, nobody's going to remember Deflategate," Wickersham said on ESPN's "Mike & Mike" show. I suspect we'll be able to say the same about this entire period of flux for the NFL, when it seems like changes are finally afoot. In 20 years, the controversies now swirling around the league will long be forgotten, except perhaps by a group of men sitting among piles of dirty laundry, alone in a stadium conference room.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.