A year ago, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided that his league was at risk of gaining a reputation as a collection of thugs. Sweeping changes in the code of conduct and stiffer penalties for violating those standards came into effect almost overnight.
Now, Goddell sees a new problem on the horizon and, just as he did with player misconduct, he’s moving quickly to nip it in the bud.
That problem is cheating, teams going outside the rules to gain an advantage over an opponent.
Right now, it’s not viewed as a league-wide problem. Fairly or unfairly, it’s viewed as a New England Patriots problem. They’re the only ones who have been caught. The organization was fined and stripped of its first-round draft pick after being caught taping the Jets’ coaching staff’s defensive signals during the season opener.
There may be more to come as Goodell is interesting in speaking to a former low-level Patriots employee who may know something about taping prior to the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win after the 2001 season.
If something comes of that, the league will have an image problem, but the negative perception still would be focused on Foxboro.
Another team caught spying, though, would be a PR nightmare for the league. One team doing it is a maverick; two teams doing it is a trend, a cancer. The brush tarring the league’s reputation would become much broader. Congressional hearings certainly would follow.
As he did with player conduct, Goodell has taken a decidedly proactive stance on the cheating issue. A memo obtained by Mark Maske of the Washington Post outlines a series of strong steps designed to strongly encourage teams from going outside the rules of competition, to make it easier to punish them should they do so and to make those penalties more severe.
The measures, some of which Goodell can implement on his own and others of which will need league approval, include unannounced inspections of team facilities including locker rooms, the press box, and the coaches’ booth.
Something less than conclusive proof of rules violations will be needed in order for the commissioner to impose penalties.
And, as it was with the players, the punishment will be swift and severe. “Where a violation is shown, I intend to impose more stringent penalties on both the club and the responsible individual(s),” Goddell is quoted as saying in the memo. “I will also be prepared to make greater use of draft choice forfeiture in appropriate cases. I believe this will have the effect of deterring violations and making people more willing to report violations on a timely basis.”
The culture of “If you ain’t cheatin’ you ain’t tryin’” has to go by the wayside. If people are going to continue to pay for tickets and watch games on TV they have to believe that the games are being fairly contested. Another cheating scandal would shake the faith that the playing field is level.
You can argue that what the Patriots did in the Jets game gave them only a marginal edge at most and you wouldn’t find a lot of disagreement here. However, the perception was the critical aspect in Spygate. It will take the Pats a long time to shake the “cheaters” label that many fans and others have applied.
Instead of waiting for trouble to happen, Goodell going out to find it and stop it before it has a chance to take hold. This approach not only makes him unique among the major pro sports commissioners, but among most of heads of sports at all levels.