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Friday, February 1, 2008
Specter should stick with politics

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

PHOENIX -- When NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went to bed here Thursday night, the most blustery Washington politician he had to contest was Gene Upshaw. The NFLPA executive director huffed and puffed and positioned himself as the Big Bad Wolf of Labor Doom during the union's annual Super Bowl propaganda-fest earlier that afternoon.

But when Goodell awakened Friday, probably with a copy of the day's New York Times already on his bed stand and one particular sports story highlighted for him, he found himself hounded by an even more powerful public grandstander.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has lived a sterling and celebrated life of public service, ministering to the needs of my native state of Pennsylvania, and he usually is well-intentioned. There is plenty to admire about Specter, including his passionate support of the Philadelphia Eagles, a franchise he unabashedly champions.

But there is nothing estimable about Specter's call for a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the league's Spygate incident involving the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick, and his suggestion that Goodell should be called to testify about why the NFL destroyed the videotape evidence of cheating.

In fact, by putting his nose into an in-house league issue, Specter has portrayed himself as even sillier than Upshaw, who Thursday responded to a question about health benefits for retired players by noting, "The disability program is for the disabled." Duh.

Addressing league matters such as Spygate, some of his colleagues ought to remind Specter, is for the league.

Asked about Specter's high-profile move, with his comments published on the morning of Goodell's annual State of the NFL address, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said, "I'll go to jail [if I comment]."

Neither Belichick nor New England owner Bob Kraft nor any of their corporate espionage minions are going to be led to the hoosegow for their videotape indiscretions.

Whatever league infractions the Pats committed in their Sept. 9 season-opening rout of the New York Jets -- as hinted cryptically by former New England video employee Matt Walsh, in interviews with The Times and ESPN.com's Mike Fish -- aren't a criminal matter. Nor is it an issue with which the Senate needs to waste its time.

It's football gamesmanship and, although it was wrong, the Patriots accepted their penalty.

Goodell said Friday morning there were six tapes and various notes, likely gleaned from studying those tapes, delivered to the league office by New England officials. And while Goodell didn't attempt to diminish the tawdriness of the infraction, he stressed that any competitive advantage Belichick and his staff gained from the illegal videotaping was "limited."

The commissioner reiterated several times during a 50-minute session dominated by Spygate questions that, in his view, the Patriots did not use illegal methods to tape teams in previous Super Bowls, and did not benefit from illegal activities in any of their three championships.

Why did Goodell, though, destroy the tapes, in what was clearly the most ham-handed decision of his much celebrated first year in office? Because, he said, he was convinced the Patriots had forwarded to him all the evidence for which he had asked and he didn't want any more leaks -- like the one that allowed Fox network to obtain a copy of the taping against the Jets.

Said the commissioner, who did his best to portray cheating as unacceptable, even though others in his game accept and even embrace it to some degree: "It's like Bill Parcells said: Any coach who doesn't think his signals are being stolen is stupid."

That isn't to say Congressional oversight, as demonstrated by the hearings into steroid abuse in Major League Baseball, isn't necessary at times. Honestly, do you think baseball's Tweedledumb (aka Bud Selig) and Tweedledumber (union chief Donald Fehr) would ever have upgraded the sports' drug policies without some Capitol Hill intervention? But the use of steroids and HGH is against the law. Taping an opponent's hand-signals from across the field is just an affront to good sense and sportsmanship.

But Goodell pointed out that, in viewing the videos turned over by the Patriots, there wasn't much of anything earth-shattering. It was tape of assistant coaches doing what they do: scratching various body parts, gesticulating wildly, going through the usual physical machinations that are associated with signaling for a blitz or a four-man rush. At one point on the tape, Goodell said, a Jets assistant, who apparently assumed that he was being filmed, waved to the camera.

Again, poor sportsmanship, but nothing with which Congress need busy itself.

You want crimimal? Heck, I attended the Patriots-Jets opener and thought that New York coach Eric Mangini's defensive game plan should have been outlawed. New England quarterback Tom Brady threw nine passes toward Randy Moss and the star wide receiver caught every one of them. And caught them easily. It was as if the Jets' defenders were in another zip code, maybe across the river in Manhattan.

Like Rooney and other owners in attendance Friday, the commissioner would not address Specter's motives, nor even speculate on them.

Specter's favorite team did, of course, lose to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. Maybe he should convene a congressional investigation into why none of the Eagles' cornerbacks could cover Pats wide receiver Deion Branch, who had 11 catches that day.

The next thing you know, Specter will want the game replayed.

Here's how the Senate plays games when it comes to any NFL conduct of which it doesn't approve: It rattles sabers, throws in an ominous comment about the league's antitrust exemption, and then waits to sees if anyone caves. It hasn't been an especially effective way of doing business, and it's hard to fathom that even the throatiest Eagles' fans, in their hearts, want Specter chasing the specter of NFL transgressions.

Suffice to say, the ever-cool Goodell didn't seem overly rattled by the possibility of addressing the Judiciary Committee on something as frivolous, at least in the big picture, as the Spygate incident.

Goodell should be more concerned by Upshaw's calculated bombast from the previous day. The very real possibility that NFL owners, who feel the league's latest extension to the collective bargaining agreement has become too one-sided, will exercise their option to terminate the agreement in November is far more critical. Such a maneuver would lead to an uncapped season in 2009, with Upshaw saying that, once the salary cap genie has escaped the bottle, it won't be captured again.

The guess here is that if there's an issue that might keep Goodell awake at night, it's the labor agreement, not the contrived threats of Arlen Specter.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.