Commentary

NFL has to investigate Saints

Eavesdropping allegations could be biggest crisis Goodell has faced

Updated: April 24, 2012, 10:43 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Wait: The allegations against Mickey Loomis make no sense? How on earth is that?

How is the notion of no value that Loomis, the GM of the New Orleans Saints, had electronic access to the real-time, in-game conversations of rival coaching staffs? Ask the NFL why it has rules to prevent that kind of stuff in the first place. It is because such access would be of incredible value.

[+] EnlargeMickey Loomis
AP Photo/Judi BottoniSaints GM Mickey Loomis will be facing more questions from the NFL office.

How is it that so many rush forward so quickly to explain that Loomis wouldn't understand the lexicon of coaching well enough to help the Saints gain an edge in a game? The Saints play their divisional opponents twice a season, every season. Every scrap of information is critical. The edge is so obvious, you'd have to be willfully ignorant not to see it.

Of course the Saints would benefit from such a system. Of course it's against the rules.

And as much as commissioner Roger Goodell may wish he could avoid picking up the phone for another uncomfortable conversation with Saints owner Tom Benson, that's not possible. Kill the messenger all you want, but where the Saints are concerned right now, there is no benefit of the doubt.

As is the case with any of the potentially toxic events that have wafted in sports' general direction lately, it's probably helpful in the Loomis imbroglio to sort fact from conjecture. Beyond that, hyperventilate at will.

It is a fact, because it was confirmed by the U.S. attorney's office in Louisiana, that the office was informed Friday of the allegations against Loomis and the Saints  specifically, that Loomis had the ability to electronically eavesdrop on opposing coaches for three seasons in the 2000s. It is conjecture as to whether those allegations will stick or whether the system, even if it existed, was ever used.

It is a fact that such electronic monitoring could have violated both federal law (subject to a statute of limitations) and the rules of the NFL. It is conjecture as to whether either body will move to enforce its rules, since no one knows the full scope of what they're dealing with yet.

It is a fact that nothing can be "1,000 percent false," as Saints spokesman Greg Bensel said of ESPN's report Monday, on behalf of his bosses. (In fairness, the guy's just doing his job.) And it is conjecture as to whether there is a useful ratio of truth to falsehood that will come into play.

But with all of this taken in raw form, here's a conjecture you can live with: If even a portion of these allegations turns out to be fact, Goodell will be facing the greatest crisis of his tenure.

If it is established (and remember, at this point it's strictly an allegation) that the Saints had such a device operational from 2002 to '04, then Goodell's office is going to be on fire with activity. Now we would be delving into issues that go directly to the fans' perception that the NFL either is or isn't being played fairly -- and that is a game-changer at the corporate level.

[+] EnlargeMinnesota Vikings coach Mike Tice
AP Photo/Bill HaberThe Saints GM might have been able to listen to headset communications by visiting coaches such as Mike Tice in 2004.

Not to distance anyone from the last Saints mess, the paying of bounties for crushing hits on opponents, but it could be dwarfed by the idea of a team straight-up cheating to win. That is one of the reasons the Patriots' "Spygate" episode continues to provoke such heated emotions on both sides of the argument -- because it goes to the notion of flat-out cheating.

In Loomis' case, the coincidental facts look terrible. He routinely sat in a box next to the Saints' assistant coaches, separated by only a glass panel. The allegations suggest Loomis had an earpiece he could simply plug in to listen to the opposing coaches and their staffs, in real time, during games.

As to what Loomis could or could not decipher from among another team's complex set of play calls and jargon, it's almost entirely irrelevant. It pales next to the idea that if you can eavesdrop on something, you can record it. If you can record it, you can review it. You can decode the jargon. You can store information for the games to come.

And all of that goes directly to the perception of the league, which is why Goodell may well find himself facing the toughest challenge of his professional life.

This is generally the point of the proceedings at which the greater football minds step forward to explain why such an electronic system would be impractical, clunky and overall a lousy way to gain an edge. I respect the knowledge and the experience. But it is awkwardly misplaced here.

There is no major sports league in the United States that can abide or survive a scenario that paints its games as rigged -- not rigged by bookies, mind you, or by people on the take, but rigged all the same. That is the reason you will see the NFL go after this latest chapter of the Saints' sad saga at full throttle.

If it is false, then Goodell needs to be able to loudly, publicly exonerate Loomis and the franchise. If it's true, then Goodell will act as sheriff, judge and jury once again. Either way, let no one suggest -- even in good faith -- that such an alleged breach of the basic rules of competition is no big deal. It is why they write the rules, after all.

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