As “Deflategate” drags on and on and on, it’s easy to lose perspective on what started this debacle in the first place.
Though the court fight has now moved on to questioning Roger Goodell’s authority and the procedures in place for punishing Tom Brady, the original question was one of simple ethics: did Tom Brady cheat, or didn’t he? And that’s a huge question. Because as everyone knows, prior to Deflategate, the NFL was a paradise of fair play without any major cheating scandals to mar its reputation. Right?
Well, no, not exactly.
As it turns out, the NFL has seen its fair share of cheating before. And at the risk of offending Mr. Goodell, we’re going to list a few of the most recent and blatant ones here.
Everything seemed to be going pretty well for the Saints in the late 2000s – until they got caught operating an illegal bounty program. Under the bounty program, Saints players were given financial bonuses for injuring players on the opposing team.
Most notoriously, the Saints appeared to target Vikings quarterback Brett Favre during the NFC Championship Game in 2009. A subsequent 2010 NFL investigation confirmed this, and also found that the Saints targeted several other high-profile players (like Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers) during games.
Goodell slapped the Saints with the maximum fine. He also suspended players and coaches involved (though several players were reinstated in a subsequent appeal governed by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue). Sean Payton, the Saints head coach, claimed to have no knowledge of the program. That wasn’t enough to save him from a full season suspension in 2012.
Tom Brady isn’t the first person to have allegedly messed with his footballs. Prior to Super Bowl XXXVII, Brad Johnson bribed some NFL employees to break in his footballs, scuffing and handling them so that they wouldn’t feel quite so brand-new. The favor cost Johnson $7,500, and his Tampa Bay Buccaneers took home the Lombardi Trophy.
The story of the bribery all came out after Deflategate, when Johnson fessed up to help explain why Tom Brady’s ball doctoring wasn’t quite as unprecedented as the media had made it seem.
It’s worth noting that Rich Gannon, the quarterback for the losing Oakland Raiders, got to use the same balls. Still, he wasn’t consulted in the sneaky ball doctoring process. Is what Johnson did worse than what Brady did? It’s not for us to say, but, uh, probably.
The very same year that Tom Brady was taken to task for allegedly deflating footballs, the Atlanta Falcons organization was caught doing something arguably much worse. The Falcons had been pumping artificial crowd noise into their stadium during defensive snaps, trying to gain a competitive advantage by drowning out the other team’s quarterback audibles and other offensive communication.
The NFL slapped the Falcons with a fine, stripped them of a draft pick, and suspended their team president from the competition committee for three months. The man directly responsible for the tactic was fired, though he would have gotten his own suspension had he not been.
Is Noisegate less publicized than Deflategate because the Falcons were terrible last year? Is it because the front office figures involved aren’t as famous or polarizing as Tom Brady? Or is it, as the NFL would like us to believe, that the Falcons immediately admitted the cheating and accepted the punishment? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
The Redskins and Colts, among other teams, have also been accused of this particular transgression.
Uh oh, we’ve come full circle back to the Patriots. In 2007, the Patriots were caught illegally taping the New York Jets defensive coaches during a game, trying to pick up their signals. To be clear, taping the coaches is not illegal; the Patriots’ crime was that they did not set up their cameras in the designated area, but rather on their own sideline, which is against the rules.
In a subsequent investigation, the NFL collected (and then, to some outcry, destroyed) all the evidence they could find that was related to the Patriots’ taping practices. They determined that the Patriots had indeed cheated, and Roger Goodell levied the maximum possible fine on head coach Bill Belichick.
Later reports revealed that Belichick had been taping illegally since he’d been hired in 2000; however, the most damning report to come out after the fact (that the Patriots had taped the St. Louis Rams’ Super Bowl walkthrough in 1999) turned out to be false, and was retracted by the paper that reported it.