Saturday, May 17, 2008

Specter vs. Goodell, Again

What’s the sound made by one hand clapping? Probably the same as the one generated by the majority of football fans over Sen. Arlen Specter’s continued grandstanding on the so-called Spygate matter.

This past week, golf pro Matt Walsh, the former videographer for the New England Patriots, emerged from his Hawaiian hideway to spill whatever beans were left to spill about his taping escapades to, in order, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Specter, the New York Times and HBO. Next week, he’s due to meet with Virgil, the maintenance man in my building.

Of course, Walsh didn’t really have anything new to say, except that he unwittingly made the Boston Globe look even more foolish (no small feat) by denying that the Patriots had secretly taped the St. Louis Rams’ pre-Super Bowl walk-through. In short order, he did confirm what had already been known and offered his thoughts on the ethics of it all after, of course, compromising his own by repeatedly taking money from the Patriots for something he says he knew was wrong at the time.

The lack of anything new didn’t stop Specter from continuing his overblown rhetoric on the subject, again invoking the notion of revisiting the NFL’s antitrust exemption, a cage Specter has rattled before. He wants an independent investigation, a congressional inquiry and, perhaps, a public flogging. He reserved judgment on what action to take next depending on the reaction of the fans. What’s the proper senatorial reaction to a yawn?

The strong guess is that if Goodell had to do this all over again, he would have conducted a more thorough inquiry the first time around and, for good measure, hung on to the evidence, if only to appease the conspiracy nuts. The fact that he didn’t only gave blowhards like Specter and a handful of New York Jets fans ammunition they didn’t need or deserve.

But that issue aside, lost in all the bluster is perspective. Taping a coach’s signals may be against the NFL operating manual, but on the scale of infractions, it trends far more toward driving 85 in a 65 MPH zone than it does armed robbery. In political terms that Specter can understand, it’s more akin to letting your feet wander in an airport bathroom stall than it is to lying to Congress about why you fired certain U.S. attorneys.

Even more to the point: what exactly is the purpose of Specter’s ongoing interest? The salient facts are known. The Patriots were punished, head coach Bill Belichick was fined. If some like Specter aren’t satisfied with the level of the punishment, personally I wasn’t happy with the way Specter didn’t make former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testify under oath to explain illegal wiretapping, but you don’t hear me continuing to bitch about it.

The saber rattling against the NFL by Specter is really nothing new and really has a deeper purpose. For context, remember the whole Philadelphia Eagles/Terrell Ownes mess? Specter stuck his nose into that as well, calling the Eagles vindictive after it sent Owens home for the rest of the season for basically placing the team under the bus and driving it over them himself. At that time, Specter too threatened to hold hearings on the NFL’s antitrust exemption. Over Owens? That should have been the tipoff.

On the surface, the Ownes situation and now Spygate make Specter seem like an overly obnoxious fan with a bit of a God complex. But if you look just below the surface, the real issue for Specter in Spygate and, for that matter, the Owens case, revolves around the NFL’s antitrust exemption and how it is negatively impacting one of his biggest campaign contributors, Pennsylvania-based Comcast.

Comcast, like a lot of cable operators wasn’t too happy when the NFL decided to re-up with DirecTV a few years ago instead of allowing cable systems to bid on the package. But things got far more interesting when the NFL Network rolled around. The reason the most of the country doesn’t get the NFL Network, at least on basic digital cable, has to do with some arguably poor marketing decisions by the NFL. When the NFL put up a package of eight late-season games for auction and then awarded the package to its own NFL Network, Comcast was fit to be tied, I tell ya because its Versus network was a bidder as well. In retaliation, Comcast moved the NFL Network from the basic digital tier to a sports tier available to subscribers for an additional fee. This, in turn, infuriated the NFL, and the parties are in a cold war over it, with the NFL filing a complaint against Comcast before the Federal Communications Commission. Meanwhile, the NFL Network is frozen out on most cable systems.

It’s always dangerous ground when taking sides in a fight between multi-billion dollar entities. Let’s just say that neither side is as innocent as it claims and neither is on the side of the fans, only the money. But these are big boys and they can settle their own disputes and don’t need Specter, doing Comcast’s bidding, getting in the middle of the food fight.

What Specter and his benefactor Comcast really want is the removal of the antitrust exemption. This would then make it illegal for the NFL to pool its broadcasting rights and bargain with the various networks, thus allowing operators like Comcast a real opportunity to bid for local broadcast rights in several markets. The NFL, for obvious reasons, likes things just the way they are. Indeed, the antitrust exemption is at the heart of the league-wide revenue sharing scheme that has benefited both the individual owners and the league for years.

Specter has been mostly an able legislator throughout his career, but his fight with the NFL isn’t even principally based. To this point, Goodell has been mostly polite to Specter, taking the high road by not mentioning the Specter/Comcast relationship. But just like the Owens/Eagles mess, Goodell knows that Spygate will fade. What won’t, though, is the underlying issues between the NFL and cable systems like Comcast and Time Warner.

Goodell knows that the real secret to getting Specter off his back is to solve his problems with Comcast. But NFL commissioners are also rumored to have a bit of a God complex as well, thus further minimizing the chance that these problems will get resolved anytime soon. In the interim, fans better get used to every so often hearing again about Spygate, Son of Spygate, and whatever other –Gate Specter can invent. With the kind of money that’s really at stake, neither side is obviously interested in trying to win this battle with moderation.