Spygate II Hits Denver
Why did the NFL let the Broncos off with a slap on the wrist?
By: Mitch Light | 11/30/10, 3:04 PM EST
By Ralph Vacchiano
When Spygate first broke in 2007, the NFL came down hard on New England’s Evil Empire. They hammered the Patriots and Bill Belichick for illegally filming the signals of Jets coaches, and the punishment was deservedly harsh.
The Pats were fined $250,000. Belichick was fined $500,000. And the Patriots were stripped of their first-round draft pick in 2008.
So how did the Denver Broncos get off with not much more than a slap on the wrist for Spygate II?
The league sent a terrible and maddeningly inconsistent message last week when it fined the Broncos $50,000 and coach Josh McDaniels $50,000 for illegally taping the San Francisco 49ers’ walkthrough practice before a game in London four weeks ago.
How much that tape would actually help a team the day before the game might be up for debate. What’s not up for debate is that the Broncos had it, thanks to the team’s director of video operations Steve Scarnecchia. By the way, Scarnecchia worked for Belichick and the Patriots before Spygate I, and was working for the Jets when that scandal erupted. In fact, he’s reportedly the Jets employee who tipped off the league.
And in case you’re noticing a pattern, McDaniels was on Belichick’s Spygate staff, so the apples in this case haven’t fallen far from the tree. It’s a dangerous pattern, too, one that is going to envelop all former Belichick employees in a cloud of suspicion. It’s a direct assault on the integrity of the league.
So why the wrist slap? It seems that the Broncos avoided a major punishment because McDaniels never looked at the tape and turned Scarnecchia into the league. According to the letter that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sent Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, the NFL concluded that “the coach had no interest in the material and did not in fact watch the tape (and) did not show the tape to any other member of the coaching staff.”
Fine. And good for McDaniels. But why wasn’t Scarnecchia fired on the spot, instead of three weeks later? And why did it take McDaniels nine days to inform his bosses? And then why did it take the Broncos another four days to inform the league?
If nothing else, they sure did a wonderful job of making it look like they were covering something up.
“I made a mistake,” McDaniels said. “I made a mistake, and I should have done that right away. We felt we handled it the right way by not doing anything with that, but I did not follow through with it.”
Even if McDaniels is to be believed, that he never looked at the tape and it was simply an oversight that he kept the secret for more than a week, the punishment still should have been harsher — especially since he and Scarnecchia are repeat offenders, at least by association. It’s an “integrity of the game” issue, as the NFL made clear, and they can’t play games with that. Fining an ultra-rich team owner $50,000 while he’s running a franchise in an $8 billion per year industry is like a mosquito biting an elephant. It’s hardly an annoyance at all.
It shouldn’t be surprising, though, because this is a league that is insanely inconsistent with what it chooses to get upset about and who it slaps with financial penalties. It has admirably begun cracking down on dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. But the players say it’s almost impossible to tell what warrants a fine and what doesn’t. The consistency — either with the hits or the amounts — just isn’t there.
And then there are fines like the $25,000 Chad Ochocinco received for using Twitter during a preseason game — a violation of the NFL’s social media policy. That’s the same fine Randy Moss got for not talking to the media — though why the NFL chose to fine him, instead of the dozens of other players violating the media policy, was never made clear.
Were those violations as fine-worthy as the ugly fight last weekend between Tennessee cornerback Cortland Finnegan and Houston receiver Andre Johnson? Both of them got $25,000 fines, too. Come to think of it, Giants running back Brandon Jacobs didn’t even get half that amount when he threw his helmet like a missile into the stands in Indianapolis in Week 2 ($10,000). But he came close, getting a $20,000 fine, when he cursed and made obscene gestures at the fans in Philadelphia in Week 11.
In other words, he got twice as much for hurling insults towards fans as he did for hurling a dangerous object.
It makes no sense. Just like it makes no sense that the Broncos — the entire organization — got only double the fines that players got for fighting, Tweeting or not talking, despite what sure looked like an organizational attempt to conceal a scandal. And McDaniels, the man behind it, got one-tenth the fine that Belichick got for essentially the same offense (though, to be fair, he may end up paying for it with his job).
So what’s to stop another team from doing what the Broncos did? They could tape a walkthrough, watch it, then insist they didn’t and turn themselves in. If it helps them win and get into the playoffs, wouldn’t it be worth $50,000? Would it be worth it for a coach to write a $50,000 check if it helped him keep his job?
None of that is to say that McDaniels was guilty of anything other than bad judgment in not immediately reporting an illegal act. This whole, sordid, ugly incident might have happened exactly the way he said. But his guilt isn’t really the point. It’s about the appearance of his guilt and the message a harsh punishment would sent.
The NFL had a responsibility to protect both the integrity and the image of its sport. They didn’t because their punishment didn’t go nearly far enough.
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