Commentary

Goodell learns lessons from smoldering Spygate

After being burned by his mismanagement of Spygate at the start, Roger Goodell is taking steps to protect the game's integrity. But he's smart not to believe Spygate is over, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Originally Published: April 1, 2008
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Give NFL commissioner Roger Goodell credit for this: He's not about to let the same problem burn him twice.

That was the message he was sending during Monday's news conference at the owners meeting, when he answered questions about his new ideas for addressing spying. Goodell clearly doesn't want the league's integrity compromised under his watch, but that isn't the only agenda he's pursuing here. He's also smart enough to see the need for preventing a fire before it ever has another chance to ignite.

What Goodell obviously learned from Spygate -- the taping of defensive signals by a New England Patriots employee that resulted in a combined $750,000 in fines for head coach Bill Belichick and the team along with the loss of a first-round pick in this year's draft -- is that it's not so easy for the NFL to push stories off the front page anymore. This issue lingered over the Patriots during a record-breaking regular season and also forced Goodell to spend ample time dealing with both the criticisms of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. and the allegations of former Patriots employee Matt Walsh. In short, the entire episode has been one huge headache.

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But now we're finally seeing Goodell on the offensive. He's currently tinkering with a plan that could include spot checks of coaching booths and team headquarters to ensure teams aren't gaining unfair advantages. Goodell also is doing exactly what he did last offseason, when he established a personal conduct policy to address a disturbing trend of players' running afoul of the law: He's sensing the need to stifle any possibility of fans' losing faith in his product.

"I believe very strongly in the integrity of our league," Goodell said. "And I'm going to take the steps to protect that."

Integrity is a hot topic for Goodell these days because the league basically mismanaged Spygate from the start. The minute Goodell destroyed the tapes that Belichick had created, the league opened itself up to all types of scrutiny -- especially because the general public had no idea what was on the tapes. At the time, it seemed as if the story would vanish once Goodell disciplined Belichick. The question that remains is how much the league really knew about the coach's actions. And that little mystery is the only reason this story still lives today.

At this stage, it's hard to imagine many people even care about what kind of advantage Belichick gained from his tactics. The real issue is whether Walsh actually has more dirt on the Patriots' head coach. The worst-case scenario for the Patriots is that Belichick didn't come completely clean with Goodell about his misdeeds because Goodell could levy further sanctions.

Of course, the worst-case scenario for Goodell is that Walsh starts talking publicly about his information -- he claims to have evidence that could've exposed the Patriots long before they were caught in their season-opening win over the New York Jets last season -- and the league winds up looking like it went too easy on Belichick as a result.

On Monday, Goodell reiterated that his latest ideas have little to do with Belichick. When asked about Spygate, Goodell said, "We responded very aggressively to it. To date, all the other rhetoric [about Belichick's actions] has been rumors. We don't have any more information on the taping of defensive signals. We know coach Belichick has done that throughout his career, and he was disciplined for it."

However, Goodell did admit that he remains eager to speak with Walsh. The commissioner added that Walsh's desire to protect himself from legal action is the only reason the wait for their conversation has become so frustrating. "We've talked to over 50 people and he's the only person who's asked for [special] conditions," Goodell said. "I'm anxious to meet with him. He's indicated through the media that he has some more information that I'm not aware of yet. If he has a tape or some information, I'd be anxious to get it."

The smartest thing Goodell did during his news conference was to avoid any talk about Spygate being finished. As much as people want this story to go away -- especially Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who claimed that Walsh's allegations are bogus -- there won't be any closure unless Walsh speaks. This matter is not disappearing because enough time passes. The league cannot wish it away by avoiding discussion of it. This issue, regardless of how trivial it now seems, still has too many layers left to peel away.

What people have to realize is that stories without legitimate endings usually tend to linger, as is the case here. On the flip side, it's also much easier to control a story when you can determine how it starts. That's the reality that Goodell was focusing on when he spoke to reporters on Monday afternoon. And that approach likely means he'll have a better chance of avoiding the kind of embarrassment that blindsided both him and his league last fall.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.