New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The National Football League levied the highest fines in league history against the New England Patriots after collecting evidence that Patriots coaches had violated league rules against videotaping opponents’ private signals. Coach Bill Belichick and the team were fined. The unprecedented penalties underlined the severity of the misconduct, damaged the credibility of three league championships, and helped foster public cynicism about ethics in professional sports.

Summary of Event

On September 9, 2007, assistant coaches for the New England Patriots were caught illegally videotaping signals being sent from the New York sideline to their defensive players on the field during the first game of the 2007 season. The incident was reported to the National Football League (NFL) and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, who acted swiftly in levying the largest penalties in league history. The September 13 sanction was meant to punish the Patriots and warn other teams not to break league rules. Critics wanted stronger penalties, and conspiracy theorists were roused when it was learned that the NFL destroyed the evidence after issuing the penalty. The whole situation became a media storm that raged through the season and off-season. [kw]Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams, New England Patriots (Sept. 13, 2007) [kw]Spying on Other Teams, New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for (Sept. 13, 2007) Football;professional National Football League;New England Patriots New England Patriots "Spygate"[Spygate] Coaches;football Belichick, Bill Goodell, Roger Mangini, Eric Video evidence;and New England Patriots[New England Patriots] Football;professional National Football League;New England Patriots New England Patriots "Spygate"[Spygate] Coaches;football Belichick, Bill Goodell, Roger Mangini, Eric Video evidence;and New England Patriots[New England Patriots] [g]United States;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] [c]Sports;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] [c]Corruption;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] [c]Espionage;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] [c]Communications and media;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] [c]Public morals;Sept. 13, 2007: New England Patriots Football Team Is Fined for Spying on Other Teams[03830] Walsh, Matt

The NFL allows teams to use two cameras to videotape games from the end zones and other specified areas and had sent multiple memorandums to all teams reiterating these rules. These end-zone angles are wide enough to see the entire field and to see how offensive and defensive players are deployed. The tapes are referred to as coaches film. The Patriots were taping the end-zone angles but they were also taping from their sideline across the field to the Jets defensive coaches and to the scoreboard that was recording ball placement and time. Offensive signals are verbally transmitted to a team’s quarterback via timed, one-way, encrypted wireless communications monitored by the NFL. Defensive signals, though, are sent either verbally by a substituting player who can relay the information or by hand signals and signs using gestures, numbers, and colors. Officials with the Jets noticed this action, confiscated the videotape, and filed a complaint with the NFL.

The Jets knew at first hand that Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had a penchant for videotaping and intelligence gathering; Jets head coach Eric Mangini had worked for Belichick for more than ten years, mostly with the Patriots, until he took the Jets job. Mangini violated many of the unwritten rules in NFL coaching circles, which prohibited poaching other players, coaching a rival team, and snitching. Belichick and Mangini reportedly had a great friendship that was obliterated. Now they were archenemies.

The NFL penalized the Patriots just four days later. It demanded all other videotapes from the team and spoke with coach Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft. “This episode represents a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field,” commissioner Goodell wrote in a letter to the Patriots.

Belichick released a statement following the punishment, stating “Part of my job as head coach is to ensure that our football operations are conducted in compliance of the league rules and all accepted interpretations of them. My interpretation of a rule in the constitution and bylaws was incorrect.”

The infraction, punishment, and apology should have ended the cycle but only fueled the controversy. The NFL destroyed the videotape evidence, citing security reasons, as a leaked tape was aired on a Fox Sports NFL telecast the following Sunday. Conspiracy theorists believed the league was hiding something or even coddling the immensely popular Patriots. Critics claimed the Patriots had so much recent success because of the taped defensive signals, which they in turn deciphered and used during the same game; that claim, however, was unfounded by the NFL investigation. Belichick stated that he was not taping a game to help the team in the same game; implementing such a task, he added, would be nearly impossible.

The scandal was a scandal because, first, it involved the Patriots, the dominant team of the decade, and second, sports, in general, had been under a cloud of suspicion for the use by athletes of performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids and human growth hormone. The scandal was even more compelling because it featured the Boston and New York sports markets, the deteriorating relationship between Belichick and Mangini, and a Patriots team that was on a ruthless winning streak.

The Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XLII against the New York Giants, and the scandal developed a new twist. Accusations were made by former Patriots video assistant Matt Walsh were printed in the Boston Herald, which stated the Patriots videotaped the St. Louis Rams’ final practice before the Super Bowl.

Walsh met with NFL commissioner Goodell and Specter separately in May, and the NFL stated that no further discipline was coming to the Patriots. Specter, however, believed the idea of an independent investigation similar to former Senator George Mitchell, George J. Mitchell’s report on Baseball;and steroids[steroids] steroids in Major League Baseball might be effective in understanding the Patriots scandal.

The Boston Herald used the entire front and back pages of its May 14 edition to apologize to the Patriots and their fans, stating the columnist who reported the Patriots had videotaped the Rams’ final practice before the Super Bowl did not have credible sources. The Patriots accepted the apology but noted that the damage was already done when the article was published on the eve of the Super Bowl, usually the top television draw of the year.

Impact

After being caught cheating, fined by the league, and vilified by most after the first game of the season, the Patriots and their beleaguered coach went on an unprecedented undefeated streak, ending their season in a loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. The Patriots had a 16-0 record during the 2007 regular season. Players and coaches, approached and pressed by the media after every practice and game, played on the field like no other team in history, breaking a number of long-standing NFL records. Belichick was voted NFL Coach of the Year by the Associated Press, his second time winning the award. Many of the same writers who criticized Belichick in print and across electronic media had no choice but to award the coach of one of the greatest professional football teams in history.

The NFL owners voted in early 2008 to allow defensive signals to be radioed in to a team’s defensive captain, in a manner similar to how quarterbacks are given plays. Quarterback communications are proven to be secure. This new method of communication will eliminate the interception of signals because radio usage is tightly controlled by the NFL.

The Patriots cheating scandal and actions taken by the league will likely never be forgotten. The legacy of the great Patriots franchise, once thought of as the model franchise in the league, was irreparably tarnished, and many believe that the team’s three Super Bowl victories in the first decade of the twenty-first century should have asterisks denoting the victories came during a cheating scandal. Football;professional National Football League;New England Patriots New England Patriots "Spygate"[Spygate] Coaches;football Belichick, Bill Goodell, Roger Mangini, Eric Video evidence;and New England Patriots[New England Patriots]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Callahan, David. The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead. Orlando, Fla.: Harcourt, 2004. This book discusses why people choose to cheat to gain an advantage over their competitors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crossman, Matt. “Tricks, Spies, and Videotapes.” Sporting News, September 24, 2007. The author reports on the potential long-term fallout of the taping scandal. Discusses the various theories on why Patriot coach Bill Belichick recorded opposing-team signals and includes reactions to the scandal from National Football League representatives.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Peter. “The NFL’s Mob Mentality.” Sports Illustrated, September 24, 2007. Article argues that in making public the accusation against Belichick, Jets coach Eric Mangini broke a code of silence observed by NFL coaches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lupica, Mike. “Patriot Act Not New to Belichick.” Daily News (New York), September 16, 2007. A senior columnist discusses how Belichick thinks he is above the law and how his actions tarnish the near-perfect image owner Robert Kraft has created for the Patriots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sandomir, Richard. “Goodell Defends Punishment and Warns of Other Sanctions.” The New York Times, September 17, 2007. Includes quotations from NFL commissioner Goodell justifying fines levied against the Patriots and Coach Belichick.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tomase, John. “How It Went Wrong.” Boston Herald, May 16, 2008. The story behind the Boston Herald’s report of the scandal on the eve of the Super Bowl in 2008.

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