Senior Republican Senator Arlen Specter (PA) wrote a letter yesterday to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wanting to know why the NFL destroyed the tapes of the New England Patriots spying on the New York Jets’ coaching signals.
There has been suspicion of the New England Patriots spy/surveillance tactics for some time, including taping hand signals and interfering with wireless communications between the opposing coach and quarterback. This is against NFL rules and is considered cheating. The spy games ended in September 2007, when Jets coach Eric Mangini, a former assistant under Patriots coach Bill Belichick, tipped off NFL security at the Jets-Patriots game, and a tape was confiscated with clear evidence of the cheating.
And now, apparently, six tapes have been destroyed by the NFL, from the 2007 preseason and 2006. The explanation from football Commissioner Goodell, given today in a new conference from Phoenix, just two days before the Super Bowl:
I am more than willing to speak with the senator. There are very good explanations why the tapes were destroyed by our staff — there was no purpose for them. We wanted to take and destroy that information. They may have collected it within the rules, but we couldn’t determine that. So we felt that it should be destroyed.
Arlen Specter said that explanation “didn’t make any sense at all.” I agree, it didn’t make sense to me either. But what also didn’t make sense to me was why Congress would care about NFL spy tapes. It seems like the NFL took care of the situation with the biggest fine ever imposed on a coach in team history. Goodell fined Belichick $500,000 and docked the team $250,000 and a first-round draft pick. But here’s the explanation for the involvement of Congress: antitrust exemption. As Specter explained his reasoning today, he inevitably brought up a sore subject:
The matter may not compare to the CIA’s destruction of interrogation tapes, but I do believe that it is a matter of importance. It’s not going to displace the stimulus package or the Iraq war, but I think the integrity of football is very important, and I think the National Football League has a special duty to the American people — and further the Congress — because they have an antitrust exemption.
What that seems to mean is that because the NFL has been given an exception by the government, it is subject to the government. To understand an exception to antitrust, it’s helpful to know what antitrust means. Basically, its purpose is to ensure a competitive free market system unrestrained by monopolies, and dates back to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. The purpose of the Act, according to Wikipedia:
Despite its name, the Act has fairly little to do with “trusts”. Around the world, what U.S. lawmakers and attorneys call “Antitrust” is more commonly known as “competition law.” The purpose of the act was opposition combinations of entities that could potentially harm competition, such as monopolies or cartels. Its reference to trusts today is anachronism. At the time of its passage, the trust was synonymous with monopolistic practice, because the trust was a popular way for monopolists to hold their businesses, and a way for cartel participants to create enforceable agreements.
The Sherman Act was not specifically intended to prevent the dominance of an industry by a specific company, despite misconceptions to the contrary. According to Senator George Hoar, an author of the bill, any company that “got the whole business because nobody could do it as well as he could” would not be in violation of the act. The law attempts to prevent the artificial raising of prices by restriction of trade or supply. In other words, innocent monopoly, or monopoly achieved solely by merit, is perfectly legal, but acts by a monopolist to artifically preserve his status, or nefarious dealings to create a monopoly, are.
It’s interesting that a year ago, in December 2006, Specter wanted to introduce legislation to eliminate the NFL’s exemption from antitrust laws. So the New England Patriots cheating scandal is just one more reason for him to push that view, not the reason for his view. The issue Specter cited back in 2006 was the NFL’s ability to negotiate exclusive sports packages, such as DirecTV’s Sunday Ticket, a programming package that allows TV viewers to watch out-of-market football games. There seems to be a consumer fairness issue here, and a definite monopoly.
Should the NFL’s antitrust status be changed? The NFL has only a limited exemption from antitrust laws, and it was granted this exception under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which allowed teams to pool their national broadcast rights for exclusive TV network contracts. This leaves a lot of viewers in the dark if they don’t subscribe to certain networks, and that has made for millions of angry football fans as well as legislators pushing to overturn the antitrust exception. However…
Mr. Specter should explain again exactly what the NFL exclusive network contracts have to do with destroying spy tapes. The antitrust issue doesn’t really seem relevant to Belichick’s tricky tactics. I don’t like the fact that the Patriots’ coach would resort to cheating, but to drag the government into this?