In 2015, the NFL accused the New England Patriots of tampering with the pressure levels inside footballs to gain an illegal advantage during their AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. The league’s case was flimsy at best and later disputed by numerous scientific researchers (and high school students) across the country, but it doubled down nevertheless after a multi-million dollar investigation: New England had to forfeit two draft picks, while quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for four games for “more probably than not” being “generally aware“ of potential nefarious action by the team’s ball boys.
The whole saga was, from start to its finish more than a year later, a mess. It did create some memorable moments, though, with Bill Belichick’s press conference shortly after the Patriots’ win over the Colts as one of them. Between picking rumors apart and referencing the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny, Belichick also fielded questions about another scandal his organization was involved in — 2007’s “Spygate“ about filming the opposing sidelines from a vantage point outlawed by a league memo. His answer at that time was telling.
“It was wrong. We were disciplined for it. That’s it. We never did it again. We’re never going to do it again. And anything else that’s close, we’re not going to do it either,” he told reporters when addressing comparisons between the two affairs. And yet, here we go again: 12 years after “Spygate” cost the Patriots a first-round draft pick, the organization is once more being investigated by the NFL. This time, the allegation is that the team filmed its upcoming opponent — the 1-12 Cincinnati Bengals — from an illegal position to again gain an advantage.
Judged by the information that is available through numerous reports and an official statement released by the club, however, it appears as if Belichick and the organizations’s football staff were not involved in any suspicious activity: the team sent a group including independent contractors to Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium to film a new segment for its “Do Your Job” series that follows members of the staff and documents their jobs. Past episodes included the team’s equipment staff and scouting departments; this latest will follow a pro scout as he watches the next team on the schedule.
The Bengals subsequently raised concerns about the camera crew, which was credentialed by the Cleveland Browns and cooperating with their PR department, which in turn led to a league investigation. And this is where this whole affair gets tricky from New England’s perspective: while it seems highly unlikely the football staff — as Belichick said during a radio interview shortly after reports broke on Monday afternoon — was involved beyond the scout being interviewed, the organization did open the door for scrutiny through the actions of its videographers.
Of course, it is entirely likely that the league concludes the material was what the Patriots stated it was and no or only an insignificant penalty will eventually be brought forward by the NFL’s powers. After all, the team did also quickly claim responsibility for its role in the incident — something that was, for good reason, not the case during the previous two scandals when the team argued that it was interpreting a vaguely-worded memo differently (“Spygate”) or simply following the laws of physics (“Deflategate”).
Ultimately, however, the Patriots are not without blame even though the Browns informing the Bengals could have prevented all of this: the organization needed to be more diligent. The film crew may have consisted of independent contractors and not been involved with the football department, yes, but somebody either higher up the organizational ladder or from the team’s staff at hand had to be aware that pointing a camera onto the field during a game — even if just for shooting B-roll material — could lead to potential trouble for a team twice before disciplined by the NFL.
After all, the Patriots are very well aware of the rules as Belichick pointed out on Monday — at least as they relate to members of a team’s scouting department: “A scout can’t film the opponents as an advance scout, and our video people aren’t even allowed to point a camera at our opponents in pregame warmup or their side of the field or anything else to test out their equipment. They 100 percent know — all of our scouts, all of our video people and everything — they absolutely know what that is.”
As colleague Christian D’Andrea wrote over at SB Nation, the Patriots’ excuse is “plausible, if not especially sensible coming from an organization that prides itself on its thoroughness.” Said thoroughness certainly appears to have been missing last Sunday in Cleveland, and the Patriots therefore once more find themselves in a vulnerable position. Innocent or not, or even operating under the impression that the Browns would brief them on the do’s and do not do’s of filming in the press box, they should have erred on the side of caution.