Cheats Heard 'Round the World

By Joshua Prager
Sunday, March 23, 2008

When the New England Patriots filmed New York Jets coaches signaling their defense last September, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell punished them publicly, docking the organization a draft pick, fining both team and head coach. Privately, the commissioner took two more steps: He destroyed the tapes, and he kept quiet the very admission by Patriots head coach Bill Belichick that had in part prompted his penalty -- that their illicit filming dated to 2000. Three Super Bowl rings had capped seasons buoyed by cheating.

Goodell's whitewashing recalled another sports commissioner nervous about the tarnish of stolen signals. In 1962, rumors surfaced that iconic baseball manager Leo Durocher had had his New York Giants spy on the signals of opposing catchers during the latter half of the 1951 season. That season had culminated in the Shot Heard 'Round the World -- a pennant-winning home run that has crowned American sport ever since. Commissioner Ford Frick didn't investigate the anonymous rumors he likely knew to be true. He promised only that "If such a charge were substantiated, I would forfeit the game. But I would have to have evidence."

In 2001, I furnished that evidence in a newspaper article. Among much else, I identified the Giant spy, unearthed his telescope and pinpointed the date the cheating began.

Shakespeare wrote, "At the length truth will out." He might have added that truth is often outed by those who play for the Durochers and the Belichicks, those gifted but dyspeptic leaders who run up scores, snub handshakes and disregard the injured player; that truth is often outed by those who play against the Durochers and the Belichicks and come to resent successes they know to be tainted; and that truth is most often outed by those who bear no grudge but grow weary of carrying a secret.

"It's been brought up before, and I've always been glad where it quieted down," the gentle New York Giant Bobby Thomson said on air the day after my article ran, speaking of signals stolen during the 1951 pennant race. "But you know, that's foolish. . . . Getting it all out is the best thing. I feel almost like I just got out of prison."

Belichick is not there yet. His truths remain under lock and key. His denials remain brazen. He has stated that he didn't know his filming was illegal, even though it's prohibited in the NFL Constitution and Bylaws, in the NFL Game Operations Manual and in a league memo circulated before the 2006 season.

Belichick knows football better than almost anyone in the world. He was the 9-year-old son of a football coach when he started studying game film in 1961 -- evidence, wrote his biographer David Halberstam, of his "brilliance." But it was a mark of great stupidity to film the Jets' signals (hand-gestures that were to be synched with game tape, decoded and used against New York in future games) because the Jets head coach is Eric Mangini, whom Belichick mentored in Cleveland and then in New England, where they used stolen signals together and won Super Bowls until Mangini left to coach the Jets.

And so it was a former accomplice whom Belichick and his dynastic Patriots sought to cheat last Sept. 9 -- insurance so unnecessary and recklessly Nixonian as to befit the name of the scandal it begat: "Spygate." (The Jets alerted a league official to the cheating by the end of the first quarter.)

Thanks to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the public now knows that Spygate implicates all eight regular seasons Belichick has been in New England, and the scandal is oozing toward the team's postseason triumphs, toward the first of three Patriot rings.

There are unconfirmed reports that Matt Walsh, a New England video assistant, filmed a St. Louis practice on the eve of the 2002 Super Bowl, but Belichick denies this. And Commissioner Goodell, at his annual Super Bowl news conference, said of Spygate: "I don't think it taints their accomplishments."

Really? It doesn't help a team to know which play is upcoming? Why then does the NFL ban filming signals? Why did the commissioner earlier this month propose new safeguards against spying? Why did New England spy for years at the risk of punishment? What the commissioner no doubt meant to say was that he wished it didn't taint their accomplishments -- their 105-40 record under Belichick, their three three-point Super Bowl victories that, for all we know, would have been losses but for a few misbegotten yards.

Goodell now pledges to pursue the truth behind Spygate. And, says NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, "We're offering [Walsh] legal protection" so that the former video assistant may testify freely. But "he hasn't agreed to that yet."

Even if Walsh never does testify, or knows nothing, my experience with the 1951 Giants tells me that at the length, the truth will out. An NFL official who reviewed the Patriot tapes before they were destroyed will speak up. Additional incriminating tapes will emerge. An ex-Pat such as Mangini or Ted Johnson, one of the walking injured Belichick played, will decide that it's right to confess his own role in Spygate. A hero like quarterback Tom Brady or kicker Adam Vinatieri will heed his nagging conscience.

Only Belichick will likely deny to the end. Asked in 1962 whether his Giants stole signals in 1951, Durocher answered: "No. No. No."

Joshua Prager is a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the author of "The Echoing Green: The Untold Story of Bobby Thomson, Ralph Branca and the Shot Heard Round The World."

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