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Spygate: The Scandal That Meant Everyone Was Right

Ten years after New England’s sign-stealing controversy, cheating is still in the eye of the beholder

An illustration of Bill Belichick holding binoculars Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We all — well, most of us — agree with you: The Patriots are an insufferable football machine that must be stopped. But here’s the thing: Can anyone stop them? Five weeks before the season kicks off, New England is favored to win every game it plays in 2017. Sixteen years since their first Super Bowl win and 10 since their 16–0 regular season, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still the class of the NFL. So, welcome to — ugh, yes — Patriots Week! Ahead of what could be the most dominant New England season yet, read along as we take a look at the good, the bad, and the Jets-y of modern football’s defining dynasty.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: that for some period of time in the early aughts, the New England Patriots videotaped other teams’ hand signals. That this was ordered by head coach Bill Belichick. That this was expressly verboten under NFL bylaws. That on September 9, 2007, a Patriots assistant fell under suspicion of taping the Jets sideline during New England’s 38-14 victory. That a camera and videotape were then confiscated from him, followed by notes and further videotapes. That less than two weeks after news of the Jets incident broke, the NFL destroyed all the tapes it said it had received from the Patriots. That this was a suspicious thing to do. That it made Senator Arlen Specter very, very upset.

That—deep breath—there were more tapes, and talk of years and years and years of this, whole extensive backlogs of opposing strategy stowed away for study. That fines were levied ($250,000 upon the Patriots; $500,000 upon Belichick), draft picks were forfeited (the first-round selection in the 2008 draft), and apologies were made (by Robert Kraft, to his fellow team owners; by Belichick, for the September 9 game, exclusively). That the football public—particularly one located somewhere dark trafficking in Bulleit on a Sunday afternoon, watching Tom "Tommy" Brady do something for or against one’s chosen football team—has not forgotten this controversy.

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who root for the Patriots, and those who do not. Put another way: There are those who think that Spygate was an injustice, a witch hunt fueled by jealousy, and an affront to decent people everywhere. Then there are those who think the Patriots are dirty, lying cheaters.

What I am trying to say, basically, is this: I bet you have an opinion about Spygate.

There is no discussing the Patriots without discussing the reason we all have so much trouble speaking calmly about them. For nearly two decades now, they’ve been busy sucking all the air out of the room. Since Belichick took over in 2000, New England has won more games than just about any team in history. His Patriots have a record of 201–71–0 through the last 17 seasons for a dizzying win percentage of .739. They have won 14 division titles and five Super Bowls in that time, including the one last February. They are not so much a dynasty as an existential threat to every other ambitious team in the league, whose most salient attributes usually include “might be able to top the Pats.” Then there’s New England’s now 40-year-old quarterback, with his absurd All-American looks and his family’s generally harmless opinions, kept carefully and thoughtfully burbling in the background. Even Brady’s friendship with and support of Donald Trump—jarring and controversial, just like the divisive presidential campaign and and our still more divisive present—has been quietly shh-shh-shh-ed into a softer, easier space where we don’t speak of such things, like a baby being laid down for a nap.

If you do not like the Patriots—if your team, your beloved team, has busied itself during this lengthy reign of Patriot terror by tanking and rebuilding and patiently drafting and maturing and then gloriously cresting, only to discover that this was still not enough to beat New England—these have been bad years.

So then there was Spygate. If your rooting interests lie to the south or west of Boston, the incident remains a salve sent from the good lord of parity himself. The Patriots were kicking the crap out of your team only because they were cheating! They had—no, have—no honor; their accomplishments—until 2007, anyway, but there’s Bulleit, so who’s counting—are moot.

It’s generally accepted that this sentiment, coupled with commissioner Roger Goodell’s all-too-enthusiastic search for closure at the time, fueled the fervor of Deflategate nearly a decade later. The latter was a considerably more modest accusation—maybe the Patriots let some air out of some balls; maybe it helped them just a little tiny bit in the 2015 AFC championship game; maybe it was just really freaking cold in Foxborough in January. Yet the league and opposing teams and seemingly every last of one of the south-or-west-of-Boston fan cohort wanted blood. They got it, kind of: Brady was forced to sit out the first four games of the 2016–17 season. We have already spoken about how things ended up anyway.

There is a funny thing with Boston sports fans: No matter how many victories they stack up—which, again, during Belichick’s 17-season-and-counting campaign, is a sum best tallied as A Really Great Amount—or how many trophies and medals and “Historic!” headlines and infuriatingly justifiable goats they accrue, they are generally insecure. They feel, more often than not, persecuted. Spygate and Deflategate are merely signs that the league, if not the entire world, has it out for them, for the Pats, for Tommy. It is not news that sports fans tend to view outcomes as just only when they favor their teams, but in Boston this is taken to marvelous heights. Spygate confirmed everyone’s suspicions: that New England is unfairly bullied by the many powers conspiring against it (Patriots fans), and that New England is wickedly, perpetually up to no good (everyone else).

And then, well, there’s this. I know I said all that about the groups of people, the binary, the believing non-faithful and non-believing faithful, but there is, in fact, a third group: those who believe that yes, OK, so maybe the Patriots were filming their competitors’ signals and using them for their own trophy-minded edification—but isn’t that what you would have done, were you in as plausible reach of a trophy as the Patriots? Wasn’t Belichick just using all the tools at his disposal, even if some of those tools were best categorized as dark arts? Isn’t this just a by-any-means kind of thing, a desperation to do right by fans—read: to win—so powerful it could lead a man and his employees to several ethical shadowlands? Shouldn’t we all dream of such scenarios, to have the things we love guarded by people willing to do whatever it takes? And isn’t it up to other teams to keep their secrets safe, to change their signals regularly, to assume that the knives, particularly when held by people who answer to Boston fans, are pretty much out? And if they’re losing, well—isn’t that their problem, and not New England’s at all?

We should all be so lucky.