The New England Patriots were punished by the NFL on Sunday for videotaping opponents. Perhaps you missed the news because Cam Newton signed with the Patriots and blotted out the sports media sun. In the shadow of the Newton reports, the NFL levied its punishment: The Patriots were docked a 2021 third-round pick and fined $1.1 million for a December incident in which a videographer filmed the Bengals sideline. The league began its investigation 203 days ago. The punishment was reported 18 minutes after the Newton signing. What a strange coincidence.
This story begins in the Before Times, when sports were happening and 100-degree days in the Arctic Circle were not. During a December Bengals-Browns game in Cleveland, a credentialed Patriots videographer wearing Boston Bruins gear in the press box filmed the field and the sideline of the Bengals, who New England was playing the following week. This is against NFL rules, and no team has a more infamous history of breaking those rules than the Patriots. Cincinnati security seized the video equipment, went to an empty bathroom, lit a Marlboro Red while staring into the mirror, and whispered “We got them.”
The next day, Patriots PR released a statement that said the whole thing was a misunderstanding. The videographer was an independent contractor filming for a video series called Do Your Job on the Patriots website. Do Your Job focuses on the day-to-day activities of lesser known New England staff members, and the videographer was collecting background footage for an episode about an advance scout who studies New England’s upcoming opponents. The contractor had been approved by the Browns, but the Patriots had not informed the Bengals or league office he would be filming. New England PR called this “an unintended oversight. ” When head coach Bill Belichick was asked about the TV production side, he said, “I have no idea what they do.”
New England’s official story is a good alibi. In fact, it’s such a good alibi that Patriots videographers during the 2007 Spygate scandal were instructed to use that alibi in the event they got caught. ESPN reported in 2015 that the Spygate videographers were directed to wear media credentials for “Patriots TV” or “Kraft Productions” and were told to use ready-made excuses, like they were recording for a team show. (It is worth noting the Watergate burglars initially told a judge they were “anti-communists.”) Depending on your point of view, the videographer from the December incident was so brazen that it is either exonerating evidence or the logical extension of an alibi the organization reportedly first discussed a decade ago. When everyone is trying to catch you, the best way to cheat is doing it in plain sight.
Whatever the intent behind the filming, New England was penalized. That includes a $1.1 million fine. Patriots owner Bob Kraft is reportedly worth $4 billion, so that equals 0.03 percent of his net worth. If we apply that 0.03 percent rate to the median U.S. household, which has a net worth of $97,000, the Patriots were fined the equivalent of $27—not even enough to park at Gillette Stadium on game days. But the real cost for the Patriots is not money. The Patriots are the seventh-most valuable sports franchise in the world and can basically print money. (They probably have videotaped the people who do so at the U.S. Mint for a web series.) The actual cost of the punishment is losing New England’s third-round pick. Patriots fans will spin this into adversity. Spare me. I’d rather listen to someone explain why we’re better off with the Arctic Circle at 100 degrees.
The Patriots have now had four draft picks taken away by the NFL in the past dozen years. They lost a 2008 first-rounder for Spygate, a 2016 first-rounder and a 2017 fourth-rounder for Deflategate, and now a third-rounder in 2021 for Spygate II. Two firsts, a third-, and a fourth-round pick is more than the Bears paid Oakland for Khalil Mack.
Patriots fans hear that and think, “Wow, look at all that we accomplished despite the NFL trying to keep us down!” Others hear that list and think, “Wow, I forgot how much the Patriots have cheated.”
But to fully understand why New England was docked a third-rounder for this Bengals incident, we have to revisit Deflategate (I know, I don’t want to do this either). Even hard-core Pats haters understand Deflategate was ridiculous. Tom Brady nearly took the NFL to the Supreme Court over who knew what about the air pressure in footballs. (Let’s all agree to not tell our children we wasted time on that instead of stopping the ice caps from melting.) But the reason NFL commissioner Roger Goodell reportedly took Deflategate so seriously was because the league’s owners were ticked off about New England’s relatively light punishment for Spygate, according to an ESPN report. Whereas the NFL waited 203 days to punish the Patriots for this small Bengals issue that involved eight minutes of sideline footage, but Goodell delivered the original Spygate punishment just four days after the incident was revealed. League investigators had not even visited Massachusetts. When investigators got to Patriots headquarters, they found a library of scouting material suggesting a far larger scandal than had been reported—notes going back seven seasons—but “league executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room.” The way some owners saw it, Pats owner Bob Kraft was essential to getting Goodell the commissionership, which pays $40 million a year, and Goodell took care of Kraft during Spygate. Deflategate wasn’t about the PSI of footballs in an AFC championship game that New England won by 38 points. It was about the massive spying scandal that owners felt the league office helped cover up. Deflategate was a makeup call. Similarly, this Bengals incident is not about the Patriots spying on the then-1-12 Bengals. It’s about reining in a franchise that has not earned the benefit of the doubt.
The reality is that the NFL did the Patriots a favor by timing this announcement minutes after Cam signed with the Patriots. On any other day in the current sports-content desert, New England being punished for this scandal would have been an oasis that trended on social media platforms and led every sports show. Instead, the Patriots were punished and barely anyone noticed. Even people who spent their Sunday night and Monday morning digesting Patriots news may have missed it. Normally when the Patriots have a 100-degree day, there would be a conversation about whether this was an isolated incident or indicative of a larger problem with the climate.