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Why ESPN Ignored League-wide “Signal Decoding” in its New Spygate Story

Massachusetts attorney Jason V. Owens considers ESPN’s recent actions in Deflategate case.

As the only member of the firm who has been a reporter (albeit briefly) and holds a journalism degree, I am stepping into the breach for our illustrious Deflategate expert, James M. Lynch, to offer some observations on the recent “bombshell” ESPN story that rehashes Spygate and directs broader allegations of cheating against the Patriots. Ben Volin of the Boston Globe (whose Deflategate coverage I sometimes found frustrating) offers a good summary of the ESPN piece. Of particular interest, Volin writes:

The Patriots allegedly had 40 games worth of videotapes of opponents’ signals, as well as several binders full of notes dating back to 2000.

What we don’t learn in the story is how widespread this type of filming and scouting was across the NFL during that period. As former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson said in 2007, “This is exactly how I was told to do it 18 years ago by a Kansas City Chiefs scout.”

The ESPN piece, written by Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham, does an effective job of conveying the deep suspicion and dislike for the Patriots pervading NFL locker rooms and board rooms. The piece makes clear that NFL teams and officials distrust the Patriots and suspect the worst of the franchise. What the ESPN piece fails to do, however, is provide the objective context needed for a reader to evaluate the true egregiousness of the Patriots’ alleged cheating. The question the piece both creates and fails to answer is this: where was the line between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” when it came to decoding an opposing team’s play calls in 2007?

As observers quickly pointed out after the piece was published, Van Natta and Wickersham openly acknowledge in the ESPN piece that “decoding” an opponents’ signals has long been a “universal” part of the NFL game:

The practice of decoding signals was universal in football — a single stolen signal can change a game — with advance scouts jotting down notes, then matching the signal to the play. The Patriots created a novel spying system that made the decoding more dependable.

However, the authors abandon this tease almost immediately, instead focusing exclusively on what the Patriots allegedly did – while totally excluding even the barest summary of other teams’ “decoding” systems. The piece plainly implies that the Patriots somehow crossed the barrier from the usual gamesmanship surrounding signal decoding to outright cheating (i.e. “stealing” signals). But the authors fail to define what line the Patriots crossed, and why the Patriots’ decoding system was more elaborate or egregious than those of competitors. What makes the authors’ inprecison so puzzling is that a review of league-wide signal decoding tactics in 2007 should have been the easiest part of the story to document.

Indeed, what makes ESPN’s condemnation of the Patriots-in-a-vacuum so jarring is that NFL luminaries such as Jimmy Johnson and John Madden have openly acknowledged, on the record, that video recording signals dates back more than two decades before Spygate. As Volin points out, Jimmy Johnson said he learned about videotaping an opponent’s hand signals back in 1989. Similarly, the subject was discussed matter of factly by John Madden on Monday Night Football, before Johnson left the Cowboys in 1993, fourteen years before the Spygate story broke:

(Indeed, there is every reason to believe that NFL teams once went to far greaterlengths to decode opponents’ signals prior to 2008, when the league installed speakers in the helmets of quarterbacks and defensive leaders, greatly reducing teams’ reliance on hand-signals. After all, knowing a team’s specific offensive play before it is run would be far more damaging than knowing a team’s defensive formation before the snap.)

If Deflategate taught us anything, it’s that retired NFL players are willing to discuss issues of “gamesmanship” on the record if reporters just bother to ask. Joe Montana openly discussed the tricks employed by his 49ers back in June:

Everybody is trying to do something different … Our offensive linemen used to spray silicone on their shirts until they got caught. Once you get caught, you get caught. Period. It doesn’t take anything away from Tom’s game.

Like Bill Belichick, Montana’s former head coach, Bill Walsh, was a prickly football genius who regarded his contemporaries as lazy idiots, and who sought to exploit every offensive advantage back in his coaching days. If anyone knows about stealing defensive signals, it would be Montana. Why didn’t ESPN call him for this story?

Former quarterback Jeff Blake also did not hestitate to discuss the prevalence of deflating footballs during his playing days in the midst of the Deflategate story:

I’m just going to let the cat of the bag, every team does it, every game, it has been since I played. Cause when you take the balls out of the bag, they are rock hard. And you can’t feel the ball as well. It’s too hard. Everybody puts the pin in and takes just enough air out of the ball that you can feel it a little better. But it’s not the point to where it’s flat.

Wouldn’t Blake be in a position to know how teams employed “signal decoding”? Similarly, Boomer Esiason was more than willing to put Deflategate in context with this quote:

It really does seem totally ridiculous that this story has been blown so far out of proportion … If you look at the footballs that the quarterbacks are playing with and throwing for the last six or seven years, just realize that everybody is doing the same thing.

Does anyone really think that Boomer – an originator of the audible-driven, no-huddle offense – would hesitate to opine on the methods employed by teams to steal opponents’ signals?

Ironically, the rather stale nature of the Spygate controversy (now 8 years past) should have made it far easier for ESPN to obtain on-the-record quotes from retired players and coaches detailing the methods employed by teams to “decode” or “steal” defensive signals during the Spygate era. War stories like this are fun to tell, and ex-players and coaches face few consequences for telling juicy tales of espionage between old rivals.

So why didn’t ESPN bother developing these sources on signal decoding? Why rely so heavily on anonymous sources characterizing the Patriots’ as cheaters without providing the easily-available, on-the-record sources to explain how other teams “decoded signals” in the decades leading up to Spygate?

The Problem with Scoops Based on Anonymous Sources

Long ago, in the infancy of the computer age, a great man created a computer program called Super Scoop. The program was designed to teach would-be reporters to seek out and interview key witnesses and sources on the way to breaking a major “scoop” in their local newspaper. Super Scoop emphasized that a reporter should never allow his preconceptions to dictate the story when faced with contrary facts. Not that much has changed for reporters since Super Scoop, except the speed and fierceness of the competition that journalists face when trying to break through the media-saturated internet market to reach the public. A scoop is still a scoop.

Signal decoding was going on long before Tom Brady entered the NFL.

Back to the question at hand: the reason Van Natta and Wickersham could not use on-the-record sources to detail league-wide “signal decoding” in the Spygate era is simple: including these sources would have destroyed ESPN’s “scoop”. The problem with their story was not ncessarily its premise – i.e. that the Patriots are cheaters. The problem lay with the fundamental weakness of any story based on anonymous sources.

The ethical issues associated with anonymous sources have long plagued journalism and are well-documented. Obviously, anonymous sources can be invented by unethical reporters. Far more commonly, however, anonymous sources routinely burn reporters with false information, under the cloak of anonymity, or leak selective information to further the source’s own agenda without accountability. Beyond these ethical considerations is an even more fundamental problem: stories relying on anonymous sources are weak and unpersuasive. A story based on anonymous sources is qualitatively worse, in every way, than a similar story using on-the-record sources.

With this in mind, let’s consider what would have happened if Van Natta and Wickersham had included on-the-record quotes from former players and coaches detailing the league-wide practice of “signal decoding” during the Spygate era. Quotes from these on-the-record sources would have utterly dominated both the story and the reaction to the story across the internet. In comparison, the anonymous quotes about the Patriots would have seemed weak, ineffectual and unpersuasive. Including on-the-record quotes would have destroyed ESPN’s scoop.

The story would have been fundamentally and irreversibly changed with stronger sourcing on league-wide practices: instead of uncovering the depth of the Patriots’ alleged deception, the story would have been about (a.) a history of gamesmanship and cheating in the NFL, (b.) entertaining war stories about NFL gamesmanship from a bygone era, and (c.) how the Patriots carried on the tradition of gamesmanship by doing it better than its predecessors and contemporaries. This would have been a fun story, but it would have totally lacked the very serious, moral condemnation over the “integrity of the game” that ESPN worked so hard to project. This very serious tone could only be achieved by placing the Patriots conduct in a vacuum, devoid of context or comparison with the conduct of other teams.

ESPN (and its corporate partner the NFL) had a very specific scoop to break: the Patriots’ cheating during Spygate was quantitatively and qualitatively worse than anyone believed at the time, such that the “integrity of the game” was threatened. Making this scoop stick required the authors to exclude on-the-record quotes from ex-players and coaches about comparable signal decoding by other teams that would have provided context while overwhelming the weak, anonymous sourcing relied on by the authors to crank up the moral indignation.

In the end, the story represents a larger problem surrounding corporate journalism in the age of synergy between news and entertainment. ESPN and the NFL are corporate partners, and Van Natta and Wickersham didn’t need any editors telling them who to talk to – and more crucially, who not to talk to – to develop the kind a lengthy, high-profile piece that requires the full backing of the corporate ESPN hierarchy to produce. The authors knew what type of scoop their employers wanted, and the avoided the easily-available of sources (Esiason, Blake, Montana) who would have disrupted the message.

Spygate, at this stage, is old news. More than 90% of the NFL players active in 2007 are now retired, and ex-players and coaches would face few (if any) consequences from discussing league-wide pre-Spygate signal-decoding practices on the record. (Against, just imagine the lengths that teams went to steal offensive signals before speakers were installed in quarterbacks’ helmets in 2008.)

Placing the Patriots’ Spygate conduct in context would have been easy. It would have also destroyed ESPN’s scoop, which is why we still don’t know how NFL teams have “decoded signals” over the years.

About the Author: Jason V. Owens is a Massachusetts divorce lawyer and Massachusetts family law attorney for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts.

Schedule a consultation with Jason V. Owens today at (781) 253-2049 or send him an email

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