Roger Goodell can be the winner in NFL's Patriots investigation

Charles RobinsonNFL columnist
Yahoo Sports

IRVING, Texas — As it turns out, the NFL’s investigation into Spygate 2.0 isn’t quite done yet.

In a process that is building toward an interesting conclusion, NFL executives speaking at Wednesday’s owners meetings urged for patience surrounding the probe into a New England Patriots video crew that violated league rules by filming the Cincinnati Bengals’ sideline during a game against the Cleveland Browns last Sunday. Both NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and executive vice president Troy Vincent said the league would retire back to its Park Avenue offices on Thursday to continue weighing information gathered in the incident before rendering judgment. As of Wednesday, there was no timetable for that decision.

The NFL has had two pieces of foundational information for days: The tape produced by the video crew working for the Patriots and an admission from New England that the team’s film crew did indeed “inappropriately” tape Cincinnati’s sideline for a scouting feature on the team’s website. If anything, the league taking its time on this one might be worth a raised eyebrow since it indicates that the forthcoming decision will be deliberate rather than a rushed acceptance of an “unknowing” rules violation triggered by a film crew with some “independent contractors”.

In this investigation and with this team, some actual deliberation might be exactly what Goodell needs. There is some upside here for the commissioner. In the most skeptical eyes of the league’s fan bases — not to mention some other NFL teams — he may be able to engineer a win for himself here. A victory that lies in an approach Goodell and the league has rarely embraced inside its own judicial process.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't offer much insight into the league's probe of the Patriots. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell didn't offer much insight into the league's probe of the Patriots. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

Why there’s skepticism and reason to believe Bengals are seething

Transparency.

Whether the NFL likes it or not, sharing evidence — or even going further into how the league builds to some of its investigative decisions — would help foster the notion that Goodell’s actions are steeped in democratic thought rather than dictatorial doctrine. And I say this without a hint of expectation that the league would share information during the course of its work. Frankly, it’s fair for the NFL to suggest that a process should be complete before the league has to defend it. But that same process also has to be accountable, or it risks becoming a foothold for the kind of doubts and criticism the league faces whenever it levies a decision in significant cases.

The league might argue that it’s as transparent as it needs to be. But the truth is that it isn’t. Or at least it’s not transparent enough for a sizable contingent of fans, media and even some NFL teams to trust that the books don’t get cooked for certain franchises or certain team owners. I’m willing to bet that’s why Bengals owner Mike Brown left the league meetings on Wednesday completely and almost irritatingly refusing to talk about the current investigation into the Patriots. Because the Bengals are seething internally over being filmed by New England. They want answers. And as it stands, they believe what is contained on that confiscated video is deeply concerning, not just some dumb oversight triggered by an inexperienced camera jockey.

And Brown isn’t alone in his skepticism. Multiple front-office executives have told Yahoo Sports they would like to see the Patriots video themselves — not just accept the word of the league when the investigation is complete. Given the circumstances of the team at the heart of this being the Patriots, and given the checkered history New England has had when it comes to being accused of cheating, some people want to pass judgement on their own. Or at the very least know precisely what was or wasn’t contained on that tape, rather than reading about it in media reports.

And why not? The NFL has had no shortage of soap box moments when it makes decisions or declarations based on the integrity of the game. Why should a second video incident with New England be something that teams wouldn’t want to judge for themselves? Particularly when after the first incident happened, the league destroyed the tapes it had confiscated — forever leaving everyone but the commissioner and some select executives in the dark about how deep the surveillance had gone. That decision, made more than 12 years ago, still undermines the trust that some senior-level executives have in Goodell. Simply because they’ve never heard any good rationale for why a commissioner would obliterate something that speaks to the depths New England embraced for an advantage.

Deflategate, and Ezekiel Elliott and Antonio Brown cases show flaws in ‘normal process’

In the wake of that, you’d think the NFL might consider another potential taping scandal to be the kind of circumstance where a special level of transparency was necessary. For no other reason than to cut off any suggestions that something is being hidden. But when asked if the league would offer a more in-depth debrief on this latest probe to teams, this is what Vincent said Wednesday:

“We haven’t in the past [given] club or overall club briefings on any decision that we’ve come up with, that have either been rendered by myself or the commissioner. We’d like to keep our normal process in place. We’ll make a decision. There will be a determination. We’ll move forward. We haven’t discussed that openly — what our findings were.”

So that’s a no.

Teams won’t be seeing the latest Patriots tape. And it sure sounds like they won’t be getting much of a briefing on whatever the outcome is, either. That seems like another misstep in the wake of yet another Patriots issue. This is exactly the kind of thing that lingers, regardless of whether the league finds guilt or innocence. It’s the same old form of justice from the league — with a defendant facing Goodell, who is acting as both judge and jury inside an empty courtroom.

Was there evidence? Yes. But you can’t really see it.

Was there a process to reach a conclusion? Yes. But we’re not going to explain it.

Was this a fair decision? Yes. But we’re not going into any depth on why we think so.

This is what often makes the league office feel like an assembly line of gray suits who operate under gray guidelines and render gray decisions. There is rarely the kind of transparency or accountability that explains significant pieces of the decisions that are handed down.

Tom Brady and Deflategate? The league spent a season allegedly collecting ball inflation data to measure against the guilt it had already determined in Brady’s case. Whatever happened to that data? Well, it never saw the light of day, which means we have no idea if it may have debunked the entire case against Brady.

Ezekiel Elliott’s domestic abuse probe? Goodell’s decision to suspend Elliott went directly against the recommendation of one of his lead investigators in the case, who didn’t believe the witness’s credibility in the probe supported the sanctions reached. Why did Goodell do that? There’s no way of knowing because Goodell never addressed his line of thinking publicly. He didn’t have to.

Even the current Antonio Brown investigation — which few care about because Brown has been so universally adept at framing himself as a villain — remains open-ended and almost opaque. Why? There’s seemingly no discernible reason beyond Goodell repeatedly saying it’s incomplete and there is no timetable for a conclusion. In fact, the league has said almost nothing about the case, other than it being an open probe and Brown potentially being subject to suspension if a team signs him. I understand Brown isn’t a sympathetic figure, but that doesn’t change the fact that he appears to be caught inside the league’s Kafka-esque judicial process without any due process in sight.

Those are just a few examples, too. They showcase how a lack of transparency can hover over a wide range of different players and personalities without almost any notion of accountability. Unless, of course, a player files a lawsuit or grievance that has some teeth. Then you end up with Colin Kaepernick, whose last three years of NFL unemployment have become a parade of weirdness, highlighted by a cloaked financial settlement and a league-staged workout that devolved into a train wreck.

Goodell wasn’t talking much about that one on Wednesday, either.

At some point, he would be wise to recognize that less visibility and accountability never leads to more trust in this league. And it certainly hasn’t done his legacy any favors. Remember, this is a commissioner who was celebrated and popular in the first few years after he took over in 2006. Now he can’t host an NFL draft without getting showered with a sideshow of boos.

If he wants to change at least a small percentage of that, he can start here. That’s what this opportunity is. Goodell has to open a window into his decisions and let people see inside. He can’t just say “this is the normal process,” because that normalcy has been a losing proposition for years. Regardless of the decision in this Patriots case, he should air out whatever is on that film. Goodell should show NFL fans that if the Patriots say they made a simple mistake and have nothing to hide, he’s not going to go ahead and hide it anyway.

That’s the win in this situation. And it’s Goodell’s for the taking.

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