Patriot Act: Collegiate football spying

Matt Gonzales

The New England Patriots spying scandal brought to light what some in the profession consider a practice that has been prevalent in the National Football League for decades. The Patriots were whistled for having a video assistant on the sidelines videotaping the opponent’s signals. These spy games have raised ethical concerns among football coaches at the professional and collegiate levels.

“I would assume if it went on at the NFL level, someone in college is doing it,” said Craig Schurig, Washburn head football coach. “With headsets on you could actually have a spotter relaying the signals. I’ve never heard personally of anyone doing it, but it probably takes place.

“If it happened at the college level, the NCAA is pretty strong at cracking down on teams. You would probably forfeit those games, which would prevent that from happening again.”

On Sept. 9, during the season-opening Patriots vs. Jets game, NFL security confiscated a video camera and tape from a New England video assistant who was filming from the Jets sideline. The NFL league office later revealed that they were investigating whether New England was using the tape to steal defensive signals from the Jets. Commissioner Roger Goodell swiftly concluded that the Patriots were in violation of league rules. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick responded that he didn’t realize videotaping the opposition was a violation under “his interpretation” of league rules. Belichick eventually apologized, and the fallout ensued.

“In Division I, with so much at stake, it would be hard to believe that it doesn’t happen,” said Schurig. “That’s why at our level you tend to have two or three guys signaling and defensively you hold off on your signal to the last minute. At the Division I level it would be pretty easy to have someone in your press box or private suite zoomed in on the opposition.”

After Goodell concluded that the Patriots did, in fact, break league rules, he fined Belichick $500,000 (the maximum fine allowed), the Patriots organization $250,000 and stripped New England of a first-round draft choice if it makes the playoffs, or second- and third-round draft choices if it misses the playoffs this year. Fans and critics are divided on whether commissioner Goodell, known for his hard-line stances since taking office earlier this year, handed down a punishment that appropriately fits the crime.

“I think the punishment was pretty accurate,” said Schurig. “Losing the draft pick[s] was a big deal. People use the draft pick to select either a franchise type pick at that level or as trade bait. If it’s a No. 1 pick, and it appears that it could be the way the Patriots are playing, that’s huge.”

Schurig says that there is an easy fix to any other potential spying problems in the NFL.

“If you allow defensive players to have headsets, then you won’t have any signaling going on,” said Schurig. “Baseball has had this problem for years, with signs being stolen. In the end you have to be better with your signals and have some type of code indicating a false signal.”