Mazzaglia: Patriots spy game

Frank Mazzaglia, Local columnist

Guilt by association made a lot of New England Patriots fans uncomfortable last week. After all, taking pride in a team's victories means accepting a certain level of embarrassment over the signal stealing scandal. The highly respected Bill Belichick, who has a reputation for managing every detail, was on the hot seat.

The National Football League's version of "Thou shalt not steal" says it this way: "No video recording devices of any kind are permitted to be in use in the coaches' booth, on the field, or in the locker room during the game."

Now, that doesn't sound like a confusing clause out of an insurance policy does it? It really sounds pretty clear. That's why Bill Belichik's lame explanation that he "misinterpreted" the rules sounded more than just a little disingenuous.

Belichick did accept full responsibility "for the actions that led to tonight's ruling. Once again, I apologize to the Kraft family and every person directly or indirectly associated with the New England Patriots for the embarrassment, distraction and penalty my mistake caused. I also apologize to Patriots fans and would like to thank them for their support during the past few days and throughout my career. As the Commissioner acknowledged, our use of sideline video had no impact on the outcome of last week's game. We have never used sideline video to obtain a competitive advantage while the game was in progress."

Still, every marketing student worth his or her salt knows that there is a difference between "marketing research" and "marketing intelligence." Gaining information about a competitor that can serve as a commercial advantage is a standard business practice. Even when that information only serves to substantiate what a competitor already knows, it still holds value.

Methods of getting such intelligence can be, and often are, kind of sleazy. There are no rules. However, it goes on in the best of circles which is why executives know that even party conversation needs to be closely monitored. That doesn't make it nice, nor does it make it ethical, but that's the way it is in a competitive environment.

The military services of every nation, of course, make no secret of their intelligence and counter-intelligence efforts. Millions of our tax dollars go into the training and maintenance of intelligence agents. It's a complicated and dangerous business. Getting caught can have severe consequences in the murky world of international intelligence. In the world of spies, the only deadly sin is getting caught. It doesn't help a spy to say, "What's the problem? Everybody does it."

However, there is a place for acceptable levels of spying. Scouts regularly report on the strengths and weaknesses of teams in action against other opponents. Teams even study films of upcoming opponents. The word "scout" though sounds a lot better than "spy."

Now it's true that teachers will have their hands full in the weeks ahead trying to get the message across that cheating is unfair and should never be allowed. Winning is important, but so is fair play. It's a very tough lesson to teach when respected role models become sullied in scandal.

What the Patriots need is someone to tell them that needless risks are silly when the gains are not worth the consequences of getting caught. Fair play and honest competition call for a higher set of standards in sports. Losing a game is not the same thing as the government's use of intelligence to protect national security.

The stain of scandal, however, could provide a powerful incentive. The Pats will need to win its next few games decisively just for "the gipper." That will show that the signal stealing episode was never a factor in the team's success.

The New England Patriots are a great team. In the weeks ahead, the team will have to prove that to the rest of the nation.

Frank Mazzaglia can be reached at fmazzaglia@aol.com