Rehashing Spygate on Capitol Hill

While the New England Patriots pursues its historic 19-0 season into the 2008 Super Bowl in Arizona Sunday, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is stuck in Jacksonville in 2005.

It's the fourth quarter of the 2005 Super Bowl, and his Philadelphia Eagles are mounting an exciting end-of-game comeback. But the team's quarterback, Donovan McNabb, is so sick he can barely call the plays. The game ends 24-21 in favor of the Patriots.

Specter is not the only Eagles fan to relive that game since the Patriots were caught stealing signals from the New York Jets earlier this season. A whole conspiracy theory has sprung up.


And while the team from New England is set to appear in another Super Bowl, the Eagles' season is over. What's worse, the Patriots square off Sunday against the New York Giants. And Specter roots, he said today, for four teams during football season -- "the Eagles, the Steelers, whoever plays the Cowboys, and whoever plays the Giants.

Twice this season, Specter has written to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell asking about the Patriots and spygate. The first letter was in November, when the Patriots were gearing up to play the Eagles for the first time since 2005. Then he wrote again in December, when he heard that the spy tapes the Patriots made had been destroyed.


But no response came until Thursday, after the senator had talked to a New York Times reporter.

So Specter did what self-respecting senators do when they want to get something off their chests. He called a press conference -- two days before the Super Bowl -- to raise some Cain about the NFL.

Railing against the NFL's decision to destroy the tapes, Specter questioned Goodell's claim that he'd only just received the letters this week. Specter also tied the spygate scandal to the NFL's exemption from antitrust laws, a status he said allows the NFL to control the football market in a way that would be illegal in any other industry.

"I'm a fan, as well as a senator," he said, adding that he's gone "to the Eagles games weekly since Chuck Bednarik used to tackle Jimmy Brown, occasionally Jimmy Taylor.

"And I don't take lightly to signal-stealing, don't take lightly to it," he said, resolutely.

In his Nov. 15 letter to Goodell, his tone was no lighter: "With the New England Patriots about to play the Philadelphia Eagles again, as they did in the Super Bowl in January 2005, I would appreciate your advising me what your investigation showed, if anything, on the question of the Patriots stealing the Eagles' signals during that Super Bowl game."

Specter stepped down as chairman of the Judiciary Committee in early 2007, when the Democrats took control of Congress. Were he still chairman, he said, he'd hold hearings and call Goodell to testify.

Of course, he's not the only football fan in Congress. He's not even the only one to hold the head chair on the Judiciary Committee. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont happens to be a Patriots fan.

Asked if he thought Leahy would be inclined to hold hearings that would make the Patriots look bad, Specter said, "Sen. Leahy wouldn't base his decision on how good the Patriots would look."

And while Specter's press conference today brings up spygate even as the Patriots shoot for the record books Sunday, Specter said sour grapes have nothing to do with his speaking out.

"I did not construct the timing of this," he said. "I would have been happy to discuss it when I first wrote the letter or when I wrote again in December. I hadn't meant to be talking about this two days before the Super Bowl."

Goodell has said that the letters came to him only this week. Specter pointed out that he sent both letters via fax and postal service. The NFL acknowledges that the fax number is theirs.

Now Specter wants to meet with Goodell to discuss the tapes' destruction. Depending on the outcome of the meeting, he may pursue congressional hearings. He said he'd like to ask about the video, why the NFL destroyed it, and how the league came up with the penalty for the Patriots. That penalty was a forfeited first-round draft pick, and fines of $500,000 and $250,000 for Patriots coach Bill Belichick and the team, respectively.

"If this is the toughest penalty in the history of the game, that doesn't say a whole hell of a lot," said Specter. He pointed out that the Patriots' losing a first-round draft pick should not have made them blink. "This is a team full of first-round draft picks," he said, noting that free agency has changed the game to emphasize which players a team can afford.

Specter and Leahy were already considering another look at the anti-trust issue, which has frustrated Specter, who apparently does not get Sunday Ticket, for some time.

There is plenty of time for both issues before next football season. Specter's season, like that of his Eagles', is already over. Asked what he's doing Sunday, he shot back, "I might play squash."