His bosses were furious. Roger Goodell knew it. So on April 1, 2008, the NFL commissioner convened an emergency session of the league's spring meeting at The Breakers hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. Attendance was limited to each team's owner and head coach. A palpable anger and frustration had rumbled inside club front offices since the opening Sunday of the 2007 season. During the first half of the New England Patriots' game against the New York Jets at Giants Stadium, a 26-year-old Patriots video assistant named Matt Estrella had been caught on the sideline, illegally videotaping Jets coaches' defensive signals, beginning the scandal known as Spygate.
Behind closed doors, Goodell addressed what he called "the elephant in the room" and, according to sources at the meeting, turned over the floor to Robert Kraft. Then 66, the billionaire Patriots owner stood and apologized for the damage his team had done to the league and the public's confidence in pro football. Kraft talked about the deep respect he had for his 31 fellow owners and their shared interest in protecting the NFL's shield. Witnesses would later say Kraft's remarks were heartfelt, his demeanor chastened. For a moment, he seemed to well up.
Then the Patriots' coach, Bill Belichick, the cheating program's mastermind, spoke. He said he had merely misinterpreted a league rule, explaining that he thought it was legal to videotape opposing teams' signals as long as the material wasn't used in real time. Few in the room bought it. Belichick said he had made a mistake -- "my mistake."
Now it was Goodell's turn. The league office lifer, then 49 years old, had been commissioner just 18 months, promoted, in part, because of Kraft's support. His audience wanted to know why he had managed his first crisis in a manner at once hasty and strangely secretive. Goodell had imposed a $500,000 fine of Belichick, a $250,000 fine of the team and the loss of a first-round draft pick just four days after league security officials had caught the Patriots and before he'd even sent a team of investigators to Foxborough, Massachusetts. Those investigators hadn't come up empty: Inside a room accessible only to Belichick and a few others, they found a library of scouting material containing videotapes of opponents' signals, with detailed notes matching signals to plays for many teams going back seven seasons. Among them were handwritten diagrams of the defensive signals of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the notes used in the January 2002 AFC Championship Game won by the Patriots 24-17. Yet almost as quickly as the tapes and notes were found, they were destroyed, on Goodell's orders: League executives stomped the tapes into pieces and shredded the papers inside a Gillette Stadium conference room.
And within three days, the story went away. The Patriots were fined, and that was the end of it.
Only of course, it was only the beginning.
Interviews by ESPN The Magazine and Outside the Lines with more than 90 league officials, owners, team executives and coaches, current and former Patriots coaches, staffers and players, and reviews of previously undisclosed private notes from key meetings, show that Spygate is the centerpiece of a long, secret history between Goodell's NFL, which declined comment for this story, and Kraft's Patriots. The diametrically opposed way the inquiries were managed by Goodell -- and, more importantly, perceived by his bosses -- reveals much about how and why NFL punishment is often dispensed. The widespread perception that Goodell gave the Patriots a break on Spygate, followed by the NFL's stonewalling of a potential congressional investigation into the matter, shaped owners' expectations of what needed to be done by 345 Park Ave. on Deflategate.
It was, one owner says, time for "a makeup call."
So QB Tom Brady was rung up for Deflategate to pacify the NFL owners who knew that the Patriots had gotten away with cheating for years. Only, that backfired too. Brady's suspension was lifted by a judge last week.
And now, ESPN drops this story just as the season begins.