PHOENIX -- In the latest example that Congress is keeping a focused eye on the NFL, a senior senator said Friday that he wants the league to explain why it destroyed the videotapes from a cheating scandal involving the New England Patriots.
"I do believe that it is a matter of importance," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said at a news conference, the same day his comments on the matter appeared in the New York Times. "It's not going to displace the stimulus package or the Iraq War, but I think the integrity of football is very important."
In a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a day earlier, Specter wrote: "I am very concerned about the underlying facts on the taping, the reasons for the judgment on the limited penalties and, most of all, on the inexplicable destruction of the tapes."
The NFL docked the Patriots a first-round draft pick and $750,000 -- $500,000 of which was levied against Coach Bill Belichick -- for videotaping New York Jets assistant coaches sending hand signals to their defensive players on the field. Stealing signals is not against league rules, but using videotape to do it is not allowed.
In his annual pre-Super Bowl news conference, Goodell said he would be willing to meet with the senator, and, "There are very good explanations why the tapes were destroyed by our staff -- there was no purpose for them."
At the Patriots daily news conference, Belichick deflected questions on the topic, saying, "It's a league matter. I don't know anything about it."
Specter, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the destruction of the tapes could put the league's antitrust exemption at risk. That exemption enables the league to negotiate its TV deals as a single entity.
Meanwhile, the league is also preparing to testify Feb. 13 before the House Judiciary Committee on broadcasting issues related to the NFL Network, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee has called the league to testify Feb. 27 on its substance-abuse policy and, in early March, the league is expecting to be called before a different House commerce subcommittee to answer more broadcasting questions.
Congress has also been involved in issues related to the league's pension program.
Specter, a Philadelphia Eagles fan, said he wrote two letters to Goodell in recent months that went unanswered. He questioned whether the Patriots had cheated in their Super Bowl win over the Eagles three years ago, and if the results were therefore tainted.
Goodell said six tapes were confiscated -- footage from the 2006 season and 2007 exhibition season -- and that "in one of the tapes, one of the coaches was waving at the camera, indicating that they understood that they were being taped."
He said one of the reasons the tapes were destroyed was that one of them was leaked about a week after NFL security seized a video camera and tape from a Patriots employee during New England's opener at the Jets. Fox television, which acquired the tape, aired it during its Week 2 broadcast.
Goodell said destroying the tapes "was the best way to make sure that the Patriots had followed my instructions. I wanted to make sure that that bit of information did not appear again. If it did appear, I would know that they didn't hand me all the information."
NFL insiders and political experts have questioned the timing of Specter's accusations. "I think it's a great way for Arlen Specter to get some publicity," said Steve Largent, a former U.S. congressman from Oklahoma, and a Hall of Fame receiver. "To think you've got Congress getting involved in the minutiae of what happens in the NFL is a joke. But what better time to issue a press release than three days before the Super Bowl?"
Bruce Allen, Tampa Bay's general manager and the younger brother of George Allen, who formerly served as Virginia's governor and a U.S. senator, said Congress has "more important things to do than worry about our issues."
Political expert Larry Sabato agreed, saying that although there might be legitimate issues involved, "You'd have to be naive to ignore the electoral connection."
Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, added about Specter: "He's a very intense fan who happens to be a senior powerful U.S. senator. That's a dangerous combination."
Specter defended his decision to raise the issue, saying he first spoke to the New York Times about it "a few weeks ago," discussed the matter only after being asked who he thought was going to win the Super Bowl, and didn't know when his views would be made public.
"I'm not constructing the timing," he said. "I would have been happy to have dealt with this issue in November when I wrote the letter. . . . Or Dec. 19 when I wrote the follow-up letter. I hadn't meant to be talking about this two days before the Super Bowl."