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The Senator from Comcast?: Arlen Specter and SpyGate

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Message Dave Zirin

SpyGate is the sports scandal du jour. It centers on the New England Patriots surreptitious videotaping of the New York Jets last September and the subsequent destruction of the evidence by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. In response to Goodell's gaffe, Senator Arlen Specter has been raising hell on the Hill. Sounds normal enough. We all know politicians have a chemical addiction to the  ESPN/C-SPAN simulcast. Well, something stinks in the world of SpyGate. Call it a spectre over Specter. Call it a distasteful conflict of interest. Call it manna from heaven for Coach Bill Belichick and his morally impaired Patriots staff. Call it an unfair accusation against an august Senator with motives more pure than a Troy Aikman spiral. But whatever you call it, don't say that tongues aren't wagging in NFL suites and behind the closed doors of Congress.

The story begins with the righteous anger of the cancer-surviving, 78-year-old Senator from Pennsylvania, Arlen Specter. He has presented himself to the sports world as the populist of pigskin, pushing back against the big, bad NFL in what has become known as SpyGate. Specter has shredded NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the press for destroying videotapes of the Patriots spying on the New York Jets during their Sept. 9 season-opening game.

The longtime GOP Senator from Pennsylvania effectively called Goodell a liar, saying, "The commissioner's explanation as to why he destroyed the tapes does not ring true."

Specter says he has taken up this crusade because he is a football fan haunted by the Patriots three-point Super Bowl win over his Philadelphia Eagles.

He has also said, "I think the Congress has a legitimate interest. It really all melds together with their other practices, which are not really too concerned about the fan and the consumers. We have a right to have honest football games that are played according to the rules."

Yet, a closer look at Specter's incentives reveals what some say is a most unpleasant stench.

Long before Spygate, dating to 1983 according to aides, Specter has railed against the antitrust exemption held by the NFL. He has, his supporters say, objected to the way they can blithely move teams and take public funds to build stadiums. Yet in recent years, the object of Specter's NFL ire has been the NFL Network and its exclusive relationship with DirecTV. The Philadelphia-based Comcast cable company is in a war with the NFL over whether they can charge their customers for the NFL Network, unlike DirecTV.

Here is where we start to get filthy. Specter was described to me by an opponent as "the Senator from the great state of Comcast." Is this fair?

Comcast is the No. 2 source of campaign funds for the Senator. Comcast execs and employees have given a reported $153,600 in contributions, going back to 1989. The No. 1 contributor since '89 is Blank Rome LLC, a lobbying firm that has dumped $358,483 into Specter's coffers. A chief client of Blank Rome is .... wait for it .... Comcast.

Goodell has pulled no punches on Comcast, saying, "They're just finding another way which they can charge our consumers more money. We think it (the NFL Network) should be available on a broader basis." When asked if Specter's vendetta is related to Comcast, Goodell only said, "I'm not addressing that point."

As Will Bunch wrote in the Philadelphia Daily News, "If you simply took Specter at face value, and assumed his passion for grilling the NFL in his official Senate capacity is the passion of a jilted fan, that alone would be an outrageous abuse of his authority. But the truth is much worse, because Specter's interest in this issue dovetails far too closely with those of his two largest contributors, whose employees have given his campaign more than half a million dollars to keep him in office. I believe if there's any Senate hearing involving the NFL and Arlen Specter, it ought to be the Senate Ethics Committee, looking at a potential link to these donors."

Specter's office disputes this assertion, with spokesperson Kate Kelly e-mailing me, "Comcast has nothing to do with the Senator's interest in the matter. The Senator has had a long-standing interest in the NFL's antitrust exemption ... way before Comcast was even in existence." (Actually, Comcast was founded in 1963 in Tupelo,, Mississippi.)

Specter himself said to David Aldridge, "Well, what I've got to do is figure out what the percentage is of the contributions is out of the $23 million I raised. It's a fraction of one percent and got nothing to do with what I'm doing here. I think I've got a pretty strong record for integrity and not letting campaign contributions interfere with my public duty."

One thing is certain: as fans we should want to know what Belichick did or hasn't done, and whether the dominant dynasty of the last decade systematically broke the rules to climb the mountain. But there is enough of a conflict of interest on Specter to raise eyebrows. Let's get an independent commission. But let's get it out of the halls of Congress. You aren't a pigskin populist just because you deliver the pork.

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Dave Zirin, Press Action 's 2005 and 2006 Sportswriter of the Year, has been called "an icon in the world of progressive sports ". Robert Lipsyte says he is "the best young sportswriter in the United States. " 

Dave writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

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