PHOENIX - What started out yesterday as the NFL commissioner's defending his decision to destroy evidence implicating the New England Patriots in a spy scandal turned into a Super Bowl of its own when Sen. Arlen Specter accused Roger Goodell of trying to embarrass him over an aide's request for Super Bowl tickets.
"Let's see if the commissioner is man enough to face me," Specter (R., Pa.) said last night.
Goodell could not be reached to respond to Specter's challenge, but Joe Browne, the NFL's executive vice president of communications and public affairs, said: "We're not going to respond to that. Let that stay the way it is."
Earlier, Brown disputed the senator's assertion that the league never responded to his letters demanding that it explain why it destroyed evidence of the Patriots' spying.
"His office never asked us, 'Hey, why didn't you respond to the letter?' " Browne said. "We spoke to them about everything, including Super Bowl ticket requests, and it never came up."
Specter said he knew nothing about the ticket request, which came from his chief of staff, Scott Hoeflich. "I didn't know anything about it. But I'm a little amused that the NFL would make a public statement about it to try and embarrass me. They must feel pretty stunned by what I've said. It's pretty vindictive, but I think it's amusing."
The tickets were for a close friend of Hoeflich's. "I think he's prepared to pay the exorbitant prices," Specter said. "It wasn't a gift or a gratuity."
Tickets are difficult to obtain, even with a face value of about $700. Third-party tickets were going for about $1,200 yesterday.
Specter thought the league was trying to embarrass him. "Why would they have made a public disclosure of it? I wish they answered my letter of Nov. 15 as promptly as they called the news media.
"[Goodell's] deputy was quoted in the New York Times today as saying there had been contacts with my staff and it should have been brought up," Specter said last night. "It's one lame excuse after the other. I'd like to get away from the minutiae and down to the basic question of why they destroyed the tapes."
The spying incident involved the Patriots' illegally videotaping the New York Jets' defensive coaches' signals in the first week of the NFL season.
Specter originally was concerned about a potential cover-up and believed the destruction of evidence potentially compromised the league's integrity. He believed he was being ignored by the league after his office had faxed letters twice in the last two months without a response. Specter even suggested the league's antitrust exemption could be at risk but backed off from possibly calling Goodell before the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which he is the highest-ranking Republican.
Earlier yesterday, Goodell said he was willing to meet with Specter, a noted Eagles fan who has "been going to games since Chuck Bednarik tackled Jimmy Taylor."
Specter said the Spygate incident was "a suspicious situation to destroy the tapes" made by the Patriots' staff that showed opposing defensive coaches' hand signals. After the Jets accused New England of improperly filming their coaches on the sideline of their season-opening game in September, Goodell investigated and fined coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and the franchise $250,000 and a first-round draft pick.
Goodell said he subsequently destroyed the evidence after one of the tapes was leaked to a television network, in an effort to prevent further leaks. Goodell's actions, however, raised other questions, including from Specter.
"Was there a cover-up here?" he asked yesterday.
Speaking at his annual state-of-the-league address, Goodell insisted there was no cover-up. He said he destroyed the six tapes and pages of notes taken by Patriots officials because they were consistent with other information the team provided during the league's investigation.
Goodell also said he didn't think the practice of trying to steal opponents' signals was unique to New England. He insisted that the Patriots did not attain a competitive advantage from their actions, and that the outcomes of the games in question were not altered. That, Goodell said, extended to Super Bowl XXXIX, when the Patriots beat the Eagles, 24-21.
"There was no indication that it benefited them in any of the Super Bowl victories," he said.
Goodell destroyed the tapes because it "was the best way to make sure that the Patriots had followed my instructions," he said. "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. They certified to me, in writing, that they gave me all the information on tapes or notes, and that there was no further information relating to this incident or any other taping of games. Not having those tapes out there prevents a potential leak, like unfortunately it did. Now I know that if something arises, that I wasn't told the truth."
Speaking at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, Specter said he was "not prepared to say yet" whether he would call Goodell before the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I'm hopeful we'll be able to resolve it without going to that level, but let's see what they say."
The Patriots, the first team to go 18-0 in a season, will try to complete their perfect season tomorrow with a win over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
New England coach Bill Belichick yesterday morning refused to comment on Congress' possibly looking into the Spygate controversy.
"That's a league matter," Belichick said. "I don't know anything about it."
But Specter said questions would linger about the authenticity of New England's achievement should the Patriots win.
"That question's going to come again and again and again on the basis of what's happened here," he said. "Powerhouses like the New England Patriots stooping to the level of stealing signals? We know they did it. And that casts a big shadow. And I want to find out what the truth is, and I want to be reassured for America's fans about the integrity of the game."