A recent headline in the world of the National Football League has been the punishment meted out to Tom Brady, the New England Patriot’s quarterback, for his alleged involvement in deflating game footballs and the suggested coverup. Last week the NFL commissioner announced that he was upholding the 4 game suspension of Tom Brady. The matter has been dubbed “Deflategate”.
This post isn’t about whether the suspension is proper or not or even if Brady was actually involved. I will let others sort that out.
There have been headlines and articles that compare Deflategate to Watergate, the political scandal of the early 1970’s that led to the probable impeachment and subsequent resignation of President Richard Nixon. Last week I saw headlines like “Brady’s Deflategate the Nixon to Watergate”; “Tom Brady and Richard Nixon: Gates of a Feather”; and “Tom Brady and Richard Nixon Share More Than Just the Word ‘Gate’.”
In spite of being a huge sport fan, one of my reactions to this news was that Americans take their sports much too seriously. Having lived through Watergate and remembering quite a bit about the huge national significance of the scandal, it seems like Deflategate is small potatoes.
Watergate happened at a time when there was a lot of turmoil in the U.S. The war in Vietnam was still going on along with protests and problems at home as increasingly more Americans opposed U.S. involvement. A new decade was beginning following the decade that had seen the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, race riots and a wide gamut of political activism. Richard Nixon had been elected president in 1968, in part because of the perception of how the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson had handled the war.
There was some level of hope and optimism that the decade of the 70’s would be better. It was a time when there was still respect for the office of the President of the United States. There was criticism of decisions that were made but for the most part the office itself was respected. Even if the president was not of your political party, we still wanted him to succeed because he is what represented your country to the rest of the world.
The backdrop of the scandal was the presidential election of 1972. The leading Democratic candidate was Senator George McGovern and President Nixon was presumed to be the Republican candidate. In June of 1972 the office of the Democratic National Party in the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. was broken into. The White House tried to deny any involvement in the burglary but the ensuing investigation uncovered a slew of questionable activities. “Watergate” eventually became the name to describe the totality of interrelated scandals that involved many high-ranking officials in the Nixon administration. By the time of the election in November many facts had not yet been uncovered and Nixon handily won re-election.
The Senate voted to establish a special investigating commission to look into the re-election campaign. As events unfolded it became clear that the administration had masterminded the Watergate break-in as well as many other unethical practices. Part of what was discovered was that the Nixon white house had a tape recording system that had recorded many conversations. The Nixon administration attempted to prevent recordings from being provided to the government investigators by citing executive privilege. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the tapes had to be turned over.
The Senate hearings were held from May into August of 1973. When the Congressional hearings started, all 3 major networks carried the hearings live from gavel to gavel. The fact that all the networks preempted regular programming showed the significance that these events had for the country. Huge amounts of revenue was sacrificed by the networks. As the hearings went on coverage rotated between the networks although public stations continued the coverage.
The hearings and the information revealed was high drama reinforcing the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. I watched the hearings live every possible opportunity between work and classes. We saw stories of corruption and paranoia, dirty tricks, domestic spying, illegal sources of funding, abuses of power, harassment of activist groups and political opponents, and criminal activity endorsed by the White House. For average Americans having little knowledge of the inside workings of politics, the revelations were shocking. They saw the drama unfolding without scripting, background music and canned laughter. This was real life. When all was said and done 69 government officials were charged with various crimes. 49 were convicted for various crimes ranging from perjury, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, illegal campaigning, burglary and wiretapping.
What were the long-term ramifications of Watergate? Since many of the principle players in Watergate were attorneys, the profession suffered a great decline in public opinion. The American Bar Association established new model Rules of Professional Conduct that have been adopted in most states. Legislation was passed to regulate campaign financing. The Freedom of Information Act was amended. Americans no longer have the same kind of faith and respect in the office of the President.
Perhaps the one common cultural phenomenon evident today is that any scandal seems to get the name “gate” attached to it, as Quarterback Tom Brady is now experiencing with “Deflategate.”
A lesson that most of our parents tried to instill in us as children apparently still has not been learned. People didn’t learn it from Watergate or from many other scandals if Deflategate is proven to be valid. That lesson is: “If you do something wrong, admit it. The punishment for lying and being dishonest is much more serious than the likely punishment for the initial act of wrongdoing.”
For more information on Watergate there is much information available here. I include a link here to a portion of a documentary addressing the topic.