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Patriots' spying scandal raises technology questions

Why do we even need radio helmets and Wi-Fi on the sidelines? Tech has countless uses but please keep the geeks off the gridiron.

Pro football has a Clancy-esque spy story going. It can even be called Patriot Games.

The New England Patriots of the National Football League are accused of conducting electronic surveillance in an effort to steal hand signals from opponents. The murky tale of rule breaking features clandestine videotaping and suspicious radio frequencies. Some in football believe that this is all wrong; not just the cheating, but some look down their noses at the kind of cheating.

This situation isn't like grabbing someone's jersey away from the refs or corking a bat. This is cloak-and-dagger stuff. We're talking about the New England Patriots, not the Patriot Act.

The scandal has me thinking that while technology has contributed to sports in countless ways and is not the cause of the team's debacle (dishonest people are), it has raised the question about whether too many gizmos and gadgets have encroached too far onto our playing fields.

Take for example radio-equipped helmets. Over a decade ago, the NFL began allowing teams to field one offensive player, typically the quarterback, wearing a radio. Coaches are allowed to communicate with the QB (who is unequipped to transmit messages) until 15 seconds remain on the 40-second play clock, at which time an NFL official cuts off the communications with a push of a button. The signals are encoded to prevent their being intercepted.

The league says the Wi-Fi system reduces the need for coaches to call timeouts and helps eliminate botched plays that sometimes occur when quarterbacks misread their coaches' hand signals.

But when do the games start becoming less about human ability and more about contests between Cyborgs? Consider that the NFL's competition committee narrowly rejected a bid this year to equip a defensive player with a radio helmet. Others in the league are pushing hard to outfit every offensive player with a radio.

Why stop there? Why not set them all up with transmitters as well. Let's let them chat and alert each other about misdirection plays, fake punts and blown pass defenses. This way they can strip all the surprises out of the game.

Craig Mathias, a principal at Farpoint Group, a wireless and mobile consulting firm, says the technology is available to equip individual NFL players with a transmitter, battery pack and antenna that wouldn't hinder their movements and would stay relatively out of sight.

"The biggest issue would be battery life," Mathias said. "That and antenna orientation would have to be figured out. They could wear a compact antenna that would have limited range. As for batteries, since the players are always coming off the field anyway, they could swap them out then."

Should the NFL decide to make such changes, it runs the risk of creating an entirely different sport, according to Marvin Cobb, a former free safety for the Cincinnati Bengals.

"In my opinion, introducing voice communications would change the nature of the game," said Cobb, an NFL player from 1975 to 1980. "Football is really about the offense deceiving the defense. When I was playing, it would have been nice when I (was fooled by) a tight end crossing pattern for someone to tell me that (former NFL quarterback) Craig Morton was throwing a post pattern to somebody behind me.

"What radios do," Cobb continued, "is remove some of the individual thinking and finesse from the game."