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On Monday, we experienced what amounted to the trial phase of the case. Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said he had evidence to prove it happened, probably a Miami TV crew's video of the incident. But McClain firmly denied it, saying they were jawing but if any spittle flew and landed, it did so unintentionally. And Ravens Head Coach John Harbaughstepped in as a character witness, pointing out that McClain was a first-rate guy.
"I talked to Le'Ron. I looked at the video. It didn't happen," Harbaugh said.
So what happens now? We wait for a ruling from the Great Arbiter, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, whose duties include weighing the evidence and issuing rulings in certain on-field and off-field controversies.
Sometimes he surely shakes his head at what that aspect of his job necessitates.
Last spring, he had to determine a punishment for Ben Roethlisberger, who had been an extremely bad boy and gotten himself accused of sexual assault. Police elected not to prosecute him, but Goodell had to read the searing police report, truly a disgusting document. After that, he had to do something and suspended the Steelers quarterback for six games (later reduced to four).
A few weeks ago, the hot disciplinary topic was whether Brett Favre had sent lewd cell phone photos of himself to a woman on the New York Jets' game-day staff -- classy stuff. Way to go, Brett.
After a league investigation (which possibly just consisted of borrowing Brett's phone), the case, as always, came down to what Goodell ruled. The world waited breathlessly, but I couldn't stop picturing the Great Arbiter sitting in his office having to, um, study the evidence. Do you think he listened to some Barry White music to get the full effect?
It's surely wasn't what Goodell imagined himself doing when he agreed to become commissioner. But hey, it's work, right?
Predictably, Goodell didn't rule or even comment after meeting with Favre. There was no way to know what happened unless Favre admitted it, and certainly, no way for him to come off gracefully. What was Goodell supposed to say, "I have seen the pictures and we're sending them to a lab for further study"?
At any rate, that brings us to Saliva-gate. What does the Great Arbiter have to do this time? He has to take a video of the incident, slow it down and go frame by frame to see if, well, one guy really did spit on another.
Hopefully it's not Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
My suggestion is do it before lunch, Mr. Commissioner.
I don't mean to make light of the allegation. Spitting in an opponent's face is a punk move that has no place in any game. It's one of those lightning-rod gestures that offends all fans, as former Oriole (and famous umpire-spitter-onner) Roberto Alomar can attest. The NFL historically cracks down on it. The late Sean Taylor was fined $17,000 for a 2006 playoff spit.
Miami's Saliva-gate video shows McClain and Crowder arguing and then McClain cocks his head back and jerks it forward, a motion usually associated with spitting. Regardless of what really happened, McClain is going to have to live with the fact that the video doesn't look good for him. Some people are going to believe he did it, no matter what is said.
But McClain has one big thing going for him: There isn't a gotcha frame of a gigantic glob flying through the air and plastering Crowder. You don't clearly see spit flying.
That's big because, at this point, the case is really no different from an instant replay call. We have our ruling on the field, that McClain didn't do it. In fact, the official was standing right there in the middle of the altercation and didn't see McClain spit, if he had, he would have thrown a flag. Now it's up to the Great Arbiter (the replay booth on Sundays, Goodell here) to study the video for sufficient evidence to overturn that ruling.
I am trying to imagine Goodell sitting in his office, freeze-framing the video and putting his face right up to a screen.
"Is that a shadow or a glob?" he shouts to an underling. "Do you see any whiteness or wetness?"
It's important work.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*