In the NFL, there are two types of spying: legal and illegal. On one hand, teams can do just about anything to steal signals by the naked eye, including hiring someone to sit in a press box trying to steal signs by looking at the coaches. On the other hand, the NFL has explicitly prohibited doing so by videotape (see the league's Game Operations Manual). Those rules prevent any video recording devices on the field, in the coaches' booth and in the locker room during games.
Bill Belichick's staff apparently violated the rule by having a camera man film the defensive staff of the New York Jets in order to steal defensive signals and therefore gain a competitive advantage on offense. Belichick's pretty much admitted it. So that's that, and there will be no defense of him here.
But is this "cheating?" I'm not so sure. If the league allows spying, and you can get the same information by viewing and recording by videotape, then I'm not sure there's a meaningful distinction. Videotaping certainly makes spying easier, because it allows repeat views and by more people. But the nature of the activity is the same, functionally speaking.
Fortunately for the NFL, the taint from this scandal is limited, since there is an easy fix: wireless helmet communications for the defense.
Greg Garber at ESPN is reporting that during the preseason league meetings in Phoenix, coaches were lobbying to approve a proposal to allow one defensive player to hear signals through a wireless helmet, similar to the system currently employed for the quarterback. Apparently, one of the reasons for this move was to eliminate the concerns over spying on the defense:
Since offenses were granted the wireless connection in 1994, it has become much harder to steal plays. Today, the only precaution coaches usually take is to shield their mouths with those massive playcards. But on defense, where teams still rely on elaborate hand signals, it's more difficult to protect sensitive information. That's why most franchises supported the idea of wireless defensive communication -- in fact, 22 of the league's 32 teams voted in favor of the proposal. But in the NFL, a rule change must garner at least 75 percent of The votes.
I'm betting that the proposal will get at least 75% the next time around.