Is It Possible to Steal Huddle Chatter From A Microphone?

David Tyree called that catch, yeah that one, an act of God. It’s years later and I have to disagree. That catch only proves what a dark, random, indifferent universe we inhabit. To believe in a god means you’d have to believe that something or someone somewhere in the universe could have covered that pass better than Rodney Harrison did and still came away with the ball. Harrison played it perfectly. I saw it then, and I saw it 3 years later. Harrison played it perfectly.

So with the Super Bowl XLII rematch looming for this weekend it was really oddly coincidental that I would end up having a very interesting conversation last night. I was working a PA job, getting the usual run through on how to handle a parabolic microphone. What started as an orientation turned into a very curious piece of news. It started out of nowhere with the line:

“Belichick blames me for losing Super Bowl XLII, and that’s not an exaggeration.”

The individual I was speaking with was an audio engineer working for FOX during Super Bowl XLII in Pheonix. And from hearing the friendly tone of his voice dip to a deep rooted irritation (like recalling a spelling bee you lost in 5th grade because your teacher insisted “chrysanthemum” was spelled with a “k”) I could tell he wasn’t joking. At all. It had come up in a discussion about not pointing the mic at coaches on the sidelines. He had obviously had to touch on this issue many times before, and still it grazed a nerve. “Whatever, cheaters are always going to be cheaters,” he gruffed abruptly, having to take a breath for a second afterwards to return to his normal friendly professional demeanor.

Now… does this sound like I made it up? Of course it does. I don’t blame anyone for checking out here. All I can tell you is that it actually did happen, and this blog will remain exactly as unsuccessful no matter what. Take the whole thing with whatever sized grain of salt you see fit. But it happened.

The issue with Belichick, apparently, stemmed from a “floating” (on wires) mechanically controlled parabolic mic used to record pre-play audio over the huddles for the broadcast. Parabolic mics, also known in layman’s terms as “that flyin saucer thing, khed” are the mics you see on the sidelines of football games. You usually only notice them then the mic op gets run over. The overhead mics are nothing new even for Super Bowl 42. Networks had been using them during regular season games. Following the season however Belichick, along with several other coaches (according to this one engineer), complained heavily to the league about the floating parabs. The concern was that they were picking up play calls in the huddle. You can argue the usefulness of that, but supposedly the complaints were loud enough that the floating mic was actually banned for several games at the start of the 2008 season. The networks eventually won back the rights to use the mics, but with some restrictions.

But there was still that whole “costing Belichick the Super Bowl” business issue. And that was the real eye opener here. The rumor, as I understand it, was that Belichick claimed the chatter from the huddle was being monitored, possibly by Giants personnel, possibly by others, for the purpose of figuring out the Patriots playcalling in Super Bowl XLII. Let that one sink in for a second.

I can’t find any official evidence of an official complaint filed by Belichick, and I don’t know anyone who has reported on it. As those of us who follow the Belichick years closely know, however, not everything with Belichick becomes public domain. In fact, a lot of things never do. Depending on what kind of football fan you are there are varying degrees of irony to this claim. There are a lot of different ways you can react to the post-Spygate glorious “F U Touchdown” conquest known as the 2007 Patriots season potentially ending in tampering.

So if we don’t know if it did happen… could it happen?

If Belichick actually did make such an allegation it certainly isn’t impossible. Parabolic mics (or “parabs” for short) often use wireless transmitters to send their signal to the audio engineers. I’ve been on shoots where either wired or wireless were used. Essentially a wireless mic signal works just like any other radio signal. The transmitter takes an electrical impulse from the microphone, and broadcasts it at a specific frequency. A receiver on the opposite end tuned to that same frequency takes that signal and sends it along. Anyone with a professional grade wireless receiver capable of the same frequency range as the parab’s transmitter can access that signal. Wireless mic receivers work very much like your car radio. You tune them to the frequency of the transmitter, that’s what the number of the radio station is, the frequency range in KHz or MHz. Your car radio is designed to get that signal, so you can get it anywhere within that range. There’s no closed circuit, or encryption. WEEI can’t block you out of getting their signal as long as you have a receiver made for that frequency range: in this case any AM/FM radio. There’s no way for them to block you out of their broadcast without Mikey Adams getting in your car and turning off your radio. 

Granted, finding a wireless signal without knowing where you should be looking can be difficult. Prosumer type wireless kits like the Shure ULX (a popular mid level wireless device) have an RF spectrum between 470.000 MHz and 865.000 MHz. The available range shrinks greatly because of FCC and regional regulations. By FCC rules 698 – 805 MHz is prohibited for private use so it can be used for public safety channels (fire, police, etc). So for example, at one of my former jobs I used a ULX wireless kit that is set up to do 20 channels in 10 groups with a range between 666.025 MHz and 697.425 MHz. So that drops the total possible spectrum from a 395.000 MHz difference to just 34.4 MHz. It’s designed to be that way so everyone: TV, Radio, CB Radio, police radio can all fit in the radio spectrum and signals can be easy to find.

That being said, if you had a receiver of your own, and wanted to tap into a transmission the possibilities for finding the correct frequency are decisively finite. So it’s not impossible. In fact, it’s probably relatively easy. On that same job site I just referenced we had about 18 different wireless systems set up on a small campus, and I was constantly checking and adjusting frequencies just to stop crosstalk between the units. That means exactly what it sounds like: receivers picking up the wrong microphone because the frequencies were too close. Tech speak aside, what this means is that even by accident it’s not difficult to pick up one wireless system’s signal on another with the right gear. Wireless tech companies typically offer online guides available to anyone to help find reigonal frequency ranges (such as Shure’s frequency guide here). What I don’t know is what kind of measures the NFL would go through to prevent an instance like that. Naturally broadcast and network TV crews covering the game take meticulous care of where their signals are going. But how much could the NFL do if someone was sneaky enough about bootlegging a wireless signal?

But realistically…

There were a lot of sketchy bizarre things going on throughout this Super Bowl. An unwarranted clock stoppage that essentially gave the Giants an extra timeout on the game winning drive. I remember the commentators making some really bizarre remark right before halftime ended about Pats trainers rushing bunches and bunches of bananas into the locker room to force potassium into the players systems. But realistically the Giants defensive line won more than enough one on one battles to win that game. Everything that went wrong with the game and the game plan was right there in front of you and all you needed was a TV. 

Avenge us, Belichick.

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