INDIANAPOLIS - NFL Super Bowl officials were hoping to score some major media attention with the arrest of a "web pirate" accused of illegally streaming sporting events over the Internet.
They ended up with news stories that led with Super Bowl-bound quarterback Tom Brady admitting he watched last year's NFL championship game on an illegal website.
Yesterday morning, the NFL joined federal agents at a press conference at the Super Bowl media center in Indianapolis to announce what they said were "record-breaking results" of a sweeping criminal investigation aimed at counterfeiters of NFL goods and online pirates stealing NFL-copyrighted telecasts.
The federal investigation, dubbed "Operation Fake Sweep" led to the seizure of more than 42,000 phony Super Bowl items and the shutdown of 16 websites that illegally streamed major televised sporting events. It also led to the arrest of a 28-year-old Michigan man, Yonjo Quiro of Comstock Park, accused of operating nine of the 16 illegal sites.
John Morton, head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told reporters that international counterfeiting rings and foreign agents were responsible for violating NFL-branded copyrighted material.
"In sports, players must abide by rules of the game, and in life, individuals must follow the laws of the land," Morton said. "Our message is simple: abiding by intellectual property rights laws is not optional; it's the law."
Shortly before Morton spoke those words, the New England Patriots' Brady was at an unrelated press conference with Super Bowl sports writers.
Asked for his thoughts about the upcoming game, Brady said: "Last year, I was rehabbing my foot in Costa Rica watching the game on an illegal Super Bowl website, and now I'm actually playing in the game, so it's pretty cool."
The NFL didn't include that quote in their daily news releases that recap players' quotes. But Brady's comment quickly hit the online editions of several New York newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Daily News.
By mid-day, the Associated Press was leading its story on "Operation Fake Sweep," with Brady's admission that he'd viewed last year's Super Bowl on an illegal website.
The NFL declined repeated requests for a comment on Brady's comment, saying only: "We are vigilant about protecting our copyrighted game telecasts and continue to monitor and take legal action against those who infringe."
During his press conference, Morton made clear that the violators of the NFL's copyrights are the people who profit off fraud: the manufacturers and sellers of counterfeit goods and the web pirates who are stealing NFL telecasts and illegally streaming those telecasts over the Internet.
Morton said it was extraordinarily difficult to pursue those criminals because people too often saw the crime as victimless. He described intellectual-property thieves as "criminal parasites" who damage the U.S. economy and cost Americans jobs.
Morton said "Operation Fake Sweep" was launched in October 2011. He said multiple teams of federal agents worked with the NFL and various law enforcement agencies throughout the nation to identify illegal shipments imported into the U.S., as well as stores and vendors selling counterfeit trademarked items.
By Thursday, those teams had seized 42,692 items of phony Super Bowl-related memorabilia along with other counterfeit items, for a total take of more than $4.8 million.
An additional 22,570 items of counterfeit merchandise and clothing representing other sports leagues, including Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, were also seized.
Those federal agents also shut down 307 websites. Sixteen of the sites illegally streamed live sporting telecasts over the Internet, including NFL games. The remaining websites were illegally selling and distributing counterfeit merchandise, Morton said.
Maureen Hayden is the CNHI Indiana Statehouse bureau chief. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org