The NFL-Adam Schefter Pipeline hit another kink yesterday when the ESPN insider reported on a tip from Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook’s agent, alleging that Cook was a victim of domestic violence and extortion. Just a few hours later, the Minnesota Star Tribune reported that Cook’s former girlfriend filed charges against him on Tuesday accusing him of assault, battery, and false imprisonment. The full Star Tribune piece is available here, and details the allegations from both parties.
Now, we’re not here to pass judgment on pending litigation, nor on the dispute itself, which appears from reports to be a complicated case with disparate accusations from both Cook and the woman involved, Gracelyn Trimble, but to reflect on the reporting and narrative that have surrounded the allegations for the past few days.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Cook’s agent, Zac Hiller, knew that this lawsuit would be coming out and wanted to get ahead of it and be able to control the narrative. So Hiller turned to everyone’s favorite NFL shill, Adam Schefter. It’s no secret that Schefter, and ESPN by extension, are not exactly the most unbiased of reporting outlets. There’s plenty of reasons that the ESPN and NFL partnership remains close — 2.6 billion reasons, to be precise — but that partnership has created a very specific brand of non-threatening commentary that has come to dominate the sports reporting industry as ESPN sets the standard, drawing in viewers and readers through trusted name recognition. Sure, their hosts and writers can criticize underperforming players, coaching decisions, and even situations like the Jon Gruden emails, but to bite the hand that feeds them? Not really an option.
And in this case, the NFL doesn’t just feed them broadcasting rights. Agents, executives and other league insiders have long trusted Schefter, which has allowed him to be in the position to gain valuable information and break major stories, but which also puts him in the precarious position of keeping those sources happy. He might fact-check these stories with his source, but for the most part, he takes what his sources tell him at face value. There’s no digging. And it works for him for the most part, until cases like this come up. He was an unwitting, if perhaps unwilling, tool in Cook’s goal to get ahead of Trimble’s allegations and frame the narrative to place himself in a positive light in the public eye. Again, while this case has yet to go to court and has accusations of domestic violence from both parties, only one party will get the public benefit of the doubt, due not only to his fame, but due to Adam Schefter breaking only half of the news at Hiller’s behest.
This isn’t the first time Schefter has been criticized for doing the NFL’s PR work when it comes to players accused of harming women. In 2016, Schefter interviewed former Dallas Cowboy and current UFC fighter Greg Hardy, who had been charged with assaulting an ex-girlfriend in 2014, right around the time that the NFL was trying to repair public image by taking on domestic violence after the Ray Rice incident. Schefter’s interview could hardly even be called that — after Hardy denied any wrongdoing, Schefter did not only press him on the matter, but went on the Dan Patrick show to refer to Hardy as “this is a guy who has managed to say the wrong things at the wrong time” and “a changed kind of guy,” even giving voice to Hardy’s insistence that he had not assaulted this woman, despite photo evidence being available at the time.
Schefter later apologized for not asking for comment “from all sides” in the Cook story and vowed to “slow down” on sensitive issues such as this. Despite the NFL’s supposed zero-tolerance rule, domestic violence allegations against NFL players and other pro athletes are already often not taken seriously by the public or the league. Short of a video or a confession, the league and the public are more than willing to brush domestic abuse allegations under the rug, forgotten so easily with a touchdown or two. Deshaun Watson is the latest case of this, and there are many more names to list off as the NFL has tabled their efforts to prevent domestic violence — Josh Brown, Adrian Peterson, Tyreek Hill, Antonio Brown — the list goes on. And to have skipped over the allegations against Cook in this case, and to simply report on his own litigation and victimization, plays a part in this trend of brushing professional athletes’ domestic violence charges under the rug, with fans more than happy to turn a blind eye to their idols’ faults and flaws. Cook has the platform to get up and declare himself the victim in this situation and turn public support his way, despite no one truly knowing the whole story.
With no background knowledge in the dynamics of domestic abuse, Schefter has now given more ammunition to fans who want to deny any possible wrongdoing on Cook’s part. Why are people so willing to take to the streets with pitchforks and torches on Cook’s claim that he was a victim of domestic violence, and yet alternately so willing to demonize and attack anyone who is a victim at the hands of an NFL player — this case being no different? There’s an answer there, of course, but it’s one that is a disappointing reflection of the values that we, deep down, hold dear.