At the 2014 NFL Rookie Symposium, Cris Carter told incoming players that it’s in their best interests to have a “fall guy” in their crew—one man willing to take the rap and even go to jail to keep the player out of trouble. There was, for the first time in the symposium’s history, a reporter in the audience: The MMQB’s Robert Klemko. Though Klemko wrote an account of the panel led by Carter and Warren Sapp, he did not mention these comments. Now we know it’s because the NFL asked him not to.
Today Klemko addressed his experience at the symposium and his choice not to publish the controversial remarks.
I agreed to the NFL’s condition that I would not enter the small group sessions, and there would be one or two things the league could look back on and say, ‘that was off the record.’ When the public relations or marketing arm representing an org or a player facilitates access such as this, there is often a verbal agreement that certain details observed in the course of reporting may be negotiated for omission. Personally, I only agree to these omissions when the subject matter is immaterial to what I gather is the larger point of the story, which, in the case of the symposium, I believed Carter’s comment was.
When Carter said the words, “have a fall guy” in what was a light-hearted and animated session that at times made league employees in attendance cringe, the NFL’s Kim Fields looked my way and said, “that can’t go in the story.” I was torn.
This is a very real problem for all reporters, but especially one who had been invited to a previously private event that had engendered much public curiosity. The news value of a quote or a story has to be pretty high to justify burning a source, even more so when that source is the NFL itself, and a football reporter’s career is dependent on future access. (Access journalism is a scourge, but so deeply entrenched that it’s unrealistic to pretend it’s going anywhere.) At its worst, the symbiotic relationship leads to reporters passing along false information, as in the Ballghazi case. At lesser levels you get something like Klemko’s omission: a news judgment being made by someone other than the newsmen, which ultimately renders the whole operation spiritually closer to marketing than to reporting.
(Cross-sport, I’m reminded of HBO Sports’ gorgeous 24/7, a supposed “all-access” show on which the NHL itself got final cut for what would or wouldn’t make the broadcast. Anything that had the potential to make the league or its stars look bad never saw the light of day. Was 24/7 valuable for hockey fans? Absolutely. Was it as much PR as it was documentary? You know it.)
Klemko recalls performing his own internal calculus on whether the Carter quote was worth torpedoing his relationship with the NFL, and whether his reporting was worthwhile without it. He decided it was.
I loved the Carter quote for how outlandish and idiotic it was, but I didn’t see it as emblematic of the symposium. Upon reflection, I suppose that detail might have highlighted the minor perils of the symposium’s transformation under Vincent. Maybe it was a mistake not to run it, but I had made an agreement which boiled down to this: Tell 95% of an untold story, or none of it. I chose 95% because I wanted to take readers someplace they’d never been, and I wanted to continue getting access to these sorts of events. The reality is nearly all of us reporters make these concessions.
Klemko’s dispatches from the rookie symposium were enlightening enough, but suffer greatly in hindsight from what they’re missing. He consciously omitted the clear most interesting thing that happened at that four-day gathering, notable not just for its whiff of scandal, but for being probably the single most useful and honest advice the rookies were given. It says something about today’s NFL that players are actively (if half-facetiously) being told they need someone willing to do time for them, and it says something about Troy Vincent that he decided Cris Carter and Warren Sapp were the ones best equipped to impart their wisdom. Either of those would be a better and truer story than what Klemko filed.
Of course, it’s remarkably easy for us to—sorry—Monday-morning quarterback Klemko’s decision. We wouldn’t have to choose whether to accede to an NFL flack’s preemptive off-the-record requests because we wouldn’t be invited to an event like this in the first place. (Chicken and egg: we wouldn’t be invited because we wouldn’t accede.) It was a tough call for Klemko, and as he says in his message today, “I need to be tougher.”
At least let’s all join together and laugh at the NFL that managed to keep Carter’s comments out of a national publication, then put them up on its own website.