It's impossible to prove a negative, but with each passing day, it seems more and more likely that the Dez Bryant video—the subject, over the last two weeks, of rumors so intense that they were, in themselves, semi-legitimate news—simply doesn't exist.
By now, we know what appears to have set all the rumors alight: a minor, four-year-old incident in which Bryant may not have even been involved. But even without an actual video, the story as it played out was almost as juicy and much more instructive, a perfect illustration of the NFL media swallowing its own tail.
Word of the video first surfaced around Feb. 20, when Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio appeared on a Dallas radio show. After the hosts brought up the rumor, Florio claimed that "all of the major insiders" knew about the tape, and that it would have a "Ray Rice-type of an impact" if it were released. In the calculus of rumors, that was exactly the thing to say to make the reward worth the risk of chasing an unsubstantiated story.
The following week, some jamoke on Twitter claiming to be a music producer came out with a series of claims that the Sun Times network (a content mill carrying the brand of a semi-respectable big-city newspaper) decided to run with. "Jaywan Inc." claimed that Bryant's former friends were shopping the video around and extorting the receiver.
It took ESPN's Adam Schefter to give the rumor, which had by then become unavoidable, real legitimacy. He vouched for the video's existence in an his appearance on a Chicago radio show. Whereas Florio said he had been chasing the video since November, Schefter said he had working on it—whatever "it" was—since September. Schefter also claimed he knew what was on the tape, though he hadn't seen it, and wouldn't reveal what it supposedly showed.
Florio followed up with an incredible Human Centipede of a headline: "Schefter confirms rumor of Dez Bryant video." Is it possible to "confirm" a rumor? Not that the rumor is true, but that the rumor exists?
The post was 600 words of cryptic self-congratulation and contextless speculation. Here were Schefter and Florio, two respected NFL reporters, going back and forth to build a national story based entirely on not revealing what they knew. And by teasing the potential import of the details, they had to know that the rest of the football media would seize upon it. And with that, during the slow few weeks between the combine and free agency, the NFL once again became the biggest story in town.
The supposed deadline passed. No video emerged. Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman chatted with a few league sources, and if there ever was a video, they seemed to know exactly as much as the average, confused reader:
An NFC general manager to me: "Have you seen it?"
An AFC general manager: "If you get a copy, send it to me." He was only half-kidding.
An assistant coach: "I heard TMZ paid $1 million for it."
Another assistant coach: "I heard it was $2 million."
As for us, we've received a bunch of supposed tips on the video since the rumor surfaced and especially since we offered to buy a tape, if it exists. They're all over the place. Some mention a Walmart parking lot; some mention his mother; some mention various media outlets that were about to run with the story. We received a purported screenshot, but it was proven fake by a reverse image search. There were rumors that the tape was floating around the Dark Web, like the photos from the celebrity nudes hack. (No one who made any of these claims could produce a video.) We checked with police departments in Fort Worth, Arlington, and DeSoto. None of them had any information on any incidents involving Bryant that hadn't already been reported. There were nothing but dead ends—and that was with us being very willing to pay market price in hard cash for video.
At this juncture, the whole thing sounds more like a few previous incidents mushed together to make one big imaginary incident. But on Feb. 26, a report from NFL.com, of all places, revealed the likely source of the confusion. Ian Rapoport revealed that four years ago, Bryant was involved in an incident in a Walmart parking lot. Lancaster police responded to a disturbance on July 11, 2011 after someone reported seeing a woman dragged from one car to another. (The full report obtained by Rapoport is below.) The report mentions three cars all registered under Bryant's name, and five people: Carl King, Christopher Mitchell, Alex Penson, Bryant's girlfriend Ilyne Nash, and Bryant.
According to the report, a Walmart security guard was informed of the disturbance, and he found an empty white Mercedes with the door open. After officers arrived, King and Mitchell showed up; both claimed that Nash had asked them to pick up her car. Eventually, Bryant and Nash showed up in a third car. Nash told police that she had argued with Penson, but was not assaulted or injured. According to the report, "it was determined that there was no offense."
The timing of Rapaport's reporting is instructive. It was back in November—the same month that Florio claimed to begin looking into things—that Rapaport revealed a series of minor incidents involving Bryant. Rapaport, though, initially failed to request police documents from neighboring Lancaster, where the 2011 Walmart parking-lot incident took place. Rapaport received that documentation on Feb. 17, just three days before Florio's cryptic radio appearance turned a nothing incident report into a massive wildfire. Rapaport wouldn't put those flames out for another six days, by which time it was way too late.
On Monday, the Cowboys—whose COO Stephen Jones denied any existence of a video from the beginning, and who had reportedly known about the Walmart incident "for some time"—gave Bryant the franchise tag. For all the conspiracy theories about how the rumors had been put out there to ding Bryant's value, he's guaranteed to remain a Cowboy and to make at least $12.8 million.
Freeman had this to say on Schefter's and ESPN's role in the mess:
The NFL official who knew of ESPN's involvement said ESPN's pursuit of the video was extensive. The official also said that ESPN decided not to run a story because it didn't think a four-year-old story—minus the video—was fair to Bryant. Thus, for all the grief ESPN sometimes takes, it handled this case, according to the official, with great professionalism.
But Schefter's dithering was the fuel this conflagration needed. If he had shut it down during his radio appearance, or given more context, or even just never mentioned it in the first place, it would never have gotten the play it did. Instead Schefter played it cagey, stating that the story was real, and that he had it. By never officially reporting out the Walmart incident, but revealing that he knew more than he was telling—and more than anyone listening—he was able to take the high road while Bryant was dragged down by implications.
The NFL's free-agency period starts March 10, by which time this rumor will have faded away, largely forgotten. (It already basically has with the LeSean McCoy trade.) But it muscled its way into a few news cycles, and isn't that what matters? Football is a year-round media sport now, even if the stories have to eat themselves to survive.
If you know anything, though, drop a line: firstname.lastname@example.org.