The longtime agent and I were talking about NFL reporters and professional lapses. I said, "I guess you see lapses—"
"Every day!" he cut in. "Every day!"
Maybe you find this a bit rich coming from a sports agent, particularly one who doesn't want his name used here, lest he jeopardize his clients' relationship with the football media. But who better than an agent to identify the corrupting effects of money and proximity to power?
"It's fascinating," he said, having watched enough of the aftermath of Ray Rice's left cross to his fiancée's chin to feel validated in his cynical view of how information is disseminated to football fans from up high. "It shows you've got this small group of influential commentators and writers making more money then they ever dreamed of, living a lifestyle they never dreamed of, and they don't wanna upset the applecart."
As the agent and many others see it, the Rice fiasco has been a clarifying moment for the top tier of NFL beat reporting, which today looks like nothing so much as a well-appointed kennel for obedient lapdogs. Because access is the coin of the realm in a media age that demands an ever-replenishing supply of what one NFL beat guy called "nuggets"— Green Bay-Seattle will kick off the season!—the star reporters to one extent or another all belong to the league. "I'm not in bed with the league," said the reporter. "Sometimes I wish I was because a) there's a lot more money in it and b) if you're going to be in bed with anybody, it should be the people in the league office."
At the top of the list of non-agitators last week were Peter King and Chris Mortensen, two veteran members of the NFL beat, and Adam Schefter, younger but equally influential. All were scorched, if briefly, for their Rice reportage.
Sports Illustrated's King, 57, made a reference in his MMQB column of July 29 to a "videotape the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen, from the security camera inside the elevator at the time of the physical altercation between Rice and Janay Palmer, his fiancée." At that time, all the public had seen was a security tape released by TMZ taken from a hallway security camera, showing the player trying to drag his unconscious sweetheart out of an elevator. King brought up this unreleased tape as he was getting hammered by readers for defending NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's two-game suspension of Rice. Though King didn't divulge details of what his source had told him was on the unreleased elevator video (other than to say it showed an "altercation" between Rice and his future wife), he was obviously insinuating that its contents provoked the NFL commissioner and the Ravens to take it easy on the confessed domestic abuser.
Mortensen, who has covered the NFL since 1985 and is now billed epithetically as "ESPN's NFL Insider," was heard, among other places, on ESPN's morning radio show Mike and Mike in July saying that this same security tape showed Rice to be the original victim. "In fact, she attacks him," Mortensen said. "We don't know the reason why. And he strikes her, strikes her hard." Schefter, meanwhile, wondered aloud if the commissioner, in hitting Rice with a two-game suspension, had been "lenient enough."
The cover provided the NFL by this trio of insiders made Rice's world a happier one for a time. You could see the trickle-down effects of their reporting on the Ravens' official message board, where one fan used King's report to justify the fans' having given the admitted wife-beater a standing ovation during a training-camp appearance.
Then TMZ dropped its second Rice tape, taken from inside the elevator, showing that there had been no attack on Rice, as Mortensen had alleged, and that the "altercation" King had mentioned consisted entirely of Rice slapping Janay and then knocking her out. Had league officials really seen this video? The NFL denied it, and now King wasn't so sure. Without reference to his earlier reporting, he wrote:
If league officials saw this video before issuing the two-game ban for Rice, all the scorn that's been heaped on Roger Goodell and his colleagues will be deserved.
If. Later, in an abject note to his readers, King rowed back all of his initial report, even though common sense and subsequent reporting from the AP would bear out the original notion that someone in the league had access to the video. "The league says it has not seen the tape," King wrote, "and I cannot refute that with certainty." Having uncritically conveyed the NFL-approved message back in July that it had seen the video and was conducting a rigorous investigation into the incident, he was now uncritically amplifying the NFL-approved message that no one at the league had actually seen the video.
For his part, Mortensen stuck to his story about his sources having seen the tape, but he never acknowledged that contrary to his initial reports, "the attack" on Rice from Janay was not captured by the security camera and did not happen. (Portions of Mortensen's description of what took place inside the elevator—most pointedly that her head hit an inside rail—turned out to have been spot on.)
It is not lost on the agent that the scoop that shamed the league—and by extension those who cover it—came from TMZ, not a traditional source for football news.
That was no accident. Along with its own cable channel, the NFL now has broadcast arrangements with the four major over-the-air TV networks. (Games don't air on ABC, but that network's parent company owns ESPN, so a deal with one is functionally a deal with the other.) While newsrooms are to varying degrees walled off from their networks' business relationships, the broader incentive is for everyone to play nice. Last week, for instance, CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus told SI.com's Richard Deitsch that on-air staff would not be weighing in on whether Goodell should resign—a degree of forbearance that would be granted few other public figures.
"Let's not forget: When these deals are announced between, say, ESPN and the NFL, they both put out a release and call themselves 'partners,'" the agent said. "When you have that coming from the top, it's difficult to expect [reporters] who are toward the middle or the bottom of this organizational structure to truly exhibit freedom of thought and speech."
NFLer-turned-academic Michael Oriard pored through the modern portions of media/pro football relationship for his book Brand NFL. He determined that the world changed in 1987, the year ESPN signed its first deal with the NFL. For the first time in American history, "more fans got their sports news from television than newspapers."
That was also the year of a labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Players Association, resulting in a walkout by the players. League management learned in crushing that uprising that the altered media landscape was to its liking.
"The NFL now needed only television, as it had once needed the goodwill of the press," Oriard wrote. "And with television on the owners side, the players were utterly overmatched."
The network reaped rewards, too. "I think the NFL has been more important to ESPN than ESPN has been to the NFL," Oriard said in a 2011 interview. "I think the NFL made ESPN what it is."
The chosen few disseminators of football intelligence are multimedia stars today, with gigs in print and online and on TV and radio, and with huge Twitter presences—Schefter, King, and Mort have a combined six million followers. The NFL need only filter the message of a very few folks to shape the entire national discussion.
This reflects back on those media stars, for whom the rewards go well past money. One NFL reporter told me that among the most striking scenes he witnessed while attending various training camps this summer was Schefter "getting hounded for autographs as much as the quarterback." Why wouldn't those not in the NFL's influencer club aspire to be?
"They're human beings," the agent said. "They see the small influential group at the top are treated differently then the average beat writer. The entire writer group knows this. So the subtle co-opting occurs. You want to do what it takes to get into that clique."
Sharp opinions get rounded off when NFL scourges are kept away from the league's flagship programming. And when self-censorship doesn't do the job, the NFL has other tools to use. The agent believes Goodell exploited the NFL's business alliances with Big Media last week, when his job was on the line.
"Why was Goodell allowed to let Les Moonves throw him a lifeline and set him up with Norah O'Donnell at CBS?" he said. "That's a business partner of the NFL!"
Not long after that interview, Goodell appointed former FBI head Robert Mueller to lead what is being billed as an independent investigation of the NFL's handling of the Rice situation. (Given the ties between Mueller's law firm and the NFL and the deep ties between the league and the FBI, its independence doesn't even really rise to the level of a façade.) That investigation immediately gave Goodell an excuse not to answer any questions from the media. How can he get away with such an obvious ploy? Blame it at least partially on NFL reporters who have failed to push for greater access to Goodell during the commissioner's crisis—in its way, another sign of fealty to the league.
"If you're a coach and win a Super Bowl, Roger Goodell says you have to go to a press conference and face the media. That's mandated," said the agent. "Why isn't this the rule for Goodell? And why is not the president of the Pro Football Writers Association demanding this from Goodell?"
D. Orlando Ledbetter, president of the Pro Football Writers Association, declined to be interviewed for this story, but did issue the following statement: "The PFWA unilaterally rejects the notion that beat writers were manipulated by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and respectfully refuse further comment at this time."
John McClain, who has been covering pro football for the Houston Chronicle since 1977, defends Mort and King, saying the heat they're taking is unfair.
"Everybody who covers the league depends on sources in the league office," McClain said. "They trusted their sources, and they must have had reason to. I've watched these guys real close for a long time, watched them work rooms, and let me tell you, they work hard and they've got credibility, and they've earned that credibility. Look at their work! It's not like there's a pattern here. They're not some Johnny-come-lately who [went] straight to the top, because they're writing exactly what some conglomerate wants them to write. That didn't happen."
Others on the beat are dubious about its current state. One NFL writer, requesting anonymity because her publication hadn't granted permission to speak to Deadspin, said that since the release of the second TMZ tape, she and her peers have been saying, "I don't think we're getting the truth!'" more than usual.
"What we all have to wonder is: If the NFL would lie about something that is under such scrutiny," she said, "what else would they lie about?"
More mistrust and introspection would be fine things, said the agent, though it's doubtful anything would change. "The money is too large, the co-opting process is too nuanced," he said. "Nothing will change."
Another NFL beat reporter I spoke with absolutely agrees with the agent's prediction that inertia will prevail. Sure, a reporter can get material elsewhere that doesn't hew to the league's political line. "When anything gets out that's bad for the league, it's from the agent," he said. But the best nuggets, such as advanced notice about schedules and suspensions that will get the guy or gal who breaks the news "300 retweets," can only be leaked via the league office. So he wasn't surprised last week when the coverage began to pivot.
"I think once it became clear that Goodell was going to survive, all the coverage changed," he said. "If you had something tough on the league office and hadn't used it by Wednesday night, you didn't use it."
He cited an ESPN.com article headlined "Sources: Rice told NFL he hit fiancée," which appeared on the site on Friday, as a rare example of a story that was hard on the commissioner even after his footing had become firmer. The way this reporter saw it, though, the bylining for this end-of-the-week article tells a tale all by itself. The piece—a major scoop that seriously undermines the logic of Rice's indefinite suspension—had jack-of-all-beats investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr.'s handle flying solo above the story. Buried at the bottom was an italicized note: "NFL insider Adam Schefter contributed to this report."
When TMZ's bombshell video came out, Schefter forgot the "Was Goodell lenient enough?" pose and put himself at the head of an angry media horde that was all but calling for Goodell to be blindfolded and led before a firing squad. But now here was Schefter working only a corner of the story.
"On a story that big, everybody I know would fight like hell to be on that byline," said the reporter. "But Adam Schefter didn't. I thought that was funny."
The punchline, of course, is that once regime change lost its imminence, there was no longer any percentage for someone in Schefter's position to lead an anti-Goodell fifth column. The change in atmosphere registered in Peter King's Monday column, where after some handwaving about the recent unpleasantries, he came down on the side of NFL football. "It didn't take me long to care again," he wrote. And why wouldn't it? That's the message the league surely wanted out there, and that's the one it got.
"On this beat if you fuck up with the national office, you're fucked," said the beat reporter. "Being in bed with the league is a healthy thing—for people's careers, not for journalism."
Photo via AP