Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Photo by Mike McGregor/Getty Images
ESPN personality Adam Schefter is the coal that keeps the NFL engines burning. He takes his job as football newshound so seriously that he hasn’t taken a vacation in seven years.

Photo by Mike McGregor/Getty Images

Judy Battista, Albert Breer, Jeff Darlington, and Michael Silver have about 50 years of collective experience covering the National Football League for publications including the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, the Miami Herald, Newsday, the Sporting News, the Boston Globe, and the Dallas Morning News. As of Monday afternoon, these were the most recent articles under their bylines: “Robert Griffin III’s injury has [Washington] facing uncertain future,” “Matt Ryan’s Atlanta Falcons driven to leave 2013 season behind,” “Branden Albert, Miami Dolphins’ new offensive line start strong,” and “Dez Bryant’s career journey continues to make for riveting ride.”

With all due respect to Dez Bryant’s ride, another NFL story has drawn slightly more attention this past week. So why didn’t these four veteran football reporters and columnists write about the Ray Rice domestic violence case and the public and media condemnation of its handling by the NFL? Perhaps because they work for the NFL.

To be fair, the writers did appear frequently on the NFL-owned NFL Network to discuss the Rice case. In one report, Battista noted that the NFL faced “one of its greatest crises” but also asserted, debatably, that it had “done everything it could … to put Ray Rice, his crime, and his punishment behind it.” On one show, Silver commented, “I believe this has made the league look poor the last few days.”

It’s easy to cherry-pick comments—Silver was more circumspect on another program I watched, and studio host Rich Eisen earned praise for his bluntness and skepticism during a pregame telecast. But it’s no surprise that NFL-owned media would tiptoe around stories questioning the integrity and credibility of the NFL. The Rice case is a reminder of how the nearly $10 billion-a-year NFL’s rise to cultural prominence has allowed it to shape the message transmitted to fans, both through its quasi-journalistic arms and through multibillion-dollar deals with other media. It’s also fair to say, though, that the Rice video has changed how Roger Goodell’s NFL will be covered going forward. The league’s media lapdogs have started barking, and they might not stop until the commissioner is gone.

The NFL and its 32 teams have the money and power to buy up and control media, and they’ve done it, to lucrative ends. As recently as 2007, the NFL outsourced its website to the former CBS SportsLine. Now, the league hires seasoned journalists like Battista away from the New York Times. Locally, no franchise has been more aggressive about controlling and co-opting the media than the one in Washington, whose owner, Daniel Snyder, has bought radio stations, partnered with TV stations, acquired websites, and, most recently, become a “content and marketing partner” of the Washington Times newspaper.

Those moves reflect direct economic muscle. They’re also a consequence of the NFL’s transformation into a 24/7/365, no-detail-too-small business, the result of some combination of league marketing, the rise of fantasy sports and social media, and the public’s eagerness to consume anything that has to do with a guy wearing a helmet. Today’s most celebrated NFL reporters deliver 140-character scooplets about who’s injured, who got cut, or who signed a contract. ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the subject of a recent Washington Post profile, has more than 3 million Twitter followers. His ESPN colleagues Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the investigative reporters who wrote League of Denial and a companion documentary about the NFL’s brain-injury crisis, have just more than 10,000 combined.

What both Schefter and the Fainaru brothers do requires savvy and skill: cultivating sources, unearthing information, delivering it to the public in an appealing way. But while the Fainaru brothers’ work has exposed the ugly reality of life inside the NFL—making a case that football maybe shouldn’t be played at all—Schefter’s is the coal that keeps the NFL engines burning. In the midst of the Rice news last week, Schefter tweeted out bits of ephemera like, “With Nick Hardwick out for the year, Chargers plan to sign former Steelers and Bills OL Doug Legursky” and “No practice today for Packers RB Eddie Lacy, who is recovering from a concussion.” Schefter takes his job as football newshound so seriously that, the Post noted, he hasn’t taken a vacation in seven years. I suspect the NFL loved that detail.

In his book The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism, Dean Starkman describes two conflicting strains of American journalism: access reporting and accountability reporting. The former involves getting inside information from powerful institutions, the latter telling inside stories about them. “Access tends to transmit orthodox views; accountability tends to transmit heterodox views,” Starkman writes. Like Wall Street and other big institutions, the NFL prefers and—in the case of reporters like Schefter, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, and Sports Illustrated’s Peter King—facilitates access reporting. It’s good business. The steady flow of information on the ESPN ticker keeps NFL fans engaged with the product and wanting more of it. As far as accountability journalism is concerned, it seems like no coincidence that the Rice story broke thanks to the gatecrashers at TMZ—a bunch of outsiders who have much to gain from knocking pro football down a peg, and are willing to write checks to buy up the sort of photos and videos that tarnish the NFL’s vaunted shield.

Meanwhile, it looks like some NFL beat reporters were used and abused by the hands that typically feed them news about free agent signings and coaches on the hot seat. The problem with access journalism comes when reporters serve as mere pass-throughs for information, especially when that information is a lot weightier than the Chargers planning to sign Doug Legursky. In July, King reported that “the NFL and some Ravens officials have seen” the video of Rice punching out his then-fiancée Janay Palmer inside a New Jersey casino hotel elevator. But then the NFL denied having seen the video, and King explained that he hadn’t done due diligence, posting a statement saying his source had told him that he had only “assumed” the NFL had seen the video.

Not every NFL reporter has been saying mea culpa. Jane McManus of ESPN reported in July that “two league sources” told her the NFL had access to the same evidence as the prosecutors, and she hasn’t backtracked an inch. Mortensen first quoted sources describing the contents of the video in May, and he did so again in July and last week. “There’s no question that the sources with whom I spoke had knowledge of the videotape and in one case had seen the tape,” he said.

NFL beat reporters didn’t get into the business to write about domestic violence or brain injury. (Mortensen, it should be noted, was an investigative reporter who won a prestigious George Polk Award in 1988 for a 110-article Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on how agents and college athletes subvert amateurism.) Given a general lack of expertise in non-football matters and the need to feed the information beast, NFL mainstays like King—who also flubbed the reporting about Michael Sam’s coming out—might not approach reporting with the same critical distance as someone like Pulitzer Prize–winning financial writer Jesse Eisinger, who said recently that he always reminds himself why sources share information. “It’s not because I’m good looking or a nice person. They’re all talking to push an agenda,” he told the New York Times.

Even Goodell’s closest media friends must now realize that the league office is pushing an agenda, and pushing it hard. When the commissioner denied that the league office had seen the Rice elevator video before last week, the reporters weren’t pleased. Were their sources lying to build a defense for the league’s lenient initial two-game suspension of Rice? Were they telling the truth, and the NFL was dissembling to cover its tracks? Even the just-the-facts Schefter has shown annoyance with the NFL. “Those reporters, who regularly and uncritically pass along the league’s party line but are rarely exposed like this, are the ones who look foolish now,” Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky wrote

This, ultimately, could be Goodell’s undoing. Since he was named NFL commissioner in 2006, the 55-year-old Goodell, who has been paid $74 million over the last two years, has received fawning press coverage, including a 6,000-word King puff piece in the pages of SI and a laughable Time cover story asking, “Can Roger Goodell Save Football?” Now, the writers who once bowed before the commissioner’s throne are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. Well, maybe.

It’s undeniable that there’s been more acerbic coverage of Goodell’s job performance—by outlets both affiliated and unaffiliated with the league—in the last two weeks than ever before. But by hiring veteran reporters at their proprietary websites and cable networks—at higher salaries than those paid by the newspapers and magazines where the reporters formerly worked—the NFL and other pro sports leagues have managed to reduce the amount of critical daily reporting and commentary. That might not be the direct intention, but it’s the result. If they’re on the NFL’s payroll, the journalists mentioned at the top of this story aren’t trying to track down the league executive who reportedly was sent the Rice elevator video in April, and they’re not writing columns calling for Goodell’s ouster. 

Starkman, a former editor at the Columbia Journalism Review, says the rise of the NFL mirrors a shift that’s occurred on Wall Street, where major institutions dwarf the media that cover them. Two decades ago, he notes, then–Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones had about the same market capitalization as Morgan Stanley. Today, Goldman Sachs’ market cap (about $83 billion) is almost 50 times that of the New York Times (about $1.8 billion). The NFL isn’t far behind Goldman. According to Forbes, the total estimated value of the NFL’s 32 franchises is $46 billion—and it’s probably a lot higher given that the Buffalo Bills are selling for 50 percent more than the magazine’s estimate.

The league’s financial muscle allows it to create its own quasi-journalistic outlets and to exert soft power over the media partners that pay it billions of dollars annually to televise its games. Last week, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft went on a CBS morning news show to promote the network’s new Thursday night football broadcasts. After a few questions about Ray Rice, in which Kraft criticized Rice and defended Goodell, the hosts moved on. “We’re so proud to be partnered with CBS,” Kraft declared as a countdown clock to Thursday’s game flashed onscreen. The chyron labeled him “Master Kraftsman.”

On CBS’s pregame show that night, anchor James Brown delivered what Slate’s Allison Benedikt called “a powerful speech about male responsibility, not just for domestic violence, but also for our collective devaluation of women.” It absolutely was. But it also was devoid of criticism of Goodell or the NFL. That wasn’t surprising. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said he instructed on-air talent to refrain from criticizing “individuals involved in the story, whether it be team ownership, whether it be NFL management.” According to Ourand, McManus said the talent was encouraged to “express opinions about the situation, to express opinions about domestic abuse, to express opinions on how the NFL has handled this.”

These kinds of business relationships are, obviously, inherently conflicted. In 2004, after receiving complaints from the NFL, ESPN canceled its dramatic series Playmakers. (Ripped-from-the-headlines-of-the-future plot lines included a gay player coming out in the locker room and a player getting arrested on domestic-violence charges.) “At the end of the day I made a decision not to continue to produce something that was upsetting to one of our major partners. It wasn’t good business,” ESPN president George Bodenheimer said in Those Guys Have All the Fun, an oral history of the network. Last year, ESPN backed out of a partnership with the public-affairs TV program Frontline based on the Fainaru brothers’ brain-injury reporting. According to the New York Times, the split came a week after the NFL “voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives.”

Alone among media players, ESPN wields as much cultural power as the NFL; the Disney-owned entity has been valued at more than $50 billion, on par with the league. That power makes its occasional decision to bend to league pressure seem unnecessary. As Playmakers creator John Eisendrath said in Those Guys Have All the Fun, “I would have thought that, for the billion dollars they were giving the NFL, ESPN could say to them, ‘Thank you, we will give you the billion dollars, now shut the fuck up.’ ” In the years since, the power of ESPN’s purse has only grown: The network now pays the NFL close to $2 billion a year.

As it did with the NFL’s brain-injury crisis, ESPN’s journalistic arm has covered the Rice case aggressively. Investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. reported that Rice told Goodell in April that he punched his now-wife in the elevator, contradicting the commissioner’s assertion that what happened was, at the time, “ambiguous.” On Sunday, SportsCenter host Hannah Storm’s voice cracked as she delivered a personal and impassioned monologue, asking, “What exactly does the NFL stand for?” One of ESPN’s biggest personalities, Keith Olbermann, called for Goodell to be fired. Another, columnist and Grantland editor Bill Simmons, wrote that Goodell is “the worst sports commissioner of my lifetime” and asked—six times, once in oversized all-caps boldface type—“how the hell does Roger Goodell still have a job?”

Contrast that with the story that Simmons told Karl Taro Greenfeld two years ago for a BusinessWeek feature about ESPN. Simmons said that in 2001, the year he was hired, he wrote a column poking fun at then–Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick. “They mutilated it,” he said of his editors. “I was so disappointed. They were like, ‘That’s somebody we might try to hire someday.’ ”

The NFL still has tremendous leverage over its television and advertising partners; witness how it played the TV networks in brokering the new, nearly $300 million Thursday-night contract, and how it has sliced and diced other media deals for maximum dollars. But, post-concussion scandal and post-Rice, the league doesn’t feel quite as omnipotent as it once did, and media, even those with Monopoly-money deals with the league, might be more willing to tell it to shut the blank up. It’s fair to wonder whether the barely concealed moral outrage exhibited by newsies like ESPN’s Schefter and Mortensen this past week would have been possible without at least some backing from higher-ups at the Worldwide Leader.

With the NFL’s possible perfidy the biggest story in all of American media right now, accountability journalists will rush in from outside the sports beat to dig for dirt. And inside the league’s formerly cozy media bubble, the men and women with access are going to start demanding answers, too. If he wants to keep his job, Goodell better hope that the answers he provides are the right ones, no matter which reporters he’s talking to.