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Protecting the Shield: Why ESPN Can’t Be Trusted to Cover the NFL

It’s not just wealthy quarterbacks who suffer at the hands of a duplicitous league and a complicit media empire: We all do.

The National Football League (NFL) is not merely a sports league that helps entertain the US public. While football is just a game, the NFL is a major institutional power that uses billions of tax dollars to subsidize its owners, tries to weaken unions in courts and is potentially complicit in an increasingly disturbing mental health crisis among its workforce. In light of this, the league warrants close scrutiny and investigation from the media.

The organization that should be the most important watchdog of the league is ESPN, which as the largest sports media company in the world has the resources and reach to truly serve as a check on the league’s power. Unfortunately, ESPN is too compromised to be trusted in this role. Its NFL broadcasts are worth billions, and an examination of its coverage shows that ESPN’s priorities are not investigating the league, but protecting it.

In early September, Judge Richard Berman nullified the NFL’s four-game suspension of famed quarterback Tom Brady. The suspension, affirmed by the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, was for Brady’s alleged role in the “Deflategate” scandal – arguably one of the most ridiculous cases in the history of US jurisprudence.

The judge ruled against the NFL on September 3 for not giving Brady a fair hearing in his appeal, and for punishing him for a rule that doesn’t exist: alleged “general awareness” of an alleged equipment violation (deflating air out of a football). In two brutal hearings in open court (August 12 and August 19), Berman ripped the NFL’s lack of due process and its “independent” report, aimed at rubber-stamping Goodell’s “own brand of industrial justice,” as Berman called it.

One way ESPN protects the league is by silencing its critics.

This is the fifth time in Goodell’s tenure that he has been to federal court to try and justify the NFL’s kangaroo discipline system, and he hasn’t won a case yet. The players’ union, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), is undefeated. The NFL been also been accused of – or complicit in – numerous other recent scandals that stretch way beyond the game of football: due process, minimum wage violations, domestic abuse, fraud by an owner and the ill health and (suicides) of former players.

But the league’s transgressions are rarely exposed by sports media. This is especially true of ESPN, which has consistently enabled the league’s misconduct. Valued at $40 billion, ESPN is the largest sports media company in the world. In 2011, it signed a $15.2 billion contract to air NFL games. This financial relationship causes a conflict, as ESPN claims to have a news team that works “independently” and “with great rigor.”

So it is hard not to raise an eyebrow when ESPN engages in suspicious behavior to the league’s benefit, such as silencing voices who challenge Goodell’s honesty in a domestic abuse scandal; publishing (and never correcting) false information leaked by the NFL; caving to league pressure on concussions; downplaying negative stories about league owners; and running curiously timed attack pieces and reports against Goodell’s adversaries.

The business press has certainly noticed this conflict of interest. Forbes recently devoted an article to critiquing ESPN for “biased stories, peddling misinformation, and making moves to protect the NFL.” The articles observe ESPN’s “unnerving” business relationship that “presents a serious ethical dilemma.”

The average person may not be inclined to care that ESPN is carrying the NFL’s water in its case against Tom Brady – who is worth hundreds of millions and married to a supermodel worth even more. But the NFL’s dirt impacts the public at large. According to the Atlantic Monthly, the league is “fleecing” US taxpayers for billions to subsidize stadiums for its billionaire owners, often by threatening relocation. So even many non-football fans are unwitting stakeholders in the league. Without a tenacious – and at times adversarial – sports media, the league will continue to control the narrative to avoid appropriate scrutiny. In this way ESPN fails the public.

Silencing Critics, Protecting the Shield

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was hired in 2006 and praised by ESPN as “The New Sheriff in Town.” The plan, in part, was for him to earn his salary (a reported $44 million) with swift and harsh discipline. Unlike his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, he had no experience in law, perhaps by design.

“[Tagliabue] is an attorney and often fretted more over due process than enunciating a can-do policy of punishment against repeat offenders,” said an ESPN article in 2007. “By comparison, Goodell, all too aware of a burgeoning problem and negative ramifications in the court of public opinion, is a veritable hanging judge. Good for him.”

That article praising Goodell for not caring about due process was published in 2007. A lot has changed since then, including public trust in the league. But ESPN has remained steadfast in “protecting the shield.”

One way ESPN protects the league is by silencing its critics. In 2014, Goodell faced his biggest crisis yet when he was slammed for mishandling Ray Rice’s domestic abuse case. The NFL went easy on Rice, who was charged with assaulting his girlfriend, and suspended him for two games. The Baltimore Ravens were supportive of Rice as well. Most gallingly, they posted a tweet that placed blame on the victim of the assault.

The NFL has been relentless in its efforts to shape the media narrative – sometimes done through strategic leaks.

When TMZ released the extremely graphic video, public outrage prompted Goodell to punish Rice again. He was given an indefinite suspension by the league (which would later be nullified by a federal judge) and was promptly cut by the Ravens. Goodell claimed he never had access to the video, which was sent to the league office. Sally Jenkins of The Washington Post accused Goodell of “willful blindness,” writing, “It simply defies belief that league and team officials couldn’t have seen [the tape] if they wanted to.”

ESPN’s popular writer and host Bill Simmons was also among the skeptics and called Goodell “a liar” in a podcast. For this, Simmons was suspended for three weeks during the NFL season; when his contract expired months later, he was let go. It is worth noting that players are often accused of dishonesty on ESPN without proof. Mark Brunell’s tearful accusations against Brady are among the most memorable examples. But in a clear double standard, no suspensions are given in these instances.

The same story prompted another curious incident from a former NFL executive, Bill Polian. On September 12, 2014, Polian was asked if it was possible the incriminating Rice video never made it to Goodell, as the league alleged. He answered that he was “puzzled” by this explanation and found it “difficult to understand.” For reasons never explained, 21 minutes later, Polian gave the exact opposite answer, as he reverted to the NFL company line that it was just a typical bureaucratic hiccup. Polian’s spinelessness was mocked by sports blogs and radio stations.

But it would be a lot easier to laugh if the subject was not domestic abuse. These serious issues are why ESPN’s compromised coverage of the NFL matters.

Caving to NFL Pressure on Concussions

The seriousness of these issues is especially evident when it comes to the health of ex-players. Many former players and family members are in litigation with the league over brain trauma and other health issues. Suicide has been a major problem. Several players shot themselves in the chest, so their brains could be examined by scientists.

In 2013, PBS “Frontline” aired a documentary called League of Denial. The film documented, among other things, the NFL’s reluctance to accept the relationship between football and cases of brain trauma in its former players. Recent studies have further demonstrated brain trauma among NFL players.

ESPN will downplay scandals and crises among NFL owners while devoting massive coverage to those controversies among the players.

ESPN was scheduled to partner with “Frontline” on the project but backed out, citing a lack of editorial control. The New York Times, however, reported a different explanation. “The divorce came a week after the NFL voiced its displeasure with the documentary at a lunch between league and ESPN executives,” the Times reported. Goodell was at the lunch meeting, the report said.

ESPN and the NFL denied the report. But, as the Times explained, “the potential for conflicts are particularly acute at ESPN, which has tentacles throughout the sports world and whose mission is to cover sports that it actively promotes.”

Indeed, if ESPN is timid about the concussion issue, it raises the question: On what other issues does ESPN feel pressure from the NFL, stated or otherwise?

Lies, Leaks and Statistics

The NFL has been relentless in its efforts to shape the media narrative. This is sometimes done through strategic leaks, dodging tough questions or pressuring the media. Other times its representatives are less subtle and just lie.

On August 4, 2015, Judge Berman surprised many when he ordered evidence in the Brady case to be open to the public. The 400-page transcript of Brady’s appeal hearing (where Goodell named himself as arbitrator) was then released to the public, against the NFL’s wishes.

The document exposed a blatant lie in Goodell’s written decision (July 28), confirming Brady’s suspension. Goodell claimed that Brady testified he never spoke to his equipment manager about the allegations, when in fact, the transcript proved the opposite was true.

“It’s a complete lie to claim he said he and [the equipment manager] ONLY discussed preparing the footballs for the Super Bowl,” said Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports (emphasis is Wetzel’s). “Brady repeatedly answered the opposite…. how does anyone in the NFL – owner, coach, player or fan – possibly trust the league office to investigate and rule on anything ever again?”

These revealing transcripts were barely mentioned by ESPN.

The public, which helps subsidize the league with billions in tax dollars, has a right to know the truth about the league.

ESPN was, however, willing to report on a strategic leak made by the NFL office. In January 2015, reporter Chris Mortensen helped blow up the “Deflategate” story on what would later be revealed as a false leak. An NFL source told Mortensen that 11 of the 12 footballs used by Brady in the AFC championship were under the legal limit by two pounds per square inch (PSI). When the actual measurements were released in the NFL’s own report, it became clear the Mortensen story was wildly exaggerated. The balls were under by just a few tenths of a pound.

“There is a huge gap between what we originally thought about this and what now we actually know is the truth,” said David Zirin on MSNBC. What initially looked like “a systematic effort” to deflate footballs, Zirin explained, “might actually can [sic] be explained by barometric pressure.”

The report of the false leak had much of the public and the media convinced of Brady’s guilt. In emails later released to the public, attorneys for the New England Patriots begged the NFL lawyers to correct the information, but the requests went unheeded. The NFL let the false information shape the narrative for months.

ESPN, like the NFL, has refused to correct the record. Peter King of Sports Illustrated made a similar reporting error and has since apologized. Mortensen, however, has refused to formally correct the story, despite admitting the measurements were false. He has fallen on the sword for the NFL source who wronged him. And the false story remains up and uncorrected as of this writing.

The NFL did not respond to requests for comment from Truthout.

A Double Standard: ESPN’s Coverage of NFL Owners

One way media bias is measured in the social sciences is by comparing paired examples. By studying two different subjects engaged in a comparable event (an arrest, a scandal etc.) one can measure the output and see how it compares.

This exercise proves instructive in the case of ESPN. The hypothesis is simple: ESPN will downplay scandals and crises among NFL owners (some of whom are directly involved in television contracts), while devoting massive coverage to those controversies among the players (who constantly battle with the league over labor issues).

Consider its coverage of “Deflategate,” which has led to a proxy war between the NFL and the player’s union. In the first seven months after the initial accusations against Tom Brady, articles and videos using the word “Deflategate” appeared on the search engine 844 times.

How will the coverage of Brady’s scandal compare with an owner in a scandal of his own? Consider the case of Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and his fraud case.

In April 2013, the FBI raided the headquarters of Haslam’s company, Pilot Flying J. In a 120-page affidavit, the FBI accused the company of a five-year-long “conspiracy to scheme and defraud” its customers out of millions in rebates. This scheme “occurred with the knowledge” of Haslam who, according to one informant quoted in the affidavit, “knew it all along [and] loved it.”

So how does ESPN’s coverage of these controversies compare?

In the first seven months since the story broke, the Flying J scandal was mentioned by ESPN 23 times. Brady’s footballs were covered 844 times in that same time period: 36.6 times for every one time the Flying J issue was mentioned. The owner got less than 3 percent of the coverage the player got. Furthermore, a good portion of the Haslam coverage was favorable. In one article, the commissioner called the embattled owner a “man of great integrity.”

This disparity is also seen in the case of Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf. He was found liable by a judge for “civil state racketeering laws” and “fraudulent bookkeeping practices.” Yet in the seven months following this news, there were only seven mentions on – less than 1 percent of the coverage “Deflategate” got.

Some of this difference can be attributed to Tom Brady’s celebrity status, which is an important variable. But ESPN is not a gossip site. It holds itself to a higher standard and claims “journalism is vital to [its] credibility.” It even employed an ombudsman in the past, though the position is now vacant. So the disparity cannot be justified by celebrity alone. Especially considering the seriousness of the charges against the owners.

ESPN’s Predictable Legal Experts

Given how often the league ends up in federal court, ESPN’s legal analysts have been busy. Unsurprisingly, these experts seem to always find the NFL to be on the right side of the law.

Lester Munson is an almost cartoonish case study. When the NFLPA appealed Adrian Peterson’s four-game suspension, Munson unsurprisingly predicted an easy NFL triumph. In a December 14, 2014, article titled “NFLPA’s case is a perfect loser,” Munson said, “the law is not on their side.” He portrayed it as an absolute. “This type of case is discussed by law students and law professors every year in every course on labor law in every law school.”

The NFLPA won the case, Munson’s hubris notwithstanding. Of course, legal experts will be wrong on occasion. What warrants scrutiny is that Munson seems almost systematic in his defense of the NFL.

When Brady’s appeal went to court, Munson made an identical argument as he did in the Peterson case. In predicting an easy win for the league, he cited the same standard of judicial deference, the exact same case law (MLBPA v. Garvey) and came to the exact same conclusions. Not once did he even mention his failed prediction on the Peterson case. Once again, his confidence seemed absolute: “the strength of the NFL position” was “indisputable,” and “obvious.” It was the third such article on the Brady case (see May 17 and July 28) where he stated the futility of the union’s appeal. “It may be the shortest brief the NFL has filed in its massive history of litigation,” he wrote.

Since then, Munson’s misguided certitude has become the subject of mockery on blogs and mainstream papers such as the Los Angeles Times. But Munson’s unceasing support of the NFL remains strong; he predicts the NFL will easily win on appeal.

Munson is not alone. Legal analyst Roger Cossack continues to argue the NFLPA is foolish to expect fair arbitration, a strange stance for a lawyer. “Cossack is clearly wrong,” said Mike Florio, a former lawyer at NBC Sports. “What’s amazing is that Cossack seems to know he’s clearly wrong.”

There are many legal writers who could offer a more critical view. For instance, Steph Stradley, a Houston-based lawyer, writes an incredibly in-depth website covering the major NFL discipline cases. But ESPN continues with its one-sided approach.

Earning “Credibility With Viewers”

ESPN claims its news coverage aims to be fair. “ESPN serves fans by covering all on-the-field and off-the-field aspects of the league aggressively on a daily basis,” ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer told Truthout in an email. “The league and its teams recognize we are a news organization and expect fair coverage.”

The network points to a recent Outside the Lines (OTL) report about the Deflategate issue as an example of its critical coverage. The report portrayed Goodell as using the Tom Brady case as a way to satiate owners who felt he was too soft on the New England Patriots for a videotaping controversy from 2007 (or Spygate). Some media critics agreed. “While that editorial decision may be more complicated for ESPN given its financial ties, Tuesday’s story shows it isn’t afraid of occasionally putting its mouth where its money is,” said David Uberti at the Columbia Journalism Review.

But to suggest the OTL report is an example of ESPN’s independence or critical reporting is dubious at best. The report, which relied on more than 80 anonymous sources including at least one NFL owner, was devoted mostly to negative coverage of the Patriots – the target of the NFL’s six-month-long investigation. The report was mildly critical of Goodell at times but also advanced the agenda of unnamed NFL sources, including an owner.

The argument that ESPN was showing its independence from the NFL by anonymously quoting an owner’s controversial opinion is the height of irony. More than anything, the report served the NFL by deflecting the narrative away from Goodell’s embarrassing loss in federal court, which, curiously, occurred just five days prior to the publication of the OTL report.

Football is just a game, but the stories are not. The public, which helps subsidize the league with billions in tax dollars, has a right to know the truth about the league. But, despite the occasional critical report, it is wrong to expect it from ESPN.

The station claims its “reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are of paramount concern.” But that isn’t true. The paramount concern for ESPN (and its parent company, Disney) will always be its bottom line. And investigating wrongdoing of a company with which you have invested billions clearly does not serve this priority.

ESPN should, at a minimum, disclose the details of its enormous vested interest before reporting any serious story about the league. ESPN should be transparent about this and stop pretending to be an independent source of journalism about the NFL.

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