Last week, a kerfuffle erupted between the NFL and ESPN regarding an ESPN report that focused on one key portion of the Ray Rice appeal process. Specifically, the league accused ESPN of distorting the testimony and the evidence.
The fight centered on the impression created by Don Van Natta, Jr. that, only one day before Commissioner Roger Goodell told the owners via memo that the league tried on multiple occasions to obtain the notorious Ray Rice elevator video from law enforcement agencies, the league’s lead investigator, Jim Buckley, wrote in an email to NFL security chief Jeff Miller, “I never contacted anyone about the tape.” Last Friday, the NFL said in a statement, “That is a quote not from an email, but from an argument by Rice’s own attorney mischaracterizing the evidence.”
It may look like a Ralph Macchio “I shot the clerk?“-style misunderstanding, but it’s not. PFT has obtained a copy of the email in question, along with a copy of the key page from the transcript of the Rice appeal hearing. On this point, the NFL is right.
In the email in question, the NFL’s lead investigator does not say “I never contacted anyone about the tape.” That quote comes from a question posed to NFL V.P. of security Jeff Miller at the Rice appeal hearing. The NFL’s lawyer objected to the characterization of the e-mail, and hearing office Barbara S. Jones said, “I can read them.”
Apparently, no one from ESPN read them. Again, the email from the NFL’s lead investigator does not say, “I never contacted anyone about the tape.” Nevertheless, the ESPN article as published (and as still existing on ESPN.com) declares, “The last e-mail on the chain from Buckley says: ‘I never contacted anyone about the tape.’“
It’s clear that Van Natta based his assertion not on the email but on lawyer Jeffrey Kessler’s mischaracterization of it. Indeed, Van Natta tracks verbatim the question posed by Kessler to Miller: “The last e-mail on the chain says, ‘I never contacted anyone about the tape.'”
ESPN has said on multiple occasions regarding this issue, “We stand by our reporting.” PFT asked ESPN to release the entire transcript, but ESPN declined to do so. (PFT also contacted the hearing officer last Friday with a request that the entire transcript plus exhibits be released publicly, but received no response.)
Frankly, ESPN shouldn’t stand by its reporting on this specific point. Van Natta made a mistake. ESPN should admit it and fix it. Unless and until ESPN does, the NFL has a good reason to be upset with the company that once pulled the plug on a popular fictional show about pro football at the behest of former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
In this specific case, the documents PFT has obtained show that the NFL is right, ESPN is wrong, and next year’s Monday Night Football schedule possibly will consist of Titans-Jaguars, multiple times over.