For more than a year, ESPN had never admitted any responsibility for its role in the rise of the rigmarole known as #Deflategate. Now, on the same day the case heads to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit on the question of whether quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension will be upheld, ESPN public editor Jim Brady has published a #longform assessment of the network’s mishandling of the situation.
Under a fairly innocuous and somewhat convoluted title (“Lack of transparency on Deflategate made journalism tougher to judge”), Jim Brady delicately chastises ESPN for the original report that turned a curiosity into a hashtag. It’s strong enough to be regarded as an acknowledgement that the network erred, but it’s not as strong as it could have, or should have been.
As Jim Brady notes, the story first emerged not with ESPN but with Bob Kravitz of WTHR in Indianapolis. But Kravitz’s report — that the league was investigating the possibility that the Patriots deflated footballs in the January 2015 AFC title game — was completely accurate; an investigation was happening. The ensuing ESPN report that 11 footballs were underinflated by two pounds each created a collective presumption that someone had deliberately removed air from the balls, opening the door for an independent investigation, in the same way the Associated Press report in September 2014 that the NFL had received the Ray Rice video before it was published by TMZ justified an independent investigation into the league office.
Chris Mortensen, the ESPN reporter who broke the report that 11 footballs were underinflated by two pounds each, currently is battling Stage IV throat cancer, and we continue to wish him well. At this point, it isn’t about Mortensen as much as it’s about ESPN and the NFL. (Indeed, the information could have been leaked to any of ESPN’s many NFL reporters.) Whether from Mortensen or Adam Schefter or Ed Werder or Josina Anderson or anyone else, the league saw the ESPN report and did nothing to clear the air (despite aggressive efforts by at least one member of the media to get the real numbers). Then, after the Ted Wells report was published last May with the real numbers buried in the document, ESPN never acknowledged the erroneous report or the more troubling reality that someone in the league office had given false information to ESPN. (The same false information also was given to Peter King of TheMMQB.com, but it was the report from ESPN not the report from King that sparked the controversy and set the stage for someone to conduct a scorched-earth probe of emails and cell phones.)
In the lengthy, navel-gazing mea culpa, Jim Brady never puts it as bluntly as he should have: Someone at the league accidentally or deliberately misrepresented fact to ESPN, the NFL never corrected the information, and ESPN both clumsily tried to ignore the fact that the information was false and stubbornly doubled down on the notion that the information was substantially accurate.
“To those looking for a smoking gun around some kind of ESPN-NFL collaboration in impugning the Patriots, I don’t have it,” Jim Brady writes. While he may not have a “smoking gun per se,” the litany of instances chronicled in his story creates strong circumstantial evidence of institutional bias in favor of the NFL and/or against the Patriots. The clearest evidence, in our view, is the chronic absence of even the slightest amount of public frustration, anger, or indignation that someone at the league office had lied to ESPN in an apparent effort to justify an investigation that ultimately found proof of something unusual but that never produced a “smoking gun per se” of cheating at the January 2015 AFC title game, or anything even remotely close to it.
The only item that counters the existence of a pro-NFL/anti-Patriots agenda within ESPN came in September, when Seth Wickersham and Don Van Natta, Jr. produced an article that provided new information about the league office’s mishandling of Spygate, and that suggested (persuasively, in Jim Brady’s opinion) that the NFL’s aggressive pursuit of the Patriots in #Deflategate was “motivated by a need to appease the NFL owners” who believed Commissioner Roger Goodell didn’t hit the Patriots hard enough in 2007. That story made both the Patriots and the league look bad, but it didn’t make the league look as bad as it would have looked if ESPN had declared to the world what anyone paying close attention to this odyssey now knows. The NFL failed to tell the truth to ESPN about the PSI readings, directly with the initial leak and/or indirectly by never issuing a statement or a tweet that ESPN’s account of 11 footballs being underinflated by two pounds was flat-out wrong.
Jim Brady found no “smoking gun per se” regarding ESPN-NFL collaboration, perhaps because he didn’t notice the smoking gun that has been hiding in plain sight since two days after the Patriots beat the Colts for a berth in Super Bowl XLIX. A grossly erroneous report was made by ESPN, the NFL said nothing about it, and ESPN arguably expanded its perceived duty to be a good network partner to include taking the bullet for the league office’s various errors and omissions.