ESPN’s bombshell story regarding the Ravens’ mishandling of the Ray Rice investigation landed on Friday at 5:47 p.m. ET, in a spot where information typically goes to not be noticed.
The decision to publish the item in a bad-news wasteland fewer than two hours after Commissioner Roger Goodell’s press conference has sparked questions in the industry about the thought process behind pulling the sheet off the story late on a Friday afternoon, versus holding it for Sunday morning or — as TMZ surely did with the Ray Rice video two weeks ago — Monday morning.
ESPN’s position is that there’s nothing to see regarding the timing of a story that may not have received the attention and traction it deserved beyond those who closely follow the NFL. The story was published as soon as it was ready, ESPN contends. Curiosity about the timing nevertheless exists.
The curiosity is enhanced by some of the circumstances surrounding the final hours before the report was published. Although ESPN’s reporters worked on the story for 11 days, the first request for comment to the NFL came at 12:34 p.m. ET Friday, via a list of 15 detailed, written questions submitted roughly 90 minutes after the league announced that Commissioner Roger Goodell would be conducting a press conference at 3:00 p.m. ET. The Ravens separately received a list of written questions at roughly 1:00 p.m. ET on Friday.
The NFL declined to answer any of the written questions, and it appears that ESPN did not send anyone to the press conference with the task of posing any, some, or all of the 15 questions directly to Goodell. Spokesman Greg Aiello told ESPN, “Mr. [Robert] Mueller is in the process of conducting his investigation into the pursuit and handling of evidence in the Ray Rice domestic violence incident. His report will be made public.”
The story initially claimed that Rice watched Baltimore’s Week One game with center A.Q. Shipley, a clear error given that Shipley had been cut by the Ravens and claimed on waivers by the Colts. The mistake quickly was corrected. Likewise, the contention that Ravens senior personnel assistant George Kokinis believed that Rice should be cut in February is regarded by some in the organization as a mischaracterization of his role and responsibilities. At least one member of the Ravens organization privately has pointed to these errors as evidence that the entire story may lack full and complete credibility.
ESPN has said repeatedly that it stands by its reporting, reiterating that stance in the wake of the lengthy statement issued on Monday by the Ravens and owner Steve Bisciotti’s press conference. During his 47 minutes with the media, Bisciotti accused ESPN of essentially rushing the story to publication, pointing to the fact that the reporters spent 11 days working on the story but that ESPN ultimately asked for input from the league and the team only a few hours before the story was unleashed.
Given the potential damage that an inflammatory report like this can do to the broader relationship between ESPN and the NFL, it’s odd to say the least that ESPN opted to push forward at a time when the parties against whom the allegations were made didn’t have a full and fair opportunity to respond to details that took nearly two weeks to compile. Perhaps ESPN wanted to redirect blame from the NFL to the Ravens in the aftermath of the Goodell press conference. Perhaps ESPN wanted to make Goodell seem less credible. Perhaps ESPN simply believed that publishing the story within the hours after Goodell’s press conference would generate the most attention for the story, and in turn for ESPN.
Or perhaps ESPN simply decided that it didn’t make sense to wait for someone else to report the same information ESPN was poised to report.
The timing of the publication has no bearing on the accuracy of the report. But with the Ravens now issuing a lengthy statement identifying the many flaws that it believes the report contains, ESPN may feel compelled to continue to work the story even harder, in order to prove that the Ravens are wrong, and that ESPN is right.
Ultimately, the tie may be broken by Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is investigating the Rice investigation.