ESPN wants its analysts to say things that attract attention. When the things they say attract scrutiny, ESPN will defend them, #asexpected.
That’s precisely what has happened in the aftermath of Week One’s debut from the new Sunday NFL Countdown crew, which featured filibusters from Randy Moss, Charles Woodson, and Trent Dilfer regarding the Colin Kaepernick-sparked anthem protests. Dilfer opined that backup quarterbacks should be quiet generally, but then Dilfer seemed to do something more concrete than express an opinion about the impact of Kaepernick’s gesture on the 49ers.
“[I]t has disrupted that organization,” Dilfer declared. “It has caused friction and torn the fabric of the team.”
That’s definitely not a statement of opinion. And it sparked multiple members of the Bay Area media (including Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News) to opine that these apparent statements of fact were coming from 49ers G.M. Trent Baalke, a friend of Dilfer’s, and that Dilfer was either speaking on Baalke’s behalf or simply spouting off what he’d heard from his friend without prompting.
“I think it is absolutely insulting,” ESPN producer Seth Markman told Richard Deitsch of SI.com. “It is insulting to Trent. I think it is insulting to all of us here. This man has been an analyst for nine years now — one of the top analysts in the business. When he speaks, it is from his heart. His opinions are his own. The guy knows his credibility is always going to be on the line. He would never jeopardize that in any kind of a situation. I have always thought he was one of our most direct analysts. He speaks with conviction. I have seen people over the years say things that they don’t necessarily believe themselves, but it’s just for good TV. Trent would never, ever do that. To ever think that he would be a mouthpiece or carry the water for a front office guy on any team is ridiculous.”
Again, Dilfer expressed not only opinions but facts, facts he quite possibly obtained from Baalke. Markman, the man responsible for holding one card and asking the dealer for four fresh ones on the network’s marquee NFL studio show, danced around this possibility.
“I honestly could not tell you what kind of relationship they have versus his relationship with others in the league but I will tell you criticizing or going after Trent’s integrity is ridiculous,” Markman told Deitsch. “Even if he had a friendship with someone, it would not stop him from saying what he believed.”
But Dilfer likely believed that Kaepernick’s behavior “disrupted that organization,” “caused friction,” and “tor[e] the fabric of the team” because someone Dilfer trusted told him it happened. Someone like Baalke.
As to the reaction to Dilfer’s opinions/facts/whatever — which included Kaepernick calling Dilfer’s words “one of the most ridiculous comments I’ve heard” — Markman tried to create the impression that ESPN doesn’t do something that it absolutely does.
“Look, we don’t like to become part of the story,” Markman told Deitsch. “Generally, that is not something we are looking to be. As long as the comments are made by our analysts are fair and based on fact or experience, we are not going to be able to control how people react to it.”
Of course ESPN likes to become part of the story. ESPN loves to become part of the story. From leveraging Ron Jaworski’s hyperbolic declarations about Kaepernick from 2013 into a multi-day news-cycle churn to doing lengthy features not about newsmakers but about ESPN employees to cajoling people like Stephen A. Smith into constantly spouting off over-the-top opinions so that they will be noticed to, most recently, having an interviewer put down the microphone and pick up a shotgun for some skeet shooting with an Olympian, ESPN wants to blur the line between telling the story and being the story, injecting its personalities into the fray whenever and wherever possible.
Unless criticism flows from the blurring of the lines. When that happens, ESPN will say, “Wait a minute. It’s not about us.”
Meanwhile, the feigned outrage regarding the suggestion that Dilfer’s factual statements trace to Baalke has prompted Kawakami to consider posting on Twitter every day for a year a link to a story in which Dilfer predicted after the firing of Baalke nemesis Jim Harbaugh that “I’ll be shocked if next year’s 49ers team isn’t better than this year’s team,” that “you will hear a lot of stories coming out of the 49ers building of players feeling like they weren’t developed,” and that “[owner] Jed [York] and Trent [Baalke] can’t say this.”
Similarly, Baalke couldn’t say that Kaepernick’s conduct “disrupted” the organization and “tor[e] the fabric of the team.” Dilfer could, and Dilfer did. Not as opinion, but as fact. There’s nothing insulting about those who (unlike Markman, supposedly) understand the tentacles of the relationships pointing them out.
That said, when an ESPN personality makes himself or herself part of the story and gets called out for it, ESPN has to defend them. Otherwise, those personalities may be reluctant to make themselves part of the story in the future, which apparently wouldn’t be good for business.