Leagues and teams owning their own media outlets carries with it plenty of benefits, when it comes to shaping the coverage of the entity by reporters who also are on the payroll. There’s another benefit, as demonstrated recently by the website owned and operated by the Steelers.
Bob Labriola, longtime editor of Steelers.com, has taken “full responsibility” for the bizarre blunder committed by defensive coordinator Keith Butler when discussing the team’s win-or-go-home opponent on Sunday, the Bengals. In the interview, Butler twice commented on tight end Tyler Eifert, who has been on injured reserve since early October.
“It was a sloppy interview, and for that I take full responsibility,” Labriola said in a Saturday statement posted on Twitter. “When I sat down with Keith Butler for the most recent edition of Coordinators Corner, I thought I had a decent handle on the current state of the Cincinnati Bengals, but clearly I did not.
“I didn’t remember that Tyler Eifert hadn’t played against the Steelers in the teams’ first meeting and had been placed on the injured reserve list. When Keith was giving an overall assessment of the Bengals’ offense early in the interview and he said, ‘The tight end is real good,’ I assumed he was referring to Eifert.
“Keith, who in my experience always has been prepared for these sit-downs, talked about Pitt’s Tyler Boyd as a player and then made the point about not knowing whether Boyd would play against the Steelers on Sunday because of an injury, and the Bengals in fact placed Boyd on IR the day after the interview was conducted.
“I have apologized to Keith Butler for the way I conducted the interview and for not being more current on the upcoming opponent’s personnel, and it was personnel that I was going to be asking him about.”
None of this excuses Butler for not instantly realizing Labriola’s error. And the gratuitous paragraph about receiver Tyler Boyd likely was added to create a shell-game sense that Butler simply got his Tyler’s mixed up.
Whether it was Labriola in a sit-down or some other reporter in a press conference, any reference to Tyler Eifert playing in the Week 17 game between the Bengals and Steelers should have been met immediately with a recognition by Butler that the player is on injured reserve. While Butler may have had to make a decision about his delivery (you can imagine how someone like Bill Belichick would have handled this), at a minimum Butler should have broken out Bruschi Face when asked about a guy who has been on IR for nearly three months.
Still, it’s no surprise that Labriola has fallen on the sword. Labriola, after all, reports to the same king. And regardless of how Art Rooney II handles the matter internally, he can’t afford to have the public thinking that his team’s defensive coordinator is clueless about a fairly obvious aspect of the next team the Steelers will play.
So it was an easy fix. As the Steelers huddled on Friday to figure out how to clean up this mess (and surely they did), a decision ultimately was made to have Labriola accept “full responsibility,” in an effort to pin the error on someone whose knowledge of the next opponent isn’t nearly as critical.
Again, that’s what can happen when leagues and teams own media outlets. Crisis management becomes a lot easier when everyone involved in the crisis draws a salary from the same bank account, and the league or team can work directly with reporters who should be independent, getting them to say or do whatever needs to be said or done to clean things up.
How would this have been handled if the interview had been done by someone not employed by the Steelers? While the reporter should indeed apologize to the audience for not being aware of Eifert’s status, the reporter has no obligation to apologize for Butler’s remarks. He nonchalantly discussed Eifert not one but twice, and nothing Labriola or anyone else says can change that fact.
The fact that Labriola took the fall doesn’t mean Butler won’t. The short-term goal was to turn the page on the controversy, and the easiest way to do it was to have Labriola take the blame. Whether Butler’s comments will contribute to his departure after the season remains to be seen.
Maybe, in the end, he’ll simply “retire.”