There’s an unwritten rule among network colleagues to not call coworkers out publicly. (Some in the business would say that this also applies to employees at competing networks.) Recently, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit deviated from that convention regarding comments made by ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky about Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
It started when Orlovsky shared with Pat McAfee some things Orlovsky had been hearing in an effort to explain the perception that Fields’ draft stock is sliding. Said Orlovsky, via Jeremy Layton of the New York Post: “One, I have heard that he is a last-guy-in, first-guy-out type of quarterback. Like, not the maniacal work ethic. I’ve even heard it compared to Justin Herbert, where it was like, ‘Dude, when Justin Herbert showed up, he was like a psychopath when it came to working and get ready for the draft.’ Or even at school, like, ‘Give me more, I want to work non-stop.’ And I’ve heard that there are issues with Justin Fields’ work ethic. . . . The second thing is . . . where is his desire to go be a great quarterback? I think that there’s a desire to be a big-time athlete, from what is expressed to me, but where is his desire to be a great quarterback? And to be great, you gotta be willing to find the things that you are not good at and just freaking grind on them.”
Orlovsky faced a backlash for the racial stereotypes embedded within his comments. He posted a video on Thursday aimed at putting out the fire by passing along positive opinions on Fields that Orlovsky subsequently secured from an assistant coach at Ohio State and from former NFL quarterback John Beck, who’s helping Fields prepare for the draft.
Still, Orlovsky reiterated the negative opinions: “The reality is that I have heard those things from teams. And they might feel that way.”
Herbstreit wasn’t buying any of it. “Absolutely RIDICULOUS,” Herbstreit tweeted in response to the video, via Jimmy Traina of SI.com. “Even if YOU aren’t saying it… to pass that along from ‘people in the know’ is reckless and absurd!! Embarrassing!!”
Herbstreit, who’ll serve as one of the analysts for ABC’s coverage of the draft, is right. In many respects, the pre-draft mumbo-jumbo has evolved to the point where most people who get paid to talk about it should realize that there’s an abundance of bullshit. Teams that secretly love a player will push negative narratives and opinions under the cover of anonymity in order to fuel a free fall that will cause the player to be available when the team is on the clock.
As Dwight Scrute would say, “It’s like Machiavelli meets . . . football.”
Orlovsky eventually mentions that dynamic as an oh-by-the-way in his cleanup video. It’s hardly a collateral point. Scouts and coaches actively prey on naive and/or recklessly ambitious media members with platforms for the purposes of lighting these fuses. That dynamic should never be a P.S.; it should always be the lede.
Indeed, that’s what Orlovsky should have said when McAfee asked why Fields seems to be falling.
“Well, Pat, here’s what happens this time of year,” Orlovsky should have explained. “Teams that love a player will try to create the impression that the player is falling, by spreading unflattering views about him. They actually do it so that the player will be available when they’re on the clock. So it’s best to treat any opinions that come from anonymous scouts and sources with teams — especially negative ones — as bogus and unreliable. Besides, unless we know what all 32 teams are thinking, we never know which team will be the one to draft a guy in a much higher spot than anyone would have expected, like the 49ers will do be by trading from No. 12 to No. 3 to get Mac Jones, Trey Lance, or maybe Fields.”
All of us who cover the NFL in the weeks leading up to the draft need to understand this, and we need to refuse to be manipulated in the name of satisfying producers/editors or seeming to be “in the know.” Put simply, if a scout or a coach or any other team employee refuses to attach a name to a negative opinion about a player in the weeks prior to the draft, we shouldn’t repeat it — even with the caveat that it may have originated with the goal of sparking a slide. (This doesn’t mean the sources are consciously lying. Some coaches and General Managers surely say things like that in the presence of subordinates who have a reputation for being chatty, hopeful that those employees will spread to the media the phony assessment in a way that will be true, as far as the source knows.)
Whether Orlovsky has cause to be miffed at Herbstreit for taking their squabble public is a different issue. ESPN surely prefers that everyone with a Mickey Mouse logo on their paychecks behave among each other like Chip and Dale. But even if Herbstreit was out of line, Orlovsky’s failure to realize that he quite possibly had been played by someone who wants to see Fields fall is the major teachable moment that comes from this incident.