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The Pressure: NFL Reporters, Twitter and Taking Lies from Agents

Nobody’s keeping score, but in talking to about a dozen NFL writers this week, the consensus was clear: January was the worst month anyone could recall when it came to NFL reporting. The “race” to get scoops on any level – front office moves, coaching hires, virtually any transaction you can think of – was sloppy and embarrassing and in the words of the writers I spoke with, irresponsible.

“The temptation to throw stuff out there on twitter is stronger than ever,” Jay Glazer of Fox Sports told me. “The pressure from bosses and fans – you hear it from the fans if you break something or get beat, they’re at your fingertips – is strong. Guys are willing to jump out there without a triple confirmation. Everybody wants to be mentioned on the ESPN ticker, or have ESPN chasing their scoop.”

None of the writers I spoke with were willing to call anyone out on the record – shocker! – but some cited these two Adam Schefter tweets as an example:

Less than 48 hours after these tweets, Reid was named head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Schefter, obviously, is one of the most connected NFL insiders. He, along with Peter King, Glazer, and Chris Mortensen are widely considered to be the biggest newsbreakers. (Though Mort’s “Tebow to Jacksonville a virtual certainty” report in December was silly, given they didn’t even have a General Manager; when the new GM was hired, he said Tebow wasn’t happening.)

Said one prominent NFL writer who didn’t want to be quoted: “There are absolutely no consequences to being wrong. It isn’t like it used to be in the newspaper days. The consequences for being wrong were so severe. Now, outlets just don’t care. Reporters don’t care.”

If you followed January’s NFL reporting, the examples were endless: Josh McDaniels, Jim Schwartz, Chip Kelly, Bill O’Brien, and on and on and on.

[Aside: Is there “value” in breaking who the new defensive coordinator of the Saints is going to be? Said Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network: “98 percent of the time, most fans don’t know or care who had it first, anyway.” Wouldn’t it be of greater value to readers to bring them deep inside the process of the hiring, or write the definitive profile of the new guy? Sure. That’s another discussion for another day.]

What’s going now is that so many NFL reporters are attempting to break news, they’ll take anything from agents, throw it up onto twitter, and chaos ensues, as scores of other reporters chase that “rumor” – which was cloaked as news using phrases like “sounds like” or “getting the sense” or “I’m hearing.” That way, if it happens, you can say, “as I talked about” and if you’re wrong, you can say, “well, I never reported it was definitely happening.”

Peter King, the dean of NFL writers, told me, “Sometimes people in our business are taking shortcuts … I think it’s a dangerous time. If you’re going to put something on twitter and put your nose out there, you’ve got to be pretty sure that it’s true.”

Agents were prominently blamed for the chaos among the writers I spoke with. Agents are promoting their client (coach or player) in a positive way, and helping position them to get the best contract possible this year or next. It’s nearly as productive for an agent to simply float a coach’s name this year – even if he’s not interested in leaving his current job for whatever reason – so that next year, when the coaching carousel begins to spin, everyone will put that coach’s name near the top of lists because he was hot (read: floated) the year prior.

And then there’s the ‘ol, ‘hey, float this lie about my client who isn’t getting many sniffs, and I’ll hook you up with news on my other client when it happens.’

“Agents will flat-out lie to you,” said one frustrated reporter who didn’t want to be quoted. “Teams won’t lie to you nearly as much – they’re more likely to just keep information from you. Some people are OK with floating lies from agents in exchange for scoops down the road.”

One writer “reporting” an agent’s lie then leads to other reporters at all the major outlets getting an email/call from their bosses: Hey, track this down. In the 24/7 news cycle, reporters pounce to quickly confirm or deny the report. Once they talk to enough people they trust, they’ve got several options: confirm/say it’s incorrect; ignore it, or use safe language (ie, “fluid”) that doesn’t really advance the story, but gets you in the all-important discussion. The response usually isn’t in a lengthy blog post or column, but back to – you guessed it – twitter.

“The biggest thing you see is a guy getting beat on a story, then he tries to debunk someone else’s work,” said an online NFL columnist. “That type of thing has always happened, but it was usually handled in press rooms. Twitter makes it really easy to shit all over everyone. And the pressure [to break news] is causing this.”

Solutions? Nobody was able to offer anything. The horse-out-of-the-barn analogy fits. The news cycle isn’t slowing down. The NFL remains the country’s No. 1 sport (read: clicks). Swing and miss on a NFL story? No big deal – an hour or two later, something else big happens, and all is forgotten. Writers aren’t in the business of calling each other out for a variety of reasons – nobody wants to look like an asshole, everyone screws up, who knows when you’re going to need a job – so the cycle continues.

King summed it all up pretty well: “Over time, your reputation will be pretty obvious. People will find out whether or not to trust you.”

Ready to do this all over again during free agency?

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