It was always interesting to listen to ESPN management and its football staffers talk about Jon Gruden because it was the closest thing I experienced to asking a movie producer about the star of his or her film. Network management often speak effusively of their NFL talent, but ESPN staffers seemed truly thunderstruck by Gruden. The plaudits traveled past genuflecting and exited somewhere a couple of miles before idolatry. Here was then-ESPN president John Skipper to me in 2012 when ESPN eliminated Ron Jaworski from the booth to make the announcing team Mike Tirico and Gruden:
“What we are mostly trying to do is we want to ride Gruden. Gruden is a star,” Skipper said. “You have seen his QB show. He has a lot of personality. He has a lot to say. There was some concern that he and Jaws [Ron Jaworski] sounded a little bit the same in the booth. We just thought it would help viewers sort of understand who was there. Our sense is we ride Mr. Gruden a little bit. I think he can be a big star.”
On Saturday, Gruden officially left ESPN after nine seasons in the booth, far longer than most imagined. His broadcast partner for the last two seasons, Sean McDonough, offered an emotional and telling goodbye. McDonough was so choked up that he called postgame host Suzy Kolber “Lisa” after Monday Night Football reporter Lisa Salters.
“Coach as we wrap this one up, all of us last night in our production meeting had a chance to tell you what we think about you, and how much you’ve meant to us and to Monday Night Football, and what a great way to send you off,” said McDonough. "Appropriately so. Good luck with the Oakland Raiders. It’ll be tough for a lot of us on the crew to be impartial when we go into those production meetings and see you next year.”
To the end, Gruden served more as an ambassador of the NFL than a critical analyst during his run. He never seemed to transform from coach-in-waiting into a broadcaster-first with NFL coaching experience. He did absolutely improve at the craft of sports television and produced compelling content with his QB Camp, easily the best thing he did at ESPN. He had some good moments working the NFL draft, though will also be remembered for cheerleading Johnny Manziel to crazytown heights in 2014.
What made Gruden’s departure interesting as an ESPN story was how invested it was as a company in Gruden going to the Raiders. On Dec. 30, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen—the network’s two highest-profile NFL reporters—put out a detailed report on the Raiders pursuing Gruden with a coaching offer so strong it could even include an ownership stake in the team. ESPN followed up with multiple stories (and multiple television appearances about the story) that assured that Gruden was leaving broadcasting to return to the Raiders. As I wrote last week, there was no way such stories get this kind of treatment without ESPN management signing off on them. As Schefter said a week before the official announcement: “Jon Gruden is going to be the next coach of the Oakland Raiders. The only question is when it happens.”
ESPN was aggressive in reporting Gruden’s offer and move to the Raiders, and it deserves credit for that. But now the real test comes heading forward: How critical will it be of Gruden if things to do not go well for him with the Raiders? Will he get the same examination and treatment as other NFL coaches and organizations? Or will Bristol become an unofficial fan club of the team? Gruden no longer works for ESPN, and in fact jumped ship before the end of his contract. It’s time to treat him like any other news subject.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable media stories)
1. On Friday, ESPN released a much-talked about piece from writer Seth Wickersham on the growing fractures inside the New England Patriots organization. Below, a long Q&A with Wickersham about his process and how the story came to be.
How long did it take you to report this piece from the first interview to the piece being closed after editing?
Wickersham: Off and on, I’ve been reporting it since September. Tom Junod and I were working together on a cover story about Brady and the TB12 Method. We were both also working on different stories during this time, but it was an important piece. It closed around the time that Jimmy Garoppolo was traded. It was a trade that made zero sense to me, to people around the league and especially to people in the Patriots building, whom Belichick had been told for months that Garoppolo wasn’t going to be traded—and the Patriots had traded Jacoby Brissett in September. My reportorial antennae went up. Why would the game's shrewdest long-term strategist trade two backup quarterbacks in a two-month span when his starter was 40 years old and banged up?
The Brady story published in early November, and while working with Don Van Natta on stories on some of the issues surrounding Roger Goodell’s contract, I set out to answer that question. I live in Connecticut so getting to Massachusetts for 5:00 a.m. breakfasts or 10:30 pm dinners with sources—we’re all on Belichick Time—was easy. I always prefer to do interviews in person. I kept doing it, for two months. The story went through ESPN’s longform and magazine process of intense editing and fact-checking and seeking official reaction, context, insight from the Patriots. I kept reporting up until Thursday night, before the story was published, just checking details with sources again and again.
Why did the story publish on Friday?
Wickersham: I don’t know. Those calls are ultimately made by our editing team. These types of stories are typically published when they are ready to be published—our editors knew I was working on it and there was zero pressure to meet some arbitrary deadline—and that felt true in this case.
What’s your reaction to the Patriots' statement?
Wickersham: The point of it wasn't much different than the statement they gave me and that I included in the story. I knew that they would deny that a meeting between Kraft and Belichick about Garoppolo took place. I worked on the story for two months and I had multiple conversations with multiple sources about that meeting. And I stand by my reporting.
What is your response to those Patriots fans who believe ESPN is invested in stories about Patriots strife or controversy?
Wickersham: ESPN publishes and broadcasts so many stories on the Patriots. I’ve written so many stories on the Patriots in my 17 years at ESPN The Magazine, on Brady and Belichick, both with and without access, and I’m proud of them all. The 2015 From Spygate to Deflategate piece that I co-authored with Don is still remembered bitterly by some, not all, Patriots fans, and so much of the “hit piece” nature of this past piece is falsely rooted in the false response to that one. All the stories are nuanced and complex and, in the end, about people. This year, I’ve written four stories on the Patriots. My feature on Belichick before the Super Bowl and my feature on Brady after the game didn’t elicit the charge that me or my company had a bias. Our Brady story in November and the Patriots one last week did. So it goes.
Funny thing is, I love Boston and I love the fans. I love Fenway, both for games and concerts. I love walking around the Back Bay and Central Square and Harvard Square. I don’t get recognized much but in person, when I do all of the fans are much kinder than on Twitter. All of my in-laws live in the Boston area, most are die-hard Patriots fans. One has been going to games since the ‘60s. A few years, we've given Patriots gear to our nephews for Christmas. Before this story came out, I texted them that today might not be a day that they should advertise that we’re related. But the Patriots fan base is really every fan base. When I wrote about Jim Harbaugh’s battles with management and players in 2014, 49ers fans told me that I hated the team and that ESPN had it out for them. When I wrote about the dynamic in the Seahawks building last spring, the 12’s told me that I hated the team and that ESPN had it out for them. I think that every single fan base of a major college football program that’s not been ranked as high as they think they should be or has committed an NCAA violation believes that ESPN has it out for them. It’s the same for SI and the New York Times with some teams. Just the nature of things, and it’s fine.
What is your philosophy on the use of anonymous sourcing?
Wickersham: It’s essential to get to the truth. There’s a code of silence in the NFL. But it also carries a responsibility that I—and our editors—take very seriously. It requires skepticism and a lot of extra work, to verify pieces of information. A lot of reporting that might be accurate will never see the light of day beyond my notebook because it couldn’t be verified. On one of the stories I co-authored with Don, we had a case where a source of his insisted that something pretty amazing happened in a meeting with a few NFL owners. I called someone else in the meeting to ask about it, and that person couldn’t verify it. We didn’t include the piece of reporting in our story, and a week later I was told from a different source that it was indeed dead on. It was a bummer but it’s best to be cautious.
Journalists use anonymous sources all the time. How many times do team insiders tweet about something “per a source”—a single anonymous source—and nobody raises an eyebrow? It’s the coin of the realm of high-stakes reporting, and I had more than a dozen sources on this piece, most of whom are inside the walls of Gillette Stadium. But the only times fans complain is when there is anonymous sourcing that they perceive to put their team in bad light. Some of the private conversations with sources are fascinating. People will be an anonymous source in a story and then come out publicly against anonymous sources. Or they’ll say, “I’m going to deny this if asked about it, but…” So then you have to publicly react to radio or TV folks or Twitter folks asking you about a response to a wink-wink denial and not laugh. People think that I can seem stiff or flat in TV or radio interviews, but it’s often because I know much more than I can say, and I’m trying to be careful that I don’t let something slip that I wouldn’t have printed. When you talk about your stories all day, it’s easy to slip off-script. I try to stick to what I wrote. Whenever people try to source-guess they’re always, always wrong. As with any meeting with any source, on the record or on background, it’s essential that I have follow-up conversations and chances to go through pieces of information again and again to make sure that it’s right, to add context, to verify it against what other people have said. I never just take people’s word for it, even from sources I’ve known for years. I’ve done a lot of stories in my career that required anonymous sources, and I really appreciate what Peter King wrote yesterday when he said, “Those stories, with the benefit of history, have largely been shown to be accurate.”
Why is this an important story?
Wickersham: It’s obvious: There were real and serious tensions in the Patriots building involving the three most famous and powerful people. It wasn’t a secret to people inside and close to the team, and it was leading people inside to believe that it might not be sustainable. It was complicated and layered. I did my best to not only report it, but to add context and human themes that went beyond the vapid sound bites. That’s my goal with any story: To be real and true to the material, and explain the why, as we say. My job is to take readers inside the most secretive sport in America. It’s hard and it takes time and space and a willingness to face blowback from powerful people, but it’s also very rewarding.
On the Boston-based Dale and Holley Show on WEEI you said, "Some of these reporters will tweet something that is contradictory to my piece and reporting and send me a direct message saying it is dead on. I don't know why they do that." Do you wish to disclose the reporters?
Wickersham: No, but I appreciate you asking.
What is your best guess as to why that happens?
Wickersham: Let me clear: I’ve never covered a team on a daily basis. I have a lot of respect for those who do. It’s demanding and unrelenting. Twitter has changed it so much, and not necessarily in a good way, some of my friends who cover teams have told me. You have to stay on top of so many things at once, and those who are the best at it are sheer grinders. As to those exchanges over DM and text, I still don’t know why it happens. To be fair, many writers who cover the Patriots as a beat or regularly—Albert Breer, Tom Curran, Greg Bedard, Ben Volin and his colleagues at the Boston Globe, and others—have reported on aspects of the tensions inside the building this year. People know. I tried to add as best I could to their fine reporting.
1a. The Titans-Chiefs game drew a 14.7 overnight across ABC and ESPN, well down from the 16.6 overnight the Texans-Raiders drew in same time slot last year.
1b.CBS NFL analyst Amy Trask on the hiring of Gruden.
1c. Asked by SI last week whether former president John Skipper had entered a treatment facility, ESPN declined comment. On Dec. 18, ESPN announced that Skipper, 62, had resigned from his position, citing a substance-addiction problem.
2. I asked six NFL writers—Eric Branch, Ben Goessling, Gary Klein, Stephen Holder, Nicki Jhabvala, and Mike Reiss—what the biggest story of the NFL postseason will be and what the most important story was they worked on during the 2017 regular season.
2a. Sports Media Watch listed its annual list of the top sports audiences of the year. Here’s the list for 2017.
2b. ESPN said it averaged 4,955,000 viewers for its 35 bowl games prior to the national title game, up 12% from last year.
2c. ESPN said Jan. 1, 2018 was the second most-viewed day in its history, with an average of 6,011,000 viewers for a full 24-hour span. That was thanks to the college football playoff semifinals and the Peach Bowl.
2d. NFL Network PR sent over a note that the NFL Network averaged 253,000 viewers for dates that occurred during the 2017 NFL regular season (Sept. 7–Dec. 31). That made it the second most-watched cable sports network overall behind ESPN for those dates, including 25% more viewers than ESPN2.
3. Episode 152 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Jemele Hill, the co-anchor of the 6:00 p.m. ET SportsCenter with Michael Smith (SportsCenter with Michael and Jemele). In this podcast, Hill discusses why 2017 was the most surreal year of her professional career; her tweets about President Donald Trump, the White House reaction to those tweets, and being mentioned by the President of the United States in a tweet; how Kevin Durant reached out to amid the Trump stuff; how she feels about the changes to her SportsCenter show; whether she fits into the SportsCenter paradigm; how much management discusses ratings with her; the surprise resignation of former ESPN president John Skipper and her reaction to the official announcement; her interaction with Skipper following his resignation; why so few black women have reached sports columnist status and the paltry number of African-American women in sports writing positions; trying to navigate a personal life versus professional advancement; growing up with parents as addicts; her desire to write more heading forward; establishing her own production company and the possibility of writing a memoir; what she hopes 2018 will bring, and much more.
You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.
4. Sports pieces of note:
• SI’s Ben Baskin spent a weekend with the soon-to-be Rookie of the Year, Alvin Kamara
• The Sporting News' Evan Sporer on Jordan Greenway, the first African American to represent Team USA in hockey at the Winter Olympics, breaking a 98-year old color barrier
• Chicago Tribune writer David Haugh, on former Bears kicker Kevin Butler on getting his college degree at 55
• New York Times writer Karen Crouse on Norwich, Vermont, a cradle of Winter Olympians
• From The Washington Post's Jesse Dougherty: For Mya Fourstar, making it to college basketball—and beyond the reservation she calls home—won’t be easy
• Sportsnet’s Gare Joyce, on why USA Hockey is set up for global domination
Non-sports pieces of note:
• My Life as a New York Times Reporter in the Shadow of the War on Terror: A truly remarkable piece from James Risen, a former New York Times investigative reporter covering the CIA
• Tremendous piece on NYC's subway system by Jonathan Mahler
• From The Chronicle of Higher Education: In a corner of Missouri and across America, the lack of a college education has become a public-health crisis
• By Politico’s Danny Vinik: The Real Future of Work
• Inside Silicon Valley’s Selective, Orgastic Dark Side
• From Pro Publica’s Kiera Feldman: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection
• From David Unger: Why a ‘paperless world’ still hasn’t happened
• From The Washington Post’s Richard Morgan: I read decades of Woody Allen’s private notes. He’s obsessed with teenage girls.
• From The New Yorker: The Dark Bounty of Texas Oil
• The politicizing of military widows is touching a nerve
5. Via Roanoke Times: ESPN extended the contract of Marty Smith. Great to see. That guy is a unique broadcasting talent
5a. The Golf Channel hired award-winning journalists Jaime Diaz and Tim Rosaforte
5b. Company man-ing: SI recently launched a weekly trivia game show that runs live Thursday afternoons on Facebook. The premise: SI staffers compete against each other as viewers vote on punishments for the loser like eating wasabi or taking a shaving cream pie to the face. The final episode of 2017 featured Group Editor Chris Stone against top soccer writer Grant Wahl (and drew 100,000 viewers—damn). New episodes return this week. Check it out here.
5c. ABC’s NBA Saturday Primetime returns on Jan. 20 with the Warriors at the Rockets. The schedule, unlike ESPN’s Monday Night Football, is top shelf:
NBA Saturday Primetime on ABC (8:30 p.m.)
Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets
Boston Celtics at Golden State Warriors
Houston Rockets at Cleveland Cavaliers
San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors
Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors
Boston Celtics at Houston Rockets
San Antonio Spurs at Oklahoma City Thunder
Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets
5d. ESPN cut ties with Donovan McNabb and Eric Davis following a month-long investigation into allegations of sexual harassment at the NFL Network.