The relationship between the Washington D.C. press corps and the local NFL team has always been interesting for outsiders given the famous names that have suited up on both sides. So close was the managing editor of the Washington Post to the football franchise that he frequently sat in the box of the team’s then-owner, the lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who also doubled as Ben Bradlee’s (the managing editor) best friend.
The Redskins beat has always had a Hunger Games-like feel to it given the passion of a highly educated fan base and the number of media entities competing for news, including national outlets such as ESPN. The team’s recent stretch of dysfunction, the debate over the nickname and a leadership vacuum in the locker room has made this a particularly interesting time covering the burgundy and gold.
It’s rare to get uniformity among the members of any NFL beat -- especially one as competitive as Washington -- which is why I was struck by how many Redskins media members went public on Sunday to refute a report from ESPN reporter Britt McHenry that Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III had alienated some members of the locker room. Most concerning for that group was the implication in the ESPN report that as Griffin began addressing the media in the locker room for the first time since dislocating his left ankle in Week 2, more than a dozen teammates began shouting in an effort to disrupt him from talking to reporters.
The implication was that the players were, at a minimum, showing the franchise quarterback little respect. The Washington Post’s always-excellent Dan Steinberg chronicled the many Redskins reporters who refuted McHenry’s assertion.
The report also drew a fiery post-game response from Redskins coach Jay Gruden, who was asked about it following Washington’s loss to Minnesota on Sunday. Gruden called the report "amateurish," the ESPN reporter an "amateur" and said the report was "totally not true."
On Sunday ESPN told Sports Illustrated that it stood by McHenry’s reporting. On Monday I conducted an email interview with McHenry set up by the network’s PR department. An ESPN PR staffer acknowledged his department would likely see McHenry’s answers prior to her sending them my way. I sent my questions directly to McHenry including asking her how confident she was that her sourcing was accurate. She remained unwavering.
"I'm confident enough in my reporting to do it all over again," McHenry said. "I spoke with multiple sources within the organization and even talked to players around the league who are familiar with the divisive relationships between Robert Griffin III and a few of his teammates. At ESPN, we don’t just go on the air without properly vetting our material. Multiple producers and editors at the network, from the one I worked with in Minnesota to our Countdown and SportsCenter producers and news editors in Bristol, were made aware of the report."
McHenry worked in sports for five years at the ABC affiliate in Washington D.C. before moving to ESPN. She remains based in that city as an ESPN bureau reporter. "Even if I’m not physically in Washington, which I was the day of the incident, I’m plugged into the team," she said.
Her reporting was backed up by colleagues Adam Schefter and Mike Wilbon (a former Post columnist) and also by Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman, a well-connected NFL writer. It was countered by many reporters on the Redskins beat including three Washington Post writers (beat writer Mike Jones, columnist Jason Reid, and feature writer Liz Clarke) who took to Twitter to refute the story.
Clarke: “Have resisted weighing in, but immature antics in Skins locker rm Fri was continued hostility toward media & PR staff. RG3 incidental @ best.”
Jones: “Re: ESPN locker room report: Grossly misinterpreted. The noise, yelling over intrvw was not directed at RGIII, but at Redskins PR… Certain Redskins players have yelled, whooped and hollered over interviews in locker room for weeks since PR gave extra availability.
Reid: “The immaturity in the locker room had more to do with dislike of the media than it had to do with Robert.”
Reporters from Washington’s NBC affiliate, the D.C.-based radio station 106.7 The Fan and Washington’s Comcast SportsNet also took to Twitter to refute the ESPN report. The Richmond Times-Dispatch took it a step further by writing a full piece. A beat reporter who was in the room when the alleged hooting went down told an SI.com staffer that the Redskins players were upset at senior vice president of communications Tony Wyllie for adding additional media access, and were hollering at Wyllie as RGIII attempted to do an interview.
On the subject of the reporters who cover the Redskins regularly refuting her characterization of what happened with Griffin III at his locker, McHenry said, "We were all in the locker room waiting for Griffin to address the media. As a reporter at ESPN, we always strive to be 'the eyes and ears' in the field. My purpose in detailing that incident was to show what several of those local reporters had even acknowledged on Friday as 'part of the narrative' in what seems to be an ongoing pattern of off the field issues in Washington.
"To be clear, I never said the locker room was shouting in revolt of Griffin starting on Sunday. Players were making jokes at team personnel, at us, and even chiding Griffin. The volume only escalated when he began speaking. It’s not uncommon to see athletes joke around before a fellow teammate addresses reporters, but it usually stops either immediately or shortly after the interview begins. That didn’t happen. We all had to leave the locker room so that Griffin could speak to us. Here is what I reported: 'When Robert Griffin III addressed the media on Friday for the first time since injuring himself in Week 2, about 15 players started shouting. It was so loud and distracting, the franchise quarterback -- and all the reporters -- had to walk outside the locker room where Griffin could speak and be heard.' That is exactly what happened. The situation was very unprofessional in what should be a professional locker room."
She continued, "When a marquee player, let alone a franchise quarterback speaks, there is usually enough decorum and command of presence for any behavior of that kind to subside. We don't see or hear about this when Tom Brady addresses the media, nor Aaron Rodgers, or the Mannings. Therefore, the incident prompted me to inquire about Washington’s franchise quarterback. My question was does Robert Griffin III have enough respect within the locker room? I was told 'no' by several people, including one source who said Griffin had 'alienated himself' from teammates."
On Monday I also spoke with Reid, who has covered the team as a beat writer and columnist since 2007. Reid wanted to be clear that he likes McHenry and took no pleasure in tweeting out a contradiction of her report. He said he was in the locker room on Friday and has been around Redskins Park long enough to have a healthy feel for the dynamic involving Griffin and his teammates.
"The report was not accurate," Reid said. "I like Britt. Obviously whether I like I her or not is not relevant to whether the report is accurate but I want to say that up front. I didn’t take any pleasure in tweeting what I did but I had people coming at me on Twitter and texts and emails about this so I thought it was something I could not ignore. This was not taking a shot at a fellow reporter.
"There were two components to that report. The first component was that Robert had alienated some of his teammates. The second component was that the level of hostility because he has alienated his teammates rose to such a level that his teammates shouted him out of the locker room, essentially because they do not respect him. Had Britt stopped with Robert alienating some of his teammates, that report I would not have had a problem with … It would be shocking with all the stuff that has happened over the past two years if Robert had not alienated some of his teammates. If she had reported there was a scene in the locker room when Robert was conducting his first interview since coming back and the interview had to be moved out of the locker room because players were making a bunch of noise, that would have been fine. What was not fine and what was inaccurate was this link that there is such hostility toward Robert because of the way he had alienated the team."
Reid said Redskins players had not been showing up for the pre-practice open locker room sessions with the media during the season and that in an effort to aid the media’s access to the players, Wyllie decided a couple of weeks ago to add a post-practice locker room session for the media.
Echoing the beat reporter who spoke to an SI.com staffer, Reid said the shouting toward Griffin III last Friday was directed at Wyllie and the media over the increased access. (Reid said he was standing on the outside of the RGIII scrum but did not ask questions of Griffin because he was writing on another topic that day.)
"Players have resented that [extra media session] for some time," Reid said. "After Tony did that, the hostility toward the media ramped up. You could feel it. Guys would be in the locker room and they were not happy we were coming in for a second session. So this has been coming for some time… Was this disrespectful to Robert? Absolutely. Would this have happened to Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? No way. But if you had a pie as to what percentage was contempt for Robert and what was contempt for the media, 99 percent of the pie was contempt for the media."
Reid continued, "Step back logically to think about this: Let’s say hypothetically speaking there are 20 players on that team who are tired of everything surrounding Robert. No one in a quasi-public setting is going to show that level of contempt for a guy who is a starting quarterback in the NFL. Anyone who has covered professional sports knows if that is the way they really feel about him, they will do that behind closed doors. They are not going to do that in front of people covering the team."
Reid said he felt badly for McHenry after Gruden called her out, especially in a social media world that often produces vitriol for sports media members, especially women sports reporters.
"I don’t take any pleasure in this," Reid said. "Again, I like Britt. But she’s not out there every day. Screw any competition. If she would have come and asked me, I would have walked her through the whole thing because it doesn’t benefit anyone to have something this potentially explosive out there and be inaccurate."
But McHenry did not back down on any of the questions I asked her, including if she was bothered were by the personal nature of the comments by Jay Gruden.
"At 3-6 going into a bye week, I’m sure Jay Gruden and the rest of his staff have other more pressing concerns," McHenry said. "But he’s an NFL head coach, and I figured he would publicly defend his starting quarterback. He’s doing his job. I was also doing mine. My report was not false. ESPN has several sources to confirm it."
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories
1. It’s not often sports fans get to see footage of two of the best basketball players on earth playing pickup ball but Tuesday night at 10 ET/PT on HBO as part of a one-hour documentary (“The Offseason: Kevin Durant”) on Kevin Durant, there’s a two-minute scene featuring Durant and Carmelo Anthony going at it on the indoor courts of Terminal 23 on Manhattan’s West Side. HBO’s cameras were there for two days of pickup games -- Anthony and Durant were on opposite sides of some five-on-fives -- and captured the two perennial All-Stars and scoring machines guarding each other.
HBO’s cameras and microphones were embedded with Durant from June 1 through the beginning of training camp for what the network says is a unique look at the training regimen of one of the NBA’s best. "Kevin was interested in letting people into his process and what he was doing behind the scenes," said Jamie Patricof, the executive producer of the film. "The idea was to show what is seen as the offseason for an athlete. I think people don’t have any idea how much work an athlete has to do in the offseason. There is not a day without a commitment."
Patricof and Rich Kleiman, Durant’s Roc Nation agent, knew each other from an ESPN series Patricof produced called "The Life," which ran in the early 2000s and profiled the life of athletes off the field. Given Durant is one of the producers, it brings up an obvious question. Are viewers getting authenticity or is the documentary merely meant to mythologize Durant? "You get what you get from Kevin," said Patricof. "This is who he is and it’s a very honest portrayal of him."
As part of the film Durant trains with Thunder teammates Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka. His current injury, a Jones fracture in his right foot, is addressed in the film but minimally. "He really feels like he is a regular guy who just happens to play basketball on TV sometimes," Patricof said.
The film will appear on HBO GO a couple of hours after the debut. Here’s a fun clip from the doc of kids attempting to score on Durant.
2. ESPN producer Ben Webber and reporter Tom Rinaldi deserve plenty of praise for their remarkable SportsCenter long-form feature on Lauren Hill, a 19-year-old Mount St. Joseph freshman who was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and expected to live only until December. Hill played her first college basketball game on Sunday and the scene would melt the hardest person. I emailed Webber on Monday to get some background on how the feature came together.
How long did you shoot with Lauren Hill?
Webber: We starting shooting with Lauren and her family on October 27th. We met her at her house at 6:30 a.m. and followed her to practice that day. We were with her all the way through the end of the day on Sunday (Nov.2). We spent as much time with Lauren and her family as they wanted us to. Some days it was just a couple of hours; other days we would be with her the majority of the day. When Lauren wanted to rest, she rested and we would go work on other stuff for the story.
How much access did the family give you?
The family gave us a lot of access, probably more than I was expecting. I had flown down the Monday prior to shooting (Oct. 20) to meet with Lauren and her family and talk about their comfort level with telling the story. They were very open and accepting to how we wanted to try to tell the story, and Lauren was really the one making those decisions when it came to access. Lauren wanted us to show more than basketball practices and game prep, she wanted us to see the struggle, to know what DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) does to you and to realize it is a constant battle that she is not giving up on.
What did you hope to convey in the piece?
I wanted to convey just how strong and courageous Lauren is, and I wanted her attitude and spirit to shine through. I wanted to show how this young woman from a small town in Indiana had the capability of capturing the attention of a nation. I wanted Lauren's voice to be heard, and wanted her presence that I felt from the first day I met her, to be felt through the screen.
How difficult is it to shoot a story where you know the subject you are shooting might not live past the end of the year?
This was by far the hardest story I have ever worked on in my career. There were times throughout the week where I was not sure Lauren would be able to play in the game, that she may have physically just been too weak to make it out there. We saw her in pain a lot, and that was really difficult to experience, but her attitude throughout helped to get us all through it. She is so positive and happy the majority of the time that you can’t help but feel that way when you are around her. The toughest times this week were when I allowed myself to think about how her story is going to end, and that broke me every time. This is a story that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
3. CBS said the Patriots-Broncos game on Sunday afternoon drew the network’s highest overnight rating (18.6) for an NFL game on CBS this season. It was the third highest-rated regular season game in 16 years on CBS in the metered markets since the NFL returned to the network in 1998. When the viewership numbers come out, they will probably show something in the range of 25-26 million viewers.
3a. ESPN’s telecast of the Cavs-Bulls last Friday drew a 3.1 overnight rating, the third-highest rated regular-season NBA game ever on ESPN.
4. SiriusXM FC’s channel posted a highlight reel of some of Ray Hudson’s great calls.
5. CBS News and Showtime Sports correspondent Armen Keteyian and producers Deirdre Cohen and Sarah Koch have a piece Tuesday on Showtime’s 60 Minutes Sports surrounding an alleged sexual assault of a young woman at the University of Montana by four members of the football team.
"It runs nearly 18 minutes and is one of the most powerful and important stories I've done in quite some time," says Keteyian.
5a. Wanted to add some pieces that I failed to include in Monday’s best of the week journalism.
• Highly recommend this 60 Minutes piece on recruiting for ISIS in the West. Scary stuff.
• Alex McDaniel, on love, loss and Ole Miss football.
• I’m 41, Single and Pregnant, by Rachel Sklar.
•Cord Jefferson wrote a beautiful piece on the kindness of his mother.