Roundtable: NFL reporters on concussions, under-covered stories and more
- NFL media members discuss getting beat by national reporters and how players view concussions, among other topics related to the beat. Plus the best journalism of the week and more.
As we approach the conference championship week of the NFL season, I thought it would be a good time to empanel some respected NFL media members for a roundtable discussion on a number of NFL-related topics, including the most under-covered story in the NFL, how forthcoming teams are about injuries, what it’s like to get beat by national reporters, how issues of concussions and domestic violence have changed how they feel about the beat they cover, and much more. They were terrific.
• Les Bowen, Eagles beat writer/columnist, Philadelphia Daily News.
• Eric Branch, Niners reporter, San Francisco Chronicle.
• Mary Kay Cabot, Browns beat reporter, Cleveland.com.
• Mike Freeman, NFL national lead writer, Bleacher Report.
• John McClain, NFL writer, Houston Chronicle.
• Armando Salguero, NFL columnist, Miami Herald.
The panel was asked to go as long or as short as they wanted with their answers. They were free to skip any questions. Some of the answers have been edited for clarity.
What is the biggest under-covered story in the NFL and why?
Bowen: I'm going to say race. One of the players I cover, Malcolm Jenkins, mounted a season-long national anthem protest, in support of Colin Kaepernick and others. There was a lot of negative, visceral social media reaction. We ended up talking several times during the season to Malcolm about racial issues. Just before the election, he ventured the opinion that just about all of the white players on the team were going to vote for Trump. We confidently told him he was wrong and referenced several guys we were pretty sure would not. Then we checked ... all but one or two of them were indeed voting for Trump. I can't imagine how people who work in a majority black environment, as NFL players do, could embrace the views of Trump and the people advising him, but there you are. There was a Twitter question from somewhere during the season asking what a player from 30 or 40 years ago would find most different about the current NFL. One of the answers that stuck with me is how much “blacker” the league has become. I think this is something white fans would rather not think about, but do think about, at least subconsciously. Witness PFT Commenter’s [of Barstool Sports] humor, based on fan racial stereotypes that everyone recognizes.
Branch: The use of powerful and addictive painkillers. It is a player-safety issue that receives far less coverage than concussions partly because it’s more difficult to report: They are dispensed behind closed doors and it can require ex-players to implicate their former teams if their pain was recklessly masked. As far as current players, they are loath to discuss injuries, let alone detail how they manage to play through a torn triceps or MCL sprain. In addition, I think there is a no-duh feeling among media and the public on the subject. We understand the NFL is violent and accept painkillers are needed as a result. It’s not uncommon to see an injured player get carted to the locker room and—voilà—quickly return to the game. What happened? He likely received more than a great tape job on his ankle. This past season, before the 49ers played the Jets, wide receiver Brandon Marshall said he barely remembered his three-touchdown performance against the 49ers in 2014 because of the painkillers he took to play though a high ankle sprain. It didn’t become a national story because it’s an accepted—and poorly understood—part of the NFL.
Cabot: I don’t know that there are many huge under-covered stories in the NFL, but I believe there are plenty of medium-sized ones. Why does the NFL let its quarterbacks get killed game after game? It’s your marquee position and you’re letting their brains get scrambled 20 times a game. I can’t tell you how many times I look at the quarterback after a throw and he’s getting slammed to the ground—and it’s not getting called. How many more Bernie Kosars—with post-concussion syndrome—does the NFL need before it realizes it has to protect its QBs better? Then there’s the lack of women and minorities in key positions. The NFL is making some progress on this, but there’s a long way to go. It’s really the old boys’ network with a shocking lack of diversity in higher-level positions. Personnel departments are one place where teams should employ more women to evaluate talent and vet players. Many NFL players were raised by their mothers and grandmothers and feel more comfortable opening up to women. Teams might find out more about a player if they approach it from a different perspective. Another fascinating story is how the coaching agents drive the bus on head coach hires and how they groom assistants for the role and then impact placement. And one that I think about a lot: the NFL misses red flags by players who are in emotional trouble. If you read the cues, often in the locker room, you can sometimes tell when a player is in emotional distress. Johnny Manziel is the perfect example: He cried out for help for two years and everyone missed it until it was too late. Now, he’s out of football. Terrell Owens is another one. He spent a career being in emotional distress and people misread the signs. He wasn’t O.K. The NFL needs to do a better job of intervening when a player exhibits warning signs.
Freeman: The greed of some owners. Plain and simple. We're looking at potentially three NFL teams—Rams, Chargers and Raiders—moving within a year or so. The number of teams moving in such a short period isn't unprecedented, but the amount of money these owners are making because of sweet stadium deals is. Forbes estimated the 49ers, because of their new stadium, are earning around $154 million in profit annually. I think we're in the greediest era the sport has ever seen. Owners can literally make billions changing locales and there's no repercussions. They can suck at their jobs, be awful at hiring football staff, not give a damn about the team, and still make out like bandits. This level of greed is one of the biggest stories that remains vastly under-reported. Meanwhile, a player holds out for more cash and he's called every name in the book. Most owners don't get CTE.
McClain: Alcoholism and mental illness in former players and coaches once they’re out of the game and how it causes the breakup of marriages and deteriorating relationships with their children, other family members and friends. We read coverage of marijuana and the possible reality of legalization in more and more states. We see coverage of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs as well as products that are banned by the league. We learn more and more about physical disabilities but don’t see much about mental issues that can affect so many. Also, alcoholism is so prevalent that it’s almost become so commonplace it doesn’t attract nearly as much interest as it should.
Salguero: The biggest under-covered story in the NFL every year is how huge a factor faith in God and Jesus Christ is in the playing and coaching of the sport. Every day, in season and out of season, coaches and players (and women on staff) pray before they begin their duties and often ask God through Jesus Christ for guidance and health in the carrying out of their functions. Yes, they get paid and rewarded, but for many, everything they do is unto God. It is their motivator and at the center of who they are. In times of adversity, which come often in the NFL, they turn to their faith for answers, strength and encouragement. That touchdown celebration you see every weekend, where guys point to the sky? That's not the first or only time these men address God, Christ, and heaven, but rather that is the public view of a deep and daily walk and relationship these people have with their Lord. Many of these people see themselves as Christians first and employees of the NFL later. And yet, their stories—their testimonies—go unreported because the media is largely secular and the NFL wants to keep the game largely secular despite the fact a large percentage of its employees are believers.
Do you ever wonder why Faith, Family, and Football became Friends, Family and Football? or Fun, Family and Football? Or Food, Family and Football? That didn't happen by accident. Someone decided to edit out faith for whatever reason or agenda, be it political correctness or sheer intolerance for religion. When sideline reporters ask a question after the game and the player says, "First I want to thank my Lord Jesus Christ," the follow up is never, "For what? What did He do for you?" The follow is more likely about a touchdown run or turnover. Disagree? Here's a test: Did you cringe or roll your eyes when you read the first sentence of this answer? Yeah, faith in God and Jesus Christ among NFL people makes the media uncomfortable and reporters and news organizations run away from the topic.
How have the issues of concussions and domestic violence changed, if at all, how you feel about the beat you cover?
Bowen: Yeah, that’s something I really feel. If I’d lived in ancient Rome, would I have been scribbling on some scroll about what a beautiful move the lion made to take down the Christian? Sometimes it feels like that. I try hard not to feed into the “back when men were men, that wouldn’t have been a penalty” line of thinking. I believe football must be made safer. If there are people watching who will stop watching if players aren’t knocking each other out, I say let those people watch something else. NASCAR doesn’t worry about losing fans who get a thrill from the prospect of seeing drivers maimed or killed. The domestic violence issue is tougher. I think our culture is moving very quickly in the right direction on this, and the NFL is just going to have to come with it. High school and college players need to know mistreating women will affect their careers, just as seriously as if they’d shot someone or robbed a bank. I especially don’t like it when you get the sense the player isn’t really contrite, but is saying what he’s been told to say, or just won’t talk about what he did at all, giving you no idea whether he feels remorse. If a guy is sincerely working on a “second chance,” fine, let that mostly linger in the background and write about how he plays, but I’m not gonna get all Brent Musburgery about how great it is that he’s overcoming adversity, or any of that crap.
Branch: This question reminds me of what former 49ers linebacker Chris Borland, who retired after one stellar season because of brain trauma concerns, asked Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne in this story: “How do you reconcile?” Borland asked him. “It seems like you have some concerns, but you cover football.” I don’t have a great answer. I have a passion for journalism and football, and have never considered pursuing another job because of the NFL’s unseemly aspects. But I have increasingly felt angry when Roger Goodell hails the league’s emphasis on player safety and refuses to dismiss a money-grab 18-game regular season as a possibility. And, like many, I was sickened by how the league handled the Ray Rice scandal and the win-at-whatever-cost mentality that guided the 49ers after defensive tackle Ray McDonald was arrested for felony domestic violence in 2014. But perhaps I should feel even more angry and ill. If I did, I’d probably find a way to handle the daily beat grind and also use my modest platform to write stories that cast a harsh light on the NFL’s hypocrisy.
Cabot: I really worry about the concussions. The violent blows to the head game after game have me so concerned about the futures of these young men. The NFL must continue to legislate blows to the head out of the game, and must continue to improve technology to prevent concussions. The truth is, we don’t really know the long-term implications, because we haven’t studied them long enough. I’ve talked to enough former players with brain issues to know that it’s a widespread and grave concern. As for domestic violence, the warning signs must not be ignored. Manziel’s volatile relationship with Colleen Crowley was not taken seriously enough when he was here. A drunken Crowley accused him of harming her and they were permitted to get back in the car and go home together. The well-being of players has become an increasing concern of mine over the years, perhaps because I’m the mother of three children. More education, more intervention and more people reporting red flags in a player would help. I have actually alerted teams and agents if I think a player is in trouble. Sudden behavior changes or mood swings should not be ignored. It takes a village.
Freeman: I have to admit I watch the sport differently. I always cringed when I saw a hard hit, mainly because while they made the choice to play, and earn millions doing so, they're still human beings. Now that I have all this knowledge of not just what hard hits do, but what the every down movements of football do, I cringe even more. I love the sport and always will, and I love that I get to write about it, and these are adults making informed choices, but it's sometimes still difficult to watch.
McClain: Concussions have been well chronicled. There’s no doubt the league has taken a more active role in trying to be preventive, but let’s be honest: It’s the NFL, and there always will be concussions suffered because hitting is the nature of the game. Many players I cover are more worried about knee injuries than head trauma. As for domestic violence, it’s too bad that a video will produce more serious repercussions than the printed word. It’s amazing how many more NFL players seem to be involved in domestic violence issues than players in other sports. The league and teams take domestic violence seriously. I know the Texans had panel discussions with players in the off-season and brought out experts to talk to them about domestic violence and just violence against women. It was very informative.
Salguero: Years ago, domestic violence was not a career ender. The violence of it, often illustrated by nothing other than a police report, was covered more dispassionately. Since the Ray Rice incident (tape) I believe we have come to understand how unacceptable under any circumstance it is for a man to hit a woman. That incident, now etched vividly in our minds, was a portrait of what domestic violence actually looks like. It was in our face. That video made domestic violence a non-starter for the media and for a lot of teams. I don't recall it being that way prior to the video.
What happens (and how do you feel) when a national reporter breaks a story of your team?
Bowen: In the NFL, I’ve become inured to this. “It’s Chinatown, Jake.” The league has its own network, and other rightsholders who pay it lots of money. I don’t pay anybody. There is a small cadre of national “insider” reporters who serve as go-betweens, information exchangers, when teams want to know what other teams are thinking, or agents want to get something out. These guys break most of the big stories, but they are in show business more than they are in journalism. Many times I would not agree to the constraints they seemingly operate under. Hard to remember the last time any of them was seriously critical of an agent, or a GM. That is not the business I am in. I am not IN the circus, I am covering it.
I respect what they do, the work they put in. But they work under vastly different circumstances. As to what happens, I think editors these days understand the relationships and that this is how the team curries favor with these influential national figures. In my market, I believe local TV, radio and newspaper reporters influence fan opinion more than the national guys do, but the Eagles clearly don’t see it that way. All that having been said, it was pure luck, but I was the guy who got to break the news that Doug Pederson was being named Eagles coach last year. And I reveled in that—not against my fellow local reporters, but against the big guns.
Branch: I try to quickly confirm the story. And I don’t feel good.
Cabot: Every year it gets increasingly difficult for the local beat writers to break stories and do their jobs, because some agents have agreements with the national reporters to provide scoops. In some cases, the agents get good information from the reporters in return, and this has been well-documented. Not all national reporters operate this way, of course, but some do. Here’s an example of how this works: I once received a tip from a former Browns assistant coach that the Browns were about to sign a free-agent quarterback. Instead of just reporting it, I wanted to double-check. I called the player’s agent and he said, “I’ll get back to you in a minute.’’ He hung up, and called a national reporter, who broke the story on Twitter within seconds of the agent hanging up with me. Many agents are still very professional and don’t play this corrupt game. But too many do, and yet they still expect good local coverage for their clients. Local beat writers also have to compete against national reporters who are represented by the same agencies as the players and coaches they cover. It’s complete conflict of interest and no one calls anybody on it. Then there’s NFL Network, which adds another whole layer to the weird dynamic.
It’s not a level playing field, but we deal with it because we love our jobs and are grateful to have them. One GM told me a member of the national media put him on a three-way call so he could secretly hear another GM telling the reporter what he was offering a free agent. But there are ways to combat some of this. For starters, the league office —which is dealing with declining ratings—could be more forthcoming with local beat writers and help us stay on top of news. Teams can also work more effectively with the local media. Don’t wait to craft a beautiful piece for your website on breaking news. Break it yourself on Twitter, like John Elway does in Denver. Give the local media a heads up on news, which the Browns are doing a great job of lately. Announce things the moment they happen. Thirty seconds later is too late.
Freeman: I always applauded them. But when I covered the Giants, Jay Glazer was on the beat. He beat everyone, all the time. He and ESPN's Adam Schefter are the best two reporters I've ever seen. So I'd get beat by Jay and then by national guys, too. It was like fighting Ali and Foreman simultaneously.
McClain: It makes me sick to my stomach. I don’t begrudge a national reporter getting information on my team, but I still hate it because it makes me feel I’m not doing my job well enough. I try to confirm and give them credit. I still take it personally because it’s my beat. I understand it, though. They’ve got a job to do, too. What I don’t like are stories in the national media that aren’t true, and I have to react. I don’t like to shoot down stories, especially when some of my friends have them, but if the boss demands it, I have to. There’s little accountability for misinformation any more, unfortunately. It’s all about clicks and hits and less about accurate journalism.
Salguero: The temptation is to go all Odell Beckham Jr. on a wall somewhere. Instead, I try to figure out how not to let it happen again. I have a high regard and respect for most of the national reporters. They are obviously much better at their jobs than I could ever be. I do find it extremely disappointing when sources (often agents) serve up information to national reporters to curry favor. They do not realize it is the local reporters who are around every day after the national media moves on to other things. And if you dismiss a local reporter in favor of a national reporter, you expose your client, your team, your interests to more rigorous coverage on a daily basis by the local reporter who had previously been considered too unimportant to help. It sounds vengeful, I know. It isn't. It's fact. It's human nature and I've seen it play out hundreds of times the past dozen years or so.
How accessible is the management of your team to you, including the owner, GM, and team president?
Bowen: Not very accessible. Owner talks once or twice a year and the GM only seems to be talking now in the off-season, in formal, on-camera settings. The team president is mainly a business-side guy in the Eagles’ setup. We have some access to him but nothing he does involves football decisions, so unless we’re writing about parking or tickets or something, there’s little need.
Branch: They are largely inaccessible. The 49ers have said they want their head coach to speak for the franchise during the season, which means owner Jed York and their recently fired general manager, Trent Baalke, have mostly been unavailable. York usually only speaks after coach firings and hirings, which have become something of an annual tradition. Baalke, who has likened chats with reporters to root canals, grudgingly met with local writers about three times a year: at the combine, before the draft and during training camp.
Cabot: The Browns are unique in that they’ve had so much turnover over the years—including at the very top—that it’s hard to establish the relationships that many reporters have with the teams they cover. In Cleveland, you get to the point where a GM feels he can trust you, and he’s gone within a year or two. After one of the recent regime blowups, a departing head coach told Jimmy Haslam he had the leakiest building in the NFL. So Haslam battened down the hatches, and now the local media has very little access to the owner, GM or team president. What we get are the periodic scheduled news conferences where you have to fight to get your question in, and you can’t develop a line of questioning. Meanwhile, “the nationals” still quote “team sources.” In the past, we’d stand around at practice talking to former Browns owner Art Modell or former GM Ernie Accorsi. You’d get to know people. You’d hear great stories about Modell hanging out with [actors] Chuck Heston and Susie Pleshette. Accorsi would tell stories about Johnny Unitas from his days with the Colts. We’re missing out on a lot of great storytelling and relationship-building these days. Here’s how to solve the problem and also level the playing field so that 15 beat writers aren’t trying to call the GM every day: occasionally have the GM, president or coach come down to the media room and just shoot the breeze with the beats in an off-the-record session. Explain your thinking on a move. Give it some texture. Tell the backstory on a trade. Loosen up. Laugh a little. It’s football, people.
Freeman: I don't cover a specific team any longer but when I did, everyone was accessible. I find almost everyone to be highly accessible. There's one GM in the league that Indiana Jones couldn't find with GPS and a flashlight but most are really helpful.
McClain: I have no issues getting an audience with Texans owner Bob McNair, general manager Rick Smith and president Jamey Rootes. They’re not available on a daily basis, of course, but all try to be cooperative when requested. McNair is very accessible. Smith is more accessible after the season because he believes coach Bill O’Brien should be front and center during the season. Rootes, who’s been with the organization since its inception, is available when he’s asked to do an interview.
Salguero: Accessibility is a tricky thing. I often see general manager Chris Grier and executive vice president Mike Tannenbaum. If I have a question, they might give me an answer. They definitely do not run away. But do they hold pressers during the season? No. Owner Stephen Ross goes to every game. Is he holding pressers? No. But I did talk to him and even wrote a column with his quotes once or twice this season. Again, if I chase these people down for one significant thing, I'm going to get them. But press conferences? Not in season. Outside the season, Ross speaks before and after the season and at the NFL annual meeting. The GM and Executive VP also speak after the season, at the annual meeting and around draft time.
How forthcoming are players about CTE, concussions and medical issues?
Bowen: Some players are quite forthcoming. Management doesn’t like them to discuss their injuries while they are sidelined, doesn’t want them giving timeframes, etc. Some players abide by this, others don’t. Concussions, though, I’ve found this generation of players pretty open. A lot of them seem to think they understand CTE and the dangers, but I wonder if they really do. When you’re 25, middle age or old age seems an abstract, quaint notion.
Branch: Not very. As far as current medical issues, the tone is set by the team, which doesn’t even refer to the pre-game injury report as the pre-game injury report (Practice Participation and Game Status Report). Players often refer questions about their injuries to the head trainer who, of course, is not available to the media. Regarding potential long-term consequences of playing in the NFL, players often sound like they are reading from the same script: We chose this sport, we accept the risks, etc. I didn’t get a sense players were eager to see the movie Concussion, and I can understand their reluctance to do so. The only time I can recall a player describing post-concussion symptoms in detail was in 2014 when right tackle Anthony Davis said he was scared after his concussion left him in a “white fog.” In a macho culture, it was a rare admission. And it was telling that Davis retired (for the first time) months later.
Cabot: NFL players are trained not to give too much information on concussions and other medical issues, but I’ve found that the veterans are usually willing to tell you when they’re hurting, because they want you to know why they’re not themselves. A lot of money and accolades are at stake. For instance, Joe Haden played most of the 2016 season with two torn groin muscles, which he recently had surgically repaired. Yet, he’s still required to cover the opponent’s best receiver such as Antonio Brown or A.J. Green. Terrelle Pryor played the final 2 1/2 games with a broken finger that required surgery after the season, which explained a few uncharacteristic drops. Players aren’t permitted to talk after a game in which they’ve suffered a concussion, but they’re usually very forthcoming when they’re cleared about their symptoms, about whether or not they lost consciousness and how they feel about the long-term risks. Rookies and first-year players still often refer injury questions to the coach. I’ve been told by one former player that the concussion protocol can be manipulated to a certain degree if you know how to play the game.
Freeman: Teams and players still lie all the time when it comes to head trauma. Has the league gotten better? Absolutely. But it's all relative. Players lie, coaches lie, medical staffs lie. Happens every day. It has to. There has to be a level of hiding and duplicity or there would be constant conflict between the realities of football and the league's concussion protocols. You can't see it really on television but when you cover games, literally almost every play, a guy's head slams off the ground. And I mean slams. One game I covered this season, I saw a guy hit his head hard on the turf. He looked dazed. I know the player and asked him about it afterwards and he said he was fine. He texted me a few weeks later apologizing for lying to me and hoped I understood. I definitely understood.
McClain: Current players on the Texans talk very little about any kind of injury because coach Bill O’Brien is so secretive, believing any morsel of information can be advantageous to opponents. Former players are much more forthcoming.
Salguero: I find that even today, many active players are not fully versed on CTE and concussions and don't wish to fully engage in conversations or interviews on the topic. Retired players are much more willing to engage on the topic and are often much more educated about it as well. By the way, I could use a ton more education on the topic as well. That's a failing on my part.
What position group is the toughest to interview, and why?
Bowen: Never once thought about this. I’m not sure I see big differences. It’s a truism that offensive linemen are the most down-to-earth, easiest to talk to, and I’d go along with that. Access is different with the starting quarterback, most of the time. Given the spotlight’s glare, that might be my answer. Getting to really know the team’s starting QB, sharing any sort of human moment with him, ever, is extremely difficult in the NFL of 2017. Mostly he stands behind a lectern and we shout questions.
Branch: Quarterbacks. They are an extension of the head coach, who might be the most secretive and paranoid people in professional sports. My experience admittedly is probably heavily influenced by spending the past five seasons interviewing Colin Kaepernick, who once offered 87 words in response to 32 questions. Kaepernick was trained by Jim Harbaugh. And Harbaugh’s well-known competitive streak extended to how little useful information he could provide reporters. For example, Harbaugh would answer any question hinting at Xs-and-Os by responding, “That’s scheme. We don’t discuss scheme.” Kaepernick has become far friendlier with reporters, but he remains just as opaque when discussing football. Harbaugh would be proud.
Cabot: Receivers can be the trickiest group because they often have the biggest egos, they can be defensive, and some are very me-oriented. But they’re also often the most enjoyable, because they’re colorful, they’re good quotes and they almost always give you a good story. Terrelle Pryor was an interesting interview this year because one minute he’d be admonishing the media for making it seem like he was at odds with his quarterback, and then next, he’d give you a great quote about the big picture of going 1–15. Corey Coleman challenged the media to look at his targets and decide how many were actually catchable balls. He’d turn the tables and ask you a question. Receivers, in general, are passionate, emotional and like to talk. Back in the day, if I had an issue with a player, it was almost always a receiver. Now, they’re some of my favorites to interview because of the challenge. The easiest group to talk to are the offensive linemen. If I had to grab a beer with a player, it would be an O-lineman. They rarely get the media love, and they’re always happy to talk. Funny, self-deprecating, will poke fun at their size. Normal, no egos and just fun to be around. They’re the breath of fresh air in the locker room.
Freeman: Fullbacks, they're all jerks. Kidding. I love dealing with receivers but they can be brutal. They love talking (which is good for writers) but ask them why they dropped a pass and they tell you to f--- off. Everything's about them. One of them will be president some day. Two best groups to interview, by far: offensive linemen and kickers.
McClain: In 38 years of covering the Oilers and Texans, I’ve never had a position group that was more difficult than others. Players? Yes. Positions? No. I think some positions are better than others. Quarterback, of course, and I think most would agree that offensive linemen in general are among the most intelligent and personable players and are more likely to provide insight and information.
Salguero: The wide receivers are typically the most difficult group to understand and thus interview. One guy is shy and doesn't love to talk because he feels uncomfortable with the reporter. So he and the reporter never get to know each other. So that relationship goes nowhere. Another guy is outgoing and active and wants coverage, but he doesn't want any criticism because he takes it personally. Another guy is smart but because he is, he's always guarded and wanting to set his own agenda—and often his agenda is not my agenda. Often, his agenda is simply repeating the company line from the head coach, things like, "It's next man up around here." I believe receivers are often the most versatile athletes on the team. They are often the most gifted athletes on the team. They can also be the most tempestuous, the smartest, the most entertaining, the most frustrating, and sometimes the most insightful.
How do you approach reporting within the team complex the day after you've written a critical story on the organization or a player?
Bowen: This is something I’ve had a fair amount of experience with over the years, covering both hockey and football. My approach remains the same: be there, be visible, be accessible. But I don’t make a point of going over to the guy and standing in front of him with my chest stuck out or anything; that can be viewed as provocative. In the rare cases when someone has a serious problem with what I write, generally team PR sets up some sort of private meeting. That hasn’t happened in quite a while. But in the Philly market, there’s so much media and so much really extreme, off-the-wall, sometimes completely misinformed criticism, from talk radio and please-click-me bloggers, I think it’s hard for a “normal” journalist to really piss people off.
Branch: For starters, in the case of a player, I let him know before the story is written, if possible. For example, I wrote about a leadership void in the 49ers’ locker room this season. During the reporting, I explained my premise to veteran safety Antoine Bethea: He and others such as left tackle Joe Staley were stoic, lead-by-example types, and the team’s lack of forceful leadership was a problem. Bethea didn’t agree, but he wasn’t surprised when the story came out. Similarly, I’ve told tight end Vance McDonald, a former second-round pick, that I wanted to talk to him for a story about the disappointing start to his career and the perception of him as a draft bust. This isn’t always necessary or appropriate. That is, I don’t think the quarterback needs a heads-up before you write he was terrible in a four-interception game. I approach it by showing up the next day and doing my job. As long as critical stories are fair, there shouldn’t be a need to seek out people to apologize or clarify.
Cabot: You walk in and do your job just like any other day, and you brace yourself for a tongue-lashing. Once, when I interviewed Colt McCoy’s father and he told me his son never should have been put back in the Pittsburgh game with a concussion, then team president Mike Holmgren called me out to the hallway and read me the riot act. Most of the time, the GMs and coaches don’t chastise you directly. Often, the PR director will express the team’s view either over the phone or in person. I recently wrote that the Browns needed to hire a football GM with final say over the personnel decisions, which would strip that responsibility from current executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown. I never received any backlash from Brown or anyone in the organization. I think if you’re fair in your criticism and don’t make it personal, people can respect that. And if you’re wrong, admit it. Our baseball writer at cleveland.com, Paul Hoynes, wrote the Indians off after some major injuries, and took a lot of grief from players. Hoynesie poked fun at himself by videotaping himself jumping in Lake Erie. It was hilarious. This is sports. It’s supposed to fun.
Freeman: It was always tense. When I covered the Giants, and I'd write something critical, my phone would ring that morning very early. It was always George Young, the late general manager. And he'd begin the conversation with: "Are you a f------ idiot?" George was one of the best human beings I've ever met but he'd get pissed! (George should be in the Hall of Fame, by the way.)
McClain: Business as usual. I don’t think players read newspapers—or perhaps read in general—nearly as much as they used to. When I was younger, players read the newspapers every day. They would get angry or merely annoyed at what I wrote and let me know it. I always believed—and still do—that one-on-one communication is the best way to solve any issue. Maybe it’s because I’m older and have been doing this for so long, but players seldom react to what I wrote. Twitter is different. Some have blocked me. I have no problem with that. It’s their prerogative.
Salguero: I show up. And whatever happens, happens.
What team do you consider the most media friendly and why?
Bowen: I have the blinders on so tight—I visit other press boxes, but I only cover one team on a daily basis. I would not rank it the best or the worst. I know teams like the Giants and the Broncos do an amazing job of disseminating quotes and information, but I don’t really know what covering them day to day is like.
Branch: I’ve been impressed with the Broncos. One example: In 2015, the 49ers drafted a tight end, Blake Bell, who began his college career as a quarterback. It was similar to the college career path of tight end Owen Daniels, who was then with Denver. I requested a phone interview with Daniels, and was speaking with him in less than 24 hours. They’ve been similarly helpful about helping me get in touch with one of their former players, Rick Upchurch, for a story on punt returning. And they’ve connected me with Von Miller’s mom, who took in 49ers defensive lineman Tony Jerod-Eddie when he was in high school. All-Pro stuff.
Cabot: So many PR departments in the NFL are amazing. Jack Brennan of the Bengals, who’s retiring this off-season, was one of the best. A former NFL beat writer, he knew exactly what writers needed and went out of his way to provide it. His releases were amazing. He always went the extra mile and made everyone’s job easier. NFL PR departments are generally excellent. The Steelers have an open policy where you can stop into someone’s office and talk. The better teams seem to have a good handle on a functional relationship with the media. I could go on and on about the great PR people in the NFL such as Amy Palcic with the Texans, and Ted Crews of the Chiefs.
Freeman: Most media friendly: Steelers, Giants, Packers, three-way tie. One of the simplest things to do to make a media guy happy is just return a damn e-mail or phone call. Even if the answer is no or can't do it. That's fine. You would be stunned how many teams don't get this simple rule.
McClain: I have no issue with the team I cover, the Texans. I used to cover the NFL for eight years between covering the Oilers and Texans. I could have answered this question with more insight. As it is, I can only respond about my team, and I don’t have any problems. Others in the Houston media may not believe that, but that’s how I feel personally.
Salguero: The Miami Dolphins. Are you kidding? Under [communication staffers] Jason Jenkins and Matt Taylor, this team is interested in forging a working relationship with the media instead of an adversarial standoff. When they can provide context, they provide it. When players decide they don't wish to talk, they move on the player to get that changed. When there is a rift between a reporter and a player or a reporter and a player's kooky wife, they try to find common ground to ease tensions. Did I mention they serve lunch for the media every day? Beat that one, everybody.
What team do you consider the least media friendly and why?
Bowen: (Same answer as above)
Branch: The vast majority of my dealings have been with the 49ers. I haven’t dealt with another team that’s been consistently difficult.
Cabot: I really haven’t run across any teams in the NFL that aren’t media friendly. I deal mostly with the AFC North teams, and they’re all excellent. Again, the league and the NFLPA should help the local beats more. We’re making all the right phone calls and asking all the right questions. We can pump the news out nationally just as fast as anyone. Just make it a little less frustrating. We need answers.
Freeman: Least media friendly: tempted to answer, tempted to answer, tempted to answer ... nope, not gonna do it.
McClain: Sorry, but I’m not qualified to answer that since I cover the Texans and not the league the way I used to. In the Texans’ division, I find the Titans, Colts and Jaguars easy to deal with. Maybe that’ll change in Jacksonville since Tom Coughlin has returned. He made it very difficult for the media when he coached the Jaguars all those years. From what I hear, the Saints are difficult. And the Patriots, of course. The Raiders used to be. Based on what we saw in Philadelphia with Jeff McLane maybe the Eagles have become tougher to cover, I’m not sure.
Salguero: As I'm not around all the other teams on a daily basis and don't wish to slime one PR department or another based on one unpleasant incident or sour exchange, I think I'll pass on this question. Oh look, a no comment from the reporter!
How, if at all, do you discuss politics with players and coaches?
Bowen: Haven’t done that very often. Never with coaches. A little with players, especially this past year. I would say I do it gingerly. You don’t want to do anything that creates obstacles to doing your job. I would never want a guy to think I judged his play harshly because I didn’t like his politics. It’s a dangerous door to open, unless you know the player very well.
Branch: My only political “discussions” have come in group settings with Kaepernick this season.
Cabot: I tried to ask Hue Jackson in a press conference if he addressed Donald Trump’s election with his players and he didn’t want to go there. Some players, such Browns receiver Andrew Hawkins, will discuss politics willingly and other issues in the news such as police brutality and racial profiling. If the players are willing, you can get some great stories on these social issues, and maybe effect change. We had a big issue here in Cleveland when running back Isaiah Crowell posted an illustration of a police officer being stabbed in the neck. Crowell immediately deleted the Instagram post, and learned a hard lesson from the experience. The local police union got involved and Crowell issued an apology. He also sent a game check to the Dallas Fallen Officers Foundation. Crowell learned and grew from the experience, and some good will come out it because of the work he’ll do in the community. I believe it’s important to cover these social issues and their impact on players and the community.
Freeman: I discuss politics with coaches and players almost daily, usually by text or DM. It's amazing how civil things can be between people who have great political differences, when everything is one-on-one. I can tell you a lot of black players think it's only a matter of time before Trump tries to take our civil rights away. I can't tell you how many black players have told me that. I think that probably reflects the feelings of a lot of us African-Americans. By the way, will your column still run during the nuclear winter?
McClain: I try not to discuss politics with anyone but my wife. And she usually does the talking. It was hard to avoid it when Trump was running against Clinton. It was more interesting than anything on television or on social media. I’ll write it if a player or coach wants to comment on something political, but that’s rare. They usually try to keep their political views to themselves.
Salguero: I don’t.
Jeff McLane of the Philadelphia Inquirer was recently removed from the press box and stadium during an Eagles game. How did you view what happened to him?
Bowen: Ah, well. Since I was sitting two seats down from Jeff at the time and have been extensively interviewed, you probably know how I feel about this. If not, I’ll summarize:
A. It was an absurd overreaction by the Eagles to a relatively minor argument.
B. There was no reason whatsoever for an Eagles PR person to tell reporters who were discussing what happened on a play to quiet down. It speaks to a mind-set among media relations people these days that their job is to control and limit, rather than to try to facilitate access and coverage. The old view was that our coverage basically helped their product, the more the better. I don’t think most under-30 NFL PR people would even know what you were talking about if you posited that now. They think they are there to make sure we don’t bother the players and coaches too much. We are a necessary evil, except they aren’t too sure about the necessary part.
C. The executive who made the extraordinary, and as far as I know unprecedented, decision to have Jeff removed from the press box and the stadium has very little sports media experience and might not have understood what a bleepstorm this action would create, over something not even close to bleepstorm-worthy. Though I tried to tell her, as it was happening. The fact that the Eagles just seemed to want to forget the whole thing the next day would lend credence to this interpretation.
D. But for people out there who don’t work in the media and don’t know: Sometimes disputes between reporters and team officials happen. When they do, the normal course of events is for someone in charge from the team to arrange a meeting, possibly with the reporter and his or her editor, to discuss the team’s issues. That happens fairly frequently. Ejecting reporters from stadiums during games does not.
Branch: It’s disturbing. I don’t know Jeff personally, but I know of his reputation as a dogged reporter who isn’t afraid of criticizing the Eagles. I’m guessing that played a role in his ejection. Would they have given the editor of, say, ILoveTheEagles.com the boot for the same behavior? Thankfully, it’s an isolated incident, but let’s hope other PR staffs don’t get any ideas: Many, I’m sure, would welcome the idea of team websites becoming the top disseminators of NFL information.
Cabot: I was appalled to hear of Jeff being escorted out of the game. My first thought was the people who kicked him out should be disciplined by the NFL, and I still think that should happen. This is not at all in the spirit of the NFL’s media policy. The PFWA has taken a strong stance against it, which is as it should be. We must make sure this never happens again. I wonder what I would’ve done. I would’ve been so outraged that I probably would’ve made them pick me up and carry me out. I don’t think I would’ve handled it as well as Jeff did, and I commend him for that. Situations like this, and like Richard Sherman boycotting the media and only talking to ESPN’s Ed Werder, should be handled swiftly and harshly by the NFL.
Freeman: McLane is a fake tough guy. But the way the Eagles handled it shows how little some teams get the media. (And the person that handled it is a former journalist, for God's sake.) By throwing McLane out, they turned him into a folk hero. Over nothing. They fed his ego. It was idiotic. It's funny (or not) watching political reporters struggle with our President-elect and his threats to cut off access and how he bullies. Most of us in sports journalism deal with that on a regular basis and have for all of our careers. Some team person is always saying, 'Do this or that and you'll never walk into this locker room again.' Try to yank credentials. Teams have used parking passes against me. Parking passes! It just happened, in fact (no, not going to name the team). A team I had been covering for years, and was always helpful, suddenly became slightly antagonistic after I wrote something they didn't like. Suddenly couldn't find me a parking pass after providing them to me for 20 years. I actually think one repercussion for sports journalists is the way Trump behaves will embolden sports franchises even more to try and cut off access.
McClain: I don’t think anyone from any team should threaten to throw out every reporter who protests someone being removed from the press box. I think it could have been handled better by the Eagles. I’ve seen issues in the press box through the decades, and they’ve always been worked out behind the scenes.
Salguero: I know Jeff McLane and consider him a professional and a good guy. I am also aware of Derek Boyko. He has a very good reputation and I've been told he does an excellent job. If the incident had been handled by these two, I believe there would have been no incident to speak of. Oh, and well done Les Bowen. Much respect.
To what do you attribute the decline in NFL ratings this year?
Bowen: I definitely think the election had a big impact on TV ratings, but I think the NFL isn’t immune to the issues affecting broadcast networks in general as technology changes. If the game is boring, there are so many other options, on your TV, phone or laptop. Maybe you decide to run an errand and keep track via the ESPN app; you can always replay a highlight if you miss something important. Maybe you’d rather play a video game for a while if your team is faring poorly; you can keep tabs and click back in if they make it close. Also, the matchups this year often weren’t compelling. Possible fantasy football connections aside, why would I waste a minute of my life watching the Jets play the Titans? And replay has made a lot of games interminable.
Branch: My assumption is the biggest reason was the car-wreck-like presidential election, which caused some fans to rubberneck away from the NFL. That makes more sense to me than issues such as concussions and tediously long games, which didn’t suddenly arise in 2016. And I reject the Kaepernick theory. I have a hard time believing Cheeseheads, for example, stopped watching the Packers because Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem.
Cabot: It could be over-saturation of the game. Thursday night games between two bad teams are hurting the product. I’m sure it’s also all the other forms of on-demand media available. My three millennials are constantly on Netflix or on their phones. They have so many other options on so many devices. That’s why I think the NFL is smart to expand into the untapped European market. The game is still great, it’s just that there are so many other choices now, right at your fingertips.
Freeman: The election plus fan resentment to bad football. It was fascinating to watch a guy crawl from under a bridge and become the president. Can't deny that. The biggest reason, however, is for the first time that I can remember, fans got fed up with awful games and decided not to watch. Some of the Thursday night games this season were steaming piles of poo and there was basically a rebellion from fans.
McClain: Bad football. Fans aren’t stupid. Most aren’t going to watch a poor product. I also think bad teams coupled with the election caused the ratings issue with the league. I don’t believe it’s something the league needs to worry about. The league should worry about putting a better product on the field and developing better quarterbacks. To help teams, more players should be able to come off injured reserve, and all players should be active and available.
Salguero: I know there are multiple reasons for the decline in ratings for some games but the one I hear about the most from readers and fans, and it isn't even close, is the number of players taking a knee during the national anthem this season. Many of these folks who tuned out are simply offended that someone making a great life for themselves in America would be so disgusted with this country as to disrespect a) The flag b) The anthem c) The military d) Police e) Those who simply wish to attend or watch a game without having some agenda thrust upon them. This is not a discussion about the players having a right to undertake their protests. They have that right. This is not a conversation about the merits of the protest. You don't have enough room here to discuss that. This is a conversation about the reaction by the customer (who is always right, by the way) to a small number of players protesting. And the reaction for some of those customers is to tune out and do something else that isn't disagreeable to them.
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Last Thursday I reported that ESPN management is moving forward with giving Mike Greenberg his own show, thus ending the long-running Mike & Mike radio show on ESPN Radio. The piece is here.
2. Sports Business Daily had a helpful chart on the final viewership of college football’s title game and the declines since 2014. Here’s part of it.
Networks rated: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU
25.319 million viewers
Networks rated: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU
26.125 million viewers
Networks rated: ESPN/ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPNews
33.922 million viewers
ESPN (only net rated for this game)
25,572 million viewers
What this reveals, in my mind, is that the championship game the last two years was hurt by the decline of viewers in the semifinal games, which were played on New Year's Eve. Playoffs build on momentum and college football has hemorrhaged viewers for the semis since 2014. The other issue specific to this year was that Alabama-Clemson represents more of a regional play because of Clemson, a sensational team but one that historically does not have the national television weight of an Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama or Notre Dame. Away from any ratings analysis, it was a sensational game and terrific work by ESPN.
2a. Front pages across South Carolina noting Clemson’s win:
2b. The top 10-rated TV markets for Clemson-Alabama:
8. New Orleans
2c. Ad Age’s Anthony Crupi examined ESPN’s Clemson-Alabama ratings.
2d. File this prediction away from Sports Business Daily media reporter John Ourand. The NFL will kill the extra point-commercial-kickoff-commercial rotation. Writes Ourand: “Nobody likes the commercial loads that networks run after scores. But broadcasters still need their money, so they want all the commercial breaks they can get. Look for the NFL to assure the networks that they will get all their breaks in a given quarter even if it means stopping action on the field—something that won’t happen often given the number of injuries and timeouts that take place every game. This structure already is routine in the NBA and NHL; expect the NFL to adopt it as well. Could this lead to on-screen commercial bugs during NFL games, a la soccer? Probably not this year, but I can guarantee that the league will think about it.”
2e. The Los Angeles Times’s Sam Farmer observed how many Los Angeles-based NFL fans will not be happy about no longer getting the best national games on over-the-air TV.
3. Episode 98 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features two guests: James Mirtle, the editor-in-chief of The Athletic (Toronto) and a former NHL writer with The Globe and Mail (Canada), and Bruce Arthur, a sports columnist for the Toronto Star. Both Mirtle and Arthur also work for TSN.
In this Canada-centric podcast, Mirtle and Arthur discuss the NHL coverage in Canada in relation to the United States; whether there is a Canadian style of sports journalism versus an American style; how Arthur approaches sports column writing; why Mirtle left the Globe and Mail for The Athletic job; what the charter is of The Athletic and what it needs to do to be profitable; how Mirtle views the use of sabermetrics in hockey writing; the potential of Auston Matthews and the Maple Leafs, and where Matthews might end up all-time; how growing up in Vancouver shaped Arthur; how growing up in Kamloops shaped Mirtle; covering losing teams in Toronto versus winning teams; the challenges that exist for Arthur being very politically active on Twitter; the hot take culture in Canada versus the United States; covering a national team (such as the Blue Jays) versus a local one (Maple Leafs); the future of the Canadian sports media amid job cuts; whether Canadians view a job in the U.S. as more prestigious than a Canadian job, and much more.
3a. Forbes.com examined The Athletic’s business model.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• From the Boston Globe: She loved him, and he died in the Holocaust. Now her son is bringing his music back to life.
• Via Texas Monthly: “Late one night in 1991, a twelve-year-old boy pulled out a gun and killed a cab driver on the East Side of San Antonio. Twenty-five years later, Edwin Debrow remains in prison for that murder, with fifteen more years left on his sentence. Is that justice? And is there room for mercy?”
• From Doris Truong: Trolls decided I was taking pictures of Rex Tillerson’s notes. I wasn’t even there.
• From the Evening Standard’s Simon Sebag Montefiore: Today’s new world order has its roots in the events of 1917.
• Via Michael Cunningham of GQ: The Story of David Bowie’s Secret Final Project.
• Via Washingtonian’s Harry Jaffe: The Tumultuous Life and Lonely Death of Marion Barry’s Only Son.
• From Alexey Kovalev: A message to my doomed colleagues in the American media.
• From Charlie Peters of the National Review: Trump’s Celebrity-Free Inauguration Is Great for America.
• The NYT obituary for Clare Hollingworth, a journalist who broke news of World War II.
• From Wired: How America Can Beat Russia in Cyber War, Despite Trump.
• From the BBC: The Spy With No Name.
Sports pieces of note:
• GQ’s Reid Forgave on the concussion diaries of a high school football player.
• ESPN.com’s Mina Kimes on the uncomfortable reality of Tyreek Hill's success.
• Alyssa Roenigk of espnw reported an oral history of Serena Williams.
• Karen Crouse of the New York Times on Aaron Rodgers and his complicated relationship with his family.
• Beautiful farewell piece from Lowell Cohn, of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.
5. The Undefeated editor-in-chief Kevin Merida spoke to CJR.
5a. Great to see Outsports approved for membership in Associated Press Sports Editors group.
5b. Nicole Zaloumis and Ric Bucher have a new SiriusXM show called Left Coast Live with Nicole and Ric Bucher. The show will air from 7 to 9 p.m. ET weeknights on Mad Dog Radio.
5d. Interesting article by Ron Sirak of Golf Digest on the money losses and overall ratings declines that make the Fox-USGA relationship more complicated than ever.
5e. Former Inquirer sports editor John Quinn almost didn't make it after a massive heart attack literally tore a hole in his heart. A year later, he shared his experience.
5f. SEC Network studio anchor Peter Burns compiled stories from sports media members on what happened after they were fired. Worth reading.
5g. The Women in Sports and Events (WISE) announced the recipients of this year’s 2017 WISE Women of the Year Award: ESPN analyst Doris Burke; Buffy Filippell, founder of TeamWork Online; and Amy Trask, an NFL analyst for CBS Sports.
5h. Self promotional alert: I’ll be in Toronto this week co-hosting the Jeff Blair Show (10-noon ET) on SportsNet 590, the biggest sports station in Canada. I’ll also be in-studio with Bob McCown (4–7 p.m. ET) from Tuesday-Friday. It’s much different radio than what you are in the States (longer conversation; no trolling LeBron James; hockey talk!). Hope you check it out.