Inside the single-word texts and late-night Instagramming that surrounded the Antonio Brown trade news.

By Jacob Feldman
March 11, 2019

There is no clocking out for the NFL’s biggest reporters, so sleeping on the job becomes part of the gig. Saturday at 10:30 p.m, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport checked in once more with sources connected to Antonio Brown and/or the Steelers, asking if it was safe to get some rest.

He had done the same two nights earlier. Stay up, he was told Thursday, before reporting that Pittsburgh was “closing in on a deal” with the Bills. ESPN’s Adam Schefter was already asleep at that point. He woke up at 2:30 a.m. Friday morning to a string of text messages and would tweet an hour later that a Steelers-Bills deal was in fact “unlikely.” By sunrise Friday, Schefter had a quote from Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane saying the team was moving on. “If I had to do it again,” Rapoport said, “Instead of saying they were close to a deal, I maybe would have said that they had the parameters of the deal in place or found another way to say it.” Brown’s unwillingness to play in upstate New York at the team’s offered rate ended the trade possibility, reportedly.

Fast-forward 36 hours. This time, Rapoport’s sources said he was probably safe for a while. But keep your phone on, one warned. By the time a call woke him up around 12:30 a.m., however, the biggest news of this young NFL offseason had already been broken by Antonio Brown himself.

Within 15 minutes, Rapoport chimed in to confirm the news, as did Schefter, who had woken up to a one-word text: “Raiders.” Still, their tweets combined would get one-fifth as many engagements as Brown’s original photo. Having wrested control over where he would play next season, the wideout wasn’t letting anyone else set the narrative, either.

“Social media has allowed more players to take ownership of that—we’ll see that more in free agency this year,” Rapoport said. “That makes it a little harder, competing with players as news breakers, as well as everyone else.”

Ten years ago, the news might have stayed quiet until the morning hours. Even if it were tipped overnight, it would have likely been one reporter’s story to control while everyone else went after successive angles.

Now news comes out nearly as it happens, dripping before pouring, with the line between reporter and subject blurring. Brown said goodbye to the Steelers online before anyone was sure he was gone. A month later, no one had reported his trade but he was already showing fans how he’d look in silver and black. In each case, his sharing the news propelled discussion forward. As players commented and quote-tweeted, it felt like the story was truly developing in real-time. And like it might never end.

Facing the wee hours, Rapoport tweeted Pittsburgh’s compensation five minutes before Schefter shared details of Brown’s new contract, staking claims where they could. “Not exactly camera ready” at that hour, Rapoport opted for a phone interview on NFL Network. But he’s trying to keep Instagram updated in line with other platforms, so he shared a video of himself explaining the terms, a blanket straight out of Game of Thrones pulled up to his neck, with Instagram’s Starburst effect on for good measure. The transformation was complete: Brown was breaking news while Rapoport vlogged. It was all good content. “I was not wearing a shirt,” Rapoport added, “if that’s important.”

Schefter also turned down a TV request. Instead, he shared what he was hearing on SportsCenter from his bathroom, having walked in and closed the door in the hopes that his wife could sleep through the interview. No follow-up was asked about his state of dress, because some news deserves to stay under wraps.

ESPN’s Steelers beat reporter Jeremy Fowler had “literally just brushed my teeth and laid down” when the news came out, but he was live on SportsCenter by the top of the hour. “I’m basically sleeping in a suit,” Fowler said. “I’m so used to doing something early in the morning or late at night, it’s easy now. I can be on-air in minutes.”

Fowler took the job five years ago, knowing that a name-brand franchise like the Steelers with star playmakers would generate plenty of interesting stories. But Brown’s months long escape was different. “This was an avalanche more than a story,” Fowler said. Even at 3 a.m., Fowler’s reporting was generating responses faster than he could keep up with them.

Across town, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s longtime Steelers reporter, Gerry Dulac, had woken from a late-night snooze at 1:30 a.m. after being told a deal was unlikely Saturday. Before he could pop his contacts out for the night, he saw the reports as well as four missed calls from local radio stations hoping to have him on. While the news came too late to get anything into Sunday’s edition, Dulac wrote an online story based on others’ scoops and reached out to his most trusted Steelers sources.

As the news quieted back down around 4 a.m., he was still waiting to hear back. The officials clearly had been able to get a normal night’s sleep. Finally at 6 a.m., a source confirmed the details but emphasized that nothing would be official until the beginning of the league year Wednesday. Until then the trade is just an agreement. And, the source added, “it’s never over till it’s over.” But good luck staying up until then.

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