By Max Burman
On Friday before the Super Bowl, hundreds of reporters assembled in Phoenix for Roger Goodell’s annual State of the League press conference. Once again the orchestrated event — this year humility was the predominant message — served as little more than a public relations exercise for an organization that, facing criticism for its handling of a litany of controversies over recent years, has increasingly sought to control the media agenda.
Consider the recent comments by NBC announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth during the New England Patriots – Baltimore Ravens divisional round playoff game, played shortly after the release of the league-commissioned Mueller Report into its handling of the Ray Rice scandal. Michaels and Collinsworth made brief comments about the report, which found, among other things, that Goodell had never seen the elevator video of Rice punching his then-fiancée. Many saw the remarks as overly favorable towards the commissioner. Both commentators, as well as NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus, since defended the remarks and the tone of those comments and insisted they were neither scripted nor the result of league pressure.
Either way, it is clear why the media backlash was so swift and certain: the recent history of the relationship between the NFL and the media has seemingly been one of league manipulation and, all too often, media acquiescence. ESPN’s decision to withdraw backing from the 2013 Frontline investigation into concussions in the sport, which the New York Times later reported was the result of direct pressure from the league itself, had a huge impact on the network and on the league considering the amount of media criticism the decision generated. The NFL denied it exerted pressure, and ESPN claimed it withdrew because of misuderstandings about editorial control.
The notion of a conflict of interest between journalistic organizations like ESPN and NBC and the league they are supposed to cover independently, but rely on for their own financial health, seems clear. Stefan Fatsis of Slate Magazine said in a phone interview that the NFL can control the media message in part because of the growth of social media and the rise of “Insider” reporters such as Adam Schefter of ESPN, Jay Glazer of Fox and Ian Rapoport of the league’s own NFL Network who draw millions of Twitter followers as they “break” news of trades, injuries and gossip. Fatsis contends that with such attention afforded to this type of reporting on minutiae – not all of which is accurate – it becomes hard for sports fans to “see the forest for the trees”.
“The NFL wants to keep fans’ attention on the day-to-day,” said Fatsis. “There is a difference between quotidian consumption and the larger narrative but we so easily lose the big picture. In that sense these reporters are really the coal that keeps the NFL’s engines burning.”
There is perhaps no event that embodies this spirit of “quotidian consumption” quite like Super Bowl Media Day. It is, in the words of Grantland writer Bryan Curtis, “exceedingly well-managed”, with the only controversy arising from Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to provide the world’s media the clichéd quotes for which they had gathered.
It is an event that now bears little resemblance to the very first Super Bowl, as Jerry Green attests. Green, who writes for the Detroit News and is one of just three reporters to have covered every Super Bowl, recalled in a phone interview entering the hotel room of Kansas City Chiefs running back Fred Williamson before the 1967 game. As a group of reporters conducted an informal 30-minute conversation, there was not a single PR man in sight.
Pete Rozelle, then the commissioner, had a somewhat different relationship with the media than Goodell does now. Green tells of watches and other gifts in Super Bowl ‘goody bags,’ of Rozelle paying for his parking at an airport lot after discovering the two were on the same flight to Los Angeles and of informal dinners between Rozelle and small groups of reporters at swanky restaurants. “You wanted to talk to Pete on the phone,” said Green, “you called him.”
Now? “Roger doesn’t know me from Adam,” Green said.
That is not to say Rozelle’s NFL was any less of an exercise in public relations. When he became commissioner in 1960 he quickly recognized that the press was essential to the growth of the league. He just had a different approach in that era. John Jeansonne, who retired as a sports writer at Newsday last year after 44 years, covered the league at varying times and now teaches at Hofstra University. He said in a phone interview that the NFL has “always been a fabulous PR operation … controversies in the Rozelle era just didn’t reach this level of importance.” As Jeansonne said, “I don’t think the way they’ve handled these things [under Goodell] is different, I think we in the media are different.”
Curtis, who is covering his first Super Bowl, identified the last lockout of the players in 2011 as a turning point. “When the players turned on Goodell, they encouraged the press to be more skeptical,” he said in a phone interview. Journalists like Alan Schwarz of the New York Times, Don Van Natta, Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother Steve Fainaru at ESPN, among many others, have brought issues like concussions and domestic violence to the public over recent years. “Pro football used to operate in an era of innocence,” Green said, “and that is no longer the case.”
Curtis jokingly described today’s NFL coverage as the “golden age of liberal sports opining,” bemoaning as “unfocused” many of the recent attacks on Goodell and the league. “On one hand, the press argued Goodell was too soft and on the other, with incidents like Bountygate involving the New Orleans Saints, they said he was too harsh,” Curtis said. “For me the better, more coherent, criticism is that Goodell is simply too powerful and that when one man has such power he is bound to make mistakes.”
Unfocused or not, what is clear is that an increasingly skeptical media has had little tangible impact on a league that, as Fatsis claims, is now simply “Too big to fail.”