It should have come as little surprise that ESPN football reporter Chris Mortensen backed out of a much-anticipated interview with WEEI morning hosts John Dennis, Gerry Callahan and Kirk Minihane Friday.
What is surprising is that he agreed to it in the first place. He had to have known even then that he’d have been left to backpedal like an overmatched defensive back, trapped in the position of defending the indefensible.
Mortensen was scheduled to talk with the trio of hosts at 7:45 a.m. Friday morning, but informed the station late Thursday night that he was canceling. WEEI had heavily promoted the appearance on Twitter and across its various platforms Thursday, and with good reason: it had a chance to be a coup of an interview.
Mortensen has rarely if ever publically discussed his erroneous and inflammatory January report that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship Game were “underinflated by 2 lbs or more, per league sources.’’ (An ESPN spokesman said Mortensen previously discussed the story on former Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon’s SiriusXM program, but a Google search does not supply evidence of the interview’s existence. )
The report, which it was revealed Friday led the Patriots to plead to no avail with the NFL offices for a public correction, was eventually revealed to be factually incorrect by the league-mandated investigation that produced the Wells Report.
But the damage was done, and it was severe, perhaps even irreparable. Mortensen’s report – which is still easily found on ESPN.com — escalated the narrative from “the Patriots’ footballs were checked at halftime’’ to “DEFLATEGATE! The Patriots were caught letting air out of footballs, those cheating rascals. They must be punished severely!’’
Mortensen’s story was the Typhoid Mary of this entire situation. More than any other element or revelation regarding the controversy, his false report altered public opinion and escalated this to one of the more prolonged and exaggerated scandals in recent sports history.
Without mentioning Mortensen by name, Patriots owner Robert Kraft emphasized the damage done by the false report during a passionate and unexpected statement to reporters Wednesday at the opening of training camp.
“The league’s handling of this entire process has been extremely frustrating and disconcerting,’’ said Kraft. “I will never understand why an initial erroneous report regarding the PSI level of footballs was leaked by a source from the NFL a few days after the AFC Championship game was never corrected by those who had the correct information. For four months, that report cast aspersions and shaped public opinion.’’
Without Mortensen’s false report, it’s logical to presume the there is no investigation, Tom Brady is not suspended for a quarter of the 2015 season or battling the league in court, and the Patriots still have the $1 million they were fined and their No. 1 and No. 4 picks in next year’s draft, which they were ordered to forfeit as punishment.
An ESPN spokesman declined to comment to Boston.com on why Mortensen decided to back out of the interview. But Mortensen, in an email to WEEI that was first obtained by ProFootballTalk.com, said he did not like how his appearance was being promoted and positioned.
“You guys made a mistake by drumming up business for the show and how I would address my reporting for the first time,’’ Mortensen told WEEI. “I will not allow WEEI, [Patriots owner Robert] Kraft [who or anybody to make me the centerpiece of a story that has been misreported far beyond anything I did in the first 48 hours. Maybe when the lawsuit is settled, in [Tom] Brady’s favor, I hope, we can revisit. Don’t call.’’
The WEEI hosts, recognizing an opportunity for compelling radio, called anyway, getting his voicemail but never connecting. Suspecting that Mortensen must feel betrayed by his sources, the hosts did intend to ask him who gave him the information, but did not expect him to reveal the name. (On the show Wednesday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter suggested that Mortensen was relayed false information by NFL officials. The theory is a common one, of course, but it was surprising to hear it from Schefter, who like Mortensen is promoted as an NFL insider by the network.)
Mortensen’s absence did not leave WEEI without compelling material. After acknowledging Mortensen’s email explaining why he wasn’t coming on, host John Dennis said he knew who the reporter’s original source was on the erroneous story — Mike Kensil, the NFL vice president of game operations.
The Kensil theory is hardly a new one. A former New York Jets employee who was still with the franchise when Patriots coach Bill Belichick resigned after one day as the team’s coach in 2000, he was reported to have told Patriots equipment manager Dave Schoenfeld during the AFC Championship Game that “We weighed the balls. You guys are in big [expletive] trouble.’’
But Dennis’s certainty in fingering Kensil as the main culprit is intriguing, because the host is known to have a tight relationship with the Kraft family dating back to his days as a sports anchor on Channel 7, when Robert Kraft was one of the station’s owners. The friendship, particularly with Robert and Jonathan Kraft, is an occasional source of humor on the show.
Dennis believes that Kensil told high-ranking NFL executives Jeff Pash (vice president and executive counsel), Troy Vincent (vice president of football operations) and Dave Gardi (senior vice president of football operations) that 11 of the 12 footballs were deflated to 2 pounds per square inch below the minimum, and that trio passed the information along to Mortensen, thus allowing him to report he had multiple sources.
If Dennis believes this, it’s a safe bet the Krafts do as well. Too bad we didn’t get to hear him confront Mortensen with his theory. The reporter never would have given up the source – he’d never be fed a morsel of information from anyone again if he did, and that’s his lifeblood as an “insider.’’
But it would have been fascinating to hear his reaction. It would be interesting to hear anything from Mortensen about the bungled story, actually. An explanation, if not an all-out mea culpa, about why the story is still on ESPN’s site without a correction is about six months overdue.