A deep dive into one social media cesspool or another is not required to recognize that Patriots fans hate ESPN nearly as much as they love their five-time Super Bowl champions. Loathing a corporate entity that doesn’t give a flying flip how you feel about it so long as you consume its content seems like a waste of time and emotion.
Patriots fans have developed an us-against-the-world, defend-the-wall mind-set during the franchise’s two decades as a dynasty. At times it can sound an awful lot like martyrdom. But it’s understandable in one instance. NFL reporter Chris Mortensen’s factually incorrect tweet after the 2014 AFC Championship game that 11 of 12 Patriots game footballs were underinflated by at least 2 pounds per square inch was the Typhoid Mary of Deflategate. It instigated and metastasized the entire saga.
Mortensen didn’t take down the tweet until August 2015, and ESPN never acknowledged its erroneous nature or its effects on exaggerating the story, which ended with an absurd four-game suspension for Tom Brady for having knowledge of a never-actually-proven scheme to deflate footballs. Of course fans were furious. Of course they haven’t forgotten. It stole some joy from the journey to that fourth Super Bowl title.
ESPN has committed other real and perceived transgressions in its coverage, including an anchor saying on a program that the Patriots had taped a Rams walk-through before Super Bowl XXXVI, a falsity that was eventually apologized for on a late-night “SportsCenter.’’ But Mortensen’s blunder will never cease being viewed in New England as damning evidence that ESPN has it out for the Patriots and a permanent stain on the whole company.
So when Bruce Allen of Boston Sports Media Watch tweeted Thursday night that he heard that ESPN was dropping a story Friday morning that would detail a rift among Brady, Bill Belichick, and Robert Kraft that may hasten the end of the Patriots dynasty, the immediate reaction was predictable: Here comes another ESPN hit piece on the Patriots! ESPN is out to get us again!
It brought a preemptive discrediting by Patriots fans of a story they hadn’t read yet. When the Patriots issued a statement in the afternoon saying it is “unfortunate there is even a need to respond to these fallacies,’’ that was taken as the real truth by their loyalists, even though there was zero chance the Patriots would ever confirm any of it and they did not elaborate on what was false.
There was a better chance of them putting out a press release saying Jimmy Garoppolo is handsomer than Tom Brady than there was of them giving the story credence.
Seth Wickersham, the author of the piece, could have written that Belichick, Brady, and Kraft get together after practice each day, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya’’ with Don Henley/Glenn Frey levels of harmony, and that wouldn’t have changed the pre-perceptions of the story.
Which is too bad. Because if the story is read with clear eyes and all rooting interests aside, it’s far more illuminating than it is salacious. I’m sure you’ve heard the juiciest details since the piece has been, justifiably, the buzz of every media outlet in Boston.
ESPN has relentlessly promoted the story to the degree that it would not surprise me if it found a way to get Wickersham on all of its various channels simultaneously at some point in the coming days.
That considered, I’ll spare you a long rehash of the details that are seizing their own headlines: The divisiveness of Brady’s lifestyle guru, Alex “Yoko’’ Guerrero; the belief that Kraft’s willingness to heed Brady’s desire to play into his mid-40s led to the Jimmy Garoppolo trade and a “dejected’’ Belichick; and that there is a vibe around Foxborough that the last days of the dynasty are near.
I’ll just say that I’m skeptical about the revelation that Belichick and Roger Goodell have struck up a friendship, unless Belichick is plotting a heel-turn just when the commissioner least expects it.
Also, I cannot believe that anyone would doubt one of the main theses of the story: that Brady had become wary of Garoppolo. The last coach Brady had before Belichick was Lloyd Carr at the University of Michigan two decades ago. He chronically underestimated Brady, especially when hotshot Drew Henson was around.
Then Brady comes to the pros as a sixth-round pick, works relentlessly, and seizes star incumbent Drew Bledsoe’s job in his second year. Eighteen years into his unprecedented career, he still remembers how tenuous it all is, how six quarterbacks were chosen ahead of him in the 2000 draft. The quest for vengeance still fuels him. Maybe he really does care about winning the Patriot of the Week award. This is a bad thing?
Much of what Wickersham wrote — citing interviews with “more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings’’ — has been rumored locally for weeks, which led to more than one Patriots reporter doing the annoying I-know-something-you-don’t routine.
Other details have been previously reported, such as colleague Bob Hohler’s recent piece on the extent of Belichick’s wariness of Guerrero’s influence. But Wickersham deserves credit for drilling down into the realities and rumors, elaborating, and tying it all together, even as his use of anonymous sources and vaguely attributed quotes is perceived by those who want to doubt the story as a sign of holes in his reporting.
It’s not. Every reporter wants sources on the record. But in the quest for the full story, sometimes that is impossible, often because the source has something significant at stake if he or she shares information the team does not want public. Typically, when an unnamed source is used, the reporter gets the information confirmed by at least one other source and also shares the name of the source with an editor.
“I stand by my reporting,’’ said Wickersham during an interview on The Sports Hub’s “Toucher and Rich’’ program Friday morning. “We’re always cautious with what we print. That’s the main thing. You want to verify things as much as possible and not just throw things out there, and this is another example of that.’’
That didn’t apply to Mortensen back in the day, and part of the lasting fallout is that his transgression gets slapped by Patriots fans on any other ESPN personality who reports on information they may not want to hear.
Perhaps someday the reactions will become more nuanced than that. No one dislikes Tony Romo just because CBS airs dreck like “Young Sheldon,’’ you know? The long-respected Mike Reiss works for ESPN. So does Field Yates, who used to work for the Patriots and is remarkably well-sourced. I’m pretty sure Tedy Bruschi is not anti-Patriot.
Wickersham isn’t anti-Patriot, either. He’s pro-truth, and quests to find it. We all remember Mortensen botching the Deflategate story from the get-go with his tweet. What is often forgotten is that ESPN also reported a detail-rich story in September 2015 about why the NFL was so determined to punish the Patriots for Deflategate.
The authors revealed in their reporting that several NFL owners, envious of the Patriots’ success and convinced they got off easy in 2007 during the Spygate scandal, implored Goodell to drop the hammer as compensation. Don Van Natta was one of the authors. The other? Seth Wickersham.
Patriots fans had no problem believing that detail, because it confirmed their belief that the league was out to get them. Lost in the uproar was that it also confirmed something else: Everyone at ESPN is not.