The 650,000 emails unearthed as part of an NFL investigation into the toxic and misogynistic culture established by infamous NFL owner is proving to be the rancid gift that keeps on giving—a rare window into how the men at the top of the football food chain behave when they think no one is watching. First came the Las Vegas Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, who was revealed to have fired off messages peppered with all manner of bigotry. Now, we’re also getting a glimpse at what’s required in order for a preeminent reporter to score his prized scoops.
Adam Schefter, ESPN’s NFL insider bar none, was gabbing with then-Washington Football Team president Bruce Allen a decade ago when he violated a basic tenet of journalism: he shared the contents of his story with a source for review prior to publication.
“Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked,” Schefter wrote, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Journalists don’t let sources of any stripe have final say over their reporting. Nor do they presumably even in quasi-jest refer to the source as, “Mr. Editor,” as Schefter did. The reasons why should be fairly self-evident. By permitting Allen, who is not quoted by name in the resulting article, to rubber-stamp his work, Schefter was functioning at best as a stenographer and not a reporter.
On Wednesday late afternoon, Schefter issued a statement. In it, he admitted “the criticism being levied is fair,” and in the next breath denied he’d partaken of the activity for which he was being criticized. Namely, giving up editorial control.
Those taking Schefter to task aren’t wrong, per se. But in doing so, they’re granting Schefter a lot more credit than someone with his track record deserves.
Over the past decade, while serving as ESPN’s most influential football reporter, Schefter has engaged in other forms of behavior considered anathema to most reporters. He’s appeared in commercials, invested in gambling concerns alongside an NFL owner, joined the board of a fledgling NFL developmental league, and for a hot minute in 2013, anyone with $3,000 burning a hole in their pocket could have paid to hang out and watch a game with Schefter.
After all, Schefter’s job is to crank out NFL-approved gossip and carry water for the multi-billion dollar entertainment enterprise he’s ostensibly charged with covering. Excelling at this kind of access journalism often isn’t pretty. Schefter and others of his ilk have to maintain and properly nurture chummy, transactional relationships with the NFL’s power brokers and agents, doling out choice bits of information and hip-pocketing others. In exchange for their clever horse trading, they’re rewarded with tidy exclusives about looming trades and ongoing contract negotiations. Fans, the type of fans who enjoy placing a wager or who dig fantasy football, eat this stuff up. As such, Schefter has been granted a lofty perch at ESPN. If putting this much-prized product out means Schefter will on occasion defend a domestic abuser or push the NFL’s preferred politics while claiming to be apolitical, well, that’s the at-times grim cost of doing business.
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As long as he keeps attracting eyeballs, there’s zero chance ESPN will remove Schefter from his high-profile if grinding and unrelenting 24/7 beat. Those successes may be why whenever Schefter gets caught running a questionable side hustle, the Worldwide Leader issues a wishy-washy statement and rides out whatever brief outcry ensues. They’re beyond pot-committed.
In a statement, an ESPN flack said on Tuesday: “Without sharing all the specifics of the reporter’s process for a story from 10 years ago during the NFL lockout, we believe that nothing is more important to Adam and ESPN than providing fans the most accurate, fair and complete story.”
Did Schefter provide “accurate” coverage or the “complete story” like ESPN is now? At face value, that doesn’t appear to be the case. As Barry Pechesky noted at Defector, at the time, Schefter wasn’t tugging on a front office exec’s sleeve to see if the star QB’s shoulder had turned to hamburger. While Schefter and Allen were emailing, the NFL and NFLPA were hunkered down in negotiations over the new collective bargaining agreement. Ownership had a clear and vested interest in pushing their version of the events and getting NFL fans on their side. Schefter, as his email made clear, saw no problems with writing a story benefiting them, no matter how much it cost the league’s labor force, Pechesky wrote. And ESPN readers were none the wiser.
It’s a question that has plagued ESPN since its inception: How can they function as both a financial partner with pro and college leagues, one charged with broadcasting and promoting their product, while simultaneously engaging in rigorous, adversarial reporting? Make no mistake, there is no shortage of Bristol employees doing excellent work. But when it comes to entities they’ve gotten in bed with, like UFC and its main draw, Conor McGregor, as The Daily Beast reported, the priorities of one (profitable) aspect of the company can supersede those (more prestigious but far, far less profitable) muckraking aspirations.
Schefter doesn’t appear too concerned with the latter, especially if it might impede his ability to make a buck or boost his brand. For years, he’s hawked various wares, both in commercials and on social media, some of which also have a financial relationship with the NFL.
Other prominent front-facing ESPN personalities have also taken this route, like Adrian Wojnarowski, their highest-profile NBA reporter, and Matthew Berry, possibly the best-known fantasy football scribe around. When readers raised an eyebrow at the amount of shilling Berry was doing for DraftKings—which at the time was still a daily fantasy sports hub and not a fully-fledging gambling portal—he was forced to admit that he’d failed to disclose that he was a paid sponsor. It’s okay, though, Berry wrote, because he genuinely digs the company.
But there’s a difference between getting paid for ads and joining management in some capacity. Schefter briefly pulled it off.
Back in 2017, Schefter joined the board of the Pacific Pro League, a fledgling outfit offering high school students a paid path to the NFL outside of being dragooned into indentured servitude by the NCAA. Asked if Schefter had possibly violated its reporting practices, ESPN told Sports Business Journal that since Schefter’s role would be “unpaid and ceremonial,” they were cool with it. A few days later, Schefter stepped down. The network once again stressed that the now-scuttled gig was “minimal in nature and unpaid,” as ESPN said in a statement, and so “[Schefter] determined that this was the appropriate outcome.”
Equally appropriate, by ESPN’s estimate, was Schefter’s recent investment in Boom Entertainment, a company developing gambling apps. Another other investor in the company is New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. An astute reader might be prompted to ask if Schefter would bury a juicy nugget about the Patriots which negatively impacted his financial partner. Or, since Schefter’s usual terrain directly overlaps with the interests of gamblers, what’s stopping him from personally profiting from that information in one way or another.
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Bloomberg reached out to ESPN in September hoping for answers to those very questions, but the site couldn’t get them to state whether a conflict-of-interest policy exists at all, let alone if Schefter had run afoul of it. Naturally, ESPN also dodged the larger issue of whether Disney’s efforts to get in on the largely-legalized gambling gravy train might have compromised its reporting in general.
ESPN has relentlessly promoted Schefter as the one-stop source for all your football news—a man glued to his phone at all hours who lives for nothing more than beating his competitors to the punch, even if said punch is a tweet that would be confirmed by a team- or league-issued press release shortly thereafter. (On one occasion, his thirst for a scoop resulted in Schefter tweeting out screenshots of the medical records belonging to a defensive end whose hand was mangled by fireworks. The player sued Schefter and ESPN. The case was settled in 2017.)
No one is suggesting that Schefter’s job isn’t difficult and time-consuming or that he has failed to put out newsworthy stories. Per a gloves-off 2014 profile in the Washington Post, keeping up with his grueling schedule sounds like hell. But maybe it’s time to stop asking him to adhere to journalistic standards. After all, if ESPN really had a problem with his behavior—the brand-boosting or the side hustles or the too-cozy relationships with sources or any of the ways in which the firewall between the business and editorial sides crumbled in Schefter’s hands—they would have said as much a long time ago.
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