Friday, February 20, 2015

What Are the Consequences for Reckless Reporting?

The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever has taken a few interesting turns in the past couple weeks. In case you did not know or forgot--and how could you not know, with multiple media outlets breathlessly releasing misinformation every hour on the hour?--the whole saga began when Indianapolis linebacker D'Qwell Jackson told someone on the Colts' sideline that the football he intercepted from Tom Brady near the end of the first half of New England's 45-7 win over Indianapolis was deflated. Except, of course, that Jackson never said that at all; Indianapolis Star reporter Bob Kravitz, sure that he had latched onto a Pulitzer Prize-winning scoop about dastardly deeds committed by the Patriots, either made the whole thing up or relied on a source that has about as much knowledge of the situation as Sergeant Schultz and about as much credibility as Joe Isuzu.

Kravitz was not content to merely get the facts wrong; he also took it upon himself to call for the firing of New England Coach Bill Belichick. Then ESPN, not wanting someone else to enjoy all of the glory that comes with bad reporting and baseless, grandstanding commentary, weighed in with their full armada of talking heads. Mike Wilbon, without doing any investigative reporting on this issue whatsoever and without any facts suggesting that Belichick had committed any offense at all, demanded that the NFL strip the Patriots of their Super Bowl berth because the Patriots are "on probation" in his fevered mind. Chris Mortenson invented a story about 11 of the 12 game day footballs used by the Patriots being significantly deflated. Kravitz' co-worker at the Indianapolis Star, Gregg Doyel, chimed in by calling for Belichick's immediate firing.

Michael Hurley offered a brilliant take on all of the members of the "Shout first, shout some more and don't bother to think later" school of reporting. His whole article deserves your attention but here is his three point breakdown of why the so-called scandal is unfounded and ridiculous:

First, at a press conference last Thursday in Phoenix, NFL vice president of officiating Dean Blandino spilled the beans that the PSI of the 12 Patriots footballs were never recorded by referee Walt Anderson. Blandino said that balls were measured, and if they were under the low threshold of 12.5, they were simply pumped up with some air. So instantly, the report by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that said 11 of the 12 footballs were a full 2 PSI under the threshold was essentially debunked. How could Mortensen have that information if nobody could have that information? (The answer, of course, is that a source who desperately wanted such misinformation out there gave him the "scoop.")

Secondly, NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported the morning of the Super Bowl that just one of the 11 footballs was 2 PSI under the limit, while the other 10 were "just a tick" under the 12.5 threshold. Rapoport's report was crucial for a number of reasons. For one, he is paid by the NFL, and so he can't afford to be wrong. If his report, which makes Roger Goodell's bloodthirsty office look like a bunch of clowns, turns out to be wrong, how much longer would the league keep him on the payroll? Second, the phrasing of the footballs of being "just a tick" under the limit is at once believable, because that's how non-technical measurements would be recorded, and also because footballs which were originally inflated near the lower limit would likely lose some air pressure after two hours outside in January.

And then there's this: The one football that was 2 PSI under the limit? That was the ball intercepted by D'Qwell Jackson, the pizza man puncher, according to ProFootballTalk. It was the football that was taken to the Colts sideline and then submitted to the NFL to launch an investigation. You're going to tell me that the Colts didn't manipulate that football before submitting it? The team that fired off the accusations of cheating didn't take an extra step or two to make sure they were right by sticking a needle in that football and letting it drain for a few seconds before handing it over to the league and saying, "Hey, the Patriots are using underinflated footballs, so you need to investigate"?

Hurley was just warming up. Next, he pointed out that the same Bob Kravitz who called for Belichick's head on the basis of unfounded ball-deflating allegations pleaded in print with the NFL to give Colts' owner Jim Irsay a second chance after Irsay's DUI fiasco:

So to recap: Irsay took drugs and stepped behind the wheel. He could have killed someone. But Kravitz wasn't angry. Then Bill Belichick was accused of playing football with footballs that had a little less air in them. Kravitz was irate.

Here’s what Kravitz wrote after a very compromised source with an ax to grind against Belichick told him that the Patriots used some underinflated footballs: "If Patriots owner Robert Kraft has an ounce of integrity, he will fire Bill Belichick immediately for toying with the integrity of the game for the second time in his otherwise magnificent career...If Roger Goodell has an ounce of integrity, and he's not spending all his time going to pre-game soirees at Kraft's mansion, he will not only fine Belichick and take away draft choices, but suspend the head coach for the upcoming Super Bowl."

So, driving under the influence of prescription drugs, an act which could result in the deaths of innocent people, is simply the act of a man who needs some help. Underinflate some footballs, and you deserve to lose your job. Solid reasoning there, especially now that we know the entire deflated football accusations were essentially made up out of thin air.

Aces.

Kravitz also fully believed Irsay when he said he had $29,000 in cash on him because he's "extremely generous," but he didn't believe Belichick for not knowing how much air gets pumped into the footballs. His judgment is sound...

OK, I'm sorry, but one more quote from my man Bob Kravitz: "Still, it is utterly amazing (but not really) how far some media will go to defend their city's team, especially when it wins Super Bowls."

If Alanis Morissette ever writes a sequel to her hit song, I hope she'll include this line from Kravitz, which comes while he's doing his local team's bidding.

The whole story just gets better and better every day. Breaking news, stop the presses: there is video of a Patriots' locker room attendant doing something that seems fishy. No further investigation necessary, case closed: Pulitzer for Kravitz, sanctions for the evil Belichick. Oh, wait; the Patriots' locker room attendant was set up by an NFL employee who was switching out footballs as part of a memorabilia scam. If Kravitz' eyes were not obscured by the two feet protruding from his mouth, he might have done some actual investigating and discovered a real scandal!

What are the consequences for reckless reporting? Kravitz, Doyel, Wilbon and Mortenson can get the facts wrong, smear people's reputations and not suffer any meaningful consequences. That is grossly unfair, both to the targets of their sloppy work and to real journalists who deserve the opportunity to provide insightful coverage. NFL players who don't perform well get cut, NFL coaches who don't win enough games get fired but media members who have the right contacts enjoy lifetime job security no matter how sloppy and/or tendentious their work is--and that is the most deflating thing about all of this.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Bill Belichick's Legacy Should Not Be Defined by One Game

It is harsh and unrealistic to define any person's legacy by one moment or one game. A legacy is, by definition, an accumulation of moments and games. Bill Belichick can add to his legacy if his New England Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX but, considering his long track record of success, his legacy cannot possibly be defined solely or primarily just by this game. The reality is that Belichick's legacy has already been largely defined by a series of great moments and games, dating all the way back to his time as an assistant coach. Belichick's defensive game plan from Super Bowl XXV resides in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Belichick, then the defensive coordinator for Bill Parcells' New York Giants, came up with a brilliant strategical approach to slow down the seemingly unstoppable Buffalo Bills' offensive machine headlined by quarterback Jim Kelly. Parcells never made it to a Super Bowl without Belichick by his side.

Belichick has won five Super Bowls--two as an assistant coach with the Giants, three more as the head coach of the New England Patriots--and today he will be making his ninth appearance (three as Parcells' assistant, six as New England's head coach) in arguably the biggest, most prestigious game in all of sports as his New England Patriots face the defending champion Seattle Seahawks. This is expected to be one of the most competitive Super Bowls ever (I'll go on record picking the Patriots to win 24-21 in a contest decided in the waning moments of the fourth quarter) and many people perceive this to be a legacy-defining moment for Belichick. If the Patriots lose, Belichick's critics will crow that Belichick still has yet to win a Super Bowl since the so-called "Spygate" scandal, when the Pattiots had an employee in full team regalia openly and publicly shoot real-time video of football games. If the Patriots win, Belichick's critics will whine about The Most Overinflated "Scandal" Ever and confidently declare that the victory is somehow tainted. In other words, no matter what happens in Super Bowl XLIX, Belichick's legacy will supposedly be tarnished.

This narrative--that Belichick loses no matter what--is ridiculous. I much prefer Kevin Clark's take in The Dueling Legacies of Bill Belichick. Clark writes that Belichick's defining legacy is "bringing value investing to football." Belichick had great success with a 3-4 defense when few NFL teams used that alignment. Belichick was a master at finding players who other teams overlooked who could fit perfectly in that scheme. Belichick did so well with the 3-4 that most of the league's teams copied him and started looking for the same kinds of players. Belichick used to have his pick of the litter among nose tackles because few other teams were looking for nose tackles, but when many other teams started running the 3-4, the Patriots--who always fell to the bottom of the draft because they were at the top of the standings--could not so easily draft the players who they needed. This is when Belichick's genius became fully apparent. Clark explains, "Free agency became even harder. It was no longer cheap or easy for Belichick to get the players he needed. So he did something insane. He completely changed the system." Belichick switched back to the 4-3 defense.

Clark describes what happened next:

He found the cheap and great players there. New England kept winning and he's swung back and forth a handful of times in the remaining decade. Whenever one system gets too costly, he jumps to the other.

This sort of value-searching is common with anything Belichick, who operates as the Patriots' general manager and has full control of the roster. While the NFL waits around for its "moneyball" revolution, the search for inefficiencies is actually long over. Belichick found them all.

A handful of teams have tried to imitate this but have failed. That is because adopting the Belichick model is akin to trying to adopt the Usain Bolt model for running. It takes talent that is really, really hard to acquire.

People who are jealous of Belichick's success and/or spend their lives looking for snipers in grassy knolls fail to appreciate the hard work and intelligence that is the foundation for New England's success during the Belichick era.