Sustained success combined with even the slightest controversy brings out the worst in sports media.
We all experienced the most recent and most egregious example over the course of the past two weeks, when the New England Patriots were universally vilified by the media and fans because of the air pressure in a few footballs. It extended beyond the sports world too; CNN and several other cable news networks carried Tom Brady’s and Bill Belichick’s press conferences live, the Today Show and Good Morning America discussed it on several days, and even Bill Nye chimed in with his own opinion.
Overall, the media was horribly irresponsible with their handling of “Deflategate”, and the biggest players (namely ESPN) owe the Patriots an apology if the Patriots are cleared of any wrongdoing.
The controversy began the night of the Patriots demolished the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, in the AFC Championship Game, when a Colts beat writer reported that the Patriots were under investigation for deflated footballs. The media ran with the story, and when Chris Mortenson of ESPN reported that 11 of the Patriots 12 footballs were up to two PSI under the legal limit of 12.5, the controversy exploded.
Brady and Belichick tried to quell the flames by holding press conferences to explain their (lack of) involvement in the deflation, but were immediately accused of lying by the sports media. ESPN had former football players Jerome Bettis, Brian Dawkins, and Mark Brunell on their program to discuss the Patriots’ innocence, and would have been hard pressed to find a more biased panel. Two of them had suffered devastating playoff losses to the Patriots during their dynasty (Bettis’s Steelers lost in two AFC Championship Games, while Dawkins was on the Eagles squad that lost Super Bowl XXXIX), and Brunell was a backup on the Jets during the fiercest years of the Patriots-Jets rivalry. Bettis called the Patriots “known felons” due to their involvement in Spygate (which is a topic for another Timeout), while Brunell literally cried on set in reaction to Brady’s explanation because he did not believe it.
The immediate spinning of this story by the ESPN panel was atrocious; they decided the Patriots’ innocence for the audience before the audience even had a chance to do it themselves.
Even the Super Bowl broadcast was not without bias. NBC’s pregame coverage dedicated a lot of time to Deflategate discussion, and analysts offered their own mostly negative opinions towards the Patriots. During the game, color commentator Cris Collinsworth brought up the topic several times, including during New England’s game-winning touchdown drive while the team was in the red zone. It was one of the most important and exciting moments ever in football, yet he felt the need to deflate the Patriots fans’ spirits.
Remember, at this point, the media is still working off of totally unconfirmed reports.
As of press time the NFL has still not yet released an official statement, but based on recent developments it is looking more and more likely that the Patriots were actually innocent and will not be punished by fine or lose a potential draft pick. However, these recent reports have not received much press, and if you ask the average NFL fan’s opinion they will tell you that the Patriots are guilty and perpetual cheaters. I worry that the official NFL report, which will likely clear the Patriots of wrongdoing, will not change the minds of a lot of fans. Based on my experience with Spygate, people generally believe the first thing that was reported, especially if it agrees with their views (in these cases, that the Patriots are evil).
The damage by the media has already been done.
I imagine that a majority of the people reading this article are fans of the Atlanta Falcons, who have recently admitted to pumping in fake crowd noise at home games over the past two seasons. This is a deliberate act that gives the home team a clear unfair advantage, and it has already been confirmed by the team to have taken place. No one on TV or online seems to care, but imagine if the Falcons were crucified in the media over this issue for the next two weeks. Every channel you watch has a story about how your team is full of cheaters, and how all of their accomplishments should be nullified. Now imagine that your team actually had nothing to do with it and that there was in fact a logical explanation for what happened that does not involve foul play. But that now seemingly every time you try to explain the situation, no one will listen.
That is what Patriots fans had to endure, and it is an awful experience that I would not wish on a fan of any team, even the Seahawks.