For the past seven months, the Patriots have been at war with the NFL. Tuesday, it was confirmed that the Pats are at war with the sports media giant that “covers” the league.
ESPN came out with an 11,467-word report on, arguably, the biggest media day of the year (the first Tuesday after Labor Day) and rehashed Spygate – the Patriots videotaping scandal of 2007. ESPN reporters Don Van Natta Jr. and Seth Wickersham interviewed “more than 90 league officials, coaches, current and former Patriots coaches, staffers and players” in the report to show that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went to such great lengths to punish Tom Brady and the Patriots because he felt pressure from other NFL owners to do a “makeup call” for Spygate.
The piece mixes plenty of fact with speculation regarding just how big of a “scheme” the Patriots had as it relates to video taping opponents.
“There’s no evidence that they did [tape the St. Louis Rams walkthrough in 2002], but there’s a suspicion that they did and at that time there was a suspicion,” Wickersham told ESPN’s Mike & Mike on Tuesday.
Just last month, ESPN had to make an apology for repeating, as fact, that the Patriots taped the Rams’ walk-through prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. The network made this apology just once, at 12:20 in the morning.
“On two occasions in recent weeks, SportsCenter incorrectly cited a 2002 report regarding the New England Patriots and Super Bowl XXXVI,” anchor Steve Levy said. “That story was found to be false and should not have been part of our reporting. We apologize to the Patriots organization.”
The Patriots offered a response to ESPN’s Tuesday story quickly after it was posted on ESPN.com.
“The New England Patriots have never filmed or recorded another team’s practice or walkthrough. The first time we ever heard of such an accusation came in 2008, the day before Super Bowl XLII, when the Boston Herald reported an allegation from a disgruntled former employee,” the Patriots’ statement read. “That report created a media firestorm that extended globally and was discussed incessantly for months. It took four months before that newspaper retracted its story and offered the team a front and back page apology for the damage done. Clearly, the damage has been irreparable. As recently as last month, over seven years after the retraction and apology was issued, ESPN issued the following apology to the Patriots for continuing to perpetuate the myth: ‘On two occasions in recent weeks, SportsCenter incorrectly cited a 2002 report regarding the New England Patriots and Super Bowl XXXVI. That story was found to be false, and should not have been part of our reporting. We apologize to the Patriots organization.’
“This type of reporting over the past seven years has led to additional unfounded, unwarranted and, quite frankly, unbelievable allegations by former players, coaches and executives. None of which have ever been substantiated, but many of which continue to be propagated. The New England Patriots are led by an owner whose well-documented efforts on league-wide initiatives – from TV contracts to preventing a work stoppage – have earned him the reputation as one of the best in the NFL. For the past 16 years, the Patriots have been led by one of the league’s all-time greatest coaches and one of its all-time greatest quarterbacks. It is disappointing that some choose to believe in myths, conjecture and rumors rather than giving credit for the team’s successes to Coach Belichick, his staff and the players for their hard work, attention to detail, methodical weekly preparation, diligence and overall performance.”
Mort’s “B.S. report”
The media firestorm in the Deflategate saga was flamed by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, who tweeted on Jan. 20 that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in the 2014 AFC Championship Game were under-inflated by two pounds of pressure per square inch. The Wells Report itself indicated that Mortensen’s tweet was incorrect and Mortensen would eventually delete the tweet, but an entire six months after it first appeared.
Brady was asked by Kirk Minihane on WEEI’s “Dennis & Callahan” show Tuesday if he might not be as cooperative with media outlets, particularly ESPN, moving forward given what has transpired these past seven months.
“I think that’s probably a natural feeling to have,” Brady said. “I don’t know exactly how I’ll approach those things each week … I always try to fulfill obligations for people. It’s hard to fulfill them all.”
Brady laughed in his Tuesday interview when WEEI host Gerry Callahan chimed in, “Chris Mortensen wants to have lunch tomorrow, are you available?”
ESPN moved away from some of its more colorful personalities in recent months, as Colin Cowherd is now working for Fox Sports and Bill Simmons is now employed by HBO. Cowherd and Simmons had been highly critical of NFL practices, at times. Cowherd told Sports Business Daily Tuesday that there has been a clear shift in thinking at ESPN.
“I could sense with budget cuts coming at ESPN that head count was going to be an issue,” Cowherd said. “The culture at ESPN, I found when I left, isn’t the same as when I came. It wasn’t as much fun.”
Simmons, an unabashed Patriots fan, has been tweeting for months that the majority of the analysts who criticize the Patriots on ESPN airwaves are players and coaches who lost to the Pats last decade and have an axe to grind.
“Finished [ESPN] piece,” Simmons tweeted Tuesday. “Agree with theory that Goodell’s Deflategate botching was a crazed overreaction to his bizarre SpyGate performance but not sure what to make of the sour grapes stuff. Sure seems like everyone who ever lost to the 2001-07 Patriots now has a built-in excuse for failure. [It] also doesn’t explain the Patriots’ ongoing success from Game 2 2007 through Super Bowl 49, which mirrored their success from 2001 through Game 1 2007.
“I’m just happy the 2001 Steelers can blame stolen signals for losing and not their special teams breakdown or Kordell [expletive] the bed," Simmons continued. "And I’m happy for the Rams – who scored a TD on their only SB36 red zone appearance but can now blame the Pats for stealing red zone signals. And I’m happy for the Eagles – who fell apart down the stretch in SB39 like they did in 20 other McNabb/Reid games but now have a good excuse. And I’m happy for the Colts – who kept blowing big games to NE until Polian got the NFL to change the passing rules, but now have an excuse. And I’m happy for Carolina – who went 14-18 in the seasons before and after SB38, heavy underdogs in 03 playoffs, but were somehow robbed of a title.
Simmons also discussed this past Super Bowl, which the Patriots won with seemingly properly inflated balls due to the fact that the Deflategate story broke the day after the AFC title game.
“Hey Seahawks fans – you should claim that Belichick knew your signals on this play [sends YouTube clip of Malcolm Butler’s interception]. Get in on the pity party!” he tweeted.
ESPN extended its deal with the NFL for $15.2 billion over eight years in 2011.
“We do not have a more important deal than [with] the NFL,” ESPN president John Skipper told Bloomberg in 2014.