Back in May, ESPN published an article chronicling longtime resentments within the Seattle Seahawks locker room and between players and the coaching staff, notably reported grievances concerning Richard Sherman and Russell Wilson, including one incident many years ago when Sherman supposedly told Wilson “You suck” during a practice.
Sherman later called the article “nonsense” and several other Seahawks, including Michael Bennett, downplayed the truthfulness or significance of the disputes described within. The full scope of the article portrayed a complicated dynamic fostered by Pete Carroll in which players were free to question or challenge management and one another, but also apparently protected certain stars from scrutiny to a degree that some teammates considered favoritism.
Despite sensational packaging highlighting the rifts more than reconciliations also dramatized within the content, the piece came more or less in parcel with many other rumors, or events already publicly exposited by the news, detailing goings on at the Seattle football facility during Carroll’s tenure. Nevertheless some fans unhappy at this sunlight on the rumbling underbelly of their favorite team picked up the Seahawks denials to the exclusion of the depth of reporting by its author Seth Wickersham.
I saw folks on Twitter not only question the reporter’s conclusions, but attacking Wickersham’s use of “unnamed sources” and “tabloid-style” peaking into behind the scenes drama, even going so far as to accuse Wickersham or ESPN of an explicit agenda to stir dissension among the Seattle organization. Others decried a media environment that pressures writers to be as provocative as possible—even to the point of embellishment or outright fabrication. In the lean football-free months of summer, the debate raged in the comments until at least August when more robust matters like the utility in the slot of Tramaine Brock took hold of our consciousness.
Then the regular season eclipsed all that and for many months everything took place between the end lines on the field, and nobody ever mentioned off field issues again. Right?
Well there was the time in October when Wickersham, along with veteran investigative reporter Don Van Natta, Jr., published in ESPN the Magazine another behind-closed-doors account revealing the NFL’s sloppy handling of negotiations with a coalition of protesting players, and the Outside the Lines article a month later when Wickersham and DVN again teamed up to expose roiling tensions between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and commissioner Roger Goodell over the league’s handling of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension and older, more substantial NFL policy concerns.
Juicy bits include Jones calling New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft a dirty word, threatening to “come after” Goodell, and a perhaps premature declaration that “Roger Goodell is in a battle few saw coming, with the league’s membership teetering on an all-out, unprecedented civil war”.
Goodell appears to have won that battle, signing a hefty new extension in December and otherwise averting “civil war”, but although some persisted in calling these reports #fakenews in solidarity against Wickersham and Dallas fans specifically reacted as if ESPN had put a hit out on the Cowboys franchise, many quotes and anecdotes this time were confirmed or given directly by on record sources—and since these developments didn’t embarrass the Seahawks mostly people around here gleefully embraced the gossip surrounding our enemies without doubting the credibility of its author or corporate platform.
And so today we wake up with yet another icy storm shattering the east coast in the form of a new Wickersham dismantling: Now it’s the cohesive facade of the championship organization that has won two of the past three Super Bowls and holds the top seed in the AFC playoffs, the New England Patriots. This particular scoop involves a screaming, petty Tom Brady, a Rasputinesque personal trainer, a wary and brusque Bill Belichick, an overreaching Kraft, and the poor ejected Jimmy Garoppolo.
In a weird way, like the article on Sherman and Seattle, the threads here trace back to that most pivotal of all NFL plays at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. But instead of the sudden loss tearing asunder the Seahawks, here it’s a growing sense of entitlement and war for credit following the Patriots’ first title win in a decade. Some moments are just too rich with consequence for reporters to resist. The piece also contains a self-reflective admission that New England officials dispute and deny many of the related examples of friction cobbled from interviews with staff and players.
Nevertheless it’s fun to explore the cracks in the Patriots, hear about other teammates sharing misgivings about their quarterback’s privileges, and forecast a time when Belichick and Brady will no longer loom over the NFL after they part ways or retire. It’s possible again that some of the events may not be fully accurate or that, even if accurate, they aren’t representative of guiding dynamics among the team or management.
The act of storytelling is inherently interpretive, and there are indeed incentives to tell the most captivating tales credulity will allow. There’s temptation to believe in stories assigning vulnerability to champions, and a corresponding temptation to find critics jealous or mischeivous or otherwise desirous of undermining power. We also tend to project our own attributes onto public characters, and imagine for better or worse how we might handle confusion or interpersonal challenges. As such we fill out data points of fact with mortal assumptions.
A reporter’s job should be supplying those facts and characters along with enough delicacy of credence and context to fill them in the mold of truth—and also avoid the trap of conjuring shimmering distraction just to point at one and verify it. (“I said there was a rumor ... which was true, and I started the rumor.”) Readers ought to apply as much latitude of interpretation or skepticism to these stories of New England and Jerry Jones as we do to the ones about the Seahawks, but also recognize that the variation of use of anonymity has its express purpose in freeing this information from its veil of privacy.
Do unnamed sources have hidden agendas? Yes, maybe. Again most of these sources are principles in the story, or witnesses. As Danny Kelly has said the working of these agendas represents evidence of real drama, not some invisible whispering voice to dismiss.
okay, well if that's the case, it's also kinda interesting if players have an agenda though, isn't it? Weird stuff happens on teams— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) June 15, 2017
But whatever sourced agendas lurk behind the scenes, the continued work by Wickersham and ESPN makes clear no mandate exists at company headquarters or taped above Wickersham’s desk to pile on top of Seattle’s sore spots.
If ESPN will take down Roger Goodell’s invincibility within the ownership council as readily as Goodell’s deflation-controversy adversary Robert Kraft, it seems clear the broadcaster doesn’t discriminate on behalf of any corporate grudges. (ESPN, based in Connecticut, sometimes gets accused of profiting off and supporting New England sports dominance, but of course Patriots fans blame the television network for crusading for penalties for Kraft and Brady following that scandal, again based on Wickersham and Van Natta’s reporting.) Likewise, if Wickersham is just as free to target the Seahawks NFC rivals the Cowboys, or the culture of Seattle’s Super Bowl opponent New England, I’m sure he didn’t undertake a mission to personally assassinate anyone in the Seahawks locker room.
I’m convinced of Wickersham’s long and credible track record as an investigator, and I believe ESPN has enough lawyers to prevent its accountants from encouraging pursuit of clicks to the detriment of verifiable claims. It’s time for Seattle to accept that close examination and conflict are part of the deal that comes with notoriety, and be rid of the defensive denials and paranoia that fill the corners of our beaks with froth and foam.
If anything, these divides present on the Patriots confirm that internecine camps and rebellious struggles don’t automatically override a championship opportunity. Belichick’s fabled “way” isn’t any more immune to emotional erosion than Carroll’s program, as long as players and coaches
do their job execute. And you can thank Wickersham for that insight.