No penalty for reporting on rumors about NFL draft prospects

Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay (Wisconsin) Press-Gazette has been working on a project this month that’s forced him to penetrate a world of secretive characters, mysterious motives, and closely guarded intelligence.

The result of his research – an eight part series of articles – contains information so sensitive that almost all of the people he interviewed insisted on remaining anonymous. The first installment of the series, which was published today, quotes only unnamed sources.

The enigmatic subject he’s writing about is next week’s NFL draft.

Dougherty covers the Green Bay Packers. And like many of his fellow football reporters at media organizations around the country, he’s spent the past several weeks researching and preparing profiles of the draft’s top prospects. As is customary in draft preview stories, Dougherty relies heavily on comments from anonymous NFL scouts and team officials.

“He could be a nice solid player,” one of the nameless high-ranking scouts says about Ohio State defensive lineman Craig Heyward. “I like what he brought to the table,” concurs another anonymous scout in Dougherty’s story today.

But the article today also notes – again without named attribution – that North Carolina lineman Marvin Austin has “off field character” issues.

“You wouldn’t be able to do any work of any substance if you didn’t go off the record,” Dougherty told me in a phone interview. He said he compiles his draft previews after talking with a variety of scouts from several teams, some of whom he’s known for years. But in keeping with the established practice in the NFL, none of the team officials he deals with allows him to quote them by name.

“It’s definitely a CIA culture,” Dougherty said. “It’s just ingrained in these guys.”

“A toxic time of year”

Indeed, the buildup to the NFL draft in many ways resembles a Cold War-era espionage caper – and the scouts’ insistence of anonymity is only part of the reason. Each of the league’s 32 teams has a profound interest in learning its competitors’ draft strategies. Team executives work through dozens of draft day scenarios to assure that their desired players are available when it’s their turn to pick.

There’s a competitive advantage to keeping your list of targeted players secret to prevent other teams from drafting them out from under you. A craftily-managed team can plant misinformation designed to confuse competitors about who’s on its wish list. Players’ agents also sometimes send up smokescreens to try to improve their clients’ appeal.

Factor in the millions of dollars at stake in the draft – and the intense interest it attracts from fans, mainstream journalists, and bloggers – and you have an environment where rumors fly, speculation and misinformation reverberate around the Internet, and writers can be manipulated by sources.

“Teams will flat-out lie to you just to get you to write something and keep somebody off their trail,” said Omar Kelly, who covers the Miami Dolphins for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. “People will just try to use you.”

Kelly said teams and agents also increasingly leak disparaging rumors about specific players’ ability, character, or morals. Teams do it with the hope that competing clubs will be scared away from talented prospects. Agents do it so that their own clients look better by comparison.

“It’s such a toxic time of year,” Kelly said in a phone interview. “The gamesmanship is just huge.”

In the run-up to this year’s draft, the rumor mill already has thrashed a number of highly touted college players. Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett has faced allegations of drug use. Auburn quarterback Cam Newton is the subject of stories alleging he cheated in college, while his Auburn teammate Nick Fairley was criticized in the blogosphere for skipping a scheduled dinner with Dolphins officials.

All of the reports were attributed to unidentified sources.

“We don’t publish any information until we feel very confident that it’s completely accurate,” said Pro Football Weekly Senior Editor Nolan Nawrocki, who has written about Mallett’s alleged drug use, questioned Fairley’s work ethic, criticized Newton’s ego, and printed an anonymous quote labeling Austin a “finger-pointing, excuse-making con artist.”

“Trust me when I say there’s much more information behind what we report on all these players,” Nawrocki said in a phone interview.

But to some observers, the use of unnamed informants in draft stories has spiraled out of control.

“It’s worse than it’s ever been,” said Tim Franklin, the Director of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University. “The reader doesn’t know the motive of the source, the reader doesn’t know if the news organization is being used by the source, and the news organization may not necessarily care that it’s being used.”

“Anonymous sources are bad enough, but using unnamed sources for character assassination is beyond the bounds of responsible journalism,” Franklin told me in an email.

Franklin isn’t alone in bemoaning the current state of NFL draft coverage. Yahoo sports blogger Doug Farrar asked of the character assessments, “How much is too much?” CBS Sports.com columnist Mike Freeman called the pre-draft rumors “stupid, irrelevant, and even dangerous.”

Fans love rumors; websites profit from them

Some of this year’s over-heated scrutiny on young draftees is a result of the NFL’s player lockout, which has delayed the start of free agency and given reporters and bloggers one less thing to write about.

But in large part, the draft obsession is a natural outgrowth of a long-term trend: America’s still-growing fixation on sports, celebrities, and the Internet.

With teams investing a fortune in their draft picks (last year’s first rounders signed contracts ranging from $11 million to $78 million each), scouts and agents have strong incentives to leak rumors and use the media to boost their bargaining positions.

And news organizations and blogs often are all too happy to go along, feeding fans’ almost insatiable appetite for football gossip. Unlike the bygone era when sports pages mainly contained game recaps, many of today’s beat reporters and bloggers deal almost exclusively in speculation – trying to predict which prospects will be drafted, which players will be traded, and which coaches will be fired.

“The fans love juicy rumors,” said Wes Bunting, who writes about scouting for the National Football Post website. “A lot of times, when (a website) puts out rumor pieces, it’s not because they think it’s true, but it’s for them to get hits.”

Bunting – who admits he’s been used and deceived by sources – said his industry is almost devoid of accountability. So many rumors fly around cyberspace and get repeated and re-tweeted that it’s difficult for fans even to figure out where a false report originated, let alone hold a writer or website responsible for it.

“Everyone’s willing to throw their hat in the ring whether they have credible sources or not, because even if they’re wrong they still get a ton of hits,” Bunting said.

Bunting and many sportswriters express discomfort with the situation. (A Montclair State University survey of sports media professionals found more than two-thirds said anonymous sources are overused). But there’s little reason to think anything will change. In fact, Nawrocki – the Pro Football Weekly editor – said insider pieces about players’ morals are likely to become even more common.

“Money has changed the NFL,” Nawrocki said. “It’s placed a greater emphasis on the character of players. Teams are paying more attention to it, and that’s trickled down to our approach as well.

“Maybe it’s nasty and mean. I guess that’s in the eye of the beholder.”

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