This won’t come as good news for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the New England Patriots. Don Van Natta says there might be a Round 2 to last week’s big ESPN Magazine story illustrating how Goodell used the penalties levied on the Patriots for “Deflategate” as a make-up call for being lenient on “Spygate” in 2008.
Van Natta, who co-wrote the story with Seth Wickersham, says they have received more than a dozen calls from various league sources since the story was released.
“When you do a story like this, you shake the tree and very ripe fruit falls into your lap,” Van Natta said. “There are some interesting leads that Seth and I are going to address. I don’t think we’re done with this just yet.Van Natta wouldn’t divulge any details or give a timetable for the next installment. He did say a couple of the leads involved other teams, although the Patriots remain the main focus.
“We heard from people we didn’t even interview who were confirming the storylines in our piece,” Van Natta said. “It confirmed the anger and paranoia around the league about the Patriots.”
Last week’s blockbuster story created plenty of noise. Van Natta and Wickersham interviewed more than 90 people for the piece that alleges the Patriots’ secret taping of other teams, “Spygate,” was more widespread than originally revealed by the league. The story says there were owners who felt Goodell and his office botched the investigation and went too soft with penalties on the Patriots.
As a result, when allegations hit that the Patriots and Tom Brady were illegally deflating balls in last year’s AFC Championship, “Deflategate,” the ESPN story says Goodell decided he had to do a thorough investigation and come down hard on the team.
Regarding the process for doing the story, Van Natta, who was a member of two Pulitzer Prize winning teams for the New York Times, did what investigative reporters do: Try to connect the dots.
The reporting for the story didn’t start until May, but Van Natta says he started to think about it in February when Goodell appointed attorney Ted Wells to head the league’s probe into “Deflategate.”
“I thought, ‘Why is Ted Wells involved in this when it’s a matter of letting a little bit of air out of football?'” Van Natta said. “I knew about Goodell’s handling of ‘Spygate’ from the  profile I did on him. It really was a bad investigation with many flaws. The imbalance [between the two probes] formed the germ of the idea.”
Van Natta and Wickersham knew Arlen Specter, the late senator from Pennsylvania, also had suspicions about Goodell’s handling of “Spygate.” They located notes at the University of Pittsburgh from Specter’s meeting with Goodell on the matter. The notes show that the senator felt stonewalled by the commissioner and that there had been a cover-up
“Any time you get notes like that, you can build seeds,” Van Natta said.
The notes also gave the reporters valuable on-the-record information. Yet Van Natta knew that the bulk of the story would be constructed around anonymous sources.
Prior to coming to ESPN, Van Natta covered the White House, Pentagon, the CIA, and spent three years interviewing intelligence officers in Europe for the New York Times. He jokes that all of that experience proved to be “a good training ground” for doing investigative stories on the NFL.
“There is a code of silence in the NFL,” Van Natta said. “You can’t do a story like this without using anonymous sources.”
Van Natta says he and Wickersham try to get as many people to confirm every piece of information in the story. He said there were only couple instances where they had a high enough comfort level to go with one source.
“Every piece of information has to be bullet-proof,” Van Natta said. “On these kinds of stories, when you rely on a mix of on-the-record, documents and a vast majority of anonymous sources, you’ve got to get it right. I am not aware of one single fact in our story that wasn’t correct.”
Naturally, the Patriots issued denials about the story. Interestingly, the NFL declined to make any comment.
The latest story refueled some persistent speculation that ESPN is assisting the NFL, its biggest TV partner, in this dispute with New England. The chatter ignores the fact that Goodell and the NFL come off as poorly as the Patriots in the piece. It also is ridiculous to think that Van Natta, a Pulitzer Prize winner, could be told what to report, much less carry an agenda.
“When I came here from the New York Times, I had some concerns,” Van Natta said. “I knew I would be writing on the NFL, and that they had a relationship with the league. They said, ‘We’re hiring you to write [investigative stories] for us. We’ll give you the green light to do what you want to do.’ There’s never been a moment where I’ve been told to back off anything.”
The end result, Van Natta contends, is the latest story on the Patriots situation that goes beyond just breaking news. He believes they were able to connect the dots.
“If there was no ‘Spygate,’ would there be a ‘Deflategate?’ The answer is no,” Van Natta said. “It’s about context. The best kind of investigative reporting not only reveals new information, it also explains why these things happen. I think our story succeeded on that point.”
Recommended reading on sports journalism:
Legendary sports photographer Neil Leifer is the subject of the latest edition of “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” by the Povich Center for Sports Journalism.
“The defeat of Jason Whitlock” is the headline for Winston Ross’ story for Newsweek.
ESPN’s Antonietta [Toni Collins] does a podcast with Richard Deitsch at SI.com. She discusses being a Hispanic reporter; the benefits and challenges of being a bilingual reporter.