The Media Today

Ted Lasso, the Jon Gruden story, and ethics in sports media

October 15, 2021
Washington Redskins President Bruce Allen walks across the field before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018, in Landover, Md. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

On October 1, the penultimate episode of the second season of Ted Lasso—a hit fictional show about an American football coach who moves to London to coach football of the English variety—ended (spoiler alert) on a cliffhanger. Trent Crimm—a lion-maned journalist character whose shtick is standing up at press conferences, removing his glasses, and introducing himself as “Trent Crimm, The Independent”—texts Lasso asking for comment on a story (which appears already to have been published) revealing to the world that Lasso left an important game early because he had a panic attack. (Lasso had blamed his hurried departure on food poisoning.) “As a journalist, I had to write that,” Crimm texts. “But as someone who respects you… my source was Nate,” a coach on Lasso’s staff. Watching with my girlfriend, I scoffed at the scene—the panic attack wasn’t a story that Crimm “had” to write, I said, and besides, journalists don’t out their sources at all, let alone to the subjects of their reporting. Many Ted Lasso fans in the media had a similar reaction. “This would never happen so casually,” Christopher Orr wrote in the New York Times. “Ted Lasso‘s writers made Crimm seem like a beacon of hope in the world of fictional journalists for nearly two full seasons,” Mashable’s Nicole Gallucci wrote, “which is why it was so confusing and painful to see Crimm essentially say ‘to hell with ethics.’” James Lance, the actor who plays Crimm, didn’t escape the takes. His wife is a journalist.

Coincidentally, the two weeks since the episode dropped have been banner ones for stories about real-life American football coaches and attendant debates about journalistic ethics. On October 2, an anonymous Twitter account posted a video showing Urban Meyer, the married coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, dancing with a woman at a restaurant in Ohio. The video kicked off a big journalism story, even though the person who posted it was not exactly a journalist but—as the Wall Street Journal’s Andrew Beaton reported last Thursday—an electrician and sometime blogger who once wrote for a fan website about the Ohio State team, which Meyer used to coach. Then, on Friday, Beaton published a bigger story about a different coach, reporting on an email from July 2011 in which Jon Gruden—who was then working as an analyst on ESPN in between spells with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Las Vegas Raiders—used a racist trope to describe DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the National Football League Players Association, which was locked in labor negotiations with league executives at the time. Gruden apologized and denied having “a racial bone in my body”; on Sunday, following a Raiders defeat, he tried to move reporters on from the story. But the story wasn’t done. On Monday, the Times reported the existence of many more emails in which Gruden routinely used bigoted language and made bigoted points. By the end of the day, he had resigned as coach of the Raiders.

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The recipient of Gruden’s emails was Bruce Allen, who was then the president of what is now known as the Washington Football Team; it’s unclear how the Journal and the Times obtained them, but they were part of a cache reviewed by the NFL as part of an investigation into the Washington team’s toxic culture. Various analysts have raised questions about what else the cache might show—the investigation, of which Gruden was not a formal target, ended in a ten million-dollar fine for the team, but no full account of its findings was ever made public—and what it all says about the culture of football more broadly. Numerous observers have broached the complicity of ESPN in this culture, since Gruden was a star broadcaster there at the time many of the emails were sent. The Times referred to Allen and Gruden as “part of an exclusive network that cycles between NFL teams, networks and companies affiliated with the league”; speaking on Richard Deitsch’s Sports Media podcast, Kavitha Davidson, a writer at The Athletic, said that “this whole thing just kinda shows how much a part of the football machine ESPN really is,” even if it does have some dogged reporters on staff. The Daily Beast’s Tirhakah Love criticized the network for “shying away” from accountability. (Its first response to the Gruden revelations was an eight-word statement calling his comments “repugnant”). In a column for SFGate, Drew Magary was even more scathing. “It’s almost,” he wrote on Twitter, “as if ESPN’s entire NFL coverage infrastructure is fucking poison.”

Writing on Tuesday, Magary took particular aim at Adam Schefter, a scoopy NFL reporter at ESPN who, Magary argued, could have used his access to break the Gruden story but instead “half-assed” it out of “strategic negligence.” The same day, Schefter became a character in the story in his own right: the LA Times reported on an email that he sent to Allen in which he shared advance text of an article about the July 2011 negotiations, referred to Allen as “Mr. Editor,” and asked him to “please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked.” Many journalists were quick to point out that sharing unpublished stories with sources is highly unethical; a couple of observers who defended Schefter on the grounds that we’ve all done this were also savaged since… well, no, we haven’t. As the outcry grew louder, Schefter responded via a statement in which he denied ever having ceded editorial control to a source, but accepted that he’d taken “a step too far” in this case, and that the criticism was “fair.”

Schefter’s conduct drove criticisms of a transactional culture in sports journalism that, while far from universal, goes far beyond ESPN. “Guys make deals,” Chris Broussard said on his sports podcast The Odd Couple. “I’ve even heard of guys, if there was a negative story about a source, [they] wouldn’t write it.” Mike Sielski, a sports columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, re-upped an old column in which he explored why it took TMZ, a non-sports outlet, to obtain and publish footage of the football player Ray Rice assaulting his fiancée; there are “so many media entities” Sielski pointed out at the time, “with so much invested in covering the NFL a certain way, for football-centric audiences.” (TMZ also paid handsomely for the footage.) Brian Moritz, an academic who studies sports media, argued that we should focus on the bigger picture here, by examining the financial incentives for editors and their reporters and the power dynamics between journalists, sources, and subjects. None of this is limited to football, or, indeed, sports. This week also brought controversy over an article in which Shams Charania, a basketball reporter at The Athletic, insisted, citing anonymous sources, that Kyrie Irving, an NBA star who has refused to get a COVID shot, is not “anti-vaccine” but rather “upset that people are losing their jobs due to vaccine mandates,” which for him is “a grander fight than the one on the court.”

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Two weeks on from the penultimate episode of Ted Lasso, I feel naive to have seen the discussion around Trent Crimm’s source-burning as outlandishly fictional; indeed, numerous observers explicitly compared Crimm to Schefter this week, coming down, if anything, on Crimm’s side. Not that life always mirrors art. In the final Ted Lasso episode of the season, which came out last week, Crimm tells Lasso that he admitted having outed a source to his bosses, and that they instantly fired him for it; the writers seemed to leave the door open for Crimm to come work for Lasso’s team, but that’ll have to wait for the next season. In the real world, Gruden might be finished as a coach, but some observers predict that he may yet find a second chance in the media corner of pro football, as other powerful pundits have before him. “I think Jon Gruden’s NFL career is certainly over,” Deitsch said on his podcast. But “I would never say in a million years his media career is over. Because I’m a realist and a cynic.”

Below, more on sports media:

  • The latest: Allen’s emails are still generating new stories—yesterday, Ken Belson and Katherine Rosman, of the Times, reported on his correspondence with Jeff Pash, the NFL’s top lawyer, in which Allen “casually joked about Native Americans and racial and political diversity, griped about referees and league initiatives to improve player safety, and arranged tickets and perks” for Pash, who would later oversee the league’s investigation of the Washington Football Team. As Will Leitch wrote earlier this week, for New York, the Gruden emails are clearly only “the tip of the iceberg.” The only way out, Leitch argues, is for the NFL to publish its full investigation of the Washington team.
  • The culture wars: After Gruden resigned from the Raiders, Justin Horowitz, of the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, assessed the reaction in the right-wing mediasphere, which was as one would have expected. “Right-wing media figures are defending Gruden’s comments and making him a martyr of the so-called ‘cancel culture,’” Horowitz wrote. “Newsmax host Greg Kelly described Gruden’s stepping down as ‘really, really sick stuff’ and blamed ‘mob mentality’ as the reason he was forced out of the league.” He also noted that the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh judged Gruden’s racist comment about DeMaurice Smith to be “statistically correct.”
  • “Pathetic”: Barry Petchesky, of Defector, was among the commentators to savage Schefter this week, calling him “pathetic” and explaining why journalists don’t show stories to sources ahead of time. “The story in question was not the typical Schefter pap,” Petchesky writes. “It was a labor battle, with both sides keen to get their spin on events in front of the public. It was a story with real implications for the livelihoods of the people involved.” According to Front Office Sports, Schefter could be on his way out of ESPN—Caesars Sportsbook, a sports gambling company, is interested in luring him away when his contract expires next year, though a source said that ESPN wants him to stay. (Danny Funt recently wrote for CJR on how gambling “swallowed sports media.”)
  • Lightning strikes: For Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay, Timothy Burke profiled NewsRadio WFLA, a radio station that is the partner of the Tampa Bay Lightning ice hockey team and also home to rampant disinformation about the pandemic and vaccines. “The Lightning’s partnership with WFLA is unique,” Burke writes. “Among the NHL’s 32 teams, the Lightning are the only one whose radio flagship is an explicitly political radio station; 21 teams are hosted on sports talk stations, five air on ‘straight news’ stations, two on community or college radio, and one on an alternative rock station.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins profiled Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund notorious for buying up local newspapers and cutting them to the bone. The illustration on the story depicts a vulture perched on a stack of papers, but a former staffer at the Chicago Tribune, which Alden acquired this year, said that’s the wrong metaphor. “A vulture doesn’t hold a wounded animal’s head underwater,” he said. “This is predatory.” Alden also acquired the Baltimore Sun this year after Stewart Bainum, Jr., a Maryland businessman, failed with a bid to take it nonprofit; now, Coppins reports, Bainum is preparing to launch the Baltimore Banner as a well-resourced digital rival to the Sun. (For more on Alden, read Savannah Jacobson’s profile for CJR from last year.)
  • For CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Priyanjana Bengani is out with a twopart investigation of Metric Media, a company whose websites present themselves as local news but actually push right-wing agendas. Bengani found that the network “has ties to founders of the Tea Party movement, to a non-profit described by Mother Jones as ‘the dark-money ATM of the conservative movement,’ and to a Catholic political advocacy group that launched a $9.7 million campaign in swing states against the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden six weeks before the 2020 election.”
  • This week, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch warned the state of Missouri that teachers’ Social Security numbers were potentially visible to the public due to an error on a state website. The paper waited until officials fixed the problem before reporting on it. Rather than thank the journalist, Mike Parson, Missouri’s Republican governor, branded them a “hacker” and pledged to refer them for prosecution. The Missouri Independent has more.
  • Meredith Clark, a professor at Northeastern University who is surveying newsrooms about staff diversity on behalf of the News Leaders Association, told the Associated Press that fewer than two hundred and fifty outlets—out of an estimated six thousand nationwide—have responded. Papers owned by Gannett and McClatchy have been among those to reply already; the new deadline to do so is the end of October.
  • For Nieman Lab, Nikki Usher raises concerns about the potential for political meddling at public media stations with administrative ties to universities, as the latter find themselves on the front lines of the culture wars. “While the stations see themselves as editorially independent from the schools,” Usher writes, some of them have already faced “right-wing political pressure” or “universities attempting to squelch unfavorable stories.”
  • Poynter’s Rick Edmonds assesses the prospects of Congress passing a tax credit for local journalists as part of Biden’s broader spending bill; Democrats are still negotiating the scope of the package, but currently, the tax credit is in—and it appears to have the support of senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, who don’t agree on much else. Figuring out who qualifies as a journalist, Edmonds notes, remains a sticking point.
  • Today, Democrats in the House will introduce the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act—a bill that would amend social-media companies’ existing protections against legal liability to hold them accountable for recklessly recommending content that causes users physical or emotional harm. Meanwhile, senators from both parties will introduce an antitrust bill aimed at barring platforms from boosting their products over those of rivals.
  • Recently, LinkedIn blocked the profiles of several US journalists from appearing on its platform in China, citing their links to content that is prohibited by the Chinese state. Now the company plans to shutter its Chinese platform and replace it with a new app that, according to Axios, “will not include a social feed or the ability to share posts or articles.” LinkedIn cited growing operating challenges and “compliance requirements” in China.
  • And Nicholas Kristof, the Times columnist who recently stepped back from writing to explore a run for governor in Oregon, is formally leaving the paper; his campaign is not yet confirmed, but he filed some official paperwork this week and told colleagues at the Times that he wants “not only to expose problems but also see if I can fix them directly.” ICYMI, I wrote recently on whether journalists, including Kristof, should run for office.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.