There was a time, before the 24-hour news cycle, where the National Football League had a legitimate offseason. From March through the beginning of August, save for the draft, talk around the NFL diminished to the point of near silence. The introduction of modern free agency in 1993 was the first step towards making the league a year-round endeavor. Free agency gave fans and media the subject to focus on.
Conversations centered around which player would be going where. Suddenly high-profile players were in transit and the media had a new story to chase. Fast forward 20 years and the proliferation of information on the internet created the perfect storm of product and demand for NFL news. The more we crave, the more we depend on the media to satiate our hunger. We now have a situation where the media has a large influence on how the everyday story of the league is written. Today we take a look at how the narrative is shaped, and how the media ultimately holds the key.
Planting the Seed
By the mid-90’s the internet had begun to take hold of the fabric of society. In just a matter of a few years, people around the world logged on and became connected to each other. It was now easier to share and acquire information. The internet allowed news to travel exponentially faster than it had just a decade ago. NFL fans in Hawaii could now join an online forum to discuss their favorite team.
The reach of the league grew quickly as the internet became more readily available. With more eyes on the product, content became the name of the game. After the games ended, fans looked for news about their favorite teams and players. Suddenly the team beat writer for the local paper was asked for more than just previews and wrap ups. An onus was placed on covering the feelings of the players, coaches, and the organization as a whole.
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The brighter light led to more money to the league which only cast the net wider. Teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers were talked about on networks like ESPN. Team related news became national headlines and opening discussions on nightly shows. Radio shows spent hours discussing the issues of Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. This is where we see the true beginnings of the media’s role in building and directing the narrative. The drama in Dallas was front and center on nearly every sports publication or radio and television network. Eventually even the players themselves joined in the discussion during interviews and appearances.
The seed had been sewn that a problem was present. The watering of that seed by the media led to the sprouting of the tree which ultimately showcased the dysfunction of that Cowboys team. The anger and embarrassment felt by those within the organization led to wholesale changes, and ultimately the end of an era in Dallas.
Clicks Equals Cash
It is common knowledge that websites make money based on either advertising or subscriptions for access. Website traffic is at a premium, which makes coverage ripe for contrarian opinions and analysis. However, this comes at the expense of analysis and coverage based on a solid foundation of the facts and understanding how those facts fit into the context of the story. This is commonly seen in premature declarations of a player being a bust or the changing reasons why a coaching hire didn’t work. Take for example the case of former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks. The Cardinals brought in the longtime assistant to the desert to replace Bruce Arians.
Wilks took over a roster with more holes than proven talent. However, those within the organization spread the message that the team could build on an inconsistent 2017 and battle for a playoff spot. Local media ran with the message (present company included) without truly breaking down the facts. Sports talk radio eschewed the positives surrounding the team. Eventually a large section of the fan base bought into the narrative, even though the roster moves made during the offseason did not look to move the needle in a positive direction. As the Cardinals crawled to a 3-13 record in 2018, the media focused on the coaching staff and the failure to produce.
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The narrative switched to the mistakes made by Wilks in assembling his staff. Local media talked about his coaching mistakes for hours each day, seven days a week. Eventually the blame was thrust solely on the head coach while the front office was seemingly given a temporary warning. Wilks became a one-and-done head coach, a rarity in the NFL as most coaches are afforded the chance to correct their mistakes. However, after months of a narrative focused solely on his coaching ability being the reason for the team’s struggles, there was no room left for the team to keep their embattled head coach.
Say it Like You Mean It
As opinion and analysis shows grew popular, the demand for “takes” increased. It became important for media personalities to take a stance on the happenings of the league rather than serve as the conduit for information to be passed along. Bear in mind, there are solidly built arguments and stances as well as “takes” that are the equivalent of a hot blowout diaper.
Oddly enough, one of the biggest benefactors of the drama in Dallas during the 90’s has positioned himself as the preeminent figure of these hot-takes, Skip Bayless. Bayless is known for his often concerning obsession with a particular basketball great. He first cut his hot-take teeth by questioning the sexuality of then-Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, by stating a member of Barry Switzer’s team had suggested the possibility. Switzer was the head coach at the time.
"Keep your eye on Arizona. If I was the Bucs at 5, I'd consider drafting him. If I was the Jaguars at 7, I would draft him. Jon Gruden said he loves him, Raiders have the 4th pick."@ColinCowherd says Kyler Murray made the right choice choosing the NFL pic.twitter.com/XYakb6kXZS
— FOX Sports (@FOXSports) February 11, 2019
The biggest problem with bad takes and lazy analysis isn’t with the work itself, but instead the fact of there being a vehicle to send it out to the masses. Unequivocally, if Bayless or Colin Cowherd were not employed by major outlets such as ESPN for Fox Sports, they would be relegated to regional spots or slide into obscurity while screaming at clouds. As it stands, their voices are first broadcast over television and podcasts, before being amplified over social media such as Twitter. Bayless himself uses the platform to make some of his more cringe-worthy statements. Narratives form after enough amplification of a hot-take.
A recent examples from Cowherd. He said Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield was not a team player. Cowherd aired a short clip of Mayfield running towards the fans after throwing a touchdown against Ohio State while playing with Oklahoma. Cowherd used roughly five or six seconds of a 30 second clip. He created the narrative that Mayfield only cared about personal glory. The full clip shows Mayfield running towards his teammates after just a couple of seconds celebrating with Oklahoma fans. It was a road game for the Sooners.
To their credit, the Cowherd show producers and staff flooded social media with his statement and transitioned it into an interview with Mayfield. It was billed as the chance for Mayfield to answer his critics. Cowherd managed to convince enough people that Mayfield wasn’t a true leader, simply by choosing not to air an entire 30 second highlight.
Need to do Better
Media coverage is now intertwined in how the league is viewed, both in the literal sense of network coverage, and the way the narrative is written. The media wields tremendous, if often understated, power in this aspect. At some point those involved, present company included, need to take ownership for that power. The media needs to spend more time focusing on how their words can be used, focus on knowing the message behind their writing. Reporting a string of facts will always be the purest option. However, it is when we blur the lines of news and entertainment, that we open the door to lazy analysis and arguments being made for argument sake.
The media needs to do better. We need to do better. Whether avoiding speculation on scandals or taking time to engage in thorough vetting, the media needs to get better. Narratives affect how we view the NFL. It is the prism filtering the light. The story of Icarus warns of the perils of hubris. A warning of flying too close to the sun while lacking the self-awareness and willingness to pull back and reset. It is time for the reset. It is time to set the standard of narrative writing to be one filled with honest and intellectual debate. One filled with reason and devoid of wild claims made solely for attention. Let the Cowherds of the world fly ever so dangerously close to the sun. Eventually they all go crashing down below.