O’Neil: Why NFL Draft coverage’s biggest problem is anonymous sourcing
Washington quarterback Jacob Eason is getting put through the ringer, but that has nothing to do with the drills he just went through at the NFL scouting combine.
Nope, Eason is being subjected to the anonymous, unsourced slagging that is as much a part of the NFL Draft build-up as the 40-yard dash. In fact, it might be more important. Anybody can tell you he had the most accuracy on his deep passes or that he ran the 40 in 4.89 seconds. The little nuggets of information that really fuel the industrial-draft complex are things like this little gem from ESPN’s Todd McShay on Eason’s combine showing: “I’ve heard from a handful of teams that were pretty unimpressed with the interviewing process off the field.”
Who said that? McShay didn’t say. What constitutes an unimpressive interview? McShay didn’t give any hint about that, either. Was the quarterback looking at his phone the whole time? Staring off into space? Did he slouch in his chair or perhaps misidentify a Cover 3 zone as a man-to-man scheme? No clue.
All we’re left with is the fact that whatever Eason did, it wasn’t good in the eyes of a “handful of teams.”
Now stop for a second and put yourself in Eason’s shoes, which are presumably fairly large considering he’s 6 feet 6. You’ve just been stripped down to your skivvies in front of all 32 teams, weighed and measured and then clad in spandex and asked to do a bunch of feats of speed and strength in Indianapolis. And after you do all that, here’s this guy who doesn’t even control a single pick going on the network synonymous with televised sports coverage to say that a “handful of teams” weren’t impressed by your interview.
This is actually pretty tame compared to the other unsourced information that gets floated out this time of year. Ryan Mallett had rumors of a substance-abuse problem discussed the year he was drafted in 2011. Eli Apple was criticized for his inability to cook for himself – something his mom refuted publicly – while countless player’s medical histories are discussed not just without their permission but without so much as a word of who is saying that so-and-so has a bad knee.
McShay isn’t necessarily wrong here. I take him at his word, and someone told him that. But the fact he never specifies who said it is a huge problem because there’s no accountability, no ability to follow up on what that report means. And even if you take McShay at his word, I’ve covered the NFL long enough to know that you certainly can’t take team executives and scouts at their word this time of year. In fact, wouldn’t it seem logical that if a team was really interested in taking Eason it would not only downplay its interest but subtly try to undermine his NFL Draft stock to make sure it has the chance to pick him?
Without any attribution there’s nothing to stop sources from advancing their team’s agenda at the expense of a player, and that’s the real problem here. What McShay did – and what countless other NFL Draft analysts do this time of year – violates one of the three primary tenets of journalism as I learned them:
• 1) You get one time in your entire life in which to start a story with the sentence, “It was a tale of two halves.” Just one. After that, it was forever forbidden to you so you better make sure you’re in a truly desperate situation before you break glass and use that sucker because that’s the only chance you have.
• 2) Don’t lie. About anything. Ever.
• 3) Don’t let an anonymous source criticize someone. If they’re going to knock someone, they’ve gotta put their name by it.
I’m sure there are more rules in the journalist’s handbook, but I’ll be honest, I’ve been a yodeling professional for seven years now, and not only that, I took exactly one communications class as an undergraduate and it was in the first quarter of my first year at University of Washington. I have managed to cover pro sports for nearly 20 years in Seattle by sticking close to those three guidelines, and NFL Draft coverage gives off fumes that make me nauseous because this time of year in the NFL, almost no piece of information about a team’s plans or a player’s stock is given a direct source.
There are more anonymous sources used in draft coverage than national election coverage, and that shouldn’t be taken as a compliment to the transparent nature of our political news so much as a criticism of just how low the standards are for draft coverage. And if you’re as unimpressed by this article as those “handful of teams” were with Eason’s interview, by all means let me hear it. Just put your name next to it. It’s only fair.