photo credit: TSN/CTV
by mike in boston / @mikeinboston / hatemailaccount at gmail
Suggested soundtrack: Bob Dylan – Gotta Serve Somebody
Good morning sports media watchers. No preamble this week, except to say that we've adjusted our moderation so that if you use the word "robbers" in the comments we send your IP address to the police and tell them we are worried you might harm the Ted Rogers statue.
With that out of the way, let's get to work.
We've Got Mail
The NHL is being sued by a group of former players. As part of the work product of that case, several hundred emails were subpoenaed. A Minnesota judge recently unsealed those emails. TSN's Rick Westhead was given access to those emails and wrote on Monday about what they contain.The Globe&Mail has published the entire cache (including emails and phone numbers) if you want to read them. Many other outlets have now picked up the story and are doing their own investigative reporting, including AP and the NYT.
In brief, the emails include several statements by Daly, Bettman, and other NHL executives linking fighting to concussions, and concussions to brain injuries. In one particularly damning exchange, one NHL executive says:
"The nhl has never been in the business of trying to make the game safer at all levels and we have never tried to sell the fact that this is who we are… The question is: should we be in that business and if we were, what could we possibly achieve without throwing millions of dollars at education […] NFL invests hundreds of thousands of dollars each year around their pr campaign to deal with violence … They produce concussion websites, send former players around teaching young players how to play the game safer, they produce videos for young football players … I could go on and on … We do none of that and don’t view it as an important part of our mandate …"
This stands in contrast to Bettman's response to an NHL owner who wrote to express concern that the NFL's concussion lawsuits could eventually make their way to the NHL:
"I do not believe that we are in the same situation as football. And I do not believe the NFL lawsuits should put us at risk. Among other things, we have been the leaders in the area of concussions and have set the standard on diagnosis, treatment and rule changes at the professional level."
This story dominated the headlines all week, as different writers delved into the details of the emails and put narratives and timelines together to give them context. Here are some of the best articles that appeared:
- Bruce Arthur – "You can see who Gary Bettman has relied on to guide this game, and you can see how often his own vision has been limited to theirs, all these years. The history of hockey is violent and long, and sometimes it can’t see anything beyond its own horizon."
- Scott Stinson – "But the argument that player safety is of paramount concern will always ring hollow when those same players are allowed to settle disputes by trying to bash each other in the face."
- Roy MacGregor – "Most significantly, the NHL understood these dangers in 2011, as one e-mail from deputy commissioner Bill Daly clearly links concussions suffered by enforcers to future depression and such “personal tragedies” as suffered by the three deceased."
- Cathal Kelly – "There is no longer any point in maintaining Mr. Bettman’s public line – that we don’t know what we don’t know, no matter how many broken men come forward to tell the stories of their precipitous late-in-life decline. While there remains some doubt in parts of the research community (because very little can be “definitively” proved when it comes to the vagaries of the human mind), there isn’t any left in the real world."
- James Mirtle – "While the attention of many fans since the release of the e-mails has focused on former senior vice-president Colin Campbell’s colourful references to various NHL players as king rats, wusses, punks and dickheads, the meat of the concussion lawsuit will more likely come down to whether the league willfully put players in harm’s way by not being proactive in preventing head injuries. What’s clear from these early documents is that some at the ownership level, as far back as five years ago, believed they were not doing enough."
If you only have time to read one, make it Arthur's.
The emails paint many pictures, but one of the clearest is that the men who run the league have a dim view of their role in making the game safer for the players. Colin Campbell refers to critics of the NHL’s handling of safety issues as ‘‘tree huggers’’ and ‘‘Greenpeace pukes’’. It will be hard to square this language with the thesis that the league was proactive in trying to make the game as safe as possible for players. The email record shows that, among the most senior members, safety concerns were regarded with contempt and disdain.
Bettman's Long Shadow
The papers all saw this as a major story with significant news value. So did CTV, who devoted lots of time and resources from their news department to TSN's investigation. Sportsnet, however, has published a total of 1 story involving original content on this subject as of Friday evening. In his reporting on the NHL's emails Chris Johnston writes about the interesting rule changes the league considered, the possibility of scrapping the 3rd point, and lots of other fun tidbits. In other words, he talked about everything but the major issue.
So while other news organizations focused on the heart and head of the matter, Sportsnet actively avoided talking about it. So did NHL.com
Let's play a quick round of Plausible/Not Plausible. You can play along at home.
1) Sportsnet didn't cover the concussion emails because they don't believe they are newsworthy.
Not plausible. This is a story that goes well beyond sports. Sportsnet also covered the NFL concussion lawsuit in depth.
Next, consider that Damien Cox, Michael Grange, Elliotte Friedman, and Stephen Brunt all wrote stories for Sportsnet.ca this week on other topics. Cox wrote about Jimmy Vesey on Tuesday. Friedman had 30 thoughts, zero of which were about the NHL emails. Grange just last week had strong words about the NFL's concussion issues:
"Regardless of who inspired the strategy or if there was one, the league didn’t do a very good job trying to protect the health of its players, even as they were being forced out of the sport earlier than they wanted and against their will, and even as documentation began to pile up that long-term effects of those brain injuries could be deadly."
Yet, despite finding time for 3 Raptors stories, he failed to mention the emails. Stephen Brunt, someone who at one time was the sports conscience of the nation, wrote about Robert Osuna. If you want to know what Brunt thinks about Bettman these days you can read his 2014 piece titled: "Is Gary Bettman the best boss in pro sports?"
Verdict? This was a major story that went undiscussed by the major people at Sportsnet. In each case, the writers in question chose other topics over this one. This leads us to out next question.
2) Cox, Grange, Friedman, and Brunt all decided of their own volition to avoid writing about the major story of the week involving Canada's national sport.
All of these people cover hockey (among other sports) and many of these same people have written extensively about concussions, the NHL, and general business of sports issues. This story should be in their wheelhouses. So, the fact that none of them wrote about it is striking.
The most plausible explanation for all of them writing about other topics is that they were told not to write about the emails. Next question:
3) Scott Moore decided on his own to forbid his employees from writing anything that could draw negative attention to the NHL.
Not plausible. Moore runs a sports media company that employs hundreds of people in a journalistic capacity. Presumably he values their skills as journalists. He's not going to start meddling in their affairs based on his own hunches and intuitions. He's not a journalist. The much more plausible explanation is that Gary asked Moore to issue the coverage ban.
When you put all of this together the result is that Bettman more likely than not exercised influence over Rogers management who in turn exercised editorial control over Sportsnet's corps of writers by placing the emails off limits. If you're Gary this makes a lot of sense: just as the commissioner is not going to say anything that could be damaging to the league in its legal fight with the ex-players, neither should the league's media partners at Rogers.
This makes no sense if you run a sports network. Why hire all of these respected journalists if you are not going to put them to work on the most important stories? This is precisely the kind of story where you want to call on their skill and talent to treat the issues seriously and with tact.
For contrast, consider these quotes from when the infamous Rogers/NHL deal was signed. As Sean Fitz-Gerald reported:
"There was some friendly banter near the end of the news conference on Tuesday, when host — and Sportsnet veteran — Daren Millard took a gentle jab at the NHL’s troubled franchises in the United States. “You now have to play nice,” Bettman said, to laughter in the room. “It’s going to take some getting used to, OK,” Millard said. “Well, you’d better get used to it quick,” Bettman said.
That raised a follow-up question from the floor about the freedom Sportsnet journalists will have to question the NHL, when so much money has been tied into the two groups. “The No. 1 thing is maintaining journalistic integrity,” Pelley said. “And we would insist on nothing less,” Bettman said. “Our fans want authenticity. We never control the coverage of our game — which is obvious by some of the treatment.”"
There is something unsettling about this seemingly lighthearted exchange as we look at it retrospect. Essentially we were being told exactly what would take place under the terms of the partnership, and we had better get used to it quick.
Evaluating the Evidence
Since Rogers took over there have not been many stories that we could use as barometers for whether Sportsnet has accepted a soft journalistic approach to its coverage of the NHL.
One piece of evidence is Ron MacLean's relegation to media Siberia following his history of, shall we say, "challenging" interviews with Gary. No one except a handful of people knows for sure, but the common view in the industry is that Gary demanded that Rogers move MacLean out of the host chair as part of their negotiations on the $5.2 billion dollar exclusive national rights deal. Bringing in Strombo makes a certain kind of sense if you are hoping to broaden your base outside of the traditional hockey fan, but essentially cutting one of the established faces of your brand out of the playoffs makes very little sense as a broadcast move. It does make sense if the goal is to celebrate the game and you think MacLean won't go along with that mandate as a host.
However, it must be noted that Sportsnet has not totally shied away from the other issues that have cropped up over the last 20 months. Here's Chris Johnston writing about the Voynov case, though he spends a lot of the piece praising the NHL for its swift action. But they did cover it. Could Sportsnet have spent more time raking the commish over the coals for his not so subtly racially charged comment that "our players know what's right and wrong"? Maybe. However, the lack of coverage of the NHL emails is so complete that it slaps you right in the face. There simply is no more plausible explanation than that Sportsnet took its editorial marching orders from the NHL.
Scott Moore and his new boss Rick Brace are playing a very dangerous game by acquiescing to Gary's law.
First, the NHL is just one property among many in the sports landscape. In 10 years time, under different leadership and with a changing demographic landscape, Rogers may move on from its exclusive rights deal. What happens then? If you have destroyed the credibility of your network during that time, then this genuflection might not turn out to be worth it. Better to maintain consistent standards regardless of which rights you control.
Second, you are one of the biggest employers of sports journalism in North America. Presumably you want to attract the best to your network, and keep them away from the competition. If you start to become known as the network where you have the check your journalistic ethics at the door, that might affect the kind of talent you can attract and keep.
Third, think about what you are doing to the reputation of the people who already work there. If you're Shi Davidi and you have worked hard to overcome the perception that you're a house reporter, this has to hurt. The Rogers/NHL deal has nothing to do with Shi, but he will be caught in its undertow. Further, Sportsnet wants to be able to deploy Grange and Brunt and others to cover other sports beyond the NHL. That's part of why you paid them big bucks to get out of the newspaper industry. But if you tarnish their reputation by capitulating to Gary's demands, then you also diminish their value in all the other work they do.
Where do we go from here? Well, this ought to affect how we view Sportsnet's NHL coverage going forward. This has undermined the network's credibility as a whole. I am loath to declare that the writers in question should all be viewed with suspicion. I have no idea how hard they fought this. Based on their bodies of work, I suspect they don't like being told what they can and cannot write about.
I hope this doesn't set a precedent. The absolute worst thing for the audience is leagues using rights as leverage over news departments. We saw a glimpse of this in the NFL's attempt to squash the League of Denial documentary. If anything, ESPN has been even more vigilant about shining a spotlight on the league's problems since then. The NFL's own network has been vocal in criticizing Goodell, as have people working at NBC, CBS, and Fox. But the NFL has many media partners and this diffuses their ability to keep people on message. By contrast, Gary has one national partner for a whole country.
Regardless of which network you cheer for, I think we can all agree that Gary's "all or nothing" strategy is dangerous if it leads to networks controlling their journalists on behalf of their league partners. Journalists need their bosses fighting on their behalf, and by extension, on behalf of the audience.
Sportsnet, and Rogers by extension, failed their employees by allowing Gary to set editorial policy. They also failed their customers and the sports public at large. Let's hope this is the slap in the face that wakes everyone up. Let's hope this is not a glimpse into the future of sports media.
Does the Shoe Fit?
I spoke to many people in the industry this week and one of the talking points that came up was: would TSN do anything differently if the shoe were on the other foot? In other words, if TSN had the NHL deal, would they be telling McKenzie and Dreger not to talk about concussions? This is obviously a hypothetical question we cannot answer definitively. One thing we can do is look at the evidence we do have before us now.
- Item 1: TSN is owned by Bell who also own a chunk of the Leafs. The Leafs are one of the teams that stand to be hurt by the concussion litigation. Yet TSN has been pumping out stories and features on the effects of concussions on players. (Note: the Lifetime Penalty feature is very hard to find on TSN's useless website, but is definitely worth your time).
- Item 2: TSN has an exclusive and tight relationship with the CFL yet have published critical stories about the league. They could probably be more critical, but we have some evidence that when the story is big enough, it will be discussed.
- Item 3: Bell recently fired its President for trying to meddle with the newsroom. I have no idea if the sports section is held to the same standards, but this is at least some evidence that corporate meddling is not tolerated (when it is egregious and public).
It is an open question whether Bell has different sensibilities than Rogers when it comes to the relationship between their business side and their media/news side. Only people who have worked both places would be able to speak to that.
I am not so naive as to think business interests never shape media coverage. The important question is whether news value trumps business interests on the stories that matter the most. I contend this is one of those stories, and Rogers went with business instead. Sure, it's not voter fraud or political corruption or some other story where massive public goods are at stake. But human lives have been, and may continue to be, shattered by brain disease from playing a sport we all watch. That's a news story to me.
Two more things.
1) There is a spectrum of possible approaches Sportsnet could have taken. At one end is devoting its full resources to covering this story, and leaving no stone unturned. At the other end is burying the story. This latter path is the one they have chosen. A better option was available to them. Go to Elliotte or Brunt and say "listen, we need you to cover this. Be fair, be a journalist, but remember these are our partners and avoid taking any cheap shots." If you go this route you avoid much of the criticism that the NHL is pulling the strings at your network.
2) On the substantive issue of the league's liability for players' brain injuries, here is a POV I heard a lot this week:
I'm sorry, I never will buy into the idea that guys who played #NHL hockey didn't understand the risks, especially fighters. Ask any boxer.
— steve buffery (@Beezersun) April 1, 2016
There are a couple of reasons why I disagree with this.
First, ask any parent if they have qualms about their kids playing hockey, and you'll get a mixed response. Ask them if they would let their kids box, and the answer will be mostly negative. But a central point of this lawsuit is to find out if we should have the same attitude towards hockey as we do towards boxing. That's something for which the league is responsible, and the players have a case if they can show that the league was negligent in its duty to find out what the true risks of its product are.
Second, the tort of negligence is not an "all or nothing" proposition in most jurisdictions. You can say the players are partly to blame without exonerating the league. In other words, both may have been negligent in their duties of care, and this will reduce the damages the league must pay if they are found to be liable. But to suggest you have to pick one side over the other is not true. You can choose to blame both, but that doesn't mean the league is off the hook financially.
The New York Times and the NFL are at war over the facts surrounding the league's concussion story. At issue are the NYT's claims that "research on concussions sustained by pro football players was deeply flawed and incomplete and that there were ties between the NFL and the tobacco industry."
Buffalo hockey writers are being roasted for nominating an alleged drunk driver as their Masterton Trophy candidate. You can play games with semantics to try to justify the nomination but the arguments make you sounds pretty silly.
Low Hanging Fruit
- Go Jays.
- J'adore Montréal.
- Bring back the Expos
- No time to listen to radio this week. Tell me what I missed.
thanks for reading and commenting,
until next time …
mike (not really in boston)