Incredibly, we’ve still got a month to kill before the 2014 NFL Draft. With the combine long in the rearview mirror and weeks of manufactured debates between Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay on the horizon, it’s a time where the NFL media is grasping for something meaningful to talk about.
Thus presents the dangerous intersection of people with too much time on their hands and pontificating anonymous sources.
Anonymous sources can be one of the most valuable elements in journalism. There are scores of important stories that would never have been broken without sources speaking anonymously. The information gained from these sources can be a great service to the reader and the public at large. But all too often these sources are not put to good use to report a story in the sports world, but slander someone’s character under the veil of anonymity. This is especially true in the NFL where anonymous sources serve themselves instead of the public.
We saw it earlier this year in the news of Michael Sam’s coming out. Immediately, several anonymous sources came out in Sports Illustrated questioning whether Sam would succeed in the NFL and the harm that being “publicly gay” would do to his draft stock as opposed to before when he was just “privately gay.”
What did we learn from the anonymous sources in that SI piece on Sam? Not much – and that’s exactly the issue at hand. We got a heaping pile of anonymous fear-mongering over a gay NFL player dressed as news. We got the opinions of a handful of people that may or may not have any real decision-making power in the NFL who may or may not represent a wider view around the league. We got stuff like this:
“I just know with this going on this is going to drop him down,” said a veteran NFL scout. “There’s no question about it. It’s human nature. Do you want to be the team to quote-unquote ‘break that barrier?’”
Suddenly, a trailblazer who was applauded throughout society was transformed into all the stupid NFL tropes about “being a distraction.” His coming out announcement was treated like some kind of unnameable plague, labeled as “this going on.” I’m just surprised Michael Sam wasn’t referred to as “he who shall not be named.”
Who did it serve that those Sam comments weren’t on the record? Sports Illustrated handing a protective veil of anonymity to people who weren’t brave enough to share their opinion and attach a name to it surely didn’t serve the public. Nothing was gained by those quotes being off the record instead of on the record as no real information was reported. Nothing had to be protected in that case. The only people that were served by that use of anonymous sources were the sources themselves and Sports Illustrated. “SOURCES: NFL EXECUTIVES SAY SAM BEING GAY HURTS DRAFT STOCK” carries a lot more weight as a headline than publishing a quote from a scout nobody has heard of on the record.
And now we’re seeing the same thing happen with Jadeveon Clowney. The NFL world has a funny way of taking the most talked about athletes entering the draft and trying to butcher their reputations like a B-movie horror film slasher. The latest and most galling example comes courtesy of an article at NJ.com looking at this year’s defensive linemen class. Writer Mark Eckel talked to an anonymous NFC personnel man who did the best he could to destroy Clowney’s character:
“He’s spoiled, and he’s lazy,’’ the NFC personnel man said. “He’s never worked hard a day in his life, now all of a sudden you’re going to give him a bunch of money and expect him to work hard. I don’t see it.’’
Again – the question needs to be asked: who did this quote serve? The conventional wisdom dictates that NFL executives trash players they really want to take in the media as some kind of “smoke screen” for the draft. If outlets are publishing stories from anonymous sources to benefit those anonymous sources, then their priorities are horribly backwards.
But are we really to believe that when a team goes on the clock that they will pass on Jadeveon Clowney because of what an “anonymous NFC personnel man” said to NJ.com???? Really??? Are we really to believe that the Houston Texans war room is moving him down their draft board as we speak because of what an anonymous source said to a local paper? That plan, if you could even call it that, has about an equal chance to succeed as Pinky & The Brain taking over the world.
Did Jadeveon Clowney being anonymously labeled as “spoiled” and “lazy” serve the public in any way? No. We weren’t told whether or not a specific team was going to pass on Clowney in the draft because of those concerns. We weren’t told news about the behind-closed-doors happenings of an NFL front office. We weren’t provided any real, tangible information about how the 2014 NFL Draft may play out. We were given the opinion of one man who works for an NFL team. Is that enough to warrant anonymous character assassination? Jadeveon Clowney’s name was dragged through the mud for no good reason. Saying someone has never worked hard for a day in their life is a pretty egomaniacal leap to make in judging someone’s character. And due to NJ.com publishing this quote anonymously, not only is that kind of character assassination given a platform, but it’s validated.
Now Clowney will have to deal with those labels because of an anonymous source who could freely say this nonsense trying to destroy someone’s reputation with no repercussions. Maybe NFL players should start speaking anonymously about the horrible people that NFL executives are just to give them a taste of their own medicine.
Once again, the only people to benefit in this story are the anonymous NFC personnel man and NJ.com. The outlet certainly benefits because they get a nice boost in traffic from these “bombshell” quotes. The executive benefits because he’s given an outlet to spew his opinion and massage his ego with an aura of inflated importance.
If this executive feels so strongly about Clowney, if he’s so personally convicted that Clowney is spoiled and lazy, if Clowney’s work ethic is such an affront to humanity, then why won’t he attach his name to it? The article and quote in question don’t change whether this quote is on the record or off. There is nothing gained by this quote being given anonymously except protecting the identity of the person not brave enough to say it on the record.
Opinions from anonymous sources are about as useful as a Yahoo comments section. Perhaps publishing those comments and treating them as news is the next step in this downward spiral.