The Page Six story on A-Rod.

What’s perhaps most interesting about the “Alex Rodriguez’s ESPN bosses mad at getting scooped on Timberwolves deal” headline and story from Oli Coleman in Page Six, the New York Post section that describes itself as “Your source for celebrity news, gossip, entertainment, pop culture, photos, video and more,” is something that didn’t even make the headline. The piece itself says that The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski’s story Saturday of the news of a possible Minnesota Timberwolves sale to Rodriguez and billionaire Marc Lore (as per Krawczynski, those two have signed a letter of intent to buy the NBA franchise for $1.5 billion, giving them an exclusive 30-day window to finish negotiations) came out before ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s story on the deal, that the way this came out “didn’t go over well with A-Rod’s bosses at ESPN” (given how they pay him for work as a Sunday Night Baseball analyst), and that “apparently  A-Rod got an earful about it when he showed up for work — so his team swiftly went to work to try and appease the network.” And then comes the really notable part:

In a text seen by Page Six, one of the former slugger’s top lieutenants wrote to fellow execs on Monday, “Hi guys — we should save something for ESPN [instead of giving it to the] Athletic. ESPN mentioned to AR at [“Sunday Night Baseball”] they wish Woj had the story — obviously not our call but next round it should be.”

The Page Six headline, again, “Alex Rodriguez’s ESPN bosses mad at getting scooped on Timberwolves deal,” doesn’t actually say anything non-obvious. Of course ESPN executives would prefer not to be scooped on any story.  And while the story goes a little further than that with claims that they broached this to Rodriguez, there are so few specifics there; “got an earful” could be anything from some vague criticism to an actual demand to bring them news first, and there’s zero indication of even what level of ESPN executive was involved in this “earful” (which is important for knowing if there’s anything to it). And the particularly funny thing is that the text, the actual notable bit of reporting here, makes it quite clear with the “obviously not our call” that it wasn’t Rodriguez’s camp who made the move to give this story to The Athletic, so there’s limited reason for ESPN bosses to even be “mad.” But it’s the “next round it should be” line from “one of Rodriguez’s top lieutenants” that’s the really important piece of information here.

Before we get to that part, it’s worth looking at just what did happen with this story. First off, Coleman’s timeline isn’t the only one here. He writes that “On Saturday, sports site the Athletic was handed the scoop that A-Rod had bought Minnesota NBA team the Timberwolves, in partnership with e-commerce mogul Marc Lore. Meanwhile, ESPN’s star NBA writer Adrian Wojnarowski didn’t get his story about the $1.5 billion deal posted until around 20 minutes later.” That’s correct, but perhaps the more relevant timeline is when both outlets tweeted about this; that’s where the actual news is breaking,  something that even ESPN has (reluctantly) leaned into these days. Krawczynski first reported this on Twitter at 6:48 p.m. Eastern Saturday, with Wojnarowski following seven minutes later at 6:55 p.m. Eastern. Also at 6:55 p.m. Eastern, The Athletic’s Shams Charania tweeted a statement from Rodriguez and Lore. The Athletic’s full story may have gone up 20 minutes before ESPN’s, but that’s not really the most important timeframe for the breaking news part.

It’s also worth noting that beyond Rodriguez’s camp’s “obviously not our call” line, there’s a lot of reason to believe that Rodriguez and his team didn’t make the decision to give this to The Athletic. There are at least three individuals who would have been aware of this deal (Rodriguez, Lore, and current Timberwolves’ owner Glen Taylor), and the actual number is likely much higher once you throw in people who work for them, plus anyone at the NBA league office who found out about this in advance of the report.

And it seems pretty likely that the decision to place this with The Athletic (and specifically with Krawczynski) came from Taylor’s camp; first off, Taylor has all the power here (Krawczynski’s piece notes that Taylor has entered exclusive negotiating windows several times before, including last year, but opted not to sell in the end), second off, Krawczynski’s piece included plenty of quotes from Taylor (and none from the other parties), and third, this was broken by a long-time and well-connected Minnesota sportswriter (Krawczynski spent 16 years at The Associated Press covering Minnesota sports and national sports before joining The Athletic), not one of the leading national NBA newsbreakers (Wojnarowski and Charania), and not someone with any obvious connections to Rodriguez or Lore. So it’s quite something for ESPN bosses to be “mad” about something that doesn’t seem to have been in Rodriguez’s control.

However, the “next round it should be” is what’s truly notable here. That is very much an indication that at least one of Rodriguez’s “top lieutenants” (we don’t know how many of those there are) is urging their camp to give a future piece of news to ESPN. Overall, that’s not really shocking;  a lot of news winds up with outlets that have relationships with the entities in question, be they athletes, teams or leagues. But what is notable here is that this “lieutenant” is explicitly saying to provide a piece of news to the organization Rodriguez has a business relationship with. This quite likely isn’t the only time that’s happened (and certainly not just at ESPN), but it’s definitely interesting to see a quote along those lines aired publicly.

At first glance, it’s possible to see some outrage over that. Coleman is certainly trying to stoke those fires, opening his piece with “Foul! ESPN appears to be using its business relationship with Alex Rodriguez to get an unfair advantage over its rivals in sports journalism,” and concluding it with “You’d think a sports company would prefer a level playing field.” That’s not really entirely true, though.

Most, if not all, scoops and leaks are at least partly transactional in one way or another, even if that transaction is solely “I believe that this reporter/this outlet will do the best job with this story.” Yes, things get much more problematic ethically when it comes to “I’m going to give this scoop to an outlet that pays me for something unrelated,” and that can absolutely be criticized. But it’s worth examining what the alternatives are there.

Breaking news has value. ESPN has proven that by paying big money for the likes of Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter (something they’ve done at least in part to be able to repeatedly credit their own reporting on the Bottom Line ticker and on SportsCenter rather than reporting from other outlets), but so have others. The whole idea of The Players’ Tribune or “as told to” Sports Illustrated stories is to offer avenues for athletes to put out their news under their terms and possibly monetize that (which, of course, athletes also do on Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms).  And that’s not really all that different from a decision to give breaking news to a reporter someone (as an athlete, team, or league) has a good non-business relationship with; the source picks that reporter because they have some value to them, because they trust that they’re going to do a good job with the story.

And, so, following that out logically, let’s consider the options for Rodriguez’s camp if they do wind up in control of some part of the breaking news around this story (or around something else). One is that they could just post it themselves, say to Rodriguez’s Twitter account. Sure, that doesn’t raise any ethical quandaries. But if they don’t go that route, they’re going to be giving the news to some reporter or other. And say if they wanted to limit the candidates to top national NBA newsbreakers Wojnarowski and Charania (who would be the two figures probably deemed most likely to get this story), is it really fair to make them go “Charania, he doesn’t work for our company”?

That kind of limited reading would likely be an unfair advantage the other way. It would be pretty problematic to say that Wojnarowski couldn’t pursue or report stories involving ESPN colleagues (in the loosest sense; it’s a giant corporation, and they work on separate sports). And honestly, a lot of the history of reporting (in fields far, far more serious than sports) has come down to who you know, and to people getting information from something outside their specific job description and either writing it themselves or passing it to a colleague.

It’s worth noting that there is a more significant ethical line to discuss here. That’s when it comes to directly paying a source for information. And that does carry some problems; for example, is there a chance the source embellishes with money on the line? And should the decision to pay the source be disclosed? Many journalists and journalistic organizations have big problems with paying sources for those reasons and others.

But paying for stories is not universally rejected. TMZ and old Deadspin/Gawker Media, R.I.P., have been particularly known for paying for certain stories, sometimes with good results. Yes, both of those outlets have also had some misses, with one TMZ one even involving A-Rod, but those weren’t usually about paying. And other outlets have paid for particular stories, and even some of the “we don’t pay for news” outlets will happily pay for the associated photo or video, which is a big part of the news.

And when it comes to ESPN, there are some ties here even to “The Decision.” Yes, ESPN didn’t pay LeBron James directly for the privilege of hosting that, but they did give the ad revenue proceeds to his preferred charity. And the existence of that special led to conflict with their own news division; ESPN as a whole didn’t want the news of LeBron’s destination coming out in advance, as that would hurt the special’s ratings. And it’s those sorts of business conflicts within ESPN that have provoked real scrutiny, and deservedly so.

But discussion of payment for stories hasn’t come up in this case. No one has said they’ll give Rodriguez a bonus for directing a story to ESPN. And honestly, the bigger ethical issue might be if ESPN’s “mad” bosses actually tried to discipline him for giving news about himself to another outlet when that news has nothing to do with his job with them. (It was a little more complicated when he was trying to buy the Mets, as that produced an actual conflict of interest with his specific ESPN job, but they handled that by trying to limit his involvement on Mets’ broadcasts during that process.)  There hopefully is nothing in Rodriguez’s contract about having to talk to ESPN reporters about his plans to buy basketball teams. And if his contract includes something that covers that, that’s a way bigger and more problematic story than anything here.

All in all, the real criticism in this whole saga should be for Page Six, which ran an obvious nothing headline, didn’t provide any significant detail of how “mad” Rodriguez’s ESPN bosses were (and which bosses those were; either of those tidbits would make for a much better story), and threw out lines like of “You’d think a sports company would prefer a level playing field.” No professional sports team or sports media organization actually wants a “level playing field,” they want conditions that are going to make their victory easier. And there really isn’t a possible “level playing field” in this case or in many other cases; if you prevent this story from going to Rodriguez’s ESPN colleagues, that’s tilted the other way. But Coleman did get the notable fact of “one of Rodriguez’s top lieutenants” urging that camp to direct a future story to ESPN.

Opinions on how problematic that text message is may vary. Some absolutely may see this as proof of Rodriguez doing something unfair. But it’s worth keeping in mind that this isn’t a confirmed move by him, just an urging from one “top lieutenant.” And there’s been nothing to suggest that ESPN would give him any reward for directing something their way, so that doesn’t even get into the paying for stories discussion.

The more interesting aspect there may be the implied pressure from ESPN here. Pressure on an analyst for not talking to their reporters about something way outside the scope of their ESPN role seems much more dubious than Rodriguez giving a story to a colleague, and if that ever led to discipline for not doing that, that would definitely bring up “Is ESPN paying for stories?” discussions. At any rate, the view from this corner is that this isn’t a huge indictment of Rodriguez, or even of his camp. But this text is an interesting thing to have publicly reported, and it’s worth keeping mind in future discussions about ESPN and Rodriguez, and more generally, all of ESPN’s contracts with people who might occasionally have some news to break.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz is a staff writer for Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He previously worked at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.