A Drew Rosenhaus call to Adam Schefter seen on Real Sports. A Drew Rosenhaus call to Adam Schefter seen on Real Sports. (HBO.)

The last few years in particular have seen a lot of discussion of how NFL insider reporting scoops are made. That’s perhaps been especially true with ESPN’s Adam Schefter, who breaks a ton of transactional news by volume, but has come under fire on several fronts. Those include his coverage of off-field issues (where he’s often been criticized for being insensitive and only presenting players’/agents’/the league’s perspective) and his relationships with sources (including an email where he called former Washington president Bruce Allen “Mr. Editor”). And the world got an unexpected look at part of Schefter’s reporting process on a story involving a couple of those angles this week, thanks to a Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel feature.

That feature, helmed by correspondent Jon Frankel and producer Nick Dolin, premiered Tuesday on HBO and can now be seen on HBO Max. It’s on famed NFL agent Drew Rosenhaus, and it particularly focuses on his attempts to boost Georgia Bulldogs DT Jalen Carter’s draft stock. That comes amidst controversy around Carter, who eventually pled no contest to reckless driving following misdemeanor warrants being issued against him for reckless driving and racing around a January single-vehicle crash that killed Georgia recruiting staffer Chandler LeCroy and Bulldogs’ offensive lineman Devin Willock (who were in the other car).

Carter received a year of probation following that plea. But there are still a lot of questions about how that may affect his draft stock. And that’s explored in this Real Sports segment. Here’s a clip from it, which is perhaps particularly notable for starting with showing Rosenhaus’ call to Schefter about how he’s nixing visits with Carter for teams drafting after No. 10 (gambling that this will boost the chances of a top-10 team taking Carter, and change the conversation around him):

The clip there shows Rosenhaus saying “I wouldn’t decline these visits if I wasn’t confident that he was gonna go in the top ten. This is a good guy. Jalen is a good kid. We’ll stay in touch on this one. I know he is going to be one of the more compelling stories of the draft. You bet, Adam. Take care man, sure.” The clip then goes on to show Schefter’s tweet about that, which gained a lot of traction:

The clip then shows Schefter’s SportsCenter hit on that, and then a variety of other sports talk shows discussing it. And what’s maybe most interesting here isn’t the actual substance, but rather the illustration of the process. By comparison to the many more severe things Schefter has been criticized for, there’s nothing particularly wrong with his exchange with Rosenhaus here, or how he relays it on Twitter and TV. There’s actual news here (Rosenhaus and Carter rejecting visits from teams drafting below No. 10), and Schefter relays it fairly, and makes it clear Rosenhaus is his source. But it’s interesting to watch this play out with Frankel’s discussion of this as “a gambit designed to restore public perception that Carter was still a blue-chip prospect,” with the Rosenhaus-Schefter call (or at least, that last part of it) heard on air, and with Rosenhaus referencing “We’ll stay in touch on this one.”

It’s not in the above clip, but there’s an interesting further discussion between Frankel and Rosenhaus on this in the full segment. Frankel says “You lit the match, and it spread like wildfire,” and Rosenhaus says “It does. With Twitter, social media, all the competition…it was on all the talk shows. Mission accomplished, relative to taking the buzz away from ‘Oh, Jalen Carter’s falling in the draft.'” Frankel then asks “Would you say that you are using us, in this moment, to help change the narrative, improve the image of Jalen Carter?” and Rosenhaus says “It doesn’t hurt! I appreciate the fact that we’re doing this interview and that it’s going to air April 18, about a week before the draft.” The segment then showed Rosenhaus’ media blitz around Willis McGahee after a college knee injury ahead of the 2003 NFL Draft, which included calling McGahee during the draft while cameras were on to make it look like he was talking to a team.

And what’s really interesting is Rosenhaus’ discussion with Frankel of what he told Buffalo Bills’ GM Tom Donahoe (who would draft McGahee 23rd overall) when Donahoe called him to ask who McGahee was on the phone with. Rosenhaus says “It’s a ploy. It’s a technique. I get a call from the GM of the Buffalo Bills at the time, and he said ‘Who’s Willis talking to?’ and I said ‘Well, I’m pretty confident he’s going to be drafted soon. I suggest you take him.'” Frankel says “This is your gray area.” Rosenhaus says “This is the gray area. I’m not going to lie to a team. I’ll push the envelope, I’ll push the truth, I’ll live in the gray matter, but I’m not going to lie.”

Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with anything anyone is doing here. Rosenhaus is doing his best for his clients. And while arguments can be raised about if things like the McGahee mid-draft phone stunt are appropriate or not, it’s harder to find fault with a specific move like “No visits after No. 10.”  That has the chance of backfiring if none of the top 10 teams take Carter, but for the moment, at least, it certainly looks like a way to change that Carter conversation. And nothing here particularly stands out as terrible with the way Rosenhaus gave Schefter that scoop and the way Schefter relayed it.

As Frankel and Rosenhaus both note, too, Rosenhaus agreed to this particular Real Sports piece (and gave them particular access to Carter and his family, as shown later in the above clip) with the idea of boosting Carter’s stock pre-draft after this controversy. And that again fits what Rosenhaus is supposed to be doing for his clients. Real Sports isn’t incentivized to boost Carter themselves, and it’s unclear what, if any, ultimate effect this piece will have on where he goes in the draft, but it’s good that they acknowledge on camera that Rosenhaus is doing this as part of a play to help Carter. And they’re using this access for their own purposes, fulfilling their own storytelling goals; as Dolin told AA last year, “The idea was always a good story well told.” So this particular set of chronicled interactions seems to have ended fine for Rosenhaus, Carter, Schefter, and Real Sports.

Maybe the wider takeaway here is the need for media members and media consumers to think about the process of NFL newsgathering and reporting and the differing motivations of the parties involved, especially around the draft. There are plenty of secrecy-focused moves and attempts at deception in the NFL in general, but those particularly rise around the draft (as does the attention teams pay to media reports). That’s because of the importance of information in the draft; knowledge on who other teams are targeting is crucial to decisions to trade up or down. That’s long been a reason to take anonymous scout/executive comments relayed by reporters with massive amounts of salt.

And there’s good reason to apply that salt to other elements around the draft. This segment showed Rosenhaus making a move (axing post-No. 10 visits) with the focus of improving Carter’s draft stock, leaking it to Schefter exclusively both to get it traction and carry on his relationship with Schefter (and keep in mind the “We’ll stay in touch on this one” for any further Carter stories Schefter files or tweets), Schefter relaying that because it’s news (and thus, it’s part of his ESPN job, and helps him and the network), and the story then gaining wide traction. But this segment also showed Rosenhaus’ historical ploy with the call to McGahee, and his declaration of “I’ll push the envelope, I’ll push the truth.” He isn’t particularly doing so at this point, but that’s a thing to keep in mind with further stories involving his clients.

It should also be noted that the draft comes with all sorts of weird incentives of its own, especially for ESPN and NFL Network reporters. Richard Deitsch of The Athletic reported this week that those networks will once again have their talent not tip picks on air or online. That shows those networks’ commitment to presenting the draft as a drama-filled TV product, rather than gathering and relaying news as quickly as possible the way they normally would (a contrast to the more reporting-focused approach we’ve often seen in the NBA draft, even if there’s “focused on” language used there).

And there are some notable elements to consider there on the reporting side, as if reporters find out who teams are taking in advance, they can’t necessarily relay that to the public the way they normally would. But there are still ways for them to get out information as long as it’s more speculative, such as Schefter’s comments on Chicago radio that Carter might be available for the Bears at No. 9 and they might take him there. So that adds to the information-trading between reporters and sources. And it was notable to see some of that play out between Rosenhaus and Schefter here, and it’s worth thinking of this as as an example of the wider process. Any sourced story, or story with any level of access, comes with motives for the source, and motives for the reporter and their outlet. None of that’s necessarily bad, but it’s worth keeping all of that in mind while evaluating stories, especially around the draft.

The full segment on Rosenhaus is available now on HBO Max, as is the rest of this month’s Real Sports. It also features stories on the IOC and Russian athletes around the 2024 Paris Olympics (which has Bryant Gumbel interviewing Garry Kasparov and Richard Haass), on an Indian soccer school for girls (correspondent Kavitha Davidson, producer Evan Burgos), and on an update on golf-inspired art from wrongfully-convicted prisoner Valentino Dixon (correspondent David Scott, producers Chapman Downes and Stephen Lorenzo). The executive producer of Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is Joe Perskie.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.