The debate over contracts for NFL running backs has taken some interesting sports media turns. The latest there came Sunday night, and may impact the ongoing dispute between the Indianapolis Colts and Jonathan Taylor. On Sunday Mike Chappell of Indianapolis’ Fox 59/CBS 4 broke the news that the team was considering placing Taylor (currently on the physically unable to perform list, and asking for a trade) on the non-football injury list over a back injury:
Breaking: Colts considering placing Jonathan Taylor on non-football injury list (NFI), per source. He suffered some type of back injury while working out on own in Arizona. Also still rehabbing from January ankle surgery. Currently on PUP.
— Mike Chappell (@mchappell51) July 31, 2023
ESPN Colts reporter Stephen Holder later reported that a source told him Taylor reported back pain during a pre-training camp physical, and that the team believes to be from “a pre-existing issue”:
Source to ESPN: Colts RB Jonathan Taylor reported to training camp complaining of back pain that was deemed to be from a pre-existing issue. The team is now considering placing him on the non-football injury list, which could result in his not being paid for the regular season.
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) July 31, 2023
— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) July 31, 2023
Holder’s source added that Taylor failed his physical due to a combination of the back issue and a previous ankle injury he had surgery on earlier this year, and that the team’s considering placing him on the non-football injury list and withholding his salary. But, on Twitter, Taylor said he never had a back injury or reported back pain, and said to find “new sources”:
1.) Never had a back pain.
2.) Never reported back pain.
Not sure who “sources” are, but find new ones ?
— Jonathan Taylor (@JayT23) July 31, 2023
As many discussed in the wake of these reports, this all may tie into the contract dispute between Taylor and the team. And that ties into Taylor being on the final year of his rookie contract and looking for a long-term contract on a scale the Colts don’t seem to want to give him. The non-football injury designation is definitely one potential element in the types of contractual “hardball” Colts’ GM Chris Ballard talked about last year (while also noting that he would rather have players who want to be there), and a team source citing it to multiple reporters as a possibility indicates they’re certainly considering it.
If Taylor doesn’t have back pain and didn’t report back pain, though, he has some options. Those might include saying he’s ready to play, and/or filing an injury grievance through the players’ association. But Taylor doesn’t necessarily have a lot of leverage here, especially given how late before the season this dispute popped up.
An interesting part of the Taylor situation is how much of it has played out in media reports and on social media, and how it only recently got acrimonious. Back in January, the same month when Taylor underwent ankle surgery, Ballard answered a question about if it was wise to reward running backs with long-term deals (which would become more of a league-wide subject of debate later) with “When they’re great players, it is. When they’re a special playmaker, it is. I’m not going to get into what we’re going to do contract wise with [Taylor], but when you’re a special player and a special playmaker, yeah.”
In February, new Indianapolis coach Shane Steichen talked about the offensive possibilities with Taylor. And in March, Colts’ owner Jim Irsay called Taylor “special” and said “You want Jonathan Taylor back 100 percent.” And in April, Taylor said “It wouldn’t be a distraction to me” to not get an extension before the season.
But in recent months, that dialogue has shifted. In June, Taylor seemed a little more cautious with “you just hope from the track record here [in Indianapolis] that things are being evaluated the right way” and “You see why guys request trades,” but still seemed like he thought something could get done. Then, last week, Irsay took to Twitter to blast running backs and “bad faith” agents, and Taylor’s agent Malki Kawa shot back with “Bad faith is not paying your top offensive player.”
On Saturday, Irsay and Taylor met one-on-one. And Taylor followed that by demanding a trade, while Irsay said they wouldn’t trade him. So this has gotten quite ugly quite fast.
And the media dimension of this is interesting. There’s absolutely news value to reporting that the Colts are considering putting Taylor on the non-football injury list, if a reporter believes that to be an accurate reflection of their intentions. That’s a significant move for both them and for Taylor. And reporting that they’re considering it is not an endorsement of the move, it’s an indication that it might happen.
The way the specific back injury information has been reported can be debated a bit more, especially with Taylor since denying that. But a Colts’ source claiming that’s the case is notable even with Taylor’s dispute. However, this would be much better if Ballard or another Colts’ figure would say that on the record instead of laundering it through reporters. We’ll likely get there eventually if the team does decide to make the NFI list move, as they’ll have to find some way to try and justify that publicly, and it’s somewhat understandable why sources would insist on anonymity before this decision was made. But this information is weaker, and easier to dispute, without anyone putting their name on it.
This also illustrates an ongoing challenge around media and sports contract reporting. Those contracts are between players and teams, but media can certainly influence them. That happens explicitly in things like award voting, with award selection incentives baked right into many current contracts and with awards often used to determine future contracts. (And that’s why some media outlets ban employees from voting for awards, and why some of the various voting missteps can be significant; however, despite the many complaints about this over the years, no one has yet found a better system.)
Beyond that, though, there can be subtler effects on deals and holdouts from how media present information on contract talks from team sources, players, and agents. And this is an area where media incentives can hit some alignment problems. Unlike teams or players, it’s fortunately not inherently beneficial for media members (apart from those working for team websites) if contract talks go one way or another: if what a player wants in a deal is on one end of a theoretical x-axis and what the team wants is on the other end, the media incentives are on a separate y-axis.
But the media incentives are both to get out the best possible information and to get the most possible notice for that information (perfect information that no one reads does not pay the bills). And that notice incentive often takes at least some priority, and that’s why anonymous sources are used. No one would argue for anonymous sources over on-the-record comments if the latter was possible to achieve, but it’s often not, so calls are made to grant anonymity in exchange for being able to publish notable stories (which hopefully have news value, not just notice value).
And that’s an often understandable and acceptable tradeoff. Granting anonymity transfers the credibility from the source to the reporter and outlet. If the reporter and the outlet use those comments judiciously, and have proven they can be trusted, it can work out solidly. If they do not, though, there are all kinds of potential perils at play.
And while contract talks are far from the most serious discussions around anonymous sources in sports journalism, they present some particular thorny issues of their own. Players and teams are in clearly adversarial camps on contracts, and the goal of any sort of leak here is theoretically to improve one’s negotiating position (unless it’s just to build up a relationship with the reporter in question). That doesn’t mean that reporters can’t relay claims from one side or the other, but it should be done with significant context on where that’s coming from. (And, to be clear, Chapell and Holder did that, illustrating these were team-side comments, and their stories ultimately included Taylor’s pushback. It might have been better to have gotten comment from his side before these tweets and stories, but that’s a further challenge on the best information/most noticed information front, with the latter often relying on speed).
At any rate, relaying contract talks claims also should be done with the context that teams are adversarial to players and agents in that process. Thus, any claim from either side needs to be taken with some salt. Nothing was necessarily done wrong in the Taylor case (at least, not until we find out more on the actual truth of the competing back injury claims), but it illustrates just how acrimonious some of these contract talks can become. And it shows the potential challenges that can arise for media as a result.