The NFL Draft always creates plenty of discussion about how it is to be covered and followed, specifically if reporters should cover teams’ plans and selections as they learn them (“tipping picks”) or wait for the official on-TV announcement of picks. That discussion’s been going on for years, but the coverage from ESPN and NFL Network has shifted to much stricter rules against tipping picks in recent years, which The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch indicates will remain in place this year. And in a conversation with Sports Illustrated‘s Jimmy Traina, NFL Network host Rich Eisen went as far as to complain about the reporters who don’t work for his company who do tip picks, saying they’re spoiling the event. That’s an unusual move, and one that doesn’t make Eisen look good.
First, some history on the pick-tipping front. It’s been a point of contention for years and years, and ESPN’s Adam Schefter told Ed Sherman in 2013 his network changed its approach partway through the 2012 draft to crack down on pick-by-pick reporting. While ESPN and NFL Network agreed ahead of the 2013 draft not to show images of players on the phone or have their staffers tweet out pick-by-pick selections in the first and second round, there were still some looser restrictions that allowed Schefter to report moves like trades and quarterback selections before they were officially announced. In 2016, ESPN stuck to “no tipping except for trades or breaking news,” while NFLN vowed to not tip anything for the draft’s first two nights, and in 2017, ESPN cracked down even more, with these comments from producer Seth Markman:
“We will allow our staffers to tweet any behind the scenes conversations teams are having, trade talks, debates, etc., but what we won’t allow is for them to flat out give away draft picks before the commissioner announces them,” Markman said. “As I have said in the past, our viewers have overwhelmingly told us that they do not want us to spoil the drama of the draft in any way. This goes for Twitter, too. I realize that there are those who disagree with this approach, but we are not in the business of angering our loyal viewers and I personally like the unspoiled nature of this event. Fans love sitting on the edge of their seats to hear what the commissioner says. Trust me, Adam Schefter could easily report who each team is going to pick minutes before the commissioner announces it. That would be terrible TV and he has no interest in proving that he could do this anyway.”
As per Deitsch, that’s going to continue in 2018:
NFL (TV) DRAFT NEWS: Both ESPN and the NFL Network have agreed not to tip picks for the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. No staffers will tweet out picks ahead of the podium picks for the first couple of rounds.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) April 19, 2018
Of course, Fox should be mentioned here too, as they’re also carrying the draft, but they’re simulcasting NFLN’s coverage. While that could include Fox personalities like Troy Aikman and Jay Glazer (and perhaps Peter Schrager, who works for both Fox and NFLN), it’s going to be a NFLN feed, so it won’t tip picks, and Fox’s personalities presumably will follow the no-tipping edict on social media as well.
There are those who don’t work for ESPN, NFLN, or Fox who can still report on picks before they’re officially announced, though, and the main one in recent years has been CBS’ Jason La Canfora. La Canfora, who previously worked for NFL Network from 2009-2012, has been tipping picks since 2013 (attracting a lot of social media criticism from viewers who don’t want picks “spoiled” along the way). He’s provided people plenty of warning that he’ll do that, including in a 2013 interview with Sherman where he vowed “I will be trying to get the information out as quickly and accurately as possible,” and he regularly tells people to unfollow or mute him before the draft if they don’t like his approach. But he still takes flak for it, and the latest flak is from a surprising source in Eisen. His interview with Traina is available in this full SI Media Podcast, beginning around the 40-minute mark:
“I’m not looking at my Twitter feed. I don’t want to know. None of us want to know. [Mike] Mayock and I and everybody on the set have made a specific, explicit decision that we want to be as surprised as you at home, assuming you don’t know. Now, that may be old school, that may be putting head in the sand, thinking that we’re the most immediate disseminator of information on draft night, fully knowing that we are not. I get it. But I’m not on my Twitter feed. I’m not doing a wink and a nod. I don’t want to be accused ever of tipping a pick and ruining it because for me to do that, I don’t need the personal kudos or feather in my cap on my Twitter account that I know first. I don’t care. The bottom line is this, it is a show. We are putting on a show. The league is putting on a show. We are doing this in a football stadium for a reason. It is a show. It is an experience, a spectacle, an event.”
Asked if he has a problem with NFL reporters leaking the picks on Twitter prior to the commissioner revealing them at the podium, Eisen did not hold back.
“Of course I have a problem with that,” he answered, “because we’re all in the same boat here. … On Thursday night next week, everybody is going to stop to watch a three-and-a-half-hour show basically reading off names on a list. That’s what it is. It’s the only the event on a sports calendar where the main participants aren’t even in the building, and I’m not just meaning that Baker Mayfield’s not showing up. The decision makers aren’t even there. They’re phoning it in. In this day and age, we could just do this like a fantasy draft on an encrypted website, point and click on who you want and be done with this thing behind the scenes in two-and-a-half hours. We’re all doing this because it raises an interest level of a golden sports television goose that benefits everybody. The fact that somebody’s tweeting out that the pick’s already made — for what? So you get more followers for your account?”
Eisen continued, “I don’t begrudge [the reporters]. But if that is the way this information is gonna be disseminated, than draft night’s done. It’s finished. As a show.”
Both sides of this are somewhat understandable. The NFL/ESPN approach is to present this as a made-for-TV event, where information is only revealed to the world through the official announcement, and many viewers have indicated they prefer that. Great. And the NFL and ESPN can both restrict their employees from reporting picks ahead of that initial announcement if they want to, and it’s not like it’s a giant censorship crisis.
This is not hiding information to make the NFL look good, it’s allowing the NFL to reveal that information itself, so it’s more like agreeing to a media embargo. Except that the embargo in this case is on what reporters learn themselves, and that it’s specifically prohibiting them from relaying information found from other sources. Both of those concepts certainly could be problematic in other circumstances, but again, this is the NFL draft, not anything important or incriminating. And if companies want to abide by those restrictions, it’s hard to get too mad about it, especially when plenty of viewers indicate that’s what they want.
And if ESPN and the NFL Network think this is the best way to do it and their employees sign on, they’re welcome to do that. And all the viewers who want pristine unspoiled official announcements delivered from the mouth of Roger Goodell (or the various team personalities announcing the picks, which do include some neat touches like the Broncos going with teenage cancer survivor and broadcaster Austin Denton, or the Dolphins going with seniors from the Majory Stoneman Douglas high school football team, as well as the family of slain assistant coach and security guard Aaron Feis) can watch ESPN, NFLN, Fox and whatever other networks are eventually forced to broadcast this event without fear that, horror of horrors, they might learn information before it’s officially announced to them on TV. Viewers of the NBA draft seem just fine with that, with ESPN and Yahoo both allowing their reporters to tip picks, but there are certainly plenty of NFL fans who don’t want anything reported before it’s seen on TV. And that’s their prerogative, and both ESPN and NFLN are catering to that.
But where this gets a bit much is when it’s a figure like Eisen, who works for the league’s media company (he also has a radio/TV show on Audience Network and Fox Sports Radio, but he’s primarily known for his work on NFL Total Access, where he’s been since 2003), bashing those journalists like La Canfora who are under zero obligation to censor themselves to bolster a made-for-TV product that isn’t on their network. Eisen is right that “it’s a show, an experience, a spectacle, an event” (whether it’s a desirable, interesting or good version of any of those is very much up for debate, but it certainly is a show), but it is also a source of news.
The selections here are newsworthy, at least from a sports perspective, and they matter to the teams involved and to fans of those teams involved. And while many fans may prefer to get their news through the official, league-sanctioned made-for-TV presentation, that’s not the case for all fans. Some would rather find out the news as soon as possible, and it’s pretty rich to have a league media employee like Eisen criticizing those like La Canfora who are doing their job by reporting the news as they learn it without regard to the NFL’s desires for television presentation.
Where this is also ridiculous is with Eisen’s claims that “If that is the way this information is gonna be disseminated, than draft night’s done.” That’s hyperbole of the highest order. As mentioned above, La Canfora has been doing this since 2013, and the draft certainly hasn’t collapsed. In fact, its ratings even rose on ESPN last year, and even more people will watch this year thanks to the simulcast on over-the-air network Fox.
Millions of people are willing to watch this show, and they’re doing so regardless of what La Canfora and others do. And it should be noted that the growing crackdowns from ESPN and the NFL Network on what their employees can tweet have taken most of the national NFL reporters out of the picture. It’s quite silly for Eisen to be worried about pick-tipping tweets from La Canfora, which been going on for years and haven’t done any discernible damage to the draft.
The smart thing to do here would seem to give the public plenty of information about their options. If they want unspoiled, made-for-TV coverage, they can tune into ESPN, Fox and/or NFL Network, follow those company’s personalities, and unfollow/block/mute La Canfora. Then they can certainly watch this event on TV without the fear that someone might dare to reveal who a team is picking, and they can probably even mostly follow it on Twitter as well (there’s a risk that someone else might break the news, but a lot of the pick-tipping in past years has come from La Canfora).
Meanwhile, fans who actually want news as it happens rather than after it’s presented in the made-for-TV picture can stick to La Canfora’s Twitter feed. But the latter isn’t ruining the former, and draft night is not “done” thanks to a few non-ESPN, non-NFLN reporters, actually, you know, reporting what they learn. And Eisen should realize that comments like this reflect more poorly on him than they do on reporters like La Canfora.