Adam Schefter refuses to be better

Either the ESPN Insider can't understand the problems with his reporting on players said to have abused women or he's unwilling to modify his approach. I'm not sure which is worse.

There’s a problem with Adam Schefter’s reporting on players said to have abused women. A recurring problem that reflects either an inability to understand the issues involved or an unwillingness to change his approach, and honestly, I’m not sure which of those options would be worse. But at this point it doesn’t matter because this week was the third time in 5 years that he has involved himself in the coverage of a player accused of abuse and proceeded to provide sympathetic framing for the player while undercutting the woman the player is said to have abused.

Judging what happened this week, Schefter is getting worse, not better, and adding to the burden victims face when they come forward.

In one regard, Schefter is doing what he always does: serving as a conveyance vehicle for information involving a professional football player. In fact, he’s providing more attribution than normal. Usually his information is unsourced. But whereas Schefter’s gig is generally harmless, relating primarily to his ability to disclose administrative transactions before they are officially announced, his reporting here has an observable impact on the public perception of a woman who has said she was abused.

Start with the phrasing: Schefter makes a definitive, declarative statement: Dalvin Cook is the victim of a crime. The caveat is added with a long dash, the “pending litigation” providing the whiff of proof. The source for the claim – Cook’s agent – is included at the end, which is technically an attribution, but even that’s confusing and roundabout. Schefter puts as much distance as possible between his declaration Cook is a victim and the source of that information.

Then there’s the timing: Schefter Tweeted out this statement at 7:15 p.m. Eastern on Tuesday. A little more than two and a half hours later, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported a woman had filed a civil suit against Cook.

That report included pictures of the woman after the injuries, and also a screen shot from a message in which Cook appeared to apologize for what happened. While Schefter consulted only the player’s agent, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune quoted from the complainant and Cook’s attorney, but I don’t want to go off into the merits of the case. I want to talk about the journalistic process here, specifically that of Schefter.

In the most charitable view, he took information from the agent of a player and relayed it uncritically and without any of the other surrounding context. He either didn’t ask or didn’t find out that a civil case was about to be filed against the player he was declaring the victim. Schefter also stated as a fact Cook was a victim despite the fact that there was no case of any type alleging that and Schefter’s stated source, the agent, was not present. His information was second-hand at best.

A more critical view of Schefter’s approach: He allowed the agent of a player about to be sued for physical abuse to publicly cast his client as the victim before anyone even heard of the lawsuit let alone saw the pictures of the injuries. And unlike the allegation Schefter reported, there was an actual court case saying that Cook abused her both physically and mentally. In a broader sense, Schefter actively contributed to the difficulty women face when they say they’ve been abused. He used his position as the most well-known reporter covering the country’s most popular sport to pre-emptively cast Cook as the real victim here, and Schefter did it through the megaphone of his Twitter account with 9.7 million followers. I thought that my economist friend Ben Baldwin had the very best summary of the role Schefter played.

A basic question needs to be answered here: Why did Schefter use his position, his power, to declare Cook the victim at the outset? If your answer to that is that was simply the information he got first, then why didn’t he summarize the civil complaint against Cook in the same way he phrased the agent’s allegations?

This is part of a broader pattern for Schefter, though, which makes it difficult to write this off as some sports reporter who doesn’t understand the nuances of crimes involving violence against women.

Back in July, Schefter interviewed Quincy Avery, a private quarterback coach, as part of Schefter’s weekly podcast. Avery works with a number of quarterbacks, including Deshaun Watson. At the time, Watson’s future in Houston was a question with plenty wondering if he would be traded, and if he weren’t, would he play after being the subject of multiple civil lawsuits for sexual improprieties. Avery said he thought Watson would be traded, and said the quarterback looked great in offseason training. Here was Schefter’s response to that:

“You told me that you’ve never seen him look better,” Schefter said. “How do you think he’s handled all these allegations that have swirled around. Because it’s got to be really hard to compartmentalize and focus on your football future while there’s so much crap flying around out there.”

Crap. That’s how ESPN’s top NFL reporter referred to the fact that more than 20 women have come forward with very specific, very consistent descriptions of sexual misconduct. Crap. And then Schefter framed these complaints as if they were an injury or some other adversity that Watson has had to dig deep to overcome. No thought of how the women have been impacted by the events. No questions about the impact that this has had on their professional lives. Nope. What’s remarkable to Schefter is how Watson has continued to be a remarkable athlete against the backdrop of multiple incidents of sexual impropriety. Listen for yourself. It’s at the 28-minute mark.

There’s no excuse for Schefter to be this oblivious. Not at this point. He lost plausible deniability after his 2016 interview of Greg Hardy. You remember Hardy, right? He was the Carolina Panthers’ defensive end found guilty of assault in 2014 after he was said to have thrown a woman against tiled wall in the bathroom, tossed her onto a futon that was covered with firearms and then choked her. A judge heard the evidence, decided he was guilty. Hardy’s lawyers appealed the conviction, seeking a jury trial. The charge was dismissed on appeal after the victim did not show up for the jury trial. Hardy signed with Dallas in 2015. In spring of 2016, with Hardy unsigned, he agreed to record a one-on-one interview with Schefter. Hardy had answered questions in group settings, but had not done a one-on-one interview in which he addressed the charges against him.

It wasn’t the questions that Schefter asked that were the biggest problem, it was the fact he allowed Hardy to make statements that did not explain the known facts of the case. For example:

Schefter: “You say you did nothing wrong, you’re innocent. And yet the pictures of her that surfaced would seem to suggest a woman who had had some type of physical contact. How do you explain that?”

Hardy: “I will stop you there and say that I didn’t say I didn’t do anything wrong. That situation occurred and that situation was handled, and saying that I did nothing wrong is a stretch, but saying that I am innocent is correct, yes sir.”

Schefter: “Did you ever put your hands on her?”

Hardy: “No sir.”

Schefter: “Never?”

Hardy: “No sir.”

Schefter failed to ask Hardy to specify what he did wrong. When Schefter specifically asked about the pictures that showed the victim’s injuries, Hardy suggested photographs could be manipulated, doctored. Schefter did not follow up by asking if Hardy was alleging the photographs that had been published were in some way faked nor did he ask Hardy for evidence of that.

Here’s another exchange, quoted verbatim:

Schefter: “You say you’re an innocent man, yet in the first trial – the bench trial – they found you guilty.”

Hardy: “Yes sir. That’s a special North Carolina thing. It’s not a jury trial. It’s just me and the judge. It’s just a flimsy situation, and I feel like it’s just a product of, I would say, miscommunication. But like I said, that’s in the past and I came out of. I still suffer repercussions from it, and I fight it on the day-to-day dealing with the people and just my family and having to be a leper of sort, but at the same time, like I said, as a man, you have to take responsibility for every action and every reaction.”

How in the world is the verdict passed down from a judge who has seen the evidence constitute a miscommunication? A flimsy situation? It begs for a follow-up. The reality is that the case was dismissed only after the victim was not present when the jury trial was scheduled to begin, the prosecution then citing a settlement between Hardy and his former girlfriend as a reason for the dismissal. All in all, the interview was essentially Schefter providing an opportunity to Hardy to provide his perspective without having any critical pushback.

Schefter: “People have described you, though, as a monster. So what would you tell the public, and even the teams that would consider employing you, about the person that you are?”

Hardy: “It has been a long-time coming. I think I have always held myself to a certain esteem. An incident did happen. I was very apologetic for bringing the crazy attention to my team, you know, a place that I had been for five years.”

Hardy showed more regret to the shame he brought to his team than any of the harm that was visible on the body of his former girlfriend. Schefter was roundly criticized not just for the interview, but because Schefter said in a subsequent interview with Dan Patrick that he felt Hardy had changed, which was baffling. Hardy professed his innocence repeatedly, never specified what he did wrong and never expressed remorse for anything other than the way he made his team look.

For Schefter, this interview should have been a flashing red light that he could not use the same approach he takes to reporting NFL personnel transactions to the public discussion of criminal acts in general and those involving violence against women specifically. It was an opportunity for him to learn how to responsibly, ethically discuss those issues without providing a sympathetic stage for a player accused of criminal behavior and thereby add to the burden that victims face when they say they were hurt by a pro football player.

What happened this week would indicate that he’s either failed to learn anything from previous mistakes or that he doesn’t think they were mistakes at all. When Schefter recited the information that Cook’s agent provided, he used his position and influence to advance the agenda of a player about to be accused of abuse. That was a choice that Schefter has made. He has decided this is how he’s going to do it, and at this point, the real question I have is why ESPN is choosing to allow Schefter to continue doing this. He has shown pretty clearly that he’s not willing or capable of changing.

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