The National Media’s Patriots and Deflategate Coverage Is Shameful

Patriots fans have every right to feel upset.

Sports fans have a seeming predisposition to think the national media is out to get their favorite team.

Sports fandom is provincial by nature; nobody likes it when out-of-towners tell you what’s wrong with your coach or quarterback. It’s akin to USOC board member and New York City’s own Daniel Doctoroff saying “people adjust” when asked about how much traffic overflow the Olympics would bring to Boston.

But when Patriots fans gripe about ESPN and other networks sullying their favorite team’s name—carelessly, maliciously, or perhaps both—they have a point.

No, scratch that. They’re right.

On two occasions in the last week and a half, ESPN referenced the Boston Herald‘s inaccurate 2008 report that the Patriots taped the Rams’ walkthrough prior to Super Bowl XXXVI. The paper retracted the story and issued an apology, but that didn’t stop anchor Hannah Storm from bringing it up in a conversation with analyst Mike Ditka on a recent edition of SportsCenter.

“Some would say that the filming of the practices earlier, that that does qualify as cheating, which is certainly something that’s part of the Patriots’ history,” Storm said.

In a segment Wednesday involving Bill Polian and Chris Mortensen—whom the network inexplicably still trots out there to talk about Deflategate despite his woefully damaged credibility on the topic—a ticker at the bottom of the screen mentioned the same report.

SportsCenter anchor Steve Levy issued an apology to the Patriots organization Thursday at 12:21 a.m., or in other words, when most functional adults on the East Coast were likely asleep.

In an ironic twist, Patriots fans have been seeking an apology from ESPN for months—but not over mentioning the incorrect Herald report from seven years ago. The network still hasn’t retracted Mortensen’s inaccurate story from late January that said 11 of 12 Patriots footballs were underinflated by two pounds of air in the AFC Championship Game. Investigator Ted Wells’ report later revealed that only one of the balls on one of the two gages that were used to measure the footballs came in at two pounds per square inch below the legal limit. As emails between the Patriots and NFL show, the league refused to correct the false PSI numbers prior to the release of the Wells Report.

Patriots fans know the power of a false narrative all too well. As evidenced by ESPN’s most recent screw-ups, many around the country still think Spygate was about the Pats filming a pre-Super Bowl walkthrough rather than just holding its cameras in the wrong place. The NFL allows teams to film opponents’ sidelines in “locations enclosed on all sides with a roof overhead,” but not the field, which is where the Patriots had their cameras positioned against the Jets in September 2007.

Mortensen’s story really got the ball rolling on Deflategate. The day after his erroneous report was published, Deflategate was the lead story on all three national network newscasts.

The issue with Mortensen isn’t that he got the story wrong, but rather how he’s handled himself since. It took him nearly seven months to delete the inaccurate “2 PSI” tweet, and the original story is still uncorrected on ESPN’s website. See for yourself:

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Roughly one month after Mortensen’s story ran, ESPN published yet another disputed Deflategate report. Journalist Kelly Naqi filed a story in late February that said a Patriots locker room attendant tried to introduce an unapproved special teams football into the AFC Title Game. Naqi’s well-respected colleague Adam Schefter shot her report down, and said the football in question was actually handed to a Patriots employee by an NFL official.

Despite that, Naqi’s lede is still up there on ESPN’s website in all of its glory:

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But if Mortensen’s and Naqi’s contested reports—and subsequent failures to correct them—are an example of ESPN’s carelessness, then the Deflategate commentary from some of its analysts demonstrate the network’s ridiculousness. Former quarterback Mark Brunell, who went 1-4 in his career against the Patriots, crying on the air after Tom Brady’s January press conference is perhaps the best example of this, but there are others, too.

Former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, whose clubs lost twice to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, followed up Brunell’s hysterics by saying he was “disappointed” in Brady for not admitting to something he may not have done. Polian, the architect of those Colts teams that the Patriots outscored 44-17 in two consecutive postseason match ups, is on the record as saying Deflategate is a “very serious offense.”

Ex-players and executives whose brains were beat in by the Patriots have a credibility issue when they go on the attack. Just look at NFL Network personality, and former Ram, Marshall Faulk. He has said continually the Patriots cheated in Super Bowl XXXVI, despite having no proof. Former Steeler Hines Ward, who is now an analyst for NBC Sports, once said he suspected the Patriots of cheating as well.

This type of unsubstantiated innuendo and conjecture about the Patriots is everywhere, and it doesn’t just come from other fan bases. It comes from some of the most prominent and influential NFL commentators in the country.

The NFL bears ultimate responsibility for stoking the Deflategate flames, but it’s gotten an assist from many members of the national football media. The league has sullied Brady’s name throughout this entire mess, and an uncomfortably large number of analysts and reporters seem all too giddy to sling mud.