The Storm of Plenty: Why Deflategate Has Been the Perfect Sports Media Feeding FrenzyElias Stein
Journalistically speaking, this is where Deflategate ended: in a downtown Indianapolis TV studio, where the writer who broke the story was tucking a wad of Camel tobacco in his lip, stifling a bronchitic cough, squinting at a computer because he forgot his glasses, and preparing to write a column that, under the very best of circumstances, 99 percent of greater New England will hate.
“What would you write if you were me?” Bob Kravitz asked.
Deflategate had the strange effect of turning nearly every reporter who touched it into counsel for the prosecution or the defense. Kravitz insists he calls ’em as he sees ’em, but he broke the story. He’s from Indy. So when Judge Richard Berman erased Tom Brady’s suspension, Kravitz, according to the Twitter consensus, “lost” the same way Roger Goodell lost.
“Want to look at my mentions?” Kravitz said, pulling out his iPhone.
“I already got all the Boston radio stations calling me,” Kravitz says. “I told ’em, I haven’t even read the freaking decision yet. They think I’m avoiding them.” He’d ditched a charity golf tournament to rush into the office and start scanning Berman’s 40-page decision. “God, this is gonna be boring.”
Last year, Kravitz gave up his column at the Indianapolis Star to work at WTHR, Indy’s NBC affiliate. The job was supposed to be 80 percent opinionating on the website and 20 percent talking on TV. That was before Kravitz broke the biggest story in sports and became, in the words of sports director Dave Calabro, “Mr. Deflategate.” On the day the decision came down, in addition to writing his column, Mr. Deflategate was leading Eyewitness News at 12:00, 12:30, 5:00, and 6:00. The top of the WTHR homepage includes the categories “News,” “Weather,” “Traffic,” and “Kravitz.”
Anybody who has had to write about Deflategate has grumbled about the experience. But Kravitz is evidence that Deflategate has been nothing less than a full-employment act for the sports media: seven and a half months of hot takes, scoops, conspiracy tracts, anti-Goodell jeremiads, explainers on the ideal gas law, and — on Wednesday, as if to prove that not everything had been said — a casual suggestion by a Boston TV host that Roger Goodell should be murdered.
“The New England Patriots have done more for national sports radio than any other team, I believe, in history,” Michael Harrison, the editor of the trade magazine Talkers, told me earlier this year. Kravitz said, “It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
But here we were at the end (minus appeals, etc.). One more column. One what-does-it-all-mean verdict. Pats fans continued to tweet at Kravitz, asking, Where is he? What’s he got to say? Kravitz chewed his tobacco and typed. After a time, he looked up from his computer and said, “I’ve only written 569 words. I’ve got nothing left to say.”
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
“Bob Kravitz, they need you in the studio!” a station employee shouted.
“The public needs to see your face!” someone else shouted.
“Why?” Kravitz said, slipping on his suit jacket and abandoning his column. “Even my wife doesn’t like to see my face.”
The 12:30 news was starting. In the studio, Kravitz was seated across from anchor Scott Swan. Swan looks like a guy who collects regional Emmys. Kravitz looks like a writer. A somewhat unhappy writer — three spinal fusion surgeries this summer (he was once a hockey player) have kept him in more or less constant pain. But being slightly rumpled is his shtick. Most people on WTHR hew to the local-news code of delivering news and smiles. Kravitz is allowed to speak his mind.
“He wears the black hat,” Calabro said. “I think we make a great team. I can set him up to kill.”
“I think [Goodell’s] been absolutely kneecapped,” Kravitz said on the air. “I hope that he’s enjoying his $44 million a year salary, because he’s turned into a human piñata at this point.”
He walked out of the studio and returned to his column. He chewed some more tobacco and came up with three or four more paragraphs. The column read well. It would do fine. “All the local radio wants me on,” he said, “but I’m hungry.”
At the Tilted Kilt — a kind of Scottish-themed Hooters — Kravitz traced his career arc. He was born on Long Island and retains the local cadence. He interned, of all places, at the Boston Globe. He was a young feature writer at the Pittsburgh Press when, at 26, he was summoned to Sports Illustrated. His two years there were unhappy; he left the magazine and said he collected unemployment for a while. He later rebounded with columnist gigs in Cleveland and Denver before landing at the Star in 2000.
Kravitz was always known as a news-breaker. In 2012, he revealed that Colts coach Chuck Pagano was sick and leaving the team. “I kind of owned the Peyton Manning–Jim Irsay psychodrama,” he said. “I had both of them confiding in me, telling their side of the story.” WTHR came forward with a pile of money in 2014, and Kravitz saw it as a chance to escape the crumbling temple of newspapers. He still writes four or five columns a week.
“At 55, I got 10 more years of this shit left,” he said. “I feel like I’ve run the 26 miles and I have 385 yards to go.”
January’s AFC title game was such a snooze that Kravitz had his column written by the third quarter. After the game, he went downstairs to work the locker room and left his phone in the press box. During that time, a source — let’s call this Source No. 1 — sent a text asking Kravitz to call back. But that secret knowledge — something every NFL writer would have killed for — would remain undiscovered for more than an hour until Kravitz came upstairs and discovered the message.
He called the source on the drive back to his hotel. “I thought, Well, hell of a story!” Kravitz said. “But Journalism 101 — I got to get this thing confirmed.” He tried several “league sources” — a term that would become an object of ridicule as Deflategate wore on, though not because of Kravitz. Finally, one called back. Call this Source No. 2. Kravitz outlined what he’d heard about an NFL investigation into deflated footballs. As Kravitz recalled, Source No. 2 said, “Put it this way, if you write it, you won’t be wrong.”
Kravitz’s first tweet on the matter, published at 12:55 a.m. ET on January 19, included only the broadest outline of the investigation, because that’s all he knew. “Interesting,” replied Ben Volin, a writer at the Boston Globe who would soon be on the Deflategate beat himself.
That night, Kravitz lay in his hotel bed and — here he sounds like a first-timer — “watched Twitter break.” He took so much abuse over the next 24 hours that when Chris Mortensen reported the now-discredited information that 11 of the Patriots’ 12 footballs were underinflated by 2 pounds per square inch, Kravitz lashed out. He called Belichick a “cheat.” He would later apologize — though he’s still amazed by how quickly he was typecast. “What did they keep saying — ‘butthurt Colts fan’?” Kravitz said. “I’m not even sure what butthurt means. But I’m certainly not a Colts fan.
“By the way, is everybody in New England born with a blog?”
Kravitz had already become a character in a rapidly growing scandal. To Patriots fans, he was a local hack who was trying to crawl onto the national stage; to the rest of America, he was Luke Skywalker challenging the evil empire. Anderson Cooper’s show called. Boston radio stations called — and Kravitz gleefully accepted the invitations. Kravitz took his wife, Cathy, to the Bahamas for their 25th anniversary. On the beach, she noticed he was reading the Wells Report. He claims to have read it four times.
Kravitz is far too cynical to believe that some minor bit of NFL cheating could corrupt America’s youth. But whether it’s because of the proprietary nature of his scoop or an old-school sense of fairness, he thinks something ought to be done to Brady. “The moral of the story,” he joked, “is that if you’re in trouble, throw your phone in the Charles River.”
Writers whose editors were demanding Deflategate content didn’t always give Kravitz a hug. “Jason Cole” — an NFL reporter with Bleacher Report — “comes up to me in the press box in St. Louis and says, ‘Bobby, this is the single fucking stupidest story in the history of pro sports.’” (Kravitz did not say whether he corrected him.)
But WTHR was thrilled. Even before the decision came down, the network’s anchors were boasting during newscasts that its man — and not Mort or Schefter or Peter King — broke Deflategate. This week, the station filmed a Kravitz commercial. In the ad, a Patriots fan is yelling at Kravitz. Kravitz looks at the camera and says, “Music to my ears.”
Kravitz had the luxury of monitoring Deflategate from afar and pouncing when appropriate. But in Boston, his tweet sent media types to battlements that they had to man, sometimes around the clock, until Thursday’s ruling.
“We’ve gone through Spygate,” said Mike Felger, the host of a talk show on Boston’s 98.5 The Sports Hub. “The chicken and beer thing with the Red Sox in 2011. Bobby Valentine’s year here, which was a clown show from beginning to end. The Matt Cooke–Marc Savard incident. Doc Rivers backing out of the Celtics. … Name the huge sports story, positive or negative, scandalous or not — this blows it out of the water.”
Just after noon on Wednesday, the day before Berman’s decision, ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss answered his cell phone outside Gillette Stadium. He was standing sentry there in case news broke — the stadium would be a backdrop for his TV stand-up. “I’m going to give you the disclaimer I give everybody,” he said. “I might have to run if something breaks.”
It was a “roll-of-the-dice day,” Reiss said — meaning he’d risked a small chunk of potential news-breaking time to take his daughter to elementary school. “I’m thinking to myself as I’m taking her, Please, Judge Berman, don’t do this to me. Let me at least get her to her first day of school.”
It was a pleading inner voice that Pats writers had been hearing all year.
On Tuesday, Comcast SportsNet New England’s Tom E. Curran answered his phone on the way to work. He’d spent a jittery week of vacation in Florida this summer, afraid he might miss the climactic moment of the scandal. He said, “Just as we’re talking, Bryan, I’m anxious right now.”
To understand how Patriots writers followed Kravitz’s scoop, it’s first important to understand what Kravitz’s scoop did to Patriots fans. “Their first three Super Bowl championships, they obviously cherish,” Reiss said. “But I think they’ve had to fight the public perception that those were somewhat influenced by videotaping. As a fan of the team, you wait 10 years to win another Super Bowl so you can finally say to yourself, ‘We got this one without the questions.’ Then this pops up. It opens an old wound.”
According to Alan Siegel, a sportswriter who did a tour at a suburban Boston paper, Deflategate reconnected Boston fans with the “old,” lovable Brady. “He dated a supermodel,” Siegel said. “Then he started getting statistically great. It was almost like Pats fans held that against him, that he became properly rated instead of underrated. ‘He’s Hollywood, not in touch with us anymore.’ Now, the wagons are circling: He’s our guy. The world is out to get him. It’s perfect Boston paranoia.”
Apart from notable exceptions like Felger, Volin, and the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, the Boston media lined up behind the Pats and Brady. Not that there was anything wrong with that: Deflategate was plagued by so many procedural misfires that, by the end, a rough consensus emerged that Brady’s guilt or innocence was almost beside the point.
But Boston also hosted a kind of Deflategate theater. The hosts of WEEI’s Dennis & Callahan cross-examined national writers to reveal that they hadn’t read every page of the Wells Report. (“Gerry, that was an excellent trap. … That was Perry Mason–like.”) The Barstool Sports irregulars got themselves arrested inside NFL headquarters. League apparatchiks like Mike Kensil and Jeff Pash were plucked from obscurity and roasted. Curran nicknamed Pash the “little nut-twister.”
“A lot of the conspiracy and paranoia comes directly from the Patriots,” said Sports Illustrated’s Greg A. Bedard, who worked for the Globe and lives in Boston. The ferocity with which the team defended itself gave sympathetic media types license to go further, to attack. Bedard added, “I’ve had Patriots representatives just chew my ear off about Mike Kensil, to the point where I had to walk away from them.”
In Boston, Deflategate had another side effect. It was a smoke bomb that obscured an awful summer for the Red Sox, who are on their way to another last-place finish in the AL East. “The Red Sox should thank their lucky stars,” Felger said. “If this thing didn’t happen with Brady, we’d be all over the Sox.”
“It’s been a gift,” Shaughnessy said. Everyone had more Twitter followers. With the Celtics and Bruins having mediocre seasons, there was always a go-to column. Pieces that would have been read mostly in Boston found a national audience.
At the NFL league meeting in May, Curran felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Pash, the Goodell consigliere. “My kids like the nickname you came up with for me,” Pash said.
Curran looked at him curiously.
“You mean the little nut-twister?” he said.
“Yes,” Pash said. “The little nut-twister.”
On Thursday afternoon, Kravitz moved to Lucas Oil Stadium for more TV work. He looked shell-shocked as he tried to talk to the camera while stadium rock played on the PA and a cover band played a few yards away. Of course, Dennis & Callahan were calling. They wanted to book him for 7:05 a.m. on Friday. Kravitz wanted to drink a prodigious number of beers Thursday night. He told the hosts they could call, but he didn’t promise he would answer.
It’s worth asking why Deflategate was such a fertile story. In one sense, it was like a celebrity trial without the actual crime. Reporters did what they do with all trials: They assembled evidence, tried to pry information from both camps, enlisted experts (Troy Aikman; teary Mark Brunell), and adjudicated the case before Goodell and Berman could render their verdicts.
Beginning in May, there was a defining Deflategate event just about every month: the release of the Wells Report, Brady’s appeal, the Goodell-ordered suspension, all interspersed with Robert Kraft press conferences, where Kraft was either tearing the league a new one or giving away the farm. This offered reporters a chance not only to weigh new evidence but to go back and relitigate the case from the beginning. Bring in the physicists … “College professor after college professor after college professor,” Curran said. “Then the lawyers came at us!”
Another feature of a celebrity trial is that it pushes private material into the public record — it’s the legal version of the Sony hack. People who don’t know much about Brady’s life got to see his musings about Peyton Manning, the Tom Ford fall collection, and his $8,500 pool cover.
Many reporters seemed almost embarrassed by the disclosure. “Tom Brady’s email?” ESPN’s Adam Schefter said. “We shouldn’t be reading Tom Brady’s email. Sorry.”
“I felt shitty about it,” Curran said. “Maybe that’s not how I should be as a reporter. [But] if the info’s out there, then maybe you should do something about it.”
Also like a celebrity trial, the audience wavered somewhere between riveted and drained. Last month, The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay declared that the world was tired of Deflategate. The world was roused two weeks later when the case headed toward its denouement in federal court. “It’s like the O.J. case,” Kravitz said. “How many people said, ‘God, I’m so tired of the O.J. case?’ But everybody was on Court TV watching the damn thing.”
Kravitz paused, as if he were imagining the New England fans in his Twitter mentions. “Now don’t go and make it look like I’m comparing Tom Brady with O.J.!”
Deflategate had other features that made it a feast for writers. It was a proxy war against Roger Goodell. If you already thought Goodell was a boob, Deflategate was a nice chance to say it again. “He’s an easy villain, right?” Felger said. “An easy face of NFL incompetence. Because he is incompetent. That’s not a leap to make.”
Writers only paused to ask why this misstep — and not Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, or any number of komedy klassics — was the final straw. Last September, when Rice was still Topic A, Bedard sent a cruise missile into the commissioner’s office. “People said, ‘How come you haven’t written anything lately?’” Bedard said. “I said the guy should be fired and called him an incompetent boob on the radio. How many times do I need to say it and how many different ways?”
Deflategate also molted into a journalism scandal. Chris Mortensen and Peter King’s mea culpas caused hand-wringing about shadowy “league sources.” But most skirmishes were smaller bore, or never fought at all. On Monday, the New York Daily News’s Gary Myers reported that the NFL floated a deal to Brady: a three-game suspension, provided that Brady admitted guilt. Reiss’s Twitter mentions filled with demands for his anonymous sources to second Myers’s, or contradict them. “Where do you draw the line?” Reiss said. “How many times can you do ‘report, colon’?”
Finally, what made Deflategate into such a useful scandal for the press is how trivial it ultimately was. News of brain injuries and CTE threaten our enjoyment of football; compared to that, even the maximal theory of what Jim McNally did in that Gillette Stadium bathroom hardly makes a dent. “This is not an existential question for football, unlike concussions,” said the New York Post’s Bart Hubbuch.
In keeping with Sayre’s Law, Deflategate’s lack of gravitas has allowed sportswriters to happily lose their minds. “The beauty of this scandal, especially in a place like Boston, is when it comes down to it the stakes are so low,” Siegel said. “It’s so pointless. Reporters, columnists, sports-radio hosts, fans — they can geek out with the craziest opinion they want, with no fear of repercussion.”
If you watched the ESPN roundtables Thursday morning, or saw Kravitz trudging back to the WTHR set, you got the sense that — to the extent this is possible in 2015 — Deflategate may have increased interest in the NFL. Reporters may feel like they’re dinging the league, speaking truth to power. They’re probably providing accidental PR. “It’s a scandal that doesn’t diminish the sport in our eyes,” Kravitz said. “If anything, it makes it even more compelling.” The Pats’ Thursday-night opener is now bigger than it ever could have been.
The queasy feeling that comes with that thought doesn’t mean Bob Kravitz has to surrender the 10,000 Twitter followers he has gained since January, or that he can’t enjoy his newfound measure of fame. As his one-year anniversary at WTHR approached this summer, Kravitz was required to fill out a self-evaluation. One section asked him to list all the things he’d accomplished. In that space, Kravitz wrote: “Broke Deflategate. (Drops the mic.)”