The Paranoid Style in Sportswriting: Deflategate, Lynchghazi, and the Conspiracy Theories of Super Bowl XLIX

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After the Super Bowl, I got in my rental car and cruised metro Phoenix. I switched on the radio. I was looking for some basic “how could Pete Carroll have thrown it there?” talk to clear my head and — if we’re being honest — to make me feel better about the sentences I’d produced back in the press box.

But the chatter on Fox Sports Radio wasn’t basic. It was heavy with secret plots, conspiracies. A caller suggested that Carroll was a marionette of the Vegas casinos and had thrown the game. Another caller said Carroll refused to give the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the 1-yard line because Carroll wanted to deny Lynch the MVP. I thought I’d been lucky enough to catch a great game live. Yet such seditious talk made me feel like the guy who walked away from Dealey Plaza and said, “Gee, you didn’t hear three shots?”

Super Bowl XLIX’s conspiracy theories originated with the media. Bob Kravitz, a respected reporter from Indianapolis, broke Deflategate. The NFL Network’s Michael Silver first broached the theory about Carroll denying Lynch his moment of glory. Earlier in the week, I sat next to Darren McKee, a Denver radio host, when he asked a Moai-faced Bill Belichick, “Does it bother you at all that there’s a national perception that the Patriots are just a bunch of cheaters?”

The sports media has long treasured conspiracy. See the Cold Envelope or the other team that got within point-blank range of an NFL title and did something odd. But thanks to Deflategate, Lynchghazi, and Roger Goodell’s sorcery, I believe that for the two-week run-up to this year’s Super Bowl, conspiracy became — as some insist it has always been — mainstream.

With apologies to Richard Hofstadter, it was a chance to study the paranoid style in American sportswriting. To watch reporters pursue the ecstatic truth, battle each other, and — with a few gonzo exceptions — do a service to their profession. Listen up, sheeple. Pay attention. You’re about hear some things ESPN doesn’t want you to know …

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Deflategate took root in the Gillette Stadium press box in the Art Bell hours of January 19. Bob Kravitz had just returned from the Colts’ locker room. Kravitz is a 54-year-old, goateed ex-newspaperman who survived a heart attack, quit the print trade, and now works for TV station WTHR. He was grabbing his laptop. His column could wait till he got back to the hotel. But just then, he noticed a text message: “Call me. It’s very important.”

Kravitz spoke to a person he described as a “league source.” He heard something rather strange. Mind-blowing, in fact. He called another source. He was a print guy again, about to break a big story on deadline. “I let it rip,” Kravitz said. At 12:55 a.m., he tweeted:

Twitter gasped. Then it asked: “Wait, who’s Bob Kravitz?” For in any great conspiracy, the first target is the hidden allegiance of the news-breaker. “They all said, ‘This guy’s a TV schmuck from Indianapolis, sour grapes, blah blah blah,’” Kravitz said. In fact, in his 14-year tour with the Indianapolis Star, Kravitz was a regular noodge to the Colts. He was one of the pioneers of calling Tony Dungy a hypocrite. “Bill Polian once went on the radio and called me a ‘sewer rat,’” Kravitz said proudly.

In any case, Newsday confirmed Kravitz’s scoop the next morning. The league was investigating the Pats. The key element of the conspiracy seemed to be the Deflated Ball. Everyone scurried to learn about PSI. Deflategate would never be so simple again.

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Up in Boston, Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England regarded Kravitz’s scoop with the ennui of a reporter who has heard “SpygateSpygateSpygate” for years. “I think the first inclination was an eye roll,” he said. But Chris Mortensen’s January 20 report that 11 of 12 footballs were deflated by more than two PSI portended something sinister — Mort is one of a handful of NFL reporters whose reporting was close to the word of God. The next day, Curran wrote a column declaring, “This is officially a big deal.”

But then Curran noticed something funny: The media was churning out reams of Deflategate copy, but it all relied on Mortensen’s sources. “As time passed and the Patriots were clearly on griddle 24/7, I thought it was incumbent upon the NFL to somehow indicate whether all the attention was well-founded or not,” he said. “And they never really did.”

It was an information vacuum. Indeed, what made Deflategate a breeding ground for conspiracies was the suggestion of Belichickian treachery, an absence of hard info, and the pressure on writers to say something, to take a stand, even if the final verdict was unknown. In the week following Kravitz’s scoop, the Patriots got drubbed. Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg unloaded a very-best-of conspiracy collection, in which he shared, among other alleged plots, the idea that a video screen in the Gillette Stadium parking lot allowed Belichick an upper hand on replay challenges.

Gregg Doyel, a columnist at the Indianapolis Star, published a column saying that if found guilty, the Patriots ought to be taken out of the Super Bowl. “Here’s how it works,” Doyel told me. “If you write something and it’s compelling enough, it leaves a mark. Boston went nuts over what I wrote. You know why? Because I left a mark. I’ll take that.”

He continued, “It also left a mark with some media people. Please don’t paint this with a broad brush, but there are a handful of people in that market that are embarrassing. That handful came after me.” Even Kravitz began tweeting that Belichick should be fired, and a few times he neglected to include the “if guilty” part. He later apologized.

After days of mortar fire, there was a feeling among some Boston writers that the response to Deflategate was out of whack. Whatever the Patriots were said to have done paled in comparison to what the NFL, its beat writers, and a conga line of ex-QBs were doing to the Patriots. And that suggested its own kind of conspiracy.

Do we have John Harbaugh to thank for this?” Curran asked in his January 23 column on CSNNE’s website. It was Deflategate’s first great counter-conspiracy tract, arguing that the Deflated Ball was less interesting than the Unseen Hand. Who tipped off the Colts? Well, Ravens coach John Harbaugh, Curran noted, was Colts coach Chuck Pagano’s former boss. And just one week before Deflategate, Harbaugh had been whining about the Patriots’ ineligible receivers, causing Brady to smirk, “Maybe those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out.”

“John Harbaugh being who he is, he hears everything,” Curran said. “This is my opinion, but I think a comment like that is not going to go over well and will be taken as a challenge.” Fox’s Jay Glazer, another word-of-God insider, also wrote that the Ravens had tipped the Colts.

A reporter could discover all kinds of Unseen Hands in Deflategate. Colts GM Ryan Grigson worked for the St. Louis Rams when they lost the 2002 Super Bowl to the Patriots — “when the since-debunked notion of the Patriots taping the walkthrough was broached,” Curran said. Grigson worked for the Eagles when they lost to the Pats in the Super Bowl three years later.

But Grigson, Harbaugh, and Pagano are relatively well known in the NFL. Another hallmark of a great conspiracy is that it points to a heretofore anonymous man and anoints him (as Jim Garrison once put it) “one of history’s most important individuals.” Deflategate’s prime discovery was Mike Kensil. Who’s Mike Kensil? Officially, he’s the NFL’s vice-president of game operations. On January 25, Curran published a column noting that Kensil was also the former director of operations for … the New York Jets.

Kensil’s name was being whispered into Curran’s ear by sources. There was more: Kensil was with the Jets when Belichick left the team at the altar in 2000. Kensil was fired when Eric Mangini, a former Belichick assistant, took the Jets coaching job in 2006. Perhaps Kensil was just doing his job at the league office with Deflategate, but doing it with extra vigor. “Everything I’ve heard about Mike Kensil, he’s a good man,” Curran told me. “He’d got a level of integrity. But that doesn’t diminish the notion he’s got a hard-on for the Patriots.”

brady-tomJohn Tlumacki/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

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Bob Kravitz — the man who started it all — flew to Phoenix to cover the Super Bowl. Enough ghoulish threats had found their way into Kravitz’s inbox and Twitter feed that he began carefully removing his media badge whenever he walked around in public. He went to Hooters in downtown Phoenix and sat next to some Patriots fans. They were talking about the physics of deflated footballs. Kravitz thought, Good god, what have I done?

When the Super Bowl teams arrived in Phoenix, Deflategate theater passed out of the hands of the writers and into those of actual NFL actors. The Seahawks’ Richard Sherman asked, “Will they be punished? Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes.” Kraft, meanwhile, blasted the “circumstantial leaked evidence” and demanded an apology from Goodell if the team was found not guilty. We should pause here to note an irony: The Patriots and their fans feel Goodell is out to get them, while the rest of the nation feels Goodell will do anything to give the Patriots a free pass. It’s a sign of a great conspiracy when the two overarching theories are perfectly irreconcilable.

Kravitz was at the media center when a man approached him. “I hesitate to acknowledge his existence,” Kravitz said. “But there was this guy from Barstool Sports Boston, which I guess is like a fanboy, softcore porn thing.”

The guy was Dave “El Presidente” Portnoy, a student of the Unseen Hand theory, one who would later call Kravitz a “patsy” of Deflategate. “I think he hates the Patriots,” Portnoy told me. “He’s trying to basically do anything to cast them in a negative way.”

How did you even know what Kravitz looked like? I asked Portnoy. His picture wasn’t on his Twitter account.

Portnoy explained that one of his Zaprudite readers had sent him a video of Kravitz doing stand-up comedy. Portnoy recognized his bête noir and asked him to do an on-camera interview.

“I said, ‘I think your website is garbage,’” Kravitz recalled. “Everything you’ve written about what happened is completely wrong and completely misrepresents who I am and what I did.”

Portnoy doesn’t remember Kravitz saying that. “What he said to me was the reason he wouldn’t go on camera was because I had his source wrong.”

Portnoy had written a post fingering the now-famous Mike Kensil as Kravitz’s source. Portnoy hadn’t included any “I think” caveats. Kravitz recalled, “I said, straight up, ‘You can speculate that Mike Kensil gave Kravitz all this stuff. You can’t say with 100 percent certainty that he was my source.’

“He said, ‘Who was your source?’”

“I said, ‘Go fuck yourself.’”

The two men parted. They continued their feud in other media. In any case, Portnoy told me he no longer thinks Kensil was Kravitz’s source. He thinks it was probably Ryan Grigson.

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The actual Super Bowl almost obscured the biggest break in Deflategate: The NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport produced a new report that called into question whether there was even a scandal. Only one football measured two PSI below the minimum weight, Rapoport said, contrary to Mortensen’s January 20 report. (Some of the other balls were a “few ticks” under.) This seemed to downgrade the Deflated Ball and point again to the Unseen Hand. Though the Deflated Ball got a momentary spike with the 98 seconds that Elderly Bathroom Man spent alone with the footballs. All camps now wait for Ted Wells, the NFL’s investigator, to rule.

There were three final revelations. First: Last Saturday, ESPN’s Adam Schefter went on Boston radio and noted that some people now believe the Colts deflated the balls to frame the Patriots. Schefter wasn’t vouching for the theory, merely confirming that someone, somewhere believes it. But people listen to Schefter, as they do Mort and Glazer and Rapoport. Call this theory the Colts Did It.

Second: I give you Michael Hurley, a writer with CBS Boston’s website. Last week, Hurley wrote a satirical column that also posited that the Colts had deflated the balls. Hurley was tweaking the Indianapolis writers for whaling on the Pats in an information-free zone. When Hurley heard Schefter’s report, he got a sudden pang of terror. Jesus, did someone think I was serious? “I’m hoping that’s not because of me,” he said.

Third — and more amazing still — Kravitz heard yet another version of the Colts Did It theory. “One person thought I was a sideline reporter for the Colts, and that I came into possession of the football and deflated it myself,” Kravitz said. “You’re talking about a guy who can’t even put air into his own tires and I can suddenly work a gauge and lower it by two PSI? If the Colts are guilty of conspiring to embarrass the Patriots, I will be relentless in my efforts to rip the living shit out of them. Heads should roll. But I don’t believe that for a second.”

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lynch-marshawnChristian Petersen/Getty Images

Mike Silver was in the Seahawks locker room when Super Bowl XLIX’s second great conspiracy theory, the Missing Handoff, took shape. Silver spent 13 years at Sports Illustrated. Silver knows people. So it counted as news when he wrote this:

I’ll … refrain from lending any legitimacy to the conspiracy theory one anonymous player was willing to broach: That Carroll somehow had a vested interest in making Wilson, rather than Lynch, the hero, and thus insisted on putting the ball in the quarterback’s hands with an entire season on the line. “That’s what it looked like,” the unnamed player said, but I’d be willing to bet that he merely muttered it out of frustration, and that it was a fleeting thought.

Leave that fleeting, dangerous thought hanging in the air for a moment. That night, Dave Zirin, a sportswriter with The Nation, got the same message from a source he described as “someone inside that locker room.” Twitter skeptics pointed out that the Missing Handoff neatly dovetails with Zirin’s interests in race, power, and player rights. “This is not something I’d dream up between quoting from my favorite chapters in The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” Zirin told me. The message was real, he insisted, and thus newsworthy.

The theory that the Seahawks threw the ball to stiff Lynch and reward Wilson rapidly gained currency in the wake of the disaster at the 1-yard line. Linebacker Bruce Irvin’s complaints (“I just don’t understand”) got wide circulation, as did a tweet by a former Seahawks offensive lineman. There was Zapruder-style study of Lynch’s odd, almost knowing smile after the play. ESPN.com’s Terry Blount asked Carroll the day after the game if he’d changed a running play to the pass. “That did not happen,” Carroll said.

Some elements of the conspiracy — none suggested by Silver, Zirin, et al. — were easily dismissed. As the Seattle Times’s Bob Condotta noted, Ricardo Lockette, the wide receiver Wilson threw to on the play, was one of Lynch’s best friends on the team. And Carroll couldn’t have denied Lynch the MVP specifically, because the NFL was collecting MVP votes long before the Seahawks got to the 1-yard line.

Mike Silver is happy to entertain coach- and GM-led conspiracy theories. In 2001, Marshall Faulk told Silver the Colts basically tricked him into being late for a meeting so they could bench him and he wouldn’t hit a rushing milestone that would allow him to achieve free agency. But Silver doesn’t think that’s what happened here.

“I went up to Seattle after they fell to 3-3, the first crisis point of the season, right after the Harvin trade,” Silver said. “The reporting coming out then, and my own personal reporting that week, uncovered a strain which I would loosely summarize like this: Russell was the golden child and some people believe he’s too close to management.” Lynch was the opposite of the golden child, a guy stiffed by management in a contract dispute. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell had even teased the idea of doing running-back-by-committee. It caused a schism in the Seahawks locker room. Silver had been talking about it with members of the team all season.

Silver believes that after Wilson threw the interception, thoughts of the schism danced through many Seahawks’ heads. Especially the head of the one player Silver quoted. “I’m not sure this player would have believed that two hours later, three hours later,” Silver said. “But with the wounds still fresh, I think all of the shit from October came flooding back.”

You see, the Missing Handoff is a real conspiracy. But it’s real in the sense that it was suspected rather than happened, and it’s important only for what that suspicion, the brief consideration of a plot, tells us about the Seahawks locker room.

So why did Carroll throw the ball? I asked.

“My amateur conspiracy theory — it’s not a conspiracy, but it’s my theory,” Silver said, “is that Bill Belichick should have called timeout. Logically, it’s hard for me to believe Bill didn’t call timeout. Either call timeout and let ’em score, as you did three years earlier. Or you call timeout as a hedge in case they score. You can do that twice.

“It was shocking to me that Bill didn’t call timeout. I don’t know if he was stunned. If he thought, Seriously, lose on a third miracle catch? Fuck you, football gods! Or if Bill was that brilliant, and he thought, If I don’t call timeout here, it might unnerve Pete.

“Bill not calling timeout,” Silver continued, “threw a wrench into the natural order, and Pete overthought it at that point.” It makes sense. The only problem is that if we accept that theory, then the Uncalled Timeout becomes the great unsolved mystery of Super Bowl XLIX.

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Why do sportswriters love to entertain conspiracies? First, they give an overhyped event an overhyped backstory. To admit the Super Bowl was decided by a normal, rather banal mistake makes us writers question the blood we donated to the game. “Usually, the real answer is sort of boring,” said Bob Condotta. “It’s too mundane. You don’t want to believe that’s how the Seahawks ran their offense all year, that they scored on the previous touchdown in a similar situation.”

By writing conspiracy theories, we are working the refs — or working the refs on behalf of someone else. Just raising the question of deflated footballs convinces Roger Goodell, his officials, and many in the media that the Patriots deserve more scrutiny. It’s like a coach complaining about a missed holding call. The coach may lose the argument, but he might get the next call. Even Bob Kravitz acknowledged that ref-working could be at the root of Deflategate, similar to how NHL coaches used to complain about the size of goalie Patrick Roy’s pads and blockers.

A conspiracy theory is a placeholder for a chunk of sports history swallowed by scandal. In baseball, I subscribe to writer Joe Sheehan’s argument (“The Big Lie”) that PEDs didn’t cause the ’90s home run surge. Yet the fact that much of the ’90s game remains mysterious, hinted at only by Jose Canseco and the Game of Shadows guys, makes it weirdly thrilling. “You have 20 years that you can’t account for, that you can’t stack up against other eras with any kind of certainty,” said Tim Elfrink, coauthor of Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era. “That’s hugely frustrating. It leads to cynicism. And I think cynicism and conspiracy theories go hand-in-hand in many ways.”

The readers of Blood Sport have accused Elfrink and his coauthor, Gus Garcia-Roberts,1 of a separate conspiracy: that they saw LeBron James’s name in the Biogenesis records and won’t tell the world.

Finally, the conspiracy theories can be a sign of reporters’ skepticism. The Gallup poll doesn’t measure the trustworthiness of the NFL, but we could guess that it’s headed into the same low-single-digit territory as the church, the military, the media, and other once-venerable institutions.

As my old boss and spiritual adviser Jack Shafer would say, Low single digits sounds about right. Maybe even a little high … For dear, old Pete Rozelle was as much a mafia don as Roger Goodell. Ditto Paul Tagliabue. This is true even if Tagliabue decided to play Fay Vincent to Goodell’s Selig as soon as his successor threatened to make everyone forget about the bad stuff he did.

With Deflategate, our skepticism seems worthwhile. Bob Kravitz was certainly correct in his initial scoop. At the same time, Tom Curran and others have the right to trace the bullet trajectories to discover where the tip came from. Knowing the proclivities of Mike Kensil, even if they come to nothing, is better than fixating on Unseen Hands that toil every day in Goodell’s NFL.

Reporters can be punished for indulging in paranoia, but they can also be richly rewarded for it. The unimaginable is often true. The Browns’ GM is sending text-message commands to coaches on the sidelines. The Falcons are filling the Georgia Dome with phony cheers. Roger Goodell is interviewing a domestic-violence victim a few feet from her attacker. Put differently: What would the recent history of sports look like without paranoia? We might still think Bobby Riggs played the Battle of the Sexes on the level. Or that Manti Te’o is spending the winter in Hawaii, laying a DiMaggio-size order of flowers on his dead girlfriend’s grave.

As Zirin put it, “If you do not believe in the classical definition of a conspiracy — that decisions are made in dark rooms not for the greater good but for the benefit of a few — if you do not believe that in this day and age of sports, you are not a sportswriter. You are a stenographer.”

A Deflategate “media circus” — a term that has become fashionable even among members of the circus — is really a tiny price to pay for skepticism. Someday, friends, I’ll tell you about the mysterious forces at Goodell’s Super Bowl XLIX press conference that prevented you from hearing the really tough questions. But there’s a knock at the door, and, hey, Roger, you’ll never stifle m

Filed Under: Sports Media, Bryan Curtis on Sports Media, NFL, Super Bowl XLIX, Deflategate, New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts, Bob Kravitz, Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks, Pete Carroll, Conspiracy Theories

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Bryan Curtis is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ curtisbeast