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Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

ESPN Proves Yet Again Why Patriots Fans Have Lost Trust in the Network

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AP Photo


ESPN has gone and done it again.

Whether the viewpoint be justified or simply a creation sprung from the franchise’s notable paranoia, New England Patriots fans have long-thought that the all-encompassing sports network has had it out for their team. From Ray Lewis’ chirping to Mark Brunell’s crying, it seems there has always been an anti-Patriot angle from any number of the suffocating talking heads. Is it because America hates a winner? A retort to head coach Bill Belichick’s gruff persona? Or does ESPN simply employ a host of ex-athletes who have been either wronged or denied by New England’s decade-plus of greatness?

In reality, it’s probably all of the above, with the Patriots playing the role of nationwide villain, a factor that ESPN has proven that it can milk for all it is worth.

“People who don’t like them really dislike them,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter said Thursday morning on WEEI. “How did people feel about the Yankees? Same thing. So you know what, Boston, the Patriots are the Yankees. That’s what we’re talking about here.”

Ouch.

Still, rose-tinted glasses or not, the general consensus is that Tom Brady has been regarded with a fraction of the reverence reserved for the likes of Derek Jeter over the years. And though ESPN may indeed play up its anti-New England angles for the masses, the agenda bursts through in situations like NFL reporter John Clayton’s two-faced take on the Dolphins and Patriots both stealing signals, unearthed recently by CBS Boston’s Michael Hurley. “That’s just football,” read the blurb from a 2006 story regarding Miami. “Bill Belichick and his team deserved a much stiffer penalty” was the wording one year later when New England was embroiled in Spygate.

Convenient.

But amidst all the nonsense, all the promotional material designed as news, all the catering to its sports league partners, and all the agendas dressed up as the opinions of a gaggle of talking heads, ESPN always had “Outside the Lines.” The venerable outlet has always stood out amongst the network’s hyper-breathing lineup of hysteria, mostly thanks to the staff’s integrity in its journalistic pursuits. Even with the likes of Skip Bayless’ enraged persona down the hall, the show still managed to maintain its dignity, an outlier among the increasing fluff aimed at the audience’s lowest common denominator.

Poor Kelly Naqi. Nobody is doubting the veracity of the OTL reporter, who broke the story this week that a Patriots employee handed an NFL official an unapproved game ball during last month’s AFC Championship game, a report that her colleague Schefter shot down with ferocity mere hours later on the same program’s afternoon slot time. According to Schefter, an NFL “worker” handed Jim McNally said football that became the subject of the latest, even more ludicrous development in the never-ending Deflategate,

“This is something that we take very seriously,” she told WEEI on Wednesday. “It’s not like I wrote this story and pushed a button and put it on ESPN.com.”

That’s all well and good, but the excuse is missing one, glaring question: Nobody bothered to alert Schefter, arguably the network’s preeminent voice on all things National Football League?

It would have been one thing had the OTL report furthered the saga in any way, but what the group had was incomplete, a nugget of inconsequence that was clearly squeezed into downtime created by the NBA’s All-Star break. The entire report read as such, a rushed grasp at relevance.

In their blinded attempt to turn Jim McNally into Deflategate’s Matt Walsh, ESPN and OTL lost sight of something. Difficult to say if it was the truth, because frankly, that’s something that we’ll never likely see the likes of in this grand waste of everybody’s time. But even as they preached due diligence in their reporting, Scheffer’s appearance on ESPN yesterday afternoon dried up the entity’s background faster than the time it took Brunell’s tears to dry in the moments after Patriots quarterback Tom Brady denied any wrongdoing last month.

Naqi’s sources may have been as solid as they come. Maybe one of them was even Mike Kensil, the NFL’s VP of Game Operations who seems to be at the center of every wrinkle of this investigation. And if that is indeed the case, then did OTL rely on the backing of the former Jets employee’s cronies as its secondary sources in delivering its story this week?

The one thing we do know is that ESPN will keep harping on the Patriots, mainly because that’s what the majority of its audience demands. Truth be damned.

“[The fans] dislike them, I think, because of the success they’ve had, the way they’ve done it,” Scheffer said on WEEI. “At times they’ve straddled that line. They’ve pushed the envelope on certain things. I think they’ve done it because they’re smarter than everybody else, frankly. They’ve just figured out certain advantages that they know people are slow to react to.”

What a concept. It’s also one that doesn’t play well when you're working diligently to be more obnoxious than your cohort on “First Take.” In Bristol, louder is always better.

Even more so than being right, it turns out.

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