As ESPN dropped another bombshell on the New Orleans Saints Monday with their report that GM Mickey Loomis had a secret listening device installed at the Superdome from 2002-2004 to spy on opposing coaches, it was met with immediate pushback from a wide variety of sources. That pushback and the gravity of ESPN’s report is of massive importance. Regardless of any possible competitive advantage, we’re talking wiretapping here, which is prompting the feds to get involved in checking out the allegations.
As I said when I wrote about the media coverage of BountyGate over at Awful Announcing, I have a real bias as a Saints fan to fully disclose. Honestly, I’ve watched Super Bowl XLIV about six times in the past month to try to cope with the events of this offseason. But this article isn’t going to make a judgment on the true or false nature of Barr’s report. It’s not going to attack or defend Mickey Loomis or even guess about the possible competitive edge that a GM wiretapping opposing playcalls could make. None of that would be fair or reasonable.
Rather, what we have to address is the high stakes game of chicken between the New Orleans Saints and ESPN. The intensity and volume of denials coming from the Saints organization and those close to the Saints organization immediately put the initial Outside the Lines report from John Barr under an even more powerful microscope. In simple terms, either all the people below are lying… or Barr’s report is false. There’s no middle ground. Before we get to what is at stake for both sides, here’s a rundown of the reaction to the ESPN piece.
Mickey Loomis spoke to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports and called the report “absolutely false”:
“This report on ESPN is absolutely false,” Loomis wrote in an email. “I have a monitor in front of me in my booth that provides the league-issued stats for the game. I have a small TV with the network broadcast and I have an earpiece to listen to the WWL-AM radio (flagship broadcaster) game broadcast.
“To think I am sitting in there listening and actually and/or doing something with the offensive and defensive play calls of the opposing teams makes this story and the unnamed sources that provided the false information that much less credible. It just didn’t happen.”
In the same article, Saints spokesman Greg Bensel called it “1,000 percent false” and even went as far to say that ESPN refused to show the team evidence of the wiretapping system in place:
“This report is 1000 percent false,” said Greg Bensel, the Saints vice president of communications. “Completely inaccurate. We asked ESPN to provide us evidence to support their allegations and they refused. The team and Mickey are seeking all legal recourse regarding these false allegations.”
But perhaps most interesting, WWL Legal Analyst Donald Foret was concerned when John Barr called him looking to dig up information about the franchise:
“John Barr, the reporter on April 5 called me asking a lot of questions about the Saints. Obviously, everyone is piling on as a result of the bounty scandal. He called me on April 5 and he asked me some really crazy questions, and it was obvious to me that he was looking for dirt on the Saints. I felt terribly uncomfortable with the conversation. I reported it to the Saints.
“It’s obvious to me that John Barr had a mission, and it looks like he reported on that mission today.”
What were those “really crazy questions” that would cause the local legal analyst to become uncomfortable? This OTL report on the Saints has a resemblance to OTL’s reporting on Ohio State. In Ohio State’s case, Outside the Lines released several reports on the school after it had been hit with the tattoo scandal that cost head coach Jim Tressel his job. Was John Barr “on a mission” smelling blood in the water with the wounded Saints? Was he asking those questions due to what he had already found, or what he was searching for?
For their part, ESPN has had further reaction that advances the initial OTL story online. We talked yesterday at AA about how their echo chamber is so adept at dominating a news cycle on the TV side but their reaction pieces have certainly heightened the seriousness of the report. Thanks to the bounty probe, Mickey Loomis isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt from anybody, and ESPN writers are employing that in their columns.
ESPN columnist Mark Kreidler went down the road of pushing back to the pushback by discussing the facts and conjectures of the case in a peculiar way. Jeff Chadiha went after Loomis on a more personal level:
Those actions (continuing the bounty program) alone should tell us two things about Loomis: (1) He’s clearly out of control and; (2) he’s capable of doing just about anything within that franchise.
Saints owner Tom Benson is facing the type of controversy no executive wants. Loomis might have a tough time proving his innocence in this case, especially in the court of public opinion. If he was reckless enough to blow off Benson’s commands on the bounty program, it’s not unreasonable to suspect him of illegally eavesdropping on opponents, although so far no one has determined that he actually did listen in on such conversations.
This if/then game is one that’s incredibly persuasive… yet hollow on substance. Given the lack of physical evidence and the allegation that this system was supposedly destroyed seven years ago, it’s unlikely Mickey Loomis can prove his innocence at all. But is he in a place to have to prove his innocence here? Chadiha’s column sure sounds like it’s painting Loomis as a guilty man before sliding in the fact that nobody has actually determined whether he is guilty or not.
Throughout the day on ESPN television, you can see analysts talk about the severity of the case if the accusations are indeed true. All that really does is substantiate the initial report while cheekily hedging the network’s bets. This story is much too important to be dealing with that murkiness… both for the Saints and for ESPN.
For the Saints, this report couldn’t come at a worse time. They’ve endured the most tumultuous offseason in NFL history, mostly due to their own idiotic, arrogant, hurtful mistakes. If the OTL report is true, it would exponentially compound that damage. We could be talking more suspensions, fines, forfeitures of draft picks, and anything within Roger Goodell’s reach. In addition, the Saints’ reputation as a franchise would be irrevocably damaged even beyond BountyGate. A cheating scandal on the level of SpyGate would combine the worst two NFL scandals of recent memory in one place. The Saints will have enough trouble overcoming the stigma of BountyGate. Overcoming a cheating scandal on top of that may take a full generation to complete.
For ESPN, the report is the ultimate risk/reward scenario. Bristol has been beaten on scoops by Yahoo and others in recent years. If Barr truly nailed this report, it would be the network’s biggest investigative feather in the cap in quite some time. ESPN was well behind in the Sandusky saga and with each passing day, their work on the Bernie Fine scandal in Syracuse has become more and more questionable. Mark Schwarz setting up false accusers of Bernie Fine with Bobby Davis is a huge black eye for the company. Huge. The situation looks so bad for Schwarz and ESPN, Jason Whitlock of all people labeled it “vigilante journalism” and it is looking to be a more apt description as time goes by.
Therein lies the major concern for ESPN. Already, several voices have spoken of the major holes in the OTL report. Others are even making the connections between Schwarz’s Syracuse report and Barr’s report in New Orleans. A lot of the language in Barr’s report sounds heavy and scary. Wiretapping. FBI investigation. U.S. attorney’s office. Cheating. Federal crime. However, Barr’s work hinges on an unnamed source and no viable, physical proof of the system even being used by Loomis.
Over time, the key sentence in the OTL report may be this:
“Outside the Lines” could not determine for certain whether Loomis ever made use of the electronic setup.
Again, since we’re talking about allegations that are 8-10 years old and an alleged system that was destroyed 7 years ago, it’s difficult to envision any sort of physical evidence arising that would definitively land in the corner of OTL or the Saints. If that’s the case and no charges are ever filed and no discipline is handed down, what then of these accusations forwarded by ESPN? The Saints have already insinuated possible legal actions themselves over the report. At this point, there’s no going back for Barr, Outside the Lines, and ESPN.
In the event further evidence does arise, it will be one of ESPN’s biggest ever home runs. If more information and evidence support the claims from OTL’s report doesn’t arise, Bristol may find the tables turned on themselves in a major way.