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Editorial: Examining the Rovell Story

ESPN: breaking the news.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN released an article yesterday in which it was strongly implied that Johnny Manziel received money in exchange for signing autographs around the time of the BCS National Championship in Florida in January. I think it's key that we examine very closely the last few sentences of the article's opening paragraph because in essence they make the entire piece seem obsolete:

Two sources tell "Outside the Lines" that the Texas A&M quarterback agreed to sign memorabilia in exchange for a five-figure flat fee during his trip to Miami for the Discover BCS National Championship. Both sources said they witnessed the signing, though neither saw the actual exchange of money.

First, "sources."

This is the age we live in, folks, where an erstwhile reputable media entity such as ESPN feels that they can release something like this based on that one word. For example, I have a very close source that I talk to almost daily, a person I respect deeply, who maintains that Hans Gruber was a more thorough and capable movie villain than his older brother Simon. Do I go ahead and report this as an implied fact on the internet forum I've been granted use to? No. Because I can't in good conscience agree with it and feel that it is wrong.

Probably unlike Darren Rovell, I have spoken to the author of the ESPN Manziel story since it was published. He is a source I would trust, because he delves into the human side of a story. He invests himself in the environment of his subjects. We had a five minute conversation about barbecue and music, and I highly doubt that Mr. Rovell would be able to do the same thing without the de-humanized themes of profitability or marketing coming up. That author has integrity, as is evidenced by the fact that he apologized to the Manziel family on behalf of ESPN for taking a few short snippets of his 7,000 word story and running them on the ticker all day. Darren Rovell seems to write with the intent of having every one of his sentences wind up on the ticker, but he doesn't have the same reputation (or writing ability), so it winds up recycled on Twitter.

Secondly, let's look at the "five-figure flat fee."

Let's be generous and assume that it's $90,000, at the high end of the possible five-figure spectrum. While this is certainly not a pittance for anyone, not even a wealthy family such as the Manziels, this doesn't really seem to add up. Why would he risk millions of future dollars in NFL (not to mention endorsements) contract revenue for what amounts to what is probably just a portion of his family's annual income? This is a guy who flies to Toronto for the weekend to hang out with celebrity rappers and goes to Pebble Beach just to play golf with his family. One would think that with his singular focus on the fiduciary aspects of sports fame, Rovell would have raised a flag with this disconnect before proceeding. But once a middle aged man begins to envy the status and fame of 20 year-old college athletes, reason and accountability are quickly shed by the wayside at the expense of having your own voice heard.

Finally, the last line: "...neither saw the actual exchange of money."

This is disingenuous writing at its best. Obviously the shady parties involved aren't going to exchange briefcases in public full of hundreds like a terrible 1980s crime drama, but what this line allows Rovell to do is plant the seed that such an exchange was tacitly acknowledged, even if not visually witnessed. It's the most advanced form of juvenile trolling, like telling a co-worker freshly returned from vacation "don't worry, Bob. Of course Joe didn't come in and use your office restroom for an hour after lunch every day the whole time you were out." If it's true, come out and say it with supporting evidence.

Are the allegations true? Anything's possible. But the fact that that consideration has become a secondary concern to the publishing entity now is the real red flag. Vaguely-worded accusations and half-assed retraction Tweets are the weakest possible attempts to atone for irresponsible reporting. Fortunately no one's mistaking this for journalism. Rovell also points out that The University was contacted and that Jason Cook declined to comment, as per policy. The Athletic Department will have known about these allegations for quite some time now, and it probably would not have been in their best interests to make Manziel the feature of SEC Media Days if they felt they held even a shred of credibility.


So there's the classic Rovell formula that is crippling the accountability of mainstream media, in particular ESPN: "sources" meets numeric figure meets implication of wrongdoing, with no verifiable or creditable piece of evidence to back it up. The rest of the story reads like your typical radio shock jock's timeline of Manziel's off-season activities. But you know what? It gets pageviews.

Darren Rovell exists on a plane of sports media most of us are uncomfortable with. He actually thrives on it. His is a quest not for the enjoyment of sport, but for the validation of the reasons he thinks he enjoys it. It would not surprise me if he keeps a detailed tracking spreadsheet of his Twitter followers in his attempt to maintain his own perceived relevance. He is at his core a cold economist who looks for an X- and Y-axis in everything, including what he decides to write.

To most people, sport is an escape; the ability to slip back into a sort of child-like innocence and optimism where anything might happen. What Rovell tries to do is tell us what should happen based on his mathematical assumptions. What makes this story in particular especially curious is that he actually seems to fundamentally disagree with the concept of Manziel not being allowed to receive compensation for his prowess. This story is purely about Daren Rovell, self-proclaimed "sports business analyst" and it comes from the Worldwide Leader in Sports and therefore should be taken as gospel.

It's not about a vendetta or an agenda. ESPN doesn't care about Texas A&M enough one way or another to wage that sort of battle. It's pure visibility that they crave and throwing the word "Manziel" into a headline with any sort of implication of wrongdoing has the same desired instant effect as Chief Brody's famous chumline. Manziel Fatigue is a very real thing this summer, but it's a byproduct of the oversaturation, not the cause of it.

Most people just want to watch Johnny play football.