ESPN stumbles in rollout of Rice probe, but report could be bad news for Ravens

ESPN says Ravens, not NFL, drove cover-up. But that's not media story here

September 20, 2014|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun

You can only shake your head in wonderment at cable TV when an ESPN show host gets it wrong as to what’s in an investigative report that his own channel just published. And worse, it's on one of the biggest stories in the history of professional sports.

That happened with Bob Ley on ESPN yesterday as he reported the results of a probe by the channel's "Outside the Lines" team into the Ray Rice elevator attack on his then-fiancée and what is looking more each day like a cover-up on the part of the NFL and the Baltimore Ravens.

I’ll get to Ley, who said definitively and incorrectly Friday that sources told ESPN the Ravens had video of what happened in the elevator long before TMZ posted it, in a second.

But first, I want to stress the real news of the ESPN report for Baltimore, if it turns out to be true: That top Ravens management appear to have initiated and driven a classic cover-up, and that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell mostly acquiesced to the efforts of his friend, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti.

That doesn’t make Goodell any less pathetic and in need of being replaced. The day TMZ published the tape, I wrote that Goodell was “pathetic” and “needs to be looking for an exit strategy.”

Yesterday, during his sorry press conference, he reminded me of John Ehrlichman and John Mitchell, two of the top members of Richard Nixon’s administration, when they testified before a Senate committee on Watergate (before going to prison).

But the narrative of the ESPN investigation, which says that Bisciotti, Ravens president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome drove that cover-up, is decidedly at odds with the version of events that much of the Baltimore media has embraced once it was shaken out of its years-long “In Ozzie We Trust,” Stepford-Wives-like stupor in covering the team.

(Really, do a Google search of “In Ozzie We Trust,” and see how deeply this silly mantra has been embraced by the local media.)

The narrative now being peddled by some in Baltimore media is that it's all the fault of Goodell and the NFL -- they are the evil parties. Of course, the Ravens wanted to help out Ray; that’s because Steve, Dick and Ozzie are good, decent and loyal guys. So, let’s focus our hate on Goodell. That way we can acknowledge that something bad happened in that elevator but not be made to feel unwelcome at the Castle.

The other revelation in the ESPN probe – and I have no way yet of knowing if it is true – is that Coach John Harbaugh wanted to get rid of Rice in February right after TMZ posted the first video. But, the report claims, Harbaugh was overruled by his bosses, the three guys allegedly driving the cover-up.

If that proves to be true, I will have a new and profound respect for Harbaugh. And I will have new contempt for Bisciotti, who sent Harbaugh out alone the night the video was posted to face the firestorm of press coverage it ignited. (Bisciotti subsequently said the day was “so emotionally tough” on him “there was no way” he could have prepared to meet the press that night.)

As to ESPN’s mistake Friday in reporting on its own investigation, it is inexcusable.

Here’s what Ley first said:

Ravens officials have said that they did not have a full picture of what happened in the elevator until the video was made public, but sources said the Ravens had a cell phone copy of the inside elevator video all along  …

Here’s what ESPN said 25 minutes later:

"We want to correct an earlier report. The Ravens at no point had a cell phone video of that incident, but they had a detailed account."

They did correct it. Give them credit for that. But still, it diminishes the credibility of the investigation. And I think it might ultimately point to a flaw in the “Outside the Lines” investigation itself, which feels mushy in terms of what the head of security for the Ravens saw or didn’t see and knew or didn’t know about that video and who he told.

You can read an account of the ESPN gaffe and correction at Deadspin, which first reported it, here.

ESPN has excellent investigative reporters, but the channel’s credibility is deeply compromised by its multi-million-dollar contracts with the NFL and others. (Remember LeBron James making his Miami announcement in a primetime special on ESPN?) ESPN’s history of self-policing with ombudsmen has been a joke. So, ESPN does have a financial interest in pointing the finger at the Ravens rather than its business partner, the NFL.

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