Saturday, March 21, 2009

According to a Source Close to the Coffee Cup on My Desk

Here's a sportswriting aptitude test. What do you think of trade rumors?

If, like most fans, you said "I love 'em, they're really something to talk about," then your professional aspirations had better focus on talk radio and blogging.

If you said, "there a big pain in the ass, Congratulations! You are a spiritual sportswriter, which, the way the industry is going, is the only kind that will exist by 2012.

My friend and former colleague Vic of came up with a doozy trade rumor this week, reporting that the Carolina Panthers were going to swap disaffected defensive end Julius Peppers to the Patriots for a second-round draft choice. The moment I heard this spectacular example of the major pain rumor, I thought, "aww, Vic, why'd you have to go make so much trouble for everybody else."

On the news media freakout scale, this rumor was a Defcon 4. If true, it would be a spectacular deal. It also would be the biggest self-inflicted swindle this side of the Treasury Department and indicate Panthers GM Marty Hurney is not capable of using public transportation without an escort, but the relative sanity of trade rumors is in inverse proportion to their newsworthiness. Swindles are the kind of trade fans love best. In Boston, the rumor swelled the belief Bill Belichick is a sorcerer with a headset. In Charlotte, it fueled the righteous indignation that fans enjoy almost as much as winning.

And here's the part that makes such a rumor so horrible for those chasing it. Nine-hundred-ninety-nine thousand, nine-hundred, ninety-nine times out of one million, the rumor is pure moonshine. A trade is an investment like any other, and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually isn't.

But not always. Kevin Garnett is a Celtic, isn't he? And so the reporters must treat the rumor as a fact until they can prove otherwise, which is impossible. Oh, it's a joy.

Hurney immediately denied this story. What else could he do? HURNEY: I'M AN IDIOT is not the sort of headline GMs like to see. Belichick did something even more insidious. He gave an interview, a very special Bill Belichick interview.

Among his many skills, Belichick is a master of the non-news situation. If the Eskimos have 1000 ways to say "snow," the Pats coach has twice that many ways of saying nothing while at the same time implying anything you wish to imagine. He can surround himself in an impenetrable cloud of ambiguity. World leaders should take his correspondence course.

The trio of diligent questioners on WEEI had no chance of pinning Belichick down on this story. A trio of the late Tim Russert, Perry Mason, and Inspector Maigret would have had no chance. The rumor is a pure win-win for Belichick. Even if it doesn't come to pass, it enhances the Pats' status as bold, canny tacticians of the flesh market. That can't hurt. So Belichick did what he could, which was plenty, to keep the rumor alive without actually stating a single fact or even opinion.

Meanwhile, some poor sod in every sports journalism outlet in New England (and North Carolina) had to write or broadcast a story based on Belichick's words. It would be easier and more fun to write a story based on a communique of international finance ministers, and the resulting story would contain more useful information, too.

Trade rumors highlight a fact about journalism of which its customers should be more aware. All information is treated as a possible fact even if it seems ridiculous on its face. Ninety percent of the work you do results in stuff you DON'T print or broadcast, because it turned out to be bullshit, or just because you couldn't verify its status one way or the other.

Vic verified the Peppers' rumor to his own and his bosses' satisfaction. When people in a position to know say something MIGHT happen, that's a rumor that can be printed. It is amazing how often people in a position to know use the word "might" when speaking on or off the record. If the conditional tense doesn't morph to a declarative sentence, their asses are covered. The reporter's posterior, not so much.

If I had to guess, Peppers will not be traded to the Patriots. He is at daggers drawn with the Panthers in a contract dispute (poor lad, working off nothing but a $17 million guarantee for 2009). In that kind of situation, it is not unheard of for a player agent to float a trade rumor just to shake up the negotiating dynamic a bit-a financial rally cap, if you will.

But I could be wrong. That last sentence is why reporters in Charlotte and New England will be placing unreturned calls to Peppers, the Patriots, the Panthers, and dozens of other NFL people every day between now and the draft. Most of them are Vic's friends, too. But right now, they're probably a little miffed at him.


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