A pressing problem: The Browns and the media
MAY 17, 2013 8:46a ET
Only the Cleveland Browns could grant a writer unprecedented access to the team’s draft preparation, then wind up reading a story about how paranoid and defensive the team is.
Think about it. A team offers a guy inside access for what could be an interesting and insightful look at the draft, then gives him so much runaround and so little information he winds up writing how ridiculous the team is.
Cue Yakety Sax.
Thing is, the experiences of Chuck Klosterman of Grantland.com when he spent time in Berea the days before and day of the draft are not surprising to the media types around the Browns on a regular basis. They see the things he went through quite frequently, and they know that his experience and story merely opened a window to the house.
Klosterman was able, in one coherent story, to explain what the local media has trouble explaining, because when they do they are blasted as crybabies or told the problems of the media don’t matter.
But when Klosterman is given supposedly unfettered access, then spends the entire time fettered, the question becomes: Why grant the access in the first place? It seems bizarre, paranoid, another example of NFL hubris, or all the above.
Whatever it is, the Browns have it mastered. At least folks can be proud the team has done something right while it loses two-of-every-three games.
The team-media relationship is always tenuous, because at times the media has to write negative things. Too, the media has standards and responsibilities to meet. No team will give out every secret, and the media will try to dig them out while understanding it will never report everything. The give and take is constant.
This works in countless other cities and sports, including in Cleveland. The best relationships take place when the team provides open communication and honest information to the media, be it background or on the record, and the media acts fairly and honestly. Honest information enables a journalist to -- lo and behold -- be accurate, which is what it’s all about.
When it comes to the Browns, the problem seems institutional. The Jimmy Haslam-Joe Banner group is just the most recent in charge, and perhaps their approach isn’t fully known. But since Carmen Policy and Todd Stewart left Berea years ago, it seemed that nobody with the Browns ever stood up and said: This is the way this team acts when it comes to information provided the public and media, and it’s the way it will always operate. As a result, the rules change every time the regimes change, and with the Browns regimes change numerous times between cicada appearances.
The end result is a team that seems afraid to talk about itself except in the most general of ways. This results in a fan base wondering what is going on, and a media group frustrated at its inability to do its job accurately and completely. This is a team that needs a new approach in media relations, yet looks to be headed down the same road that caused so many issues.
Klosterman details moment after moment when he’s told something inconsequential “off the record,” even though team president Alec Scheiner said to him “I’m not afraid of transparency.” Scheiner may not be afraid of transparency on his own, but the Browns as a team, as an institution, fight transparency -- and have gotten worse as the years have gone on. With the Browns, the old phrase “the truth shall set you free” is as reliable as Baghdad Bob’s information on safety in the city.
The lengths the Browns go to make it difficult to get the most fundamental information is baffling, the challenges they present for the simplest requests frustrating. Interview requests sometimes go days without being answered. Basic information is not provided, and common courtesies -- like providing enough time for folks to be present for a press conference -- are ignored. What comes across is the team’s time and schedule are the only ones that matter.
It’s not a question of folks in Berea not being good, nice, hard-working people. It’s that when they walk into the Berea offices something weird happens.
Mike Holmgren was legendary for his savvy in providing information to fans and dealing with the media. He came to Cleveland and became a hermit, and when he did surface he threatened to withhold playoff tickets. Phil Savage is as good a guy as there is in football, but when he got to Berea and got his own radio show he wound up saying some really odd things.
Butch Davis and the teeny-tiny break of Kelly Holcomb’s non-weight bearing bone became legendary. But folks forget that the original “teeny tiny” break took place when Daylon McCutcheon had a teeny, tiny break in his thumb. Minutes after Davis explained the injury that way, the media walked in the locker room where McCutcheon walked around with a cast on his thumb the size of New Jersey. He explained the teeny tiny break required surgery, a plate and six screws. He missed several weeks.
This offseason, Phil Dawson, one of few guys fans identified with, was a free agent. Several times the team was asked if it was talking to Dawson about re-upping, and every time Banner said he’d address it when Dawson signed. Dawson finally signed, and Banner explained he only said he’d address why the team would not talk about Dawson, and only off the record.
On draft day, Banner was asked what trade he turned down to take Barkevious Mingo, who clearly was their preferred guy in the first round. He declined to go into the details with the local media.
But the details are in Klosterman’s story, bigger than big. The Browns could have had St. Louis’ first, second and seventh-round picks for the sixth pick overall. The Browns liked Mingo, which is fine; if he’s their guy, take him. But when the locals ask a question and get no answer and another guy inside the building has the answer it’s pretty tough to bring the information fans want.
The simplest information on injuries is hidden. A statement like “Joe sprained his ankle and we’re gonna try to get him back as soon as we can but this usually takes 2-4 weeks” is apparently akin to revealing the owner’s ATM code. Rookies who have done nothing but be drafted high are coddled, as if being available to answer a question more than once a week might cause them to grow bunions on their ears. And though the team constantly is involved in community activities, it also held a press conference to celebrate a contract extension the same day of the horrific shootings in Chardon. It couldn’t wait a few days?
Ask the Indians a question and they’ll have a front office executive on the phone the same day. Ask to be introduced to a Browns front office person in a friendly meeting, and the request goes unanswered, a couple times for months. Is the time of the people who run the Indians any less valuable?
Banner seems like a smart, engaging and funny guy. He has said he can’t fight what happened in the past, and he’s got a point. But the problem is by joining this team he’s inherited the past -- at least since 1999. It goes with the territory. In that time fans have heard many empty promises. We’ll get it right. This system works. We value our relationship with the media. Then this gem used so often it’s become cliché in Berea: We’re committed to the long-term.
It’s hard to not fight the past when it’s attached like a coal car to an engine.
The final day of the draft, the Browns were one of the last teams to talk with the media about the players they picked. Normally a team will send a coach, GM, president or combination of them to speak within 30 minutes of the last pick. The Browns waited two-and-a-half hours. The reason? Presumably, they were signing undrafted guys. While they called Joe from Osborn State, the media twiddled their thumbs.
In this tweet-a-second media world, two and a half hours matters.
Call it mere inconvenience, and that’s fine.
But Ozzie Newsome was able to talk to the media in Baltimore before the Browns even set foot near a news conference, and the Ravens somehow managed to sign undrafted guys. Same with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Browns, evidently, were the only team who felt their time mattered so much more than others. And they can’t beat the other three division teams with a wet noodle.
Taken individually, this might be a blip, a lapse, a so-what-you-had-to-wait incident. And if it were once in a while, that take would be understandable and correct.
But when it’s institutional and constant and endless, it’s more than an inconvenience. It’s demeaning, dismissive and arrogant. If any organization acts that way toward one group, they’ll act that way to others. Courtesy should matter.
Klosterman simply brings all this to light in a story that was supposed to show the inside thinking and working during the draft, that was supposed to be a positive view of a new front office. Instead he shows the lengths the team goes to protect what seem like Kremlin secrets.
The best, absolute best, example, is when a team IT guy is called in to the draft room to fix a computer issue and the name “Barkevious Mingo” is erased from a dry erase board. As if the IT guy, who works for the team, would risk his job and his family’s health care by revealing this all-important name.
Take it a step further. IT guys, if they wish, could find out anything. That’s why they’re IT guys; they know computers. But they don’t dig through old hard drives. Because they’re ethical and because they like their job.
Klosterman describes how his “inside access” had him sitting in the team’s cafeteria for hours looking “at my iPhone, waiting for interviews that are usually canceled.”
“I don't think they're building chemical weapons in Berea. But they might be,” Klosterman writes.
The team that promised so much access wouldn’t even let Klosterman talk to its analytics guy, who could shed light on a new way of thinking for an NFL team. His story actually might have been kind of … well … interesting.
“The Browns live in a state of perpetual war,” Klosterman writes, “endlessly convincing themselves that every scrap of information they possess is some kind of game-changing superweapon that will alter lives and transmogrify the culture. They behave like members of a corporate cult. Yet what do these cultists watch on the day of the draft? They watch ESPN. They log on to the Internet and scan ProFootballTalk.”
Clearly much work took place before the draft. But Klosterman writes what he sees. And he concludes: “I've never witnessed this level of institutional paranoia within a universe so devoid of actual secrets. I don't even know what they don't want me to know.”
It’d be nice to invite him to stick around and see more.
Because it’s there every day.
Then again, he probably knows that. The guy promised inside access to the draft never talked to Banner and was ushered out of the draft room when Haslam walked in. Access.
Scheiner was quoted saying it seemed from Dallas that the public doesn’t see the Browns “in a positive light.” Sabermatricians everywhere are shocked with that revelation.
Scheiner also said the team wasn’t “energetic or forward-thinking.”
With all respect, lack of energy has never been an issue. There have been boatloads of forward thinkers and energetic folks go through the Browns facility.
The problem is when they walk in they seem to leave common sense in the parking lot.