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Tom Brady, Adam Schefter, & Twitter-fication of Breaking News

On Jan. 29, Schefter and Jeff Darlington tweeted that Tom Brady would retire when TB12 wasn’t ready to say it himself. Let’s talk about what’s going on here.

Do you remember what the world was like, say, four days ago before ESPN’s Adam Schefter lit the sports world on fire with a single tweet?

Within minutes of Schefter and colleague Jeff Darlington tweeting that Tom Brady was about to retire, the tributes started pouring in, including from Patrick Mahomes, who was about to play in the AFC Championship game the next day, and from Brady’s former teammate, Julian Edelman. Tom Brady‘s own company, TB12 Sports, even tweeted him a congratulatory message. The NFL followed shortly after, seemingly confirming the report via Ian Rapaport.

The only problem was that Brady himself wasn’t ready to announce his retirement just yet.

Only 90 minutes after Schefter and Darlington’s initial report, Brady’s agent, Don Yee, responded with a statement saying that the all-time great QB would be the one to make an announcement on his playing future. Brady’s own father followed up and told Bay Area reporter Kylen Mills his son had not yet made a decision.

And so the drama had begun. Were Schefter Darlington “wrong”? Did he merely jump the gun? On Monday, Brady himself said on his own “Let’s Go!” podcast with veteran reporter Jim Gray that he had not yet made a decision.

Less than 24 hours after Brady made that statement, his official decision came in a nine-slide Instagram post:

The greatest ever to do it was hanging it up.

The focus since that post went live has been on Brady, and rightly so. The seven-time Super Bowl champion, three-time NFL MVP, and five-time Super Bowl MVP had duly earned his moment.

The question being debated in the background, however, is if Schefter and Darlington should have held back, letting the GOAT break the news himself. If anybody had ever earned the right across the world of sports — you’d figure it to be TB12.

As with most debates on social media, it’s more nuanced than the Twitter takes make it seem.

Here’s where things stand.

Schefter and Darlington Had Every Right to Do What They Did

Regardless of how much you like or dislike his public-facing persona, Schefter is a journalist. The same goes for Jeff Darlington. That’s their role. And any journalist who is doing their job will ask themselves the following questions when presented with potential news to break:

  • Is this information accurate?
  • Is it in the public interest?
  • Would reporting this information potentially put anyone in danger?

That first part was up to Schefter and Darlington, and they decided the answer was yes. For the second, an inarguable yes; the rush of support and well-wishing that came Brady’s immediately after the initial tweets constitutes overwhelming proof. The third part? A resounding no.

That’s it. You can argue about whether or not it was in poor taste, but there’s no getting around that ESPN’s reporters had an obvious right to do what they did.

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Brady Had Every Right to Respond How He Saw Fit

I don’t know how Schefter and Darlington ended up with intel that made him confident enough to report the retirement of perhaps the greatest football player of all time, but the fact remains that it got out before Brady intended it to. It’s his life. It’s his livelihood. He did not owe it to ESPN’s reporters to make the last few days any easier for them.

So Brady went on his “Let’s Go!” podcast Monday and (probably) told less than the whole truth. He said he hadn’t made a decision when he almost definitely had, but he did it for the most understandable of reasons — he wanted to go out on his own terms. In the same way that media members don’t owe anything special to the subjects they cover, the subjects themselves don’t owe reporters the courtesy of speeding up a personal timeline to save the journalist from the fans’ ire.

That said, there’s a reason many in sports media are sticking up for Schefter and Darlington. They had a ton to lose here and put their names on the line all the same. If they turned out to be wrong, we’d be looking at an irreversible black mark on their résumé. Even ESPN’s finest aren’t necessarily too big to fail; at minimum, the Worldwide Leader and its reporters would have drawn incredible, indefinite ire from Patriots and Bucs fans.

Need proof? Ask yourself why Mark Schlabach hasn’t tweeted in almost three years, then take a peek at his mentions.

Insider Ethics

This wasn’t a Buccaneers beat writer who broke the news. It wasn’t an old-school, capital J, by-the-book dean of sports journalism type. This was Adam Schefter, the guy who has done what he’s had to do to cultivate the relationships necessary to become the NFL’s Woj and the go-to breaking news guy who seems to know things before the teams and players themselves, and one of his prolific ESPN colleagues.

To reach this point, Schefter has made certain decisions that drew plain criticism. Just last June, an email surfaced in which he sent a draft of an unpublished article to then-Washington GM Bruce Allen for his review — a huge ethical no-no that highlighted the price of access journalism, an ongoing conversation that extends far beyond just sports.

The thing is, however, that Schefter is so entrenched in the league’s culture and so relied on by fans for breaking news that it doesn’t matter. But it does indicate that he is going to do everything he can to be that guy who hits send on the tweet that rocks the sport — as long as it’s not damaging to the league, of course.

That’s Twitter-centric journalism in 2022, and in some ways it… well, it sucks.

Even if Schefter is ultimately doing a legitimate service in letting fans know, up to the second, exactly what’s happening with their favorite teams and players.

And then there’s Brady. There’s no other player in the NFL, and maybe just a couple others in all of sports worldwide, whose retirement could set off a combination firestorm/outpouring like this. That’s because he’s more than a great player — he’s an icon who grew to be almost as big as the league itself. It’d be foolish to think he hadn’t carefully plotted out every step of his retirement announcement, and he is the only player in the game today whose stepping aside could possibly be seen as upstaging the second-most important weekend in the sport. He should be upset, and fans — particularly those in Boston who are, shall we say, “opinionated” — were bound to blow this story up.

Was it Worth it?

This is really the only question up for grabs, and it goes so far beyond this one instance of one reporter breaking a player’s retirement story before he was ready. This isn’t a trade or a free agent signing that Schefter was reporting on, it was a life decision by an athlete. Did Schefter and Darlington boost their respective credibilities by breaking this news? Or, more importantly, did the football community benefit from it? Did anyone benefit, beyond the endorphin boost the reporters got by breaking the news?

As a serial tweeter, I’ll concede that such fleeting joys have value. But they shouldn’t drive these decisions.

There’s a lot that’s open to interpretation and that will be debated moving forward. What we know for sure, however, is this: Tom Brady announced his retirement Tuesday, closing the chapter on a legendary career. We should celebrate that.

Regardless of the melodrama and recriminations that come with it.

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