Tom Brady’s retirement avoids reversal for ESPN, but doesn’t confirm Brady made up his mind on Saturday
The end result of the drama around ESPN’s report from Jeff Darlington and Adam Schefter on Saturday that Tom Brady is “retiring” and the subsequent challenge to this (from the Bucs, Brady’s agent, Brady’s father and Brady himself) was actually Brady’s retirement, which the quarterback himself announced on Tuesday. There are quite a few people commenting on this as a victory lap for Schefter, Darlington and ESPN, especially considering how Schefter loved tweets questioning his reporting. And it’s certainly not a loss for them, as Brady’s return to the game would have been a major turnaround that hurt the credibility of Schefter (already under fire after a few recent missteps). But there are two plausible ways that the events here really happened, and only one of them indicates that the original report was completely correct and justified.
The first option here is that Tom Brady lied to the public on Monday night. Brady’s SiriusXM Let’s go! show with Jim Gray and Larry Fitzgerald on Monday saw him make his first public comments on that ESPN report, and it was overwhelmingly clear that he hadn’t decided yet. Specifically, Brady said in it, “I’m still going through the process that I said I was going through. Sometimes it takes a while to really assess how you feel, what you want to do, and I think when the time is right, I’ll be ready to make a decision one way or the other.
Those comments don’t seem consistent with what Schefter and Darlington reported on Saturday that the decision has been made and Brady is “retiring.” And that was reinforced by the fact that ESPN stuck to that report, and even ran messages like “retiring” and “retiring” on its Bottom Line ticker. So the only way this reporting is completely correct, to the degree of “retiring,” is if Brady’s comments on Monday are a lie. That would mean he had already made the decision, told someone who then told Schefter, and then decided to come back publicly on Monday and announce it on his own terms on Tuesday. It’s certainly possible, but it’s not the only scenario that could have happened.
The second option is that Darlington, Schefter and ESPN received and published inaccurate information about the final decision made on Saturday. And with the quick and rapid public feedback “we haven’t heard yet” on their report from Bucs general manager Jason Licht, Bucs coach Bruce Arians and Brady’s agent Don Yee, it seems unlikely. that they got it from one of these three characters. (or any other source on the Bucs side). And they certainly didn’t get it from Brady himself, or his dad. It’s worth noting that the Darlington/Schefter article included “sources told ESPN” so they heard this from more than one person, and it seems likely that for ESPN to publish this, at least one of these people must have been pretty well connected to Brady. But that does not make this source or these sources infallible.
The potential game of the phone should be kept in mind here. It’s entirely possible that Brady said one thing (like, say, “I think I’m going to retire”) to Source A, and then maybe the same thing or something slightly different to Source B. Perhaps sources A and B then told Schefter and Darlington “Brady is going to retire”, omitting the “I think”. In this case, Darlington and Schefter would have accurately passed on the information they had, but it would not have been completely accurate information.
That’s not to say that all of ESPN’s reporting here was based on direct commentary from sources. He points out that direct comments from sources about what Brady said may not have been the exact words Brady said to those sources. And it’s worth noting that it looks like most of the other potential information here, including announcement plans, could be worked out in advance in case Brady decides to retire without necessarily indicating that decision was socket.
The key factor is when Brady pulled the trigger and went from “I’m considering retirement” to “I’m moving forward with my retirement.” According to his account, it is between his radio show on Monday and his announcement on Tuesday. According to ESPN’s account, it’s before that. And the key indication of making that decision would appear to be Brady’s comments, either directly to the public as he did on Tuesday morning, or to the people who then passed it on to ESPN earlier.
And, on ESPN’s side, there’s a potential danger here of second-hand anonymous sourcing. ESPN’s latest article used paraphrases of what the sources told them rather than direct quotes, and it seems likely that the sources were paraphrasing Brady; anyone around him is unlikely to secretly record it and then provide full quotes to ESPN. There are many cases where this kind of paraphrase works well. But in the case of an upcoming decision that may or may not have been fully made, at least two levels of separation from the direct quote in question is potentially a problem. It is perhaps remarkable how another level of separation demonstratively snowballed onto the coverage of ESPN college basketball on Saturday, with an announcer putting up coverage at the halftime story. of Brady with “Big news from the world of football, of course, with Tom Brady announcing his retirement”:
… This does not happen pic.twitter.com/1MFOFGyE29
—Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) January 29, 2022
That one was very clearly fake, as Brady didn’t “announce his retirement.” And even the upcoming “retire” chart wasn’t exactly great given the denials there at the time. But the on-air promotion is particularly notable as an example of how things can get confused from person to person: ESPN’s story didn’t say “announce,” and their graphics don’t didn’t say “announce,” but whatever happened here led to an on-air comment of “Brady announcing his retirement.” (And absolutely, on-air promos for upcoming coverage often aren’t quite right, especially given how suppressed they are and especially with an evolving story like this, but it’s was always interesting.)
It must of course be mentioned that many sports reports are made on incomplete events, and that the reports sometimes modify the events (as illustrated more generally by the observer effect in physics). And Schefter is well aware of this: His 2018 chat with Pardon My Take about his account of what happened with the Browns and Condoleezza Rice is that then-Browns general manager John Dorsey mentioned the possibility of hiring a woman at a press conference, Schefter then spoke to someone in the organization and asked if they had a specific woman in mind, they said “Yes, Condoleezza Rice”, he reported that the team was interested in talking to him, and the way the story exploded led to the team issuing a public denial. According to Schefter’s account of this story, at least it’s not really about him. And if something similar happened here, where Brady unequivocally told ESPN sources “I’m retiring,” ESPN correctly reported it, and Brady then lied and said he didn’t. hadn’t made up its mind, it’s scenario #1 above, and ESPN just out of it looks good.
The challenge of fully assessing what happened here is that the real truth of whether Brady was lying or ESPN was wrong in the reporting is only known to a very small circle of people: Brady, the sources in question and anyone else he’s told (if he’s actually told people he’s decided to retire) who haven’t spoken to ESPN. And none of that ever seems set to come out: Darlington and Schefter probably won’t burn their sources on this, especially if it does eventually come to pass, and we can’t see into Brady’s mind to confirm whether his story of the situation on Monday was correct or if it was a lie. And that’s probably about the best ESPN could hope for here: They ended up reporting Brady’s retirement three days before he announced it, but even though he disputed their report, he landed. on the same final decision.
But, from this corner, it’s hard to see this as a big win for Schefter, Darlington and ESPN, or to be certain that Brady’s comments on Monday were outright lies. Maybe they were, and maybe Brady decided to challenge that so he could then announce this new “decision” in his preferred way. But maybe they weren’t, and maybe ESPN read too much of the sources’ comments or placed too much faith in sources who didn’t actually know about Brady’s decision. We may never know. But it’s worth remembering that there’s this lingering uncertainty about this story, and it’s not necessarily “ESPN heard the news of Brady’s retirement three days before he announced it! “
[Top screengrab via Adam Schefter on Twitter]