It is one of the biggest topics in the NFL right now. Bigger than Jameis Winston's draft stock, or who's getting franchised or cut. NFL insiders may still be talking about deflated footballs and the Browns texting scandal, but this is bigger.
For the moment, this is bigger than them all. Across the NFL, everyone is talking about The Video.
An NFC general manager to me: "Have you seen it?"
An AFC general manager: "If you get a copy, send it to me." He was only half-kidding.
An assistant coach: "I heard TMZ paid $1 million for it."
Another assistant coach: "I heard it was $2 million."
No and no. At least, I think no and no.
To some in the NFL, the Dez Bryant video not being leaked is a conspiracy by the Cowboys to protect Bryant. To some in the NFL, the Bryant video not being leaked is a conspiracy by the Cowboys not to pay Bryant. It's like House of Cards out there.
The alleged video set off a scramble in the media. Instead of a car chase, a video chase ensued with a small number of media organizations in pursuit. The one that likely invested the most time, I'm told—and also handled itself honorably—was ESPN. That information does not come from ESPN. It comes from a member of another news organization as well as an NFL official close to the situation.
ESPN's Adam Schefter—one of the best journalists I've ever seen—said in a radio interview on ESPN Chicago 1000 that he's been working on the story since September.
The NFL official who knew of ESPN's involvement said ESPN's pursuit of the video was extensive. The official also said that ESPN decided not to run a story because it didn't think a four-year-old story—minus the video—was fair to Bryant. Thus, for all the grief ESPN sometimes takes, it handled this case, according to the official, with great professionalism.
Said Schefter in one part of the radio interview:
Well listen, whatever we've been working on is not ready, and maybe never will be. Who knows? You know, you gotta be very careful on these things. So people can talk about videos, they talk about this, they can talk about that. The fact of the matter is, it doesn't mean anything, and it's really not fair to [Bryant] right now until you have all your facts in line. Which ... we spent a long time trying to do.
Schefter added on ESPN's Mike and Mike show March 2:
…the fact of the matter is, yes, we worked on this story for an awful long time. We never felt comfortable going with the information that we had about an alleged video. It may be out there, it may not be out there. What's on it, what's not on [it]. We've known about it for months. We never felt comfortable enough to go ahead and run with anything pertaining to that...
Another NFL official with knowledge of the Bryant case says NFL Security, the league's security arm composed of former FBI, Homeland Security and other law enforcement officials, has for some time been aware of the 2011 police incident report involving Bryant (and recently posted by NFL.com). The official said the NFL had no knowledge of any videotape. Bleacher Report's Jason Cole reported the NFL is investigating the incident.
Cole is also reporting that Bryant's camp believes the Cowboys may have floated rumors of this incident to drive down his price on the 2015 market. Monday, according to ESPN.com's Todd Archer, the Cowboys are placing the franchise tag designation on Bryant, which will earn him $12.7 million on a one-year contract. This, of course, could be viewed as selling his talents short, given the multiyear, higher-paying deals receivers such as Calvin Johnson have signed. (Johnson is averaging $16 million annually, with almost $49 million fully guaranteed over an eight-year deal, per Overthecap.com.)
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But the most tangible part of this story is the 2011 incident report, which states an unknown person called the police to say an African-American woman was being "dragged from one vehicle to another vehicle" by an African-American man in a Lancaster, Texas, Wal-Mart parking lot. The vehicle the woman was dragged from was a Mercedes registered to Bryant.
The belief among the small number of media that chased the video is that Wal-Mart cameras caught the incident on tape. Thus, especially in ESPN's case, an effort was made to get the tape. If it existed.
How the Video Mystery Went Public
The story gained in intensity both after Schefter's radio interview and a posting by Mike Florio on ProFootballTalk. The headline on PFT read: "Schefter confirms rumor of Dez Bryant video." After those two things, the story became nuclear.
The story exemplifies the current media age. Though Schefter and ESPN handled this awkward case skillfully, his and ESPN's power is so formidable—Schefter has 3.5 million Twitter followers—that a mere mention of the alleged tape during a radio interview sent the sports media world to battle stations.
That fact, combined with the popularity of the NFL—and the popularity of Florio's PFT blog—caused the story to ignite like a million pieces of TNT. That is, basically, how all of this happened.
Schefter, in a brief interview with me, probably put this story in its best context.
"The Ray Rice moment changed everything," Schefter said, speaking of the former Ravens player who assaulted his then-fiancee Janay Palmer in an elevator. "This story is about the post-Ray Rice world—a video, social media and 'America's Team.' It's all converging."
Even before any prominent media mention, some tweets posted on Bryant's account fueled the rumors.
This one was deleted (h/t Maxwell Strachan of The Huffington Post):
The mystery of this story is that while every NFL insider I spoke to believes a tape exists, no one can say with certainty that it does, or what's on it. No one has seen the alleged tape. All that's known (or believed to be known) is it centers on that incident in the Wal-Mart parking lot.
The video, despite the fact no one has seen it, or even knows if it's real, remains the topic of conversation among many in the NFL and will for some time.
Former Dallas defensive coordinator Rob Ryan told TMZ on Sunday there is no tape. "That's a bunch of bull," Ryan said when asked if there was a tape. "Dez is an awesome guy. He's a great competitor and probably the best receiver in football."
"I heard the tape was destroyed," a scout told me.
"I heard Jerry [Jones] has it," another scout said. The Cowboys deny any knowledge of it.
"Oprah has it," one media member said, only half-joking.
Theories about the video's content, its whereabouts, indeed its very existence, have bounced around NFL offices for weeks. Some theories read like they were formulated in the mind of a blogger who covers Area 51.
One assistant coach told me he believes the NFL has the video but is refusing to release it because of the horrible year the league just had. This isn't close to being true, but it tells you how insane this entire thing has become.
One league official, when I informed him I was writing about the alleged video, responded: "Is confirming that a rumor is a rumor actually news?" It was a fair query.
"Does this video even exist?" asked another league official.
That's the question when it comes to The Video.
Grappling with the Question: Can I Run with This?
The Video…it's like Bigfoot. There are sightings and beliefs and memes. It's become almost legend.
It's something NFL insiders have pursued, gossiped about privately and chased like it's a pot of gold. Yet it remains as elusive as the Loch Ness Monster.
Some of the brightest insiders in NFL journalism shared with me their thoughts, beliefs and impressions. Those thoughts are presented here and, in some cases, are lengthy, but they are as interesting as the case itself. They are presented in their entirety.
"In November 2014, I first heard about the potential existence of a video of an incident involving Dez Bryant," Florio wrote me in an email. "It was made clear to me that multiple members of the national NFL media were and had been actively searching for the video. I quickly confirmed that other members of the media were aware of the incident and were searching for the video.
"Over time, I picked up various other details that are corroborated by the police report NFL Media recently released. I also became convinced over time that many media members, teams, and agents had heard the rumor. It's unclear whether Dez Bryant's change in agents from Eugene Parker to Jay Z/CAA sparked the chatter or whether other people previously close to Dez Bryant had decided, for whatever reason, to turn on him.
"In 14 years of doing this," Florio wrote, "I've seen plenty of unusual things—and I've heard plenty of wild rumors. This specific rumor wasn't all that wild, given that Dez Bryant had several off-field incidents early in his career. Given the impact of the Ray Rice video on the NFL's approach toward off-field behavior, it's not surprising that members of the media would aggressively pursue rumors of the existence of a video involving in some way a prominent NFL player, and it's not surprising that the rumor would linger and intensify on the NFL grapevine.
"I'd wrestled for weeks with the question of whether the rumor had become so widespread in NFL circles that the mere existence of the rumor became its own newsworthy story.
"With the Cowboys not willing to give Dez Bryant a market-value contract, it's possible the rumor was in some way affecting their approach to negotiations. When Shan Shariff and RJ Choppy of 105.3 The Fan told me on the air that they'd heard from two different people that the Cowboys were concerned about one specific off-field incident regarding Dez Bryant, I blurted out the rumor regarding the video.
"A week later," Florio continued, "it's become clear that the rumor did indeed exist on a widespread basis, that multiple media members have been aggressively pursuing information about the incident, that there was indeed an incident in the parking lot of the Lancaster, Texas, Wal-Mart on July 11, 2011 involving a woman being pulled out of and dragged from a vehicle registered to Dez Bryant and that, based on a fair and objective reading of the police report, the responding officer failed to resolve key inconsistencies arising from the investigation by, among other things, asking Wal-Mart to show him the images captured by surveillance cameras aimed at the parking lot.
"Whether the video was preserved at the time, where it was sent, who currently has it, and whether it ever will be released to the public are all questions that remain to be answered."
Florio hits on several key points, the largest being that the investigation into the incident seems highly flawed.
Where I disagree with Florio is his downplaying the unusual nature of this story. This is my 25th year covering the NFL, and I've rarely seen a stranger one. A kerfuffle about a video that may or may not exist? That's more than odd.
'So Much Innuendo and Rumor'
"I've never seen a story quite like this, with so much innuendo and rumor, so much high-dollar intrigue and so much at stake," said NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport, who recently looked at Bryant's off-field history in the context of Cowboys negotiations. "But it does remind me of a lot of situations when I was covering Alabama for The Birmingham News.
"Every few months, there is a massive and widespread recruiting rumor that half the state knew was true, the other half knew was false, and it was so mainstream it was debated on talk radio. And it forced me as a reporter to ask, simply, what do I actually know? What can I prove? Everyone thinks a player received this [payout] to sign, but does everyone think that because everyone is talking about it?
"And when I'd report it out," Rapoport continued, "regardless of what I'd find, half the population would think I'm covering it up, the other half would think I have a vendetta against the school. That's what this Dez situation makes me think of.
"I've heard a lot of things from all sides. I've talked to a lot of people. But what do I actually know? I know police were called to speak with Bryant or show up at his house seven times, I know the Cowboys don't trust him off the field, and I know what their best contract offer was. So much else, to me, is just stuff people are talking about."
Said legendary NFL writer Peter King of SI.com: "I don't even know what this story is yet, or if there is a real story. I do know there is a lot of conjecture about what exactly happened, or if something really did happen. To me, it's just a case of people following the story until there is something solid to report. The reason maybe it seems different is the crescendo that sometimes builds on social media about stories that might be true, or stories that might be real."
Everyone Has a Theory on the Video Reality
But back to the question: Is there a video?
To me, this is important to know: One NFL team official said to me that that team's security expert (each team has its own security staff working with the league's) reminded him that stores like Wal-Mart have every inch of their property under surveillance. Both in the store and around it. This security expert said it would be "not impossible but unlikely" for something that occurred in the parking lot to not be captured on video.
There are four theories about the tape, all based on interviews with multiple sources.
First theory: There is a video.
In this theory, a copy of the tape sits on the hard drive of someone in law enforcement or elsewhere. It's being purposely hidden for whatever reason. It will never see the sunlight.
Second theory: There never was a video.
Third theory: There was a video and it was destroyed. All traces of it wiped.
Fourth theory: It will come out any day now.
So, to recap, there is a video. There is a hidden video. There was once a video, but it disappeared into a wormhole. There is a video that could drop at any time like a Kanye single. There is no video.
And not to mention, we don't know if the supposed video is of high enough quality to show any detail of what happened in that parking lot.
Each of these theories is viable. Each could be accurate. That is what makes this story so fascinating—and weird. And more than a little unusual.
This story is stuck between two universes. It may mean something. It may mean nothing.
And it's possible we'll never know the answer.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.