The NFL 'Media Circus' Is a Myth, Not an Excuse to Avoid Colin Kaepernick

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 1, 2017

SAN DIEGO, CA - SEPTEMBER 01:  Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers speaks to media during a press conference after a 31-21 preseason win over the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on September 1, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

One of the familiar talking points of the never-ending offseason Colin Kaepernick-unemployment drama goes like this: Teams aren't blackballing him because of his political activism. They just don't want the "media circus" and distractions that come from signing him. If he were Tom Brady, it would be different. But as a backup or reclamation project, he's just not worth the headache.

An interesting theory. Except here's the thing: The circus rolls through fast. 

If a team had signed Kaepernick, whether in March or last week, that circus would already have folded its tents. The distraction would no longer be distracting. The mountain would again be a molehill. The football world would be getting back to football.

This supposed headache can be easily remedied, and everyone involved in the NFL knows it.

Torrey Smith, current Eagles wide receiver and Kaepernick's teammate last year, was in the 49ers locker room through it all last year: the national anthem protest, the backlash, the Time magazine cover and Kaepernick's re-emergence as the 49ers starting quarterback. Here is his take on the epic, allegedly franchise-crippling distraction he dealt with:

"It's only a distraction when you people ask about it."

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Even the questions from overheated reporters didn't last long, Smith said Wednesday at Eagles OTAs in Philadelphia.

"It died down, for sure. Initially, in the locker room, guys were talking about it. But it died down. It got to the point with us where we were like, 'This is what he's going to do. It's gonna be 90 seconds before the game, and that's it.' It wasn't a big deal at the end of the day."

Smith's account of a frenzy/circus/distraction that barely registered after a few days sounds familiar. I've made it a point to seek out NFL media circuses for years. I'm the reporter who books a plane ticket as soon as a team signs a controversial player and descends on training camp like a hungry buzzard in search of a carcass.

My finding? The frenzies are not nearly as frenzied as fans—or those who use "media circus" as a justification for Kaepernick's continued free agency—might imagine.

Tim Tebow's 2012 training camp with the Jets is often cited as the quintessential counterproductive NFL media circus. Tebow's presence caused a distraction that year because the Jets made sure of it. They allowed television networks to install permanent cameras all around their camp site in upstate New York like it was the set of a reality series.

The Jets craved attention in the era when ESPN ended broadcasts by making Herm Edwards sing "Happy Birthday" to Tebow. What they got were some extra reporters—and maybe a few busloads of extra fans. There were no caravans of Tebow pilgrims overrunning tiny Cortland, New York. Reporters didn't parachute into the team facility to snap Shirtless Tebow photos. The big, crazy Jets press contingent was just a bit bigger and crazier.

Was the extra attention great for the Jets? Probably not. Some minor controversies got blown out of proportion because so many of us were there to go berserk over every scrap of news. But still, Tebow's presence didn't throw the team into any turmoil it wasn't already throwing itself into.

I got to see Tebow again at Eagles OTAs and minicamps in 2015. A few national reporters blew through town to tell Tebow tales, but not many; those Chip Kelly Eagles had two dozen other stories for us to write about.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Sure, Tebow got more attention than your typical third-stringer. But even though a stray Tebow tweet could gain a life of its own on the internet, it was day-to-day business as usual at Eagles headquarters—or as "usual" as things ever got under Kelly.

As for Tebow's tenure with the Patriots, Bill Belichick can cow a room of reporters into not asking a Tom Brady concussion question, even when it's one of the biggest stories of the offseason. The Patriots may go a little too far in the name of eliminating distractions, but they show what a team can do when it wants to filter out the noise.

If Tebow was the Gallant of internet-sensation backup quarterbacks, it isn't hard to identify the Goofus. Johnny Manziel was a fountain for the wrong kind of off-field attention, the stuff that keeps the lights on in this business. I spent several days across two years covering Manziel in camp, going so far as to visit the taprooms in which Manziel had been photographed. You know, "zany media circus" type stuff.

To repeat the refrain: National reporters arrived in drizzles, not deluges. Questions about Manziel were fielded by teammates with polite cliches. Brock Osweiler took more heat last week than Manziel or the Browns ever faced when he was the darling of the sports gossip columns.

Whatever Manziel and the Browns may have been dealing with privately, extra media attention had little to do with it.

Maybe Tebow and Manziel are not the best analogies for Kaepernick, though, despite the fact that both are polarizing and possessed debatable football value when they got their second-through-fourth chances.

Michael Sam's arrival in St. Louis had all the makings of media maelstrom in 2014. Sam, like Kaepernick, was considered a cultural hero and persecuted figure by many on the political left. He signed with a Midwestern team whose practice facility is a four-hour drive from the Westboro Baptist Church. Would there be marches? Protests and counter-protests? Battalions of international reporters?

There were crickets.

I was the only national reporter there for the first few days of Sam's training camp in 2014. Others trickled in as I left. There was a larger-than-normal press gaggle when Sam spoke, but that was a 15-minute burst of activity. Otherwise, when local reporters mentioned "Sam," everyone knew they were talking about starting quarterback Sam Bradford.

Smatterings of fans sat on the knoll beside the Rams practice field and cheered politely during 7-on-7 drills, with no protest signs or rainbow flags in sight. While Sam's jersey sold better than the national average for seventh-round rookies, no one paid much attention to the defensive lineman running special teams drills.

EARTH CITY, MO - MAY 13: St. Louis Rams draft pick Michael Sam addresses the media during a press conference at Rams Park on May 13, 2014 in Earth City, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

There was one "distracting" Sam story during his brief Rams tenure: a report that ESPN quickly apologized for about how he handled showers in the locker room. That story rose and fell in a news cycle. Bradford tore an ACL in late August, and that became the story of Rams camp. The Rams released Sam by Labor Day. There were angry tweets and hot takes, but no boycotts, just as churches held no vigils for Tebow.

The "not worth the headache" argument for Sam, though ethically dubious, carries a small amount of merit. Sam was a fringe player at a low-profile position. Teams aren't prepared for a rush of national attention for a replaceable backup defender, though they find ways to accommodate it when it suits them.

More case studies needed?

In the bustle of 2011 training camp, when teams scrambled back to work after the lockout, the Giants invited 60 Minutes to profile undrafted rookie linebacker and cancer survivor Mark Herzlich. Extra cameras and commotion on the sideline barely registered among the always-chaotic Big Apple press pool. The presence of a famous fringe player didn't inundate the Giants with additional attention or keep them from winning the Super Bowl.

Herzlich, of course, was not a controversial figure like Sam or Kaepernick.

We could keep going...

The point is that teams have the power to control access to players. They can grant or limit credentials or interviews. That gives them power to tailor the message, as they do whenever a violent offender is draped with the "second chance" narrative. Any team that wants to frame Kaepernick's presence as non-controversial, or even inspirational, knows how to do it.

After all, the 49ers did it last year. Team owner Jed York used Kaepernick's protest as an opportunity to donate money to social causes and initiate dialogue on racial issues. "Jed York was the best owner to handle what happened with us," Smith said.

If the "distraction" of signing a player like Kaepernick comes down to a little more emphasis on community relations and affairs, it may be a welcome distraction. In the long run. York's steady public relations hand may be one reason the Kaepernick story was already simmering down by October last year, though novelty and fatigue were bigger factors.

There's a disconnect between what happens in cyberspace and what happens at team facilities. One hundred aggregated articles, editorials and reactions can spawn from one beat writer's report. It looks like a hurricane of publicity from the outside, but it was barely a breeze in the locker room, where dozens of reporters huddle around players even during the spring doldrums.

Local reporters must fill their notebooks for two months with the quotes they glean from a few scattered hours of interview sessions. They can't keep rehashing old news, because it won't sell. If Kaepernick is this week's story, the rookie running back or contract holdout will be next week's story.

As for national reporters: There are an ever-shrinking number of us, with ever-tightening travel budgets. We can only be in so many places and ask so many questions.

So if Kaepernick signs with a team tomorrow, he will give a press conference, as will his coach and the team owner. Some teammates will speak. There will be a few days' worth of articles and reactions across all media.

Then the story will go cold. Every national outlet will start preparing a deeper Kaepernick feature to publish or broadcast around the start of the season. The five or six most important/reputable reporters or outlets will get exclusive interviews. Everyone else will get to write think pieces from home.

As for those phalanxes of outraged citizens: Angry fans don't travel well. There were rallies in opposition to Kaepernick's protests last year, most notably one in Chicago, which was earnest, respectful and—compared to the volume of opinions found on the typical Kaepernick comment thread—rather small.

Again, that sounds familiar. I've searched for PETA protestors at Michael Vick's Eagles games and found tiny handfuls of them on the far fringe of the parking lots. Sure, Kaepernick's situation is more contentious, and times are more fractious. But when media attention fades, outcry fades with it.

Don't take my word for it. Smith was there when Kaepernick took the field in front of tens of thousands of fans, when his protest was fresh news and the political climate was explosive.

"It wasn't even bad when he started playing," Smith said. "We heard some fans heckling. People were mad at him during the anthem. You're yelling at him during the anthem. Isn't that disrespectful?"

Oct 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Car
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Yes it is.

But it's hardly a distraction.

No team has declared that undue media attention caused it to pass on Kaepernick. John Mara's remarks about angry fan letters to The MMQB are the closest thing we have heard to a rationale for the quarterback's unemployment from any official source.

The "media circus" argument usually comes from the media itself. They are afraid of what we will do to them, some of my colleagues will assert, which ironically proves how accommodating the media can be by lobbing a readymade justification for avoiding Kaepernick into every team's lap.

"Someone has to say that," Smith said of the media headache excuse. "If you think that's too much to take from a backup, then say it. … But they are commenting about their fans being mad at them."

Teams will never claim that they passed on Kaepernick to avoid media attention. It makes them look weak. And they know it's a myth. The only reason Kaepernick is even a story right now is all of the silence.


Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.

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