A sportswriter covers for Cris Carter

Which is worse? An ex-NFL player advising rookies to always have a “fall guy” if they got into legal trouble? Or a sportswriter who sat on former Viking Cris Carter’s 2014 comments at an NFL rookies symposium?

“The concept of a millionaire being able to get a fall guy for his transgressions is obviously loaded: It suggests not only that other people’s rights are less important but also buyable,” Wall St. Journal’s Jeremy Gordon wrote today.

A big deal? Maybe. Maybe not. Nothing shocks people about how the NFL operates, as the For the Win blog indicated today.

If [NFL Commissioner Roger] Goodell even pretended to care about the players, he’d speak out against what Carter said and take real action to ensure that his league fully supports the long-term health and stability of its players.

He’d treat them like peers in the business of football, not cogs in his machine, and apologize for allowing the league to trot out Carter without vetting that he had any idea of what might constitute real guidance.

Instead he’s embroiled in a court battle concerning how much air was in a couple of footballs, one that has cost millions of dollars to wage and is now consuming the time of a sitting judge.

But the NFL’s ability to manipulate and dictate to those who cover it is equally astounding.

Pro Football Talk reports today that a reporter heard all of Carter’s lesson plan and — after the fact — the NFL declared it off the record (even though a video of it appeared on the NFL’s website for more than a year).

That’s chutzpah.

Unbelievably, the reporter — Robert Klemko of The MMQB.com — agreed to sit on the story.

Today, he came clean.

Two years ago I attended the NFL symposium as the first writer to gain near-unfettered access to the rookie orientation event. (http://mmqb.si.com/2014/07/09/nfl-rookie-symposium-part-2) I agreed to the NFL’s condition that I would not enter the small group sessions, and there would be one or two things the league could look back on and say, ‘that was off the record.’

When the public relations or marketing arm representing an org or a player facilitates access such as this, there is often a verbal agreement that certain details observed in the course of reporting may be negotiated for omission. Personally, I only agree to these omissions when the subject matter is immaterial to what I gather is the larger point of the story, which, in the case of the symposium, I believed Carter’s comment was.

Having interviewed numerous people involved with previous symposiums, on and off the record so as to give NFL employees the opportunity to honestly critique the new set-up, I was satisfied that Troy Vincent’s vision of involving ex-players was proving fruitful, even considering the risk of someone like Carter saying something stupid to the rookies.

The sources of actual constructive advice, I judged, far outweighed Carter’s comment. When Carter said the words, “have a fall guy” in what was a light-hearted and animated session that at times made league employees in attendance cringe, the NFL’s Kim Fields looked my way and said, “that can’t go in the story.” I was torn. I take pride in reporting every detail, even at the risk of damaging relationships.

Earlier in my career I profiled a player who had a string of unreported violence in his life. Knowing these were not details the player or the agent wanted public, I published them anyway, because I judged those facts material to the arc of that player’s journey (the agent hasn’t spoken to me since).

“If faced with the same decision again, I would have to think long and hard about the choice. Bottom line: I need to be tougher,” he said.

Generally speaking, a reporter doesn’t have to think that long about such things. You don’t go off the record after the fact.

As for the NFL, dictating to the media is old hat.

In 2013, ESPN pulled its name and participation in a Frontline documentary on now the NFL handles concussions. It did so under pressure from the NFL.