ESPN, Orridge create a Manziel-size mess for CFL

ESPN reporter Kevin Seifert and CFL commissioner Jeffery Orridge and – unbeknownst to him – Johnny Manziel have created quite the mess for the league.

After a quick trip to Toronto and Hamilton this weekend, Seifert wrote a story that was posted to the ESPN website Thursday morning with the headline “CFL would welcome Manziel, says commissioner.”

The story’s first paragraph went like this:

“Johnny Manziel would be welcome in the Canadian Football League, commissioner Jeffrey Orridge said.”

There were, however, no quotes from Orridge to that effect and later that afternoon, the commissioner took to twitter to clarify his position.

ESPN and Seifert subsequently changed both the headline and the first paragraph of his story, which now reads:

“Johnny Manziel would be welcome in the Canadian Football League if he could assure the league that he would be an appropriate fit for its culture, according to CFL commissioner Jeffrey Orridge.”

Story does not note that it’s been corrected, nor has Seifert made mention of the change on Twitter. Often, mistakes are acknowledged at the bottom of the story.

There are a few things worth noting here.

1. The original Seifert premise – that Manziel is welcome in the CFL – has been picked up and repeated by multiple American outlets, including Sports Illustrated, CBSSports, the New York Post and multiple sports blogs. Others have corrected versions of the story but the perception is now more or less is stone: Johnny Football is welcome in Canada any time he likes.

2. The fact that Seifert has recast the story but not acknowledged the change, either in the piece or on Twitter, indicates to me that while he didn’t have a direct quote from Orridge saying the CFL would welcome the Manziel, that was the impression Orridge left him with. This isn’t Seifert’s first rodeo – he’s an experienced NFL reporter – so I’m guessing he wrote what he’d been led to believe to be true.

3. Still, there’s no question that Seifert went too far: if your lead and headline includes the word “says” on a potentially contentious issue, you better have an ironclad quote to back it up. And I can’t help but wonder: would Seifert and ESPN have handled this differently if it was someone from NFL? Yep.

4. Instead of leaving his statements open to interpretation, Orridge could have made a strong statement on the league’s domestic violence policy given that Manziel is currently facing charges related to an incident with his then-girlfriend. The league has already reportedly prevented teams from adding players Ray Rice and Greg Hardy – both of whom were suspended by the NFL – to their negotiation lists but seems reluctant to tout the policy publicly, despite launching it with much fanfare last August. The CFL could have come out of this looking progressive and forward-thinking: instead, because of a reporter’s interpretation and their own unwillingness to be definitive on the issue, they look like a potential safe haven for a guy with a litany of personal and legal issues.

5. It’s pretty clear that the CFL has made courting the U.S. audience a priority, right up there behind making sure it appeals to as many millennials as possible. Sometimes it feels like the CFL genuflects to Americans who deem it worthy of interest or the occasional bit of coverage: this whole episode reeks of Orridge, intentionally or not, of telling Seifert what he wanted to hear. The league gave Seifert access to the commissioner, a behind-the-scenes look at the command centre and sent high-ranking staffers to accompany him on his Hamilton trip. What did they get in return? A controversial story about Johnny Manziel, a guy who doesn’t play in the CFL and likely never will.

6. Manziel has been on the Hamilton neg list for several years, dating back to his days at Texas A&M. Hamilton has made no effort to get in touch with his representatives in order to gauge his interest in the CFL. Nothing has changed: this is only a story because ESPN made it a story.