In 2012, there was an event known as “International Games Day” held at libraries across the world. One such game was an international game of Telephone, where a message was whispered between at individuals at libraries and between them over 24 hours.
The result? The original message: “Life must be lived as play” passed through 237 people and was progressively butchered in the retelling, resulting in the final message being “He bites snails”.
One of the challenges of the game of “Telephone” is that some people will deliberately change the phrase to increase the humor value.
Which brings us to last Tuesday’s drama of the day, where a local radio station posted a story indicating that there was a “seeping rift” (which is not, by the way, a medical condition) between Browns General Manager Ray Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine.
Since the initial story was posted, we here at the OBR have been trying to calm down the narrative and make it more realistic by saying that that the story is really (1) old news, with the fallout just really happening now but the issues being from 2014, and (2) that the individuals involved are working on it, and worked well together during the off-season to procure new talent for the roster.
Even the author of the article went on Twitter to say “They will work it out” later in the day.
Unfortunately, by then, the damage to the Browns reputation and perception around the league was done as the “tug of war” narrative was picked up, with nuances left behind or buried in paragraph ten of the resulting stories.
See below how national outlets regurgitated the story, noting the language used in the titles which, frankly, is all a lot of fans reading the reports will recall. The Browns are, per usual, portrayed as dysfunctional laughingstocks, and the titles of the story portray two individuals retreating to their corners, scheming against each other:
“Murphy’s Law stands for the notion that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. The Cleveland Browns version of that principle goes like this: Whatever goes, goes wrong. Currently, what’s going wrong is the relationship between coach Mike Pettine and G.M. Ray Farmer.” - Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk, in a story titled “Mike Pettine, Ray Farmer struggling for power in Cleveland”.
“The Browns are bad and hilarious, and it sure looks like they will never stop being that way… No matter how sad the team you root for makes you, always remember that it could be worse: you could be a Browns fan.” - Tom Ley, Deadspin, in an article titled “Report: Cleveland Browns Still A Huge Mess”
"Without Northcutt to act as the liaison, there could now be a more direct power struggle between Farmer and Pettine… The problems obviously run much deeper than that, and don’t be surprised if the situation between Farmer and Pettine boils over if the Browns get off to a bad start." - Steve DelVecchio, Larry Brown Sports
“We won’t truly know if Northcutt’s ouster is the sign of a power struggle unless and until one of Pettine and Farmer is cast aside while the other stays in place” - Jared Dublin, CBS Sports, getting ready for the end game in an article titled “Power struggle brewing between Browns’ coach and GM”
“Is it possible that time hasn’t healed all wounds between Browns general manager Ray Farmer and his head coach Mike Pettine?” - FOX Sports in an article titled “Rift reportedly growing between Browns’ Farmer, Pettine”
As in that game of telephone, the story gets a little less focused as it is repeated.
So, in the eyes of most NFL fans, the damage is done. The Browns are once again portrayed as an inept, struggling organization, even as the roster shows signs of progress and the team comes off what is generally considered to be a solid draft.
The bigger question is whether this sort of coverage seeps over into the team’s ability to secure talent via free agency. Does this sort of league-wide perception influence, say, an Alex Mack into leaving or staying? Hopefully not, but the pernicious effect of these sorts of stories - which are repeated in such as way to keep the “dysfunctional Browns” narrative front-and-center - is such that it can’t make the team’s job any easier.
So, what’s the bottom line? Should these sorts of stories be reported if they’re true, damn the consequences? I’d say they should, but as they’re reported, it is extremely important to make sure that the perception they leave is accurate, which sometimes requires stepping back from highlighting the more compelling narrative to ones that are less repeatable, but better reflect reality.