ESPN’s Adam Schefter, amid scoops and missteps, isn’t slowing down

Even after a string of controversies, Schefter’s star is only rising at ESPN. No pictures, please.

Adam Schefter poses at Bryant and Cooper Steakhouse in Roslyn, N.Y.
Adam Schefter poses at Bryant and Cooper Steakhouse in Roslyn, N.Y. (Joe Carrotta/For the Washington Post)

Adam Schefter did not want to be photographed.

He was in the parking lot of an upscale steakhouse, in a leafy Long Island suburb near where he lives, to talk to a reporter about his job as ESPN’s preeminent NFL “insider.” A photographer had tagged along, but Schefter was skeptical.

“I was at a charity event, and they took my picture,” he said. “It’s like I was trying to do a good thing. Now the picture shows up everywhere when I screw up.”

Schefter is shorter than he appears on TV, but his brawny frame filled out his tailored blue suit. He works out daily, he says, a Peloton-and-push-up regimen that helps give him the stamina to be up before dawn and to stay on top of the news all day, all season, all year.

He is the biggest reporter covering America’s biggest sport on America’s biggest sports network. Earlier this year, he signed a new contract worth around $9 million per year, according to one report, cementing his status in the NFL ecosystem and at ESPN. His Twitter feed has nearly 10 million followers and is a clearinghouse for NFL news big and small. Tom Brady’s short-lived retirement, Russell Wilson getting traded to Denver, Tyreek Hill sent to Miami, Andrew Luck’s shocking exit — you heard it all first from Schefter.

Those sorts of scoops have made Schefter, 55, an invaluable resource not just for fantasy football players and bettors but for coaches, players, executives and owners. “He’s so plugged in,” Los Angeles Rams Coach Sean McVay said in an interview. It’s not just that Schefter’s first but that he’s a conduit of information, incoming and outgoing, about all of the league’s happenings. I mean, trades, people you’re interested in drafting, free agency hirings,” McVay said. “I will ask. He’s steered me in the right direction.”

If big-city columnists or Sports Illustrated feature writers used to be the most prominent jobs in sports media, now it is the insider. Like Adrian Wojnarowski, whose NBA news breaks for ESPN have their own hashtag, or Shams Charania of Stadium and the Athletic, Schefter has ascended to the heights of the job.

But he also has repeatedly demonstrated its pitfalls. In October, emails surfaced that showed he sent the full text of a story to a team executive, a journalism faux pas, asking for feedback and obsequiously calling him “Mr. Editor.” A month later, he reported that Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook was accusing a woman of domestic violence without relaying the full context of a complicated situation, including that the woman was actually suing Cook, alleging he was abusive. Then, after a Texas grand jury declined to charge star quarterback Deshaun Watson amid sexual assault allegations, Schefter tweeted that Watson had welcomed the case all along because the truth would vindicate him — implying, wrongly, that a grand jury “no-bill” decision meant Watson had been found innocent.

Each incident prompted a public response from Schefter and raised eyebrows at ESPN, where text messages flew between reporters and on-air personalities, wondering how the network’s marquee reporter could be either so careless or so clueless.

“He is your preeminent journalist for the preeminent sport in America,” said one on-air ESPN personality, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal company business. “I would hope that as a network you’re embarrassed by that, but I’m blown away that ESPN doesn’t seem to care.”

“I have learned I don’t always have to be first,” Schefter would say at lunch that day. “I can lean on my editors more. When there is sensitive information, I need to take a pause, to take a beat. I’ve learned that over the past year.”

First, though, the photograph.

“What do you think?” Schefter asked his agent, David Koonin, who had accompanied him to lunch. Photos were usually standard for a profile, Koonin answered. Schefter, begrudgingly, stood for a handful of shots.

“I want you to get what you need,” he told the photographer. “I hope I never f—ing see them. I don’t need any more attention.”

Schefter grew up on the south shore of Long Island. A high school basketball benchwarmer, he didn’t have much talent, but the idea that he could score a basket and find his name in the agate section of the newspaper the next day fascinated him. And as a die-hard fan of New York’s teams, he loved combing the sports page of his hometown paper, Newsday, for the snippets of information that now populate Twitter, hints at where a Jets or Giants player might go or who might be nursing an injury.

His parents ran a string of modest five-and-dime stores, and his childhood had few frills. “We didn’t take vacations,” he said. “I knew that I wanted more. The only way I knew how to get there was to work.”

He traces his knack for the compulsive nature of his job to childhood, when he says he never missed a day of school. When he arrived at Michigan for college, Schefter was rejected by the fraternity he tried to pledge. The basketball team didn’t need a water boy, and the football team didn’t need an equipment manager, so he went to the newspaper.

At a few events he covered, he introduced himself to Mitch Albom, the famed Detroit columnist. “That’s who I wanted to be,” Schefter said. “I even tried to write those one-sentence paragraphs like he did.”

Eventually, Albom asked Schefter to be a research assistant on two of his books, including one about Michigan’s Fab Five. One day, Albom called up with an assignment: He needed to find Jalen Rose’s dad, a former NBA star named Jimmy Walker whom Rose had never met. Schefter, who by then had earned a graduate journalism degree from Northwestern, tracked down a phone number for Walker and passed it to Albom. Albom found him and later introduced him to Rose.

Schefter still remembers what Albom said to him then: “You must be some kind of a super sleuth or something.”

The first NFL reporter to specialize in providing sports news “nuggets” was the Boston Globe’s Will McDonough, who decades ago wrote a weekly column collecting news and rumors from around the league. In a sign of how different that era was, he used to call around to other reporters to collect notes on their teams.

Not long after Schefter got his first full-time job, covering the Denver Broncos for the Rocky Mountain News, he met McDonough at the airport. McDonough, who had parlayed his column into a network TV gig, was picked up by a limousine. A young and impressed Schefter hopped a ride. He recalled McDonough’s advice: Always have four solid league sources, and you’ll be in good shape to break news. Schefter laughs now, thinking of his dozens, if not hundreds, of tipsters.

He came to dominate the Broncos beat. Longtime Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he liked to talk to Schefter because Schefter already knew everything. “People said, ‘Oh, Mike tells him everything,’ but he did his homework,” Shanahan said. “He talked to so many people. He would tell me about the sleepers in the NFL draft.”

Schefter once reported a signing so quickly that it prompted a puzzled Shanahan to ask him how he knew. Schefter answered, “Everybody has an agent.”

“That’s all he was doing,” Shanahan said. “All he does is communicate with people.”

“The more information you have, the more people talk to you,” Schefter said, describing his reporting mantra. “And the more people talk to you, the more information you have.”

There were competitors in Denver who wondered whether Schefter’s relationship with Shanahan was too cozy; Schefter has proudly told a story that Shanahan sought, and received, his advice when the team was considering a trade of running back Clinton Portis. But to Schefter, that was the job. “I liked being privy to things going on,” he said. “My job was to break that story, and I did.”

In 2004, Schefter was tapped as the lead reporter for the league’s newly launched NFL Network. There were advantages built into the perch: Jerry Jones once stood up at a league meeting and told teams they should give their news to NFL Network, which usually meant Schefter, to build its credibility and popularity. But Schefter was also preternaturally good at the job. On the network’s first NFL draft telecast, Schefter broke the news that Mario Williams, not Reggie Bush, would be the first pick.

“It put us on the map as a network,” said Rich Eisen, a former colleague of Schefter’s. And Schefter parlayed his good relationship with Shanahan into more relationships, including with New England Coach Bill Belichick. Shanahan said he called Belichick to tell him that Schefter was a reporter he could trust; a few years later, Belichick called back and confirmed Shanahan was right.

Schefter was also early to understand an information ecosystem that was being upended by technology. He created email lists on his Blackberry that he would separate into general managers, coaches, executives and owners. When he filed a story or had news, he would fire it off to his lists as he was also sending it to the news desk. One former NFL executive described this as “Twitter before Twitter.”

When Schefter’s NFL Network contract came up, the sides played hardball. Schefter signed a new deal with ESPN, but NFL Network wouldn’t let him out of his contract. Instead, it kept him off the air for six months, locked him out of his office and, worst of all, wiped all of his contacts from his phone. Before he could break any news in his new job, he had to rebuild his contacts.

Schefter sat at a table in a corner of the restaurant and laid two phones on top of the white tablecloth. For the next two hours, they never stopped buzzing.

One text offered a heads-up that the Rams’ Aaron Donald and Cooper Kupp would be signing contract extensions. That afternoon, Schefter would break the Donald news, feeding a news cycle across ESPN’s many platforms.

Inside and outside the network, there is a fascination with the job of the insider because so much of it is ephemeral. There are news breakers at other networks, too, and often one reporter beats another by minutes, or even seconds. Several reporters described group text messages that agents have so that no one feels slighted. Usually, the news is broken on Twitter, not on TV or

Seth Markman, who oversees ESPN’s NFL studio coverage and recruited Schefter, deemed his time so valuable that he hired him a car service so he could report during his commutes. There is internal research, Markman said, that shows the impact of Schefter’s reporting. When Schefter broke the news that Odell Beckham Jr. was signing with the Rams last fall, ESPN saw an immediate ratings bump. Further, Markman said, data shows viewers stick around and watch Schefter when he appears on TV. But nothing is more important than being the place sports fans turn, and perhaps no one reinforces that kind of branding better than Schefter.

One former ESPN executive suggested that ESPN should have more confidence in its own platform to make stars. “Isn’t that your superpower? That you can create the next Adam Schefter because you’re ESPN?” the person asked.

Markman said he had never considered it. “Adam is a cyborg,” he said. “He’s uniquely suited for this. I can’t tell you how many times on a slow news day he delivers something invaluable that fills a whole day of shows for us.”

With so much at stake, the competition for scoops is fierce. One agent told of hearing NFL reporters call begging for scoops, even saying their own upcoming contract negotiations were dependent on their ability to break news. When Sports Illustrated followed Schefter around during the opening day of NFL free agency a few years ago, the story described Markman awarding “points” to reporters based on how many signings they broke. The tally, according to the story, found Schefter far ahead. But Ian Rapoport, NFL Network’s insider, went through Markman’s math and believed the tally hadn’t given him proper credit; he sought a correction from Sports Illustrated.

Markman has since discontinued the points system, but the battle for every morsel of news has only intensified because the demand is real. So are the rewards, even if it baffles some of the reporters themselves. “None of us are worth what we’re paid,” one NFL insider said.

Schefter, meanwhile, maintains there is a personal touch to the work. He remembers the wives and children of his sources. And Schefter has grown famous among some in the NFL orbit for his holiday gifts. He has a list of 150 recipients who receive, depending on the year, Vineyard Vines ties or Scotch or chocolate or ice cream. They go mostly to sources but also to some ESPN co-workers and others. One year he spent $16,000 on chocolate.

“I have relationships with people,” Schefter said. “It’s not all transactional.”

The gifts, he added, are a business expense that he writes off on his taxes.

On Nov. 21, Schefter tweeted: “Minnesota Vikings’ RB Dalvin Cook is the victim of domestic abuse and extortion — there’s pending litigation, according to his agent Zac Hiller.” Schefter tweeted again, citing Hiller, and he reported a member of the military had stolen a garage door opener “and Maced Cook directly in his eyes immediately upon illegally entering.”

The tweets were a bombshell. But a couple of hours later, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune published a story that described the woman, Gracelyn Trimble, as Cook’s ex-girlfriend and reported she was suing Cook for alleged domestic violence. Disturbing images of Trimble’s alleged injuries also surfaced.

The Star-Tribune had received a tip about the pending lawsuit and spent days reporting the story, according to multiple people who worked on it. Schefter’s tweet had come an hour after reporters had reached out to Cook’s agent seeking comment. He had reported half of a complicated story. ESPN eventually ran a news story that covered both accounts, and Schefter tweeted it. Cook has sued Trimble, alleging fraud and defamation.

Dan Cragg, Trimble’s lawyer, said that the next day, another ESPN reporter, Dan Murphy, called him to do follow-up reporting on the case. According to Cragg, Murphy criticized the ethics of Schefter’s reporting. (Murphy, in an interview, said he recalled only sympathizing with Cragg’s frustrations about Schefter’s reporting.)

“I wish in hindsight that I had done it differently,” Schefter said over lunch. But he also insisted he hadn’t dashed off the tweet. He reached out to the Vikings and the NFL, he said (though he didn’t talk to ESPN’s news desk).

But the result was sloppy. Compounding the mistake, a few months later, Schefter tweeted quarterback Watson’s belief that the truth was out after he wasn’t indicted by a grand jury. It had a similar feeling: that Schefter was willing to push the narrative of a player accused of violence against women.

To Schefter’s friends and defenders, the incidents were the product of the speed and pressure of his job. Markman noted Schefter’s body of work and said that while ESPN has made no specific policy adjustments, he and Schefter have talked and he is more careful now about seeking input from editors. When Schefter reported over Memorial Day weekend the death of a player, he ran all of the language by the news desk. Bob Ley, the former host of ESPN’s heralded news magazine, “Outside the Lines,” also defended Schefter’s news judgment and ethics. “I know Adam’s values,” Ley said.

But the mistakes were part of a growing body of incidents that left Schefter facing criticism from readers and other journalists. There was the “Mr. Editor” email, which Schefter dismissed as a joke, and a report that Schefter and New England owner Bob Kraft were investors in the same gambling company, which Schefter also dismissed as inconsequential. “If an NFL owner owns Apple stock, do we share an investment there, too?” he asked. (ESPN declined to comment on whether it has a policy prohibiting reporters from sharing full stories with sources.)

The Cook incident was the most serious, and multiple people who work at ESPN, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters, said they worried that it and the Watson reporting reflected a failure to understand the sensitivity of domestic violence allegations.

Told of those concerns, Schefter first asked, “Are they going to go on the record?” He denied not taking the issue seriously, and he denied he was framing the allegations favorably for Cook and Watson to curry favor from the players’ agents. “I’ve never put out information thinking I would get something back in the future,” he said. “If people want to work with me, great. If not, okay.”

Schefter also pointed out that both of the tweets cited sources, not his opinion, and multiple national NFL reporters acknowledged that some of their reporting is parroting what agents say. When a contract is first reported, for instance, the value is often inflated initially because of hard-to-reach bonuses and because NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed. Within the transaction ecosystem, it’s a victimless crime, they said, because teams don’t care about the exact numbers and fans only care about where a player signs. But those same standards don’t work outside of transaction reporting.

Charania, the NBA reporter, wrote a story last year that explained, citing anonymous sources, that Kyrie Irving’s decision not to receive a coronavirus vaccination was an effort to be a “voice for the voiceless.” Multiple reporters at the Athletic raised concerns internally about the piece, including how the publication should handle Charania’s reporting beyond transactions. (Charania did not reply to a request for comment.)

“I should stay in my lane,” Schefter said. Though in his next breath he remained adamant that he could do more difficult and adversarial work. “I’m a reporter,” he said. “I get information. I found Jimmy Walker, right?”

Before Schefter re-signed with ESPN, there were rumblings around the industry that a gambling company such as DraftKings or FanDuel might poach him, hoping to draw his massive following to place bets on its platforms. Schefter said he never explored free agency extensively. He had breakfast earlier this year with ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro, who told him how much ESPN valued and appreciated his work, and he re-signed soon after.

Asked if his sources would still want to break news with him if he were working for a gambling company, he answered, “Would my Twitter feed be coming with me?” He reached for one of his phones and pulled up a recent tweet of the image of the new Madden video game cover, showing that it garnered 8 million impressions. (His tweet announcing that Colin Kaepernick would have a workout with the Las Vegas Raiders received 9 million impressions.)

Schefter knows this is his most valuable commodity. When pitching sources to break their news, he cites that reach. Several ESPN colleagues said Schefter can be generous with his Twitter feed, such as when he helped publicize a fund that raised more than $1 million to support the son of a colleague who died after a cancer battle.

While Schefter mostly gushes about ESPN, the biggest perk to leaving the network would have been an off-ramp from the hours and demands of the role. It bothers him that people don’t appreciate how hard he works the beat. “People used to say I got everything from Shanahan, then I got everything from the league, now I get everything from agents,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and information comes from everywhere.”

Chris Mortensen, another ESPN insider, called Schefter “the best to ever do what we do.” Mortensen set boundaries on his time, such as when Markman once called him on Christmas to do a live hit on ESPN. Mortensen said no; Schefter never does. “I’ve never set boundaries,” Schefter said. “That’s one of the reasons ESPN and I get along so well.”

Schefter said he doesn’t consider himself a talented writer or TV presenter; he is armed only with his work ethic and his ability to always be on. He tries to respond to every text message within seconds.

Asked if he still had fun doing the job, Schefter said it has changed, and maybe he has, too. “Everything is heavier,” he said. “And so much faster. My wife tells me it’s stressful to eat with me because I eat so fast. Did I use to eat this fast? I don’t know.”

Then he brightened, thinking of a moment from this year’s NFL draft. He was at his son’s graduation and supposed to be off, but the details of a huge trade between the Philadelphia Eagles and New Orleans Saints came trickling in.

“You’re … getting the information in real time,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s eight picks; it’s going to reshape the whole draft, even the league. There’s a rush to that, and you feel it.”

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