Why did ESPN expose Josh Freeman’s confidential medical status?

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Dallas Cowboys

Yesterday, Chris Mortensen reported that Bucs’ quarterback Josh Freeman was enrolled in stage one of the NFL’s drug treatment program. According to a statement that Freeman released following the report, he has been diagnosed with ADHD and has been legally allowed to take Adderall for it since he’s been in the league. However, at some point over a year ago, Freeman mistakenly took Ritalin, resulting in a failed test. In response, Freeman voluntarily enrolled in the program and, according to his statement, has since passed 46 drug tests.

According to the provisions of the NFL’s drug program, players in stage one are due confidentiality about their status in the program. In other words, unless the player himself discloses his participation, the public shouldn’t know about it. We know because someone leaked the information to Mort resulting, as Freeman’s statement pointed out, in the “confidentiality of my medical status [being] publicly violated. Various blogs have been speculating about who was the source of the leak, with most assuming the leak came from somewhere inside the Bucs’ organization (though Deadspin suggests they would have been silly to do so). The NFL Player’s Association is angry about the breach of Freeman’s confidentiality and has vowed to “come after everyone” who might be involved.

But here’s my question: why did Mortensen report this story? Journalists have to engage in a number of balancing acts when they consider a story’s newsworthiness. We’ve seen a particularly profound and consequential instance of this play out over the past few months, since the Guardian and other news outlets began reporting on the NSA documents leaked by Edward Snowden. In that case, serious concerns about national security are weighed against the vital importance of the public’s right to know how its own government is safeguarding or violating fundamental privacy rights.

But what’s the public interest in Freeman’s status in the drug program, other than idle curiosity? One can certainly argue that when reporters are writing about players’ use of performance enhancing drugs, which bear on the credibility of the competition, there is a public right to know.  Fans are the ones spending the money that keeps those sporting enterprises in business and have a right to certain expectations about whether the games are being played according to the rules that help give the enterprise its appeal.

But in Freeman’s case, there is no credible evidence that he was in anyway gaining an unfair advantage or otherwise undermining the credibility of the NFL. He was taking a legal drug for a diagnosed medical condition. Therefore, the ESPN report last night accomplished little, apart from feeding another gossipy news cycle and violating Freeman’s rights in the process.

Until and unless we hear from him, I won’t speculate about whether Mortensen considered the propriety of running this story. But I can’t see any real justification for it. If the goal of sports reporting is to attract eyeballs – well then, mission accomplished. But it’s not clear to me what larger journalistic standard here was achieved.

When ESPN or some other sports outlet breathlessly reports that it has scooped the competition because it found out twelve hours before everybody else that someone was traded or fired or whatever, I always chuckle. It’s not exactly Woodward and Bernstein to learn on Tuesday night rather than Wednesday morning that Trent Richardson was traded. But it’s also relatively harmless.

Not so here.

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