August 15, 2014

What’s the opposite of transparency?

“My feeling is that we need to present a different picture of this organization. It’s been stale. It has not done well. I don’t think people view the Browns in a positive light. My perception from the outside was that the Browns just weren’t successful. They weren’t energetic or forward-thinking. I’m not afraid of transparency. Most of what we do here — there’s no secret to it.”

Paranoia

On Monday, there was much consternation to be had. Not only had Terry Pluto been the subject of a complete hack job, it was reported that the Cleveland Browns listed their draft sheet not by position or grade, but alphabetically. Debate ranged from incompetence and baseless speculation to blind benefit of the doubt—maybe the Browns had multiple draft boards; the report, however, stated nothing of the sort. The end result was a discussion surrounding how the debates surrounding the unknown could be silenced if the Browns had taken our pro bono advice, an output typically reserved for overpaid consultants and advisory firms.

It’s simple, really: Talk to people. The Browns left the 2013 NFL Draft with Barkevious Mingo and a handful of draft picks for 2014. Had the team allowed someone—anyone—to have an inside track to the thought process, all there would be to debate would be the merits of their thought process. Instead, we are left with the insufferable back-and-forth regarding what-should-have-been, rooted entirely in speculation, topped off with splash of agenda. This led to the next sequence of tweets.

Following the 2012 NBA Draft, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst published a piece that was written from the inside. The Cleveland Cavaliers allowed the long-time scribe to be a fly on the wall during what was a crucial evening, one integral in the rebuilding process of a team that had once been perennially on top. During that night, Windhorst was radio silent—his whereabouts were unknown, texts were not returned. The output of his work, largely thanks to access, was superb. While Cavalier fans were able to discuss whether or not they agreed with the thought process behind the selection of Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, they were able to understand the why in addition to the what.

Little did I know, while I was firing off the tweets above, Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman was filing and editing a piece that was ultimately published on Thursday, documenting his behind-the-scenes reporting from Berea on the night of the NFL Draft. The piece is extremely well reported, and contains plenty of draft-day facts that clear a lot of the air regarding the players themselves: the Browns were set on Barkevious Mingo and were only going to trade down had he not been available at sixth overall; there were multiple trades proposed, one which included multiple first-round picks for future drafts that would leave the Browns without a first-round pick in 2013; assistant GM Ray Farmer was a part of the war room; Rob Chudzinski was a huge fan of an unnamed offensive lineman who would’ve been a target in a trade-down scenario; Lombardi is a huge fan of the SEC. This was all well and good for those looking for something to chew on. The rest of the several-thousand-word story, however, left the Browns looking worse than they did before they had agreed to let Klosterman in to their compound.

The quote used above is from the team’s new president Alec Scheiner. His backgound has been discussed here before; he was the main attraction for Craig when he descended upon Boston for the Sloan Analytics Conference. It would appear that he gets it, not only based on his words above, but the message he attempted to deliver over that weekend in March. But if Scheiner does in fact get it, he is on an island as the rest of the exposé painted a picture of paranoia, distrust and contradiction—and out and out dismissal of any efforts to erase what is being purported as a misperception. If the Browns feel that they are being falsely accused for being shrouded in a cloak of secrecy, and are not “forward thinkers,” all they did over draft weekend was help cement these beliefs. Letting Grantland in is a step worth applauding—it’s a new-age site that features pop culture and spectacular prose so the intentions were good, I’m sure. What they did after cutting the credential , however, was analogous to Chansi Stuckey fumbling the ball while attempting to gain an extra yard and the team ultimately losing a winnable contest.

Providing bookends to the draft-day nuggets listed above was Klosterman being told multiple times that certain items were off of the record; Scheiner (he of the transparency quote) was painted as the chief offender. A television was giving the war room foursome fits, but an IT worker (a team employee, mind you) was not allowed in the room to fix it until the dry erase board was cleared off. The only discussion Klosterman had with Ken Kovash, the team’s analytics guru, was over dinner and the entire conversation was not allowed to be printed. While Klosterman was waiting in the new cafeteria—which drew rave reviews for food quality, for what it is worth—he was shadowed by Brian Smith, one of the team’s public relations members who has yet to reply to a voicemail I left him several weeks ago. Smith was specifically instructed to monitor Klosterman, a long-time writer and published novelist, so he would not speak to any employees without the team knowing.

“I don’t think they’re building chemical weapons in Berea,” writes Klosterman. “But they might be. I can’t say for sure.”

Klosterman was turned down multiple times when requesting an interview with Joe Banner, a man whom he did credit in the footnotes for being “hypercompetent.” The piece de resistance, however, came at approximately 5:30pm on Thursday night when the draft was about to begin. As Klosterman was gearing up to soak in all of the nuances, similar to what Windhorst did a few months earlier with the Cavaliers, he was escorted out of the room by Scheiner—without explanation. It is at this point where it is worth mentioning that this was the reason Klosterman was there to begin with—the draft room was the story. Instead, given zero insight and blanketed by public relations members, the story was relegated to all of the black paint being applied to the pristine new office windows which are set to overlook the practice field—the “institutional paranoia.”

It is easy to say that this is a “football” thing, that what Windhorst did with the Cavaliers on the night of the NBA Draft was merely indicative of a culture in basketball that isn’t as pervasive in football. ESPN the Magazine has recently run multiple features on NBA teams as the Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers both gave unfettered access to team meetings, practices and analytics-based employees are typically kept behind the scenes, adding machines and all. But all it takes is a quick Google search to see that this is no longer the case. Days before Klosterman’s piece ran, Sports Illustrated’s Peter King wrote from inside the war room of the St. Louis Rams, detailing not just the mannerisms of the men involved, but the discussions that took place surrounding the selections as well as the trades that were agreed to. It was short and sweet, but the piece was exactly what Klosterman should (and likely assumed he would) have been able to see.

We have long wondered why the Browns, a team in dire need of positive public relations, continues to mishandle opportunities when they arise. Why haven’t they endeared themselves to a local reporter? Why are they so secretive? Why do they not have the common courtesy to reply to emails or return phone calls? The Cavaliers are masterful at controlling the message; the Indians are not far behind, albeit with a little extra needed effort. In reporting stories in the past, I’ve had several instances of “off-the-record” replies, but there may have been one or two for every 10 that were on. I’ve had multiple one-on-ones with players and executives where there was not a PR staff member anywhere to be seen. For full disclosure, I have exchanged emails with Mike Lombardi. He is as affable as Klosterman describes in his piece. The fact that the team continues to largely hide him from the media, appearances on the new radio homes not withstanding, is baffling. The inability (or outright unwillingness) to be forward thinkers, while claiming that there is a misperception surrounding such a cultural characteristic could not be more ironic. This goes well beyond the whole “fans don’t need to know everything” narrative that is fastened together by strawmen. There is a substantial difference between calculated decisions and outright paranoia. Unfortunately, as Klosterman’s piece documents, this Browns team—with a “burnt orange shade of opaque”—treads heavily on the latter.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Browns felt that allowing Grantland to have access would work out in their benefit. Klosterman is an energetic and creative writer who provides unique perspective on a variety of topics. But his perspective is based on reporting and having the ability to ask the tough questions. Perspective is nothing without knowledge, and if the firewalls prevent such from being obtained, we’re left with a picture of disconnect—if Scheiner does in fact pride himself on transparency, the rest of his colleagues are not like-minded. To say that there is a misperception on the current regime based on the missteps of the predecessors is fair. Not actively changing it is akin to a company taking over BP in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and making nary an effort to clean it up because it did not occur on their watch.

Klosterman describes himself sitting in the end zone of the team’s indoor practice facility, bunkered with the local media who are watching the draft unfold on televisions before them. I can picture the bearded scribe walking down the field, alone, with a messenger bag strewn over his shoulder as the Cleveland media stares at him like a pack of deer, smirking on the inside as the big national guy was given the same boot they have been given for the majority of the last decade. The big difference: where a piece by a local beat reporter would be devoured by you or I, this piece by Klosterman was given top billing on a national site that is devoured by millions every day. It may be a few years before the four men who were sitting in the war room can have an effect on the inept win total that has driven fans crazy since 1999. The public relations battle could have been won yesterday. Instead, it was escorted out of the room and was forced to republish the same robotic quotes that were given to everyone else.

“This is the outcome we were hoping for,” were the words spoken by Joe Banner following the selection of Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick. It’s fair to assume that those words can now only be placed on their selection as the described fallout—the paranoia, the guarded mentality and the off-record response—could not have been mishandled any worse. As Scheiner said above, the team needs to paint a different picture of the organization. First, they will need to come to terms with the fact that that this can’t be done unless someone is willing to pick up a brush and display the final product.

  • Harv 21

    oh. never mind. But I’m still with Billardsbum. Your subtle sub-contexts move me not. ;-)

  • Harv 21

    way to welcome katie o, Garry O. Not sure where your credit hours are for the Continuing Nerd Club Education reporting period, but you need to hit up some of the Ethics/Commenter Abuse seminars.

    It’s Friday. Be Kind, Unwind.

    [yeah, look at me, abusing a fellow NC member]

  • Garry_Owen

    I’m an addict. I can’t help but be an arrogant, abusing, know-it-all jerk. When I’m not doing it, all I can think about is the next time that I can do it. I get the shakes and cold sweats. I have a support group that physically monitors me and keeps me away from cleveland.com.

    The thing is, the comment was meant to only be half abusive (okay, 60%). I actually agree with her that the parent post was somewhat negligent (a negligibly strong word) in its coverage.

    I promise to be on better behavior. Please come back to WFNY, Katie O.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I’m not trying to say anything one way or the other about what the fans care about or what the Browns should or should not reveal about their draft process. Nor am I trying to convince you of anything or move you in any way. I truly was simply responding to someone calling this article “shortsighted”, who then said the Browns should not expose their draft strategy. My point was just that this is not what Scott’s article was about.

    Whether you care about the Browns lying to national media is really the furthest thing from my own interests. Either way, it’s embarrassing for the franchise when they try to get Klosterman to paint a picture of them as this open, forward-thinking organization, and then revoke access and have a lapdog follow him around to make sure he’s not getting into trouble. My point, and the point Scott was making, was that these actions only hurt the public perception of the organization and are easily avoidable.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    I find it hard to believe the Browns didn’t know Haslam was going to be there ahead of time. When you grant a reporter access to your draft room, I’m pretty sure you know who from the organization is all going to be in the draft room.

  • Garry_Owen

    Perhaps they granted him access before the IRS/FBI came knocking?
    Probably.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Wait a minute… you started wearing Reynolds wrap and Mark Reynolds had a hot start to the season? Don’t you see what you’ve done!

  • Garry_Owen

    Ogre-crushed baseballs?

  • Garry_Owen

    Also, sounds like it was probably Haslam’s decision. The draft room might have know very well that he was coming. They may not have had a clue that he would want to exclude the reporter. Commanding officers can be funny like that.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Good thing you decided to comment then :) It’s not a non-story to most everyone else. I’m with Andrew, I read the piece and was pretty frustrated with the way the Browns treated Klosterman, and I don’t even like the guy. In any podcast where he chats with Simmons, he comes off as a know-it-all d-bag who hates being alive. But I do want my front office to have integrity, and this is a valid shot at their integrity.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Probably. But remember, Klosterman was there for 3 days. The Browns couldn’t have told him on Wednesday, “Hey Chuck, we know we promised you access, but with everything going on with the FBI/IRS, we’re unfortunately no longer going to be able to let you be in the room once Jimmy enters.”? This whole thing just seems easily avoidable to me.

  • Garry_Owen

    See my other response. It’s completely plausible (likely, even) that the folks in the room did not anticipate Haslam’s reaction.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Perhaps, but I find this less likely. I think the Browns probably would run a request for this kind of access up the chain for approval.

    Also, I still don’t see why they couldn’t have simply told Klosterman “Look, as long as you don’t ask any questions whatsoever about Jimmy’s pending legal issues, you’re welcome to stay in the war room.”

    I don’t know, it just seems to me that the Browns unnecessarily made themselves look foolish and paranoid. That’s all. The good news is that none of this will impact the play on the field.

  • Garry_Owen

    Well, I would bet the farm that they probably told him something exactly like that, maybe even verbatim. I just think Haslam made a snap, command – probably emotional – decision in the moment. Nothing “the Browns” could do about that. He’s the MFIC.

    True. It doesn’t impact anything at all, and as has been said ad nauseum on this site, “winning cures all.” My hunch is that the Browns aren’t the only NFL team viciously close-lipped and “paranoid” (I mean, Peter King could only get in with the Rams, right?). The difference is that the Browns stink on ice (and grass, and mud), so it “smells” different. I don’t know what it’s like in Foxborough and other HQs of winning teams, but I’d bet they’re similarly “paranoid;” but nobody really cares. Indeed, they probably think that the “paranoia” is a sign of a great organization.

  • mgbode

    crossed the streams? have cats started living with dogs yet?

  • mgbode

    Peter King could only get in with the Rams where he knows the GM and HC personally and has been friends with them for years. He even has the same agent.

  • Garry_Owen

    Lamonteism.

  • mgbode

    wait, Katie O. is not your wife?

  • Harv 21

    Andrew, man, my last comment was just kidding around, not further arguing the point.

    Ok, so here’s where I leave it: public perception concerns disappear with winning. And the stench of losing x 14 years would permeate and mock even consistently perfect PR moves. If they let him into the War Room and he wrote an optimistic opus to this FO’s genius, that piece would be held up as Exhibit A to idiocy if the draft moves turn out foolish. I don’t have that common Cleveland syndrome, the constant worry about what everyone else thinks. I just want them to win.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Well, I think the other difference is most teams don’t invite a reporter in and then shut him out at the last minute. Whether the reasons for doing so are valid or not, that move is pretty exclusive to the Browns, as far as I know. But I agree with most of everything else you said.

  • Harv 21

    Klosterman’s own words: “It’s possible the Browns never intended to let me see the draft, and that this carrot was offered only as a way to make the story happen. It’s equally possible I misunderstood our original agreement. However, I suspect my ejection from the draft room had more to do with the owner himself.”

    The author, who surely thought long and hard about why this happened before writing, seems a lot less sure about the reasons than us. Also, “I got kicked out” is a better angle for a story than “Whoops, shouldn’t have assumed what I’d be witnessing.”

  • Garry_Owen

    The plot thickens!
    Nah, the real Mrs. O makes me look like a rank Quality Control amateur.

  • Garry_Owen

    IRS/FBI investigations are also pretty exclusive to the Browns. Unfortunately. Sadly. Tragically. Clevelandly.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Ain’t that the truth.

  • http://twitter.com/KTOinCLE Katie O.

    I can hack it- can’t get better at something if no one points it out- Thanks for the backup Harv.

    Gary- I’ll be back.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    I disagree as well. I think it was very relevant, to the point that Klosterman even thought so.

  • http://twitter.com/JustSmileCle It’s not THAT bad!

    Seems like Scheiner is leading the charge for transparency, but finding the management of that change a little more difficult than he expected. This was a missed opportunity for Browns PR, for sure, but I don’t know that I care all THAT much.

    Would I have liked the addition of color to all the moves? of course. But do I suspect CK was given the run around for any more reasons than a.) those guys were pretty busy leading up to their first draft together and b.) the CK total access caveat wasn’t totally communicated and agreed upon (more showing the newness of the organization)? Not really.

    It’s good to see they had their sights on Mingo, and that’s gonna be fun to look at in the future. It’s good that it truly seems that Banner is running the operation as a filter for many voices. It confuses me that Ray Horton was nowhere in sight of this article.

    Maybe letting CK come was a little ambitious given the newness of everyone running things with each other and the controversy surrounding Haslam during the time of draft (CK isn’t exactly a one trick, sports-only reporter, so hesitation around his own motivations is at the very least justifiable if that mattered).

    Complaints are certainly warranted, but I did enjoy the fact that these guys seemed to be communicating freely on the football issues. So they may not be on the same page yet with their PR policy and stance, seems like something that’s slowly coming together… and going in the right direction.

    Of course the cold war mentally is stupid – but its why we love sports. We can make it super important to us when its anything but. Yes, there are other reasons to love them, but the reason this whole site exists is because we want to analyze the teams we love (Browns foremost) and treat everything they do (could anything be less important than how the team handles the DUI of a low-round selection with already questionable character – they’re probably waiting to see if he’s worth the trouble, cause they already drafted a guy they knew wasn’t a saint.) as if they were newsworthy events. It’s fun to play make believe and act like you’re holding the nuclear launch codes.

    Sure there is plenty to be critical about what happened with CK and how he was “treated.” But does it really matter in the scheme of how this team proceeds? doubftul. As we get more used to Lombardi (who half the media welcomed with a flaming bag of poop… and then became incredulous that he was unwilling to open up to them) and the new guys, these tensions will thaw. The leadership seems to be charismatic albeit without strong connections and relationships to the local community (aside from chud, who people seem to “like” but not “like-like”).

    CK also said this, which I think is just as important for people to take away:

    “Everything is new — the ownership, the front office, and the coaching
    staff. This first-round draft decision, at least symbolically, signifies
    the beginning of yet another new era for professional football in
    Northeast Ohio, a geographic region that cares about football a little
    too much.”

    These guys are new to the situation as much as we are. I’m glad their focusing on the task at hand, and understand that granting interviews and dealing with public perception may have to be an issue for a little further down the road when everything is more in rhythm.

  • Big Z

    I have zero hope in these clowns.

  • http://twitter.com/JustSmileCle It’s not THAT bad!

    I get the frustration for sure. Looks to me that the “team” is still finding out how to get it all together. New guys from Dallas, Philly, NC, NFLN, and KC all moved to cleveland in the past 6 months to put this thing together, and I’m not totally sure that this latest episode isn’t anything more than miscommunication as to what everyone’s comfortable with. Is that troubling in and of itself? Maybe, but its understandable that these big changes under intense scrutiny of sports media (local and national) can’t be easy environments to operate flawlessly in.

  • Roosevelt

    Well, the good news is that when the time is right, they’re going to have to give Bleacher Report access, because next year, Grantland aint coming.

  • Roosevelt

    Your last point about Haslam and the scandal is the last thing Browns fans should want to hear. Each day, this situation seems like it’s getting closer and closer to the Mets, who made inexplicable move after inexplicable move, claiming all along that they were baseball decisions and ownership wasn’t in any trouble. And then it turned out that ownership was very much in trouble, and despite playing in NY, was going to operate with a small market payroll. The next step is, I bet we’re going to be substantially under the cap this year, and management will swear that they are only saving money because they’re not ready to contend. And then we won’t sign someone who just had a monster year, and we’ll see what the real reason is.

    (And speaking of the cap and Haslam – what do we think a guy who doesn’t give promised rebates is going to do with money he saves in cap room?)

  • Roosevelt

    Yeah, not so blown away by the newness and opportunity. We’ve had everything be completely new every three years, give or take, and there’s no reason to think this is different.

  • Roosevelt

    The most glaring mistake that the Browns can make is trying to hide their thought processes. They should keep their windows open and talk in loud voices in the hope that someone is stupid enough to pull the kind of #### that the Browns do on a regular basis.

    And in response to the inevitable “give these new guys a chance”, we’ve been giving new guys chances for decades, and after the first chance, we’ve been giving them the benefit of the doubt. Eventually, we always learned that incompetent is as incompetent does. Has-ban has ban here for half a year, and they’ve been generally inconspicuous with the occasional PR gaffe and federal fraud investigation. That’s enough to get jaded Browns fans to not give the benefit of the doubt on ensuing PR disasters.

  • Lucas Witters

    Opacity. Opacity is the opposite of transparency.

  • Garry_Owen

    84 comments into this thing, and we finally have the answer. Thank you!