Hasselbeck Saga, Creating a dead horse to beat

So it sounds like Matt Hasselbeck isn’t as good as gone from Seattle after all. That was the upshot of a report from ESPN.com’s Adam Schefter published Tuesday on ESPN.com.

That got people’s attention because it ran counter to the tide of recent reports that characterized Hasselbeck’s departure from Seattle as likely, even imminent.

Of course, it also ran counter to what Schefter himself reported on “NFL Live” the night before when he said Hasselbeck was not expected to return to Seattle. And it directly contradicted what player-turned-analyst Trent Dilfer said during ESPN’s coverage of the draft when he stated, “Matthew Hasselbeck is not coming back to Seattle.” And it was in moderate discord with John Clayton’s assessment on ESPN 710 Seattle earlier in April in which Clayton said he was less optimistic about Hasselbeck re-signing.

You may have noticed a four-letter trend in all of this. ESPN is a network that includes multiple cable stations, a nationwide network of radio stations and a Web site. It is the single largest force in American sports media which also makes it the single easiest target for someone to criticize. So let me be clear: ESPN employs some of the very best reporters and analysts in this business, and the fact that some of them will be mentioned by name in this post is not meant to impugn the overall quality of their work. They are respected colleagues, and in some instances, friends.

But in this particular instance of Hasselbeck’s status with the Seahawks, ESPN’s coverage has been inconsistent, at times contradictory and it has shown the dangerous gray area that exists between a reporter stating a fact, an analyst offering an opinion and a former teammate making a prediction.

Some of this is understandable given the fact that Hasselbeck’s future is the single most important question facing Seattle, and there has been so little concrete news for more than two months now, which leaves it a topic ripe for speculation. An analyst and reporter is certainly entitled to an opinion about what will happen.

But somehow a series of opinions coalesced into a tidal shift in assessment during a two-month period in which the Seahawks were forbid from talking to Hasselbeck for all but one day.

Yet in the past two months, ESPN employees have used one of the company’s platforms to say, in order:

1) The opinion it appeared less likely Hasselbeck would re-sign with Seattle

(John Clayton on 710 ESPN Seattle, April 12, 2011).

2) That Hasselbeck would not be coming back to Seattle

(Trent Dilfer on ESPN’s TV coverage of the draft, April 30, 2011)

It should be noted that in subsequent analyses Dilfer provided, he did not repeat the statement Hasselbeck was not returning, instead saying it would “be difficult” for Seattle to re-sign him.

3) Hasselbeck was not expected back in Seattle

(Adam Schefter on “NFL Live” May 9, 2011)

So Schefter’s report Tuesday amounted to throwing water on reports that ESPN had the largest hand in developing. That makes it a really neat — and potentially profitable — parlor trick. An ESPN report essentially debunks a notion that ESPN itself largely propagated.

And during that time, ESPN did not publish or air a direct quote from Hasselbeck that I know of, and Hasselbeck and the Seahawks had exactly a one-day window — April 29 — in which it was OK to talk under the league’s lockout guidelines.

In fact, the most concrete, significant fact that ESPN reported about Hasselbeck these past two weeks was largely overlooked in the rest of the network’s reports.

In the week after the draft, Mike Sando reported the Seahawks — specifically offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell — reached out to Hasselbeck during the one-day interruption of the lockout as NFL teams were allowed to contact players, including their own free agents-to-be.