Q&A: ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio on Covering the First ‘Virtual’ NFL Draft

    • The national correspondent will cover the Giants, Eagles, Jets and Ravens.
    • "The most important tool of any reporting activity is human intelligence," Paolantonio says.

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On NFL Draft night for the last 24 years, Sal Paolantonio of ESPN has been a fixture, “embedding” with teams and reporting directly from their facilities.

Along with everybody else, ESPN’s national correspondent will be on the outside looking in during the first “virtual” draft this week. Thanks to coronavirus quarantines, everyone from “Sal Pal” to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will be working from home.  

The former Philadelphia newspaperman and U.S. Navy officer prefers to look sources in the eye, not text with them by phone. 

Front Office Sports’ Michael McCarthy talked to Paolantonio about the challenges of working this week’s draft. Excerpts:

FRONT OFFICE SPORTS: You’ve embedded with teams for 24 years on draft night. Talk about the challenge of covering it from your home this year.

SAL PAOLANTONIO: When you’re with a team, you have to respect you’re in their house. Now I’m in my own house – and I’m reporting by phone. Everything is by phone, email, text, everything is electronic. Its sort of like what we do in life has been superimposed on how we have got to cover this draft. Because that’s the way we communicate with each other now for the most part: text, FaceTime, telephone. 

The most important tool of any reporting activity is human intelligence. Seeing people face to face, talking to them one-on-one, looking at their mannerisms and facial expressions, trying to read them. That’s as much of what you do as a reporter as anything else. That’s why they send us to places. Or else we’d do everything remotely.

FOS: How are your connections with the four clubs you’re covering this week: the Giants, Ravens, Jets, and Eagles?

SP: Obviously, I have relationships with the Eagles. So that’s easy. I have a relationship with pretty much everybody down at The Castle (Ravens headquarters) in Owings Mills, Maryland. I know Joe Douglas, the GM of the Jets. I was with the Giants last year. I’ve had a lot of dealings with (GM) Dave Gettleman over the years and (new coach) Joe Judge when he was with the (New England) Patriots.

So you ask those guys for some time and you talk to them. And you try to get an indication of the direction they’re going to go. The idea is to cover the team – but not scoop the pick. I’m a big believer in the audience finding out on television. It’s a TV show…It’s like watching ‘Family Feud’ and somebody knows the answers before they come up on the board. You don’t want that.

FOS: Ravens coach John Harbaugh is worried about cyber-security. Are coaches and GM’s paranoid their information will leak or be hacked? 

SP: My first profession in life was a surface warfare officer on a United States Navy combat vessel. By our very nature, we were suspicious of leaks. That’s why they say “loose lips sink ships.” So I lived with, met with, talked to, was at sea with, many paranoid people. I know suspicious minds, how they work. You don’t want the enemy to have your secrets. You just don’t. 

So if you’re a coach, a GM, a lieutenant, a colonel, you don’t want the enemy having your secrets, right? You just don’t. So a coach, a GM, a lieutenant, a colonel, they’re all going to be looking for ways this can go wrong and somebody’s going to find out what I’m doing. So you try to plug the leaks as best you can. 

FOS: Should there even be an NFL Draft during this crisis? 

SP: I get asked that a lot. My answer is this: People in the NFL – players, coaches, GM’s, scouts, prospects – they all want to do their jobs just like everybody else. I want to do my job. You want to do your job. People want to go back to work in this country. We want to do it, however, in a safe and healthy way. I don’t begrudge the NFL wants to do its job as long as they can do it in a safe manner. 

I don’t buy that it’s going to be a ‘welcome distraction.’ It’s not going to be a welcome distraction for the doctors and the nurses on the front line. So let’s be careful how we use that. I think for people at home who are starving for new sports programming, it will definitely be welcome. But I think people around the NFL want to work. They want to do their job just like the UPS driver or anybody else. So I would never begrudge anybody the ability to do their job if they can do it in a safe manner.

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Here’s another thing: These young men coming out of college to play in the NFL have worked their entire lives to get to this point. They should have the opportunity to be drafted into the NFL. You may say, ‘But Sal, we could do it in May or June.’ But you know, it will be different if we do it in May or June.

FOS: ESPN helped develop the NFL Draft as a TV property starting in 1980. What continues to work for TV viewers on draft night?

SP: People associate the draft with ESPN. They did because of Chris Berman and Mel Kiper Jr. And now because of people like Louis Riddick and Todd McShay. I think people associate the draft with those people who really know their stuff and are on almost all the time talking about it. And Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen – who are breaking stories left and right like nobody else in the business. People come to us because it’s identified with us from the very start – and because we have had the right personalities and reporters on it from the very beginning. 

It’s like ‘Sunday Night Football’ with Al and Collinsworth now. ‘Sunday Night Football’ will always be associated with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. They’ve done such an extraordinary job with it, I think. Joe Buck and Troy Aikman have put their permanent signature (on Fox NFL game coverage). John Madden and Pat Summerall put their signature on CBS (NFL game coverage). Berman and Mel Kiper? That was the draft. Berman with his nicknames; Mel with his hair. TV is really not that complicated…The simplest way to connect with the audience is to be relevant and to be liked. If the audience doesn’t like you, it doesn’t really matter what you say. Right? It really is true. Berman was loved. Mel was loved. Because they connected to the audience.