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A Super Bowl week scoop: Emails detailing Falcons’ reliance on painkillers

Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blanks, right, talks with team president Rich McKay during their annual Friday Night Lights NFL football practice at Grayson High School Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, in Loganville, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

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It was just a coincidence: Emails from 2010, showing that the Atlanta Falcons were worried about the team’s reliance on painkillers, were quietly entered into the court record as the Falcons were making just their second Super Bowl appearance. But AP sports columnist Jim Litke was prepared, and the result was a Super Bowl week scoop.

Litke’s story is Beat of the Week.

“A franchise worried about its `excessive’ reliance on painkillers to treat players and the potential embarrassment that could cause the team and the NFL.”

More than 1,800 former NFL players have sought to file a class-action lawsuit,claiming they were encouraged by the medical and training staffs of NFL teams to abuse painkillers and continue playing without regard for their long-term health. The Atlanta emails in the court file,Litke wrote, “showed a franchise worried about its `excessive’ reliance on painkillers to treat players and the potential embarrassment that could cause the team and the NFL.” And all of those who took part in the email chain – from the team owner on down – remained with the Falcons team that was playing the New England Patriots in 2017.

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Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff answers media questions at the NFL team’s practice facility in Flowery Branch, Ga., Jan. 27, 2017. – AP PHOTO / DAVID GOLDMAN

Litke knew these kinds of emails existed and that it would take a while for them to surface in court. He had been following this case for years,and had cultivated inside sources; previously,they had pointed him to a story about a drug enforcement investigation of several NFL clubs.

In late January,a source called him with a tip: He should check out what was just entered in the record where the case was being heard. Litke contacted lawyers involved in the case,and they sent him the emails,confirming that they were in the court record and that some had been read aloud in court.

Litke knew he had the story exclusively,so the AP gave the Falcons 18 hours to respond,first with questions emailed to their staff, and then with questions in person when the team arrived in Houston for the Super Bowl. And the decision was made to run the story on Tuesday morning – the slowest news day of Super Bowl week

The story led AP News for engagement time that morning. ESPN featured the AP report on its front page all day. Deadspin and the Washington Post wrote about the AP’s beat,while others including Sports Illustrated and the Los Angeles Times used the AP reporting. Litke worked with desk editor Jake Seiner in New York to get the full text of the emails onto the pro32.ap.org Digital News Experience; the story and the transcripts were by far the most popular pieces of content on the DNE all week.

All in all,it wasn’t a good week for the Falcons. For his role, Litke doesn’t take home the MVP trophy – but he does win this week’s $500 prize.

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