When embracement of debate goes wrong

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
10:34
AM ET
As covered in this space before, ESPN has championed an “embrace debate” mantra for a number of its programs, including the popular morning show on ESPN2 called “First Take.” This has at times served the network well, growing audience and offering sometimes thought-provoking, entertaining television. Of course, that also means ESPN has to live with -- or at least take more responsibility -- when that particular septic tank overflows.

The latest example came on Friday, when the Ombudsman mailbag justifiably exploded after ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith seemed to cast blame on victims of domestic violence in his “First Take” commentary about the NFL’s punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice. The Ravens running back, who had been caught on videotape dragging his then-fiancée out of a hotel elevator in February, was indicted on March 27 for aggravated assault. The next day he was married. On Thursday, the NFL suspended Rice for two games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after the offseason arrest for domestic violence.

Smith repeatedly said that he thought the NFL’s punishment of Rice was too light, but created a storm of criticism when he added, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions. If we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that doesn’t happen.”

In response to that quote, reader Jen Lofquist of Sterling, Virginia, wrote: “As someone who has worked at a homeless shelter where most women were fleeing domestic violence, a past victim of emotional abuse, and a mother to daughter, I am deeply concerned. … This treads dangerously close, and I feel goes over, the ‘If she would just do what I say, I wouldn't have to hit her’ and ‘Why did you make me so angry.’ This sort of ‘Well, what did you do?’ response to domestic violence is what keeps women silent, forces them to go back to abusers and, in some cases, marry them.”

The attention shifted from Rice and the role of the NFL in the off-field transgressions of its players to Smith and ESPN when Michelle Beadle, co-host of the network’s “SportsNation” show, quickly posted a series of tweets challenging Smith’s remarks. Her first tweet that Friday afternoon, was: “So I was just forced to watch this morning's First Take. A) I'll never feel clean again B) I'm now aware that I can provoke my own beating.”

That became a media story because of ESPN’s stance against its personnel engaging in internecine sniping. Stars such as Bill Simmons have been disciplined in the past for criticizing colleagues. The Ombudsman mailbag was firmly behind Beadle as a champion of victims’ rights, and indications are that ESPN will not take action against her. I think Beadle’s tweets were appropriate, even if she did violate ESPN’s social media policies.

Reader consensus is that Smith’s comments were clearly inappropriate. ESPN initially issued a remarkably noncommittal statement, noting that “Stephen's comments last Friday do not reflect our company's point of view.” The network showed more teeth Tuesday, announcing that Smith will not appear on “First Take” or ESPN Radio for the next week. He will return to ESPN next Wednesday.

Smith’s attempts to clarify his remarks on Twitter later on Friday -- and then to apologize Monday in a taped statement before “First Take” -- did not satisfy his critics. Said Smith, “I made what can only amount to the most egregious error of my career. I ventured beyond the scope of our discussion by alluding to a woman’s role in such heinous matters, going so far as to use the word ‘provoke’ in my diatribe. My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It was not what I was trying to say.”

He has not yet said exactly what he was trying to say, which might be just as well; Smith’s attempts at coherency are often as exciting as Tim Tebow’s scrambling.

"Stephen has called what took place 'the most egregious mistake' of his career," said ESPN president John Skipper in a memo to staff. "I believe his apology was sincere and that he and we have learned from what we've collectively experienced. I'm confident we will all move forward with a greater sense of enlightenment and perspective as the lasting impact of these last few days."

I think Smith’s problems have always been more mechanical than moral. His mouth runs faster than his mind, and his footwork is not always nimble enough to navigate the mazes of his ornate sentences. His cadences can mesmerize, whether he’s convoluting an already complicated trade or, as he did in 2012 talking about a football player head-butting his then-wife: “There are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there. I'm saying, ‘Can we go a step further?’ Since we want to dig all deeper into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her?’”

Smith clearly has been down this low road before. I think he was doing what he is paid to do -- pontification on the fly aimed to attract an audience and provoke it into coming back. In harness with Skip Bayless, he has made “First Take” an extremely popular show. But that again left the network to clean up a mess of his making.

And it should not be lost that ESPN actually had several very good responses to the Rice situation. On Thursday night, on his ESPN2 show, Keith Olbermann had harsh words for the light punishment, and on Monday’s night’s show even harsher words for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. On espnW.com, there were two excellent columns, one by Jane McManus and the other by Mina Kimes.

And this topic led to some unexpected twists in the Ombudsman mailbag. One reader called out a recent column by Bill Simmons. In a typically breezy Grantland story on sports movies as romantic comedies, Simmons described the Susan Sarandon character in “Bull Durham,” who takes on as lover and project a fresh new minor league player each season, as a “tramp.”

Wrote Dan Lee of Pickerington, Ohio, “Would Simmons refer similarly to a male who has had a number of girlfriends? Is Derek Jeter a tramp? He has had a number of high-profile romantic interests. Does Simmons hold it against him? The column appears to have been published on the same day that Stephen A. Smith made his much-publicized comments regarding the responsibility of women to make sure they don't provoke their boyfriends into beating them unconscious. Is this how women are viewed at ESPN?”

Some would say that criticism is a stretch, that it pokes too far into the Jock Culture boys club that marks much of ESPN coverage and commentary. Others would say it’s time for ESPN to address what seems to be an underlying attitude toward women as not quite the audience it needs. What’s the right answer? If you have specific comments and questions, let’s hear them. We will be revisiting that topic, among others, in far greater detail in upcoming columns.

TRANSACTIONAL JOURNALISM

Too much of what passes for sports reporting these days has the feel of an old-fashioned stock-market ticker, continuous burps of newslike items about commodities called players, slightly amended information on prices, buys and sells. It’s ubiquitous on ESPN platforms, among other places -- TV, radio, online, Twitter -- and sometimes it’s even accurate.

Since it’s all about the possibility of coming transactions, let’s call it “transactional journalism” and rewind the ticker to those fevered days when LeBron James was a member of the Miami Heat and the scramble was on to be the first to post the news about his next destination (ultimately landing in Cleveland, where he can also oversee his share of Johnny Manziel, new Browns quarterback and a piece of LeBron’s growing business empire).

That scramble ended with a stunning reveal of LeBron’s marketing chops and the breathless pathos of the transactors. A Sports Illustrated writer, Lee Jenkins, who had developed a rapport with the star, helped him write a thoughtful first-person story explaining his decision to take his talents back home. It was old-school journalism, evoking the humiliation of old-school newspaper writers in 1957 when Jackie Robinson bypassed them to announce his retirement from the Brooklyn Dodgers in Look magazine.

The prelude to the LeBron frenzy was the June churn of NBA speculation, part of what Grantland’s Bryan Curtis recently dubbed “The Trade Rumor Era” in which “The fate of [Jason] Kidd and LeBron and Melo [Anthony] is now more important, in media terms, than the San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title.”

For those who are swept along in it, “The Trade Rumor Era” is exciting in much the way day-trading is exciting or, more passively, monitoring the news as a hurricane makes its way to your hometown. For skeptics, there is always the possibility that local weather forecasters inject urgency into their reports to keep you tuned to their station; trade rumormongers might be doing the same, although we ask for it. As Curtis puts it, “Fantasy sports have rewired our brains so that deals interest us almost as much as wins and losses.”

Transactional journalism is exciting and stressful for the practitioners, who are under terrific competitive pressure to ride the whirlwind of tiny shards of information. According to Curtis, “A player is (in descending order of desirability) an ‘asset,’ a ‘piece,’ a ‘trade chip,’ a ‘salary dump,’ or an ‘amnesty case.’”

To give an authenticity to their whirlwind of shards, transactional journalists drop in phrases such as “league source,” and “I’m told” and “I’m hearing.” I’m as convinced by such phrases as I am by anonymous sources in more substantial stories. You have to trust the authors because you have no way of knowing whether they are making it up or whether it’s true. Their “source” might be using them to float a trial balloon or send a false message.

I liked this email from reader Jay Margolis of Delray Beach, Florida, who wrote: “There comes a time when a news organization needs to examine its policy on not naming sources, and the Kevin Love story is a prime example. It is clear that ESPN is being used by the Timberwolves to stoke trade conversation in hope of driving up the price it gets. [The] report that the Bulls were involved seems like bull after reading the Chicago newspapers. ESPN does no service to anyone, especially itself, by broadcasting stories that permit these so-called sources to commandeer the network's effort to practice real journalism.”

What passes as a scoop today is usually the last tweeter who wasn’t wrong. A real scoop is rare. Since sports journalism so often turns out to be a lab for political reporting, a larger ramification of all this might be its insidious seep into mainstream news gathering, where the stakes -- involving stock prices, wars and elections -- are higher. It already has had its effect on sports, where the attention to the transactors, hedging bets as they bark their daydreams, tends to discourage and obscure quality reporting and thinking. This is a shame because quality exists.

I was reminded of this right after LeBron’s Decision II. On the very next “Sports Reporters” show, Mike Lupica, Jemele Hill, Israel Gutierrez and John Saunders examined the event in a smart and human way. ESPN.com reporter Brian Windhorst had a fine story on LeBron’s brain, and Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne put the return of the king to Cleveland in solid context. Also on ESPN.com, Jason Whitlock’s column, which read like a warm-up for his forthcoming African-American website, added to the mix.

Compared with such solid work, the chatter can feel like a midsummer night when the bugs swarm. Some find it annoying. It drives them indoors. Others obviously enjoy getting bitten by gnats. Call it transactional entertainment, but it’s not journalism.

MORE ON AFFINITY SITES

Speaking of Whitlock, several Ombuddies responded to my column about ESPN’s affinity sites, which referenced both the project that he will front as well as espnW, which got some low marks here (mostly due, I think, to ESPN neglect.)

One email that managed to capture the complaints was from Gretchen Atwood of San Francisco, who questioned the size of ESPN’s investment in efforts fronted by Bill Simmons (Grantland) and Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight) compared with that of espnW. Atwood also said of the forthcoming Whitlock site, “I certainly wish a black woman like Jemele Hill had been given the reins rather than Whitlock … who fits in more in the yell-to-hear-his-own-voice crowd with Skip Bayless. Instead of pretending that ESPN cares to serve its audience, just admit that marketing dollars are driving the decisions re: espnW as opposed to Grantland, where the site has been given time and resources to find its voice.”

Expect more when Whitlock’s site makes its debut and I visit the new editor of espnW.com. Atwood’s criticism of Whitlock was echoed by a number of Ombuddies, who chided me for omitting mention of a recent Deadspin story and ongoing criticism of him by other African-American writers, some at ESPN. Guilty as charged. The thought was to save such elements for the review of the site.

THE DUNGY DEBATE

No issue inflames the mailbag as consistently as ESPN’s coverage of gays and lesbians, including coverage of Michael Sam. There was the Feb. 9 announcement on “Outside The Lines” that the Missouri defensive end was gay, and on May 10 there was the long kiss with his boyfriend, live on ESPN, when he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. I gave ESPN coverage generally high marks on those efforts.

Here we go again with a flood of emails about ESPN commentators’ various responses to a recent comment made by NBC analyst and former NFL coach Tony Dungy to Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune. Asked to react to the Rams’ selecting Sam in the seventh round, Dungy said, “I wouldn’t have taken him. Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

Among the ESPN commentators who weighed in on Dungy’s remarks were Olbermann, Whitlock, Smith, Kevin Seifert, Dan Graziano and Colin Cowherd. Some chided Dungy for bigotry, others gave him slack; his remarks, after all, were an opinion, based on his evaluation of Sam’s talent and a media circus he wouldn’t want to deal with as a coach. Kaufman’s later analysis was that Dungy was not homophobic, merely too polite to say Sam was not worth the trouble.

The Ombudsman’s mailbag pulsed with accusations that ESPN was once again pushing a liberal, pro-gay agenda by attacking a highly respected coach known for his Christian faith and his opposition to gay marriage. There was one email, however, that was so different and thought-provoking that it seemed worthy of publishing, in a respectfully edited version.

Wrote Mike Singer of St. Petersburg, Florida: “As a late-20's heterosexual who regularly consumes ESPN via the TV and web, please use some more discretion in both the quantity and quality of your coverage of Michael Sam when it comes to his sexuality. Not because it’s offensive, but because it’s excessive and reckless. After being drafted, you yourself referred to a downside of Sam's employment as ‘a distracting media carnival.’ ESPN is the ringleader of all such media carnivals and has considerable power and responsibility when it comes to the scale and tone of the media frenzies, which it both lives off of and feeds into. As applied to Michael Sam, there's an emphasis on making a story out of how his sexual preference might negatively impact his team both internally and through the attention applied externally by the media; and then how all that plays into the larger picture of LGBT presence within amateur and professional athletics. …

“ESPN so fervently jumped all over Dungy's short quip without any contextual basis, to make him out as homophobic, and to use his words to bring Sam's story back to the front page. When Tony finally clarified what he meant, he said that ‘I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.’

“This brings us back to the heart of the issue -- the extent to which ESPN contributes to the distraction-inducing media attention that reduces the value which Michael Sam (and those who come after him) can offer their current and prospective employers. … At the end of the day, the worst part of it all, for some of us ESPN consumers, isn't the boring repetitiveness of the coverage surrounding a player's sexuality; it’s a feeling that we're somehow complicit in creating this negative-distraction by feeding the ratings. The most important sentence from your prior posting on the Michael Sam draft coverage was ‘ESPN’s point of view here is nonideological, unless you believe capitalism and proper journalism are ideological.’ Maybe it’s time for ESPN's Sam coverage to become ideological. …

“Maybe it’s time to focus less on the controversy surrounding Sam's sexuality and treat him more like the regular athlete that many of his peers, and many of your consumers, see him as. There will be plenty of time for overanalysis of Sam's experience in the little and big pictures when reflecting on whatever triumphs and tragedies occur as Sam's career unfolds; just try less to be the driving force behind those events.”

PRINCE AND THE BODY ISSUE

For many years now, a newspaper photo of a thickset 9-year-old boy in a major league locker room with his dad has been pinned to my office bulletin board. The dad is Cecil Fielder, then a Detroit Tigers slugger. The boy is Prince Fielder, now a Texas Rangers slugger and a star of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.

My positive feelings for the intent and execution of the magazine issue were not shared by a number of readers who objected to the print version and even more strenuously to the photos appearing on ESPN.com. Here’s a representative letter from Matthew Meridieth of Lebanon, Tennessee: “I work with a large group of teens and many of them are teen guys. This does nothing more than to cause them to search for the images of the naked female athletes. The Body Issue is nothing more than soft pornography.”

For many years, I thought the Magazine struggled to find its place in the ESPN empire. It was a showcase for fine writers, yet hampered by a biweekly schedule in an increasingly tweet-timed news cycle. The advent of themed issues gave editors a chance to craft increasingly focused and interesting packages.

The Body Issue seemed like a masterstroke, not only as a back-handed rebuke to the airbrushed soft-core of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue but as a celebration of the aesthetics or erotica of fandom -- or both. These bodies were used for something we could cheer about and from which we could derive inspiration without the attendant eating disorders that can come with model bodies.

Cheers for having the cover photos include 30-year-old Prince, still thickish, also strong and confident in his body, the quintessential slugger in the flesh.

Behind ESPN's affinity with 'affinity' sites

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
5:31
PM ET
ESPN’s “affinity” websites, notably Grantland and FiveThirtyEight, are glistening moons orbiting the great home planet. They derive resources and sustainability from a media empire while reflecting back innovation and prestige. Because they are focused on narrower audiences than, say, ESPN.com or “SportsCenter” and have the luxury of covering only stories that interest them, they seem smarter and cooler than the major sites and can draw loyal and younger crowds eager for a more intimate fan experience.

And in turn, they drive new traffic to the core ESPN platforms.

Thus, the birth of a new moon -- in this case an as-yet-unnamed African-American-centric site fronted by seasoned and controversial journalist Jason Whitlock -- has been highly anticipated since it was announced almost a year ago. Whitlock has described it as “a black Grantland.”

If the new moon rises and fulfills the expectations of ESPN president John Skipper, its most prominent champion, it will have the potential of becoming the media empire’s signal social achievement. The rewards for success are enormous, for ESPN, Whitlock, the staff and the audience. It is also the riskiest of the affinity sites. Race is America’s greatest historical problem and its deepest divide. Sports, paradoxically, is the area of greatest visible progress in racial equality as well as greatest hypocrisy. To open a meaningful, ongoing discussion while giving opportunities to a new generation of journalists of color would be an incalculable contribution, well beyond sports.

“We want to be a birthplace for careers,” says Skipper, who added: “It’s also a commercial move. African-Americans believe ESPN is their TV network, but they are more ambivalent about ESPN.com as their site. We want to be the place to go when the community wants some conversation about Jay Z becoming an agent, about the racial aspects of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin. African-Americans are big sports fans, and we want that audience.”

ESPN’s affinity sites are largely representative of the growing media trend of creating a boutique around a marketable personality. The PressThink blogger, Jay Rosen of New York University, calls them “personal franchises” and cites, besides Grantland (Bill Simmons) and FiveThirtyEight (Nate Silver), examples such as Andrew Ross Sorkin’s DealBook in The New York Times, Ezra Klein’s Wonkblog in The Washington Post (he has since moved to Vox Media) and Peter King’s MMQB for Sports Illustrated. Without risk to their brands, the larger institutions can take advantage of the contemporary breakdown between reporting and opinion and benefit from the loyalty created by an idiosyncratic blogger.

Rosen writes, “The nature of authority and trust in journalism is changing. It’s easier to have confidence in ‘here’s where I’m coming from’ than the view from nowhere and its institutional voice.”

Simmons, Silver and Whitlock have distinctive voices; it’s easy to know where they are coming from. Within ESPN, there are executives and writers who resent the attention and resources the sites get and wonder whether they subvert that ESPN directive posted on the lobby wall outside FiveThirtyEight’s New York offices: “OUR MISSION/ TO SERVE SPORTS FANS/ANYTIME/ANYWHERE.” (A far more vociferous version of that kind of internal resentment reportedly helped drive FiveThirtyEight from The New York Times to ESPN earlier this year.) For the most part, the affinity sites expand ESPN’s reach.

Referring to the time lag since Whitlock’s site was announced, ESPN executives say such projects take time and recall the considerable effort that led to the launching of Grantland. Simmons also seemed, to some, an unlikely leader for a team-oriented site. Too self-involved, naysayers claimed. The so-called “Sports Guy” had little traditional journalism experience and was too impatient to pay dues in any conventional way. His innovation was his voice: A game was the starting point for extended riffs on what feelings it stirred in him, what pop cultural events it evoked, how it affected his relationship with his dad. It was precisely what sports fans were waiting for. He honed that style for a number of years, in ESPN The Magazine and on ESPN.com’s Page 2, leading to the eventual launch of Grantland.com.

In engaging, often passionate prose, he connected with his readers. Unlike most of his contemporaries among sports writers, Simmons did not pose as an insider, flaunt credentialed access or talk down to his audience. He was one of them. He was also disruptive, in the current trendy sense, which is hard to recall now that Simmons is more celebrated than many of his sports subjects and a generation of young sports writers is trying to ape his style.

More generous than many personal franchisees, Simmons has allowed other stars to shine on his site, including former NBA player Jalen Rose, the hilariously addictive Men in Blazers (Michael Davies and Roger Bennett) and a number of consistently fine writers, including Bryan Curtis, Molly Lambert, Wesley Morris, Katie Baker and Charles P. Pierce. Grantland’s success has to do with its smart and eclectic nature; like many of its fans, I think, I find something worthwhile, even surprising, to read every day. Although I don’t read all the stories or listen to all the podcasts, those I choose get full attention.

As Howard Bryant, an author and columnist for ESPN The Magazine, put it: “Grantland is important for the ideas that could otherwise slip through the cracks of regular everyday sports writing and a major opportunity to put our stamp on things beyond what we are on top of. I think of Sport magazine and Sports Illustrated in their heyday.”

The Numbers Game

ESPN already had a robust sports analytics department when FiveThirtyEight arrived in March, extending the company’s statistical reach into areas including politics and science. Silver created the site in 2008 to analyze polling data for the presidential election and other races (538 is the number of Electoral College voters) and became a licensed feature of The New York Times two years later. His predictive batting average was incredibly high, unsettling many traditional political writers. (Although sports stats junkies, especially his fellow sabermetricians, were already on board.)

Simmons counseled Silver that, based on his own experience, it would take a year for FiveThirtyEight to find its voice. Silver and his site’s managing editor, Mike Wilson (former managing editor of the highly regarded Tampa Bay Times), told me last month that they were still in the process of identifying a FiveThirtyEight story, which “needs to be both interesting and supported by data.” They justified their lack of Donald Sterling coverage, for example, by the lack of a statistical underpinning. They said that about 45 percent of their stories were sports-related, a figure they would like to lower.

In recent weeks, the FiveThirtyEight menu was skewed toward soccer -- and most of those stories were interesting and supported by data, especially the notion that Brazil would have “little to no long-term economic benefits” from the money spent preparing for the World Cup. That seemed like an important, quintessential FiveThirtyEight story. I didn’t ask how Silver and Wilson would justify their tediously ongoing comparative analysis of 67,391 American restaurants to find “the best” burrito. But FiveThirtyEight is barely 4 months old and under pressure after a mighty buildup. It also has to live up to a grandiose mission statement: “We are an antidote to the raging river of bulls--- that runs through the media.”

Silver has declared himself “anti-take,” which puts him across the river from ESPN in general and even further upstream from Grantland, both of which ride the torrent of informed opinion, speculation and attitude, as they should. The conceit that data-driven journalism always provides more reliable information than reporting without spreadsheets assumes that numbers never lie and that methodology is always solid. It works well, of course, predicting the outcome of elections and games. That fits in nicely with sports gambling, a staple of fandom and increasingly of sports coverage.

One ethical issue, akin to the river riders’ overuse of anonymous sources, is the use of private data sets the public will never see. Some are leaked to advance an agenda. To their credit, Silver and Wilson brought up that issue themselves as among the “nuanced problems” FiveThirtyEight has to face. I’ll have even more confidence in them when the burrito election is decided.

FiveThirtyEight, Grantland and ESPN Films, home of 30 for 30, ESPN’s acclaimed documentary series credited to Simmons, have been grouped together in a unit called Exit 31 (the Interstate 84 exit for ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters). That group is supervised by Marie Donoghue, senior vice president, global strategy, business development and business affairs, whose office is far off the highway, in New York (Simmons and Whitlock are based in Los Angeles). Donoghue says the placement was not to keep the sites clear of the Bristol Bubble’s insularity and corporate jockeying but rather to take advantage of “symbiosis” with filmmaking on both coasts. The three properties, she says, will create videos for themselves and for shows such as “SportsCenter.”

ESPN’s soccer initiative, ESPNFC.com, is not usually mentioned along with its affinity sites, yet, as an attempt to open the empire to new fans and talent, fresh currents of thought and a global stretch, it certainly seems to bear Skipper’s signature. The infusion of “futbol” stories in FiveThirtyEight and Grantland has enhanced ESPN’s excellent daily World Cup coverage, and the appearances of Men in Blazers on ESPNFC.com and “SportsCenter” prove that symbiosis is working.

The W Issue

Sometimes lost in the affinity firmament is espnW, which some ESPN executives told me is a more realistic model than Grantland for Whitlock’s site. That would be a shame. Four years old and staffed by some talented writers, most notably Kate Fagan, the site still seems to be a victim of neglect. It has no personal franchisee or recognizable point of view. Stories tend to be drab or puffy. Skipper points to the annual espnW Summit, a Toyota- and Gatorade-sponsored conference of female athletes, ESPN personalities and other sports figures, as a worthy endeavor. But he seems at a loss for positive points after that. He’s hoping a newly hired editor will revive the site. W’s “charity of choice” is the advocacy group Women’s Sports Foundation, which puts its journalistic independence in question.

Female writers with whom I’ve spoken complain that W has been marginalized; it is expected to support coverage of the WNBA and the various major women’s tournaments without receiving the resources for the expensive, time-consuming long-form projects that could give it credibility. Why shouldn’t women’s events be totally integrated into the main ESPN sites, they ask, instead of consigned to a female “ghetto”? Meanwhile, male executives tell me there are plenty of excellent female writers and broadcasters at ESPN (absolutely true), some covering the major (read mostly men’s, some women’s) events, which proves there is no ghettoization.

Obviously, people are talking past each other here and need to figure out what the site is all about. To some, espnW is attempting to serve an audience that ESPN wants but doesn’t really need. The network’s audience is largely male, the big affinity sites even more so. According to recent ESPN figures, Grantland’s audience is 83 percent male and FiveThirtyEight’s is about 68 percent. In both cases, the 25-44 age group is the biggest bulge, although FiveThirtyEight skews somewhat older.

What W has done well is cover LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and youth sports news, features and issues. These are areas routinely ignored on ESPN.com and TV until a big story breaks (Michael Sam, sex abuse by coaches) and then covered with a certain naive, "who knew?" surprise. Perhaps, LGBT and youth sports deserve niche sites of their own, even as spin-offs of espnW (its “Small Wonders” youth features could be a start).

Much of the anticipation for the Whitlock site has to do with the big question: Will the network learn from those issues with the espnW site and allow the new site to confront the highly nuanced African-American reality in a sports industry that has progress and shortcomings open for endless debate? This is especially important on ESPN -- where the opinions of such regular black commentators as Whitlock, Michael Wilbon, Scoop Jackson, Jemele Hill, Bomani Jones and Stephen A. Smith have sometimes clashed -- in ways that are still evolving.

Even in his return to ESPN.com as a columnist, Whitlock has been too quick to wrestle in the mud. His opinions, although usually thoughtful and humane, are frequently controversial among fellow black journalists. To read Whitlock’s archives closely is to follow his balancing act between overreactive responses to perceived slights and a bold intelligence that can lead a discussion. He has written about gun control, the N-word (he’s against its use by anyone) and the mass incarceration of young African-Americans -- and he has convincingly related those subjects to sports.

Not as convincingly, Whitlock maintains that many of his most outrageous tweets and remarks came during his “Off-Broadway” period when he was scrambling for attention outside the walls of ESPN. Now that he is “on Broadway, at ESPN,” he will be able to be more of a mentor and statesman, like his own inspiration, Ralph Wiley, who starred on Page 2 until his death in 2004?

Whitlock’s “maturation,” as Skipper calls it, will be a critical factor of his success or failure on his own site.

“I am not deterred, I am not ambivalent, I am fully supportive,” Skipper said of the Whitlock endeavor. “We’ve had good, frank conversations. He has a chance to enter a new phase of his career and get beyond feuding, be more mature. Maybe I was impulsive in my choice of Jason, but you have to go with talent.”

High marks for ESPN on Sterling, Sam

May, 30, 2014
May 30
10:21
AM ET
Last year, they were just a couple of character actors waiting in the wings. But in recent weeks, Donald Sterling and Michael Sam stepped into leading roles on ESPN, and the network’s coverage of them dominated the Ombudsman’s mailbag.

Together they represent a dazzling combination of diversity -- white/black, old/young, straight/gay, billionaire/job seeker. Yet the reporting on each made many in the audience uncomfortable, if not downright angry, while stimulating necessary discussions about homophobia and racism.

There was another incidental and welcome outcome: The chance to measure ESPN journalism in an ongoing story against the so-called mainstream media. Spoiler alert: I’m giving out mostly high marks for jobs well done.

Sam, the openly gay defensive end from Missouri, became one of two main story arcs in ESPN’s recent coverage of the NFL draft. After Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel was drafted 22nd on the first day, the suspense for many viewers shifted to how high Sam would be drafted, if at all. Homophobia and a reluctance to engage a distracting media carnival were cited as reasons for teams to pass on Sam -- not to mention questions about his actual skills, size and willingness to focus totally on the game.

So one might imagine the joy and relief Sam and his boyfriend experienced when the St. Louis Rams selected him in the seventh round on the draft’s third and final day. Their reaction quickly became known as “The Kiss.” It was recorded by an ESPN camera crew and replayed over and over on various shows. The two men hugged, cried, kissed and smeared each other’s faces with cake frosting.

Of the several hundred emails I received, only one considered this a positive event well presented. The rest expressed a spectrum of negativity from disappointment to outrage. Among the typical comments, one correspondent accused ESPN of “social engineering,” another of its being a “pervert enabler.”

Nick Hernandez of Houston wrote: “The media wants us to see Sam as a football player, but all they want to show us is him kissing his boyfriend. How can we think of him as anything but gay if you keep pushing his gayness (in the coverage)?”

A Christian View

A number of viewers contrasted ESPN’s coverage of Christian athletes. Representative was this from Edison Flores of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida: “First, I want to start by saying I'm not prejudiced and strive not to be judgmental, that said, it’s funny how everyone is quick to praise Michael Sam for being gay but everyone mocked Tim Tebow for being a Christian.”

ESPN’s coverage of Tebow over the past few years was criticized by some as being excessive (not then the Ombudsman, I actually enjoyed it), but I don’t recall the young QB’s religious beliefs being attacked, certainly not in the way the sexual orientation of gay athletes has been criticized, even by an ESPN reporter on air.

And for all the conspiracy theorists who have claimed ESPN has been promoting a gay agenda, no one has wondered whether ESPN has been setting up Tebow for his new job as a TV star on the upcoming SEC Network. Many correspondents accuse ESPN of having a liberal, East Coast, even anti-Christian bias, exemplified by a general tone of celebration about Sam’s drafting. Some also say the boyfriend scene was “orchestrated.”

No argument about that.

Filming a situation with no definite start time in a room filled with the two principals, their public relations handlers, and crews from ESPN and Oprah Winfrey’s network, requires a great deal of orchestration -- or at least cooperation. According to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, the network had agreed not to start shooting the scene with Sam until the draft call came. There would be no pictures of Sam on the couch biting his nails. That said, according to Doria, ESPN refused a later request from “Sam’s people” to cut back the amount of footage being aired.

A primary member of Sam’s camp, respected Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, was uncharacteristically curt when I asked him about the arrangements with ESPN. He said he would refer the matter to “people who were there,” but those from Sam’s camp in attendance during the draft did not respond for comment.

Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer in charge of NFL studio shows for ESPN, was guiding the network’s draft coverage from a remote truck outside Radio City Music Hall. When asked about the scene with Sam, Markman told me he didn’t preview the video and was “trusting” producer Maura Mandt, who was with Sam to produce a segment for this summer’s ESPYS awards show “and had called and said ‘it's really great and emotional.’ I was really never worried about what was on the video at the time,” he said.

“As far as letting it play out, I felt that was a no-brainer,” Markman said. “Our job is to document the draft and all the emotion that goes with it. We don't make political statements. We captured the scene, which wasn't all that different than the hundreds of kisses we've seen over the years -- except this was a man and a man. If we didn't let it play out, it would be inconsistent with how we have always documented this event.”

That sounds like the right call to me. I think ESPN’s point of view here is nonideological, unless you believe capitalism and proper journalism are ideological. This was a big story -- the first openly gay player in a sport relentlessly marketed as a test of traditional American manhood, one step below military special ops. (Pat Tillman’s stride from Arizona Cardinal to Army Ranger might have been seen as anti-capitalist, but it was certainly logical as an expression of masculinity. And that story, as it continues to unspool, has been splendidly covered by Mike Fish and other ESPN reporters.)

Piercing the Safe Zone

Thus, it’s hard to see ESPN covering Sam’s reaction as anything more than its responsibility to sports fans and to the shareholders of Disney, ESPN’s parent company. And there’s no question that it was a big story to ESPN viewers. According to Mike Reznick, manager of social media research, “the @SportsCenter tweet of the Sam video clip generated five times the amount of retweets that an average @SportsCenter tweet receives."

The Ombuddies who complained that it was not proper news coverage tended to cite addresses from Southern states. Many evoked their Christianity and often described their discomfort at having their living rooms invaded by images of gay public displays of affection while their children were watching.

Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, said ESPN had not done any polling on Sam viewers. But he did have interesting observations that added texture, pointing out that the Southeast is “the strongest area for ESPN” and that feedback for social and mailboxes “is often disproportionally negative.” Added Blyn, “In some ways, fans always have come to expect a ‘politics free’ zone on ESPN. As soon as Obama does his bracket picks or fans see a car race story on Cindy McCain, it pierces that safe zone.”

The tone of the Sam mail also echoed the reaction after Fox News host Bill O’Reilly chastised ESPN for rejecting a religious ad for a Missouri hospital last year. In Sam’s case, O’Reilly described the emotional response to being drafted as “annoying” and “a dog and pony show.”

With the planned OWN documentary on hold and Sam and the Rams focused on football, we can expect that story to recede, although there will be a quick flare if Sam is cut early.

Meanwhile, the more complex tale of Sterling took another turn this week when Shelly Sterling announced that she has signed an agreement to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Shelly Sterling became the sole trustee of the Sterling family trust, according to reports by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Darren Rovell, when husband Donald, the Clippers' controlling owner, was found by experts to be mentally incapacitated.

Doria said he believes ESPN’s ongoing coverage of Sterling and his controversial remarks has been “responsible,” and I agree with him. I also think that some of the most interesting and varied opinions came out of ESPN. One arguable criticism was that ESPN was slow to report the story when it first broke. This is a recurring criticism, sometimes attributed to ESPN “protecting” one of its primary business partners, stereotypically the NFL after a star player is charged with sexual assault. But I believe Doria when he said that it was prudence rather than protectionism that kept ESPN from bursting out of the starting blocks sooner.

Doria explained that “when the story broke on TMZ, we didn’t know where the audio tape of an alleged phone call between Sterling and V. Stiviano had come from and we didn’t want to report it unless we could verify it or actually get the tape to verify that it was credible. We decided to wait until the league acknowledged its existence and started an investigation, or the Clippers or Sterling announced it.”

That explanation satisfied me, but not Jay Rosen, the well-known New York University media critic who had written me on April 26, the day the story broke, that “I think it's a good idea for ESPN to try to minimize the intervals in which all of social media is talking about something and ESPN doesn't seem to know it exists. Bad for a news network.”

Doria bridled at that. “We can’t relax standards,” he told me, “just because everyone on Twitter is a publisher. We do account for ‘buzz factor’ but don’t believe efforts to be fair are no longer relevant. This was our thought process: If true, this story will have legs and be around for a while.

"If not, you contributed to irreparable damage.”

Tentacles and Robots

The story turned out to be true and will be around for a while, but Doria and Rosen made important points (Rosen’s describing ESPN as a “news network” will be revisited in a future column). Rosen later wrote to me that he thinks perhaps all that is needed is for ESPN to find a way “to alert the more tuned-in fans that it is aware of a potentially huge story and working on it.” He also thought that “once it got going, of course, ESPN gave the story everything it was due.”

The Ombudsman concurs with that compliment.

According to Doria, there has been an effort to centralize ESPN’s newsgathering operations, with the TV and digital news desks physically realigned to encourage easier communication. “No one who has as many tentacles as we do is as well organized,” he said. In the Sterling story, this included communication between TV news executive Craig Lazarus and those at ABC involved with Barbara Walters and her interviews with Shelly Sterling and Stiviano.

Beyond the Donald Sterling story, some integration attempts with other properties can result in tentacles getting tangled up with Disney’s entertainment units. Robots appeared on the “SportsCenter” set during a reference to a new Star Wars movie, now a Disney franchise. And Bill Simmons, an executive producer of the Disney movie “Million Dollar Arm,” interviewed the film’s star, Jon Hamm, for a Grantland podcast. Wrote Steve Praven of Geneva, Illinois, “The fact that ESPN continually blurs lines on issues like this makes me think less of the network. It is a real conflict of interest and very disconcerting.”

Doria claims that ESPN newsgathering units always maintain the “church-state” separation when it comes to covering a primary business partner such as the NBA, even to the point of not leveraging business-side contacts to get advance or exclusive information. Doria, a former sports editor of The Boston Globe, will retire next year as one of the most respected of the more traditional breed of ESPN journalists who believe that news and business must remain separate to ensure integrity -- a doctrine unfortunately losing traction throughout the media world.

Although ESPN’s recent Sterling coverage might have started tardily, it really began in 2006 with one of Bomani Jones’ remarkable columns on the late, lamented ESPN.com feature section, Page 2. At the time, the Clippers’ owner was defending his second major housing discrimination lawsuit. In a smart, passionate piece, Jones accused the media of having “dropped the ball” by not exposing Sterling’s “ethical transgressions.”

Now a regular on several ESPN shows, including “Highly Questionable,” which he co-hosts with Dan Le Batard, Jones refined and expanded that accusation with a brilliant riff on ESPN Radio. Citing the recent shooting death of a friend and Chicago civil rights activist, Jones connected Sterling’s “real acts of racism,” discrimination in housing, with the lack of social mobility and educational opportunities that have stunted the lives of millions. He dismissed as fraudulent the easy attacks on Sterling for not wanting his girlfriend to show him up in front of his rich white friends by coming to games with “young black dudes.”

Also resurrected, for good reason, by the ESPN digital team was Peter Keating’s extraordinary 2009 ESPN The Magazine story, probably the most important early alert to Sterling's character. That piece prompted many people to echo Michael Smith, co-host of “Numbers Never Lie,” who asked, “Why didn’t they kick him out for the things he did?” Smith also shrewdly said that he’d “like to hear from [former NBA commissioner David] Stern, who enabled him.”

A number of Ombuddies had similar comments, including Martin Feigen of Buford, Georgia, who wrote: “As a longtime California resident I find most of the coverage of the Donald Sterling tape disingenuous at best, fake at worst. … None of this was new; it was just exposed in a different venue, TMZ, and not controlled by ESPN. This has all the underpinnings of the media’s current ‘outrage’ over PEDs in baseball when all the same baseball media knew but did not report on it when it was happening!”

Going Deeper

There were other highlights.

I liked the column by J.A. Adande, a senior writer and “Around the Horn” panelist, who noted that by taking “the hard line [NBA commissioner Adam] Silver let everyone off the hook,” including the players, fans, other owners and the media. Adande wrote: “Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is absolutely right to express his concern about a slippery slope now that words can be grounds for revocation of a franchise.

“What happens when we're forced to examine our own motives and willingness to sacrifice, when the solution isn't to get rid of someone else but to change our own behavior?”

That turned out to be prescient less than a month later when Cuban talked about his own prejudices -- a fear of black young men in hoodies and of white, tattooed skinheads. (Cuban was ably defended by Stephen A. Smith, co-host of ESPN’s “First Take,” who viewed attacks on Cuban, particularly from the black community, as an unwillingness to confront the often unconscious racism in all of us.)

ESPN.com columnist Jason Whitlock, almost always dependable for a provocative opinion, did not disappoint. He wrote: “A right to privacy is at the very foundation of American freedoms. It's a core value. It's a mistake to undermine a core value because we don't like the way a billionaire exercises it. What happens when a disgruntled lover gives TMZ a tape of a millionaire athlete expressing a homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-white perspective?

“Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who called for Clippers fans to boycott Game 5, seems quite vulnerable to mob rule. Jackson is super-religious. He's previously been extorted by a stripper he kept as a mistress. And some of the LGBT community views Jackson as homophobic.” (Jackson subsequently rejoined ESPN as an analyst after being fired by Golden State).

Senior writer Alyssa Roenigk found “an outrage missing” in the Sterling conversation. Writing on espnW, Roenigk reminds us of past charges of sexual harassment against Sterling. “But in sports, if there is any ‘-ism’ that consistently fails to move the needle, sexism is it,” she wrote.

Roenigk made a pitch for Oprah owning the Clippers, and added, “Having a woman owner in the NBA might make a few men uncomfortable. But maybe being uncomfortable is exactly what the league needs right now.”

There were many other instances of good writing and relevant talk during what has been a high-water mark of recent ESPN coverage. (Of course, neither the Sam nor the Sterling show is over yet, so stay tuned.)

But to Roenigk’s point, perhaps being uncomfortable in the virtual press box and in the family living room is what media and fans need right now. As John Saunders, moderator of “The Sports Reporters,” pointed out on a recent show, it sometimes takes crises for people to ask the right questions … and address the critical issues.

Investigating the investigators at ESPN

April, 28, 2014
Apr 28
11:24
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ESPN’s investigative unit is a SEAL Team of American journalism, and Don Van Natta Jr. is one of its top operatives. His reports cut deep and often evoke cries of outrage. His most recent story for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com was a profile of Mike McQueary, one of the most intriguing characters in the Penn State sexual assault scandal.

After its publication last month, Van Natta’s story was praised by many, but also attacked by some for its outing of a sexual abuse survivor, use of anonymous sources, naming of a source who requested anonymity and its perceived bias against the convicted rapist Jerry Sandusky and the late coach Joe Paterno.

This would seem like piling on -- a 7,000-word story -- except that McQueary is expected to be a key witness in the upcoming trial of three top university officials accused of a cover-up. Not only may his credibility determine the fate of defendants threatened by long prison terms, it could reflect on the past actions of various interests in the university community and the media. Attacks on McQueary and/or Van Natta may thus signal those interests at work.

Which is not to say the attacks should be dismissed.

It seemed like an opportunity to examine the anatomy of an investigative report, arguably the most important form of journalism, and one whose techniques can sometimes seem slippery. Throughout several long conversations Van Natta was unfailingly professional, cooperative and yet assertive in defense of his methods. He also went on and off the record.

My interest in the Van Natta story was piqued in part by writer/filmmaker John Ziegler, who protested that Van Natta violated an agreement with him not to use the name of a grand juror he interviewed. The name of Ziegler’s site, Framingpaterno.com, is an accurate description of his perspective, and he theorizes ESPN’s choices in the story were dictated by a commitment to a simple narrative.

I was also alerted by several mailbag correspondents, who complained that McQueary’s admission of his sexual abuse was reported without his direct permission. That disclosure was the most sensational in Van Natta’s article, “The Whistleblower’s Last Stand.” As a 26-year-old graduate assistant coach, McQueary had walked in on Sandusky and a young boy in a Penn State football shower room on Feb. 9, 2001. A strapping 6-foot-5 former quarterback, McQueary was subsequently criticized for neither disrupting the action nor notifying the police. He said he informed his father that night and Paterno the next day.

A PAST TRAUMA SHARED

More than 10 years later, by then a Penn State assistant coach, McQueary cried as he told more than a dozen wide receivers and tight ends in his position group, according to Van Natta’s story, that “he could relate to the fear and helplessness felt by the boy in the shower because he too was sexually abused as a boy.”

According to his story, Van Natta interviewed “two players who were there and others familiar with the 40-minute session” and later in the piece quoted Patrick Flanagan, who had been a redshirt freshman receiver on the team, saying that “[McQueary] said he had some regret that he didn’t stop it.” It was not made clear in the article whether Flanagan was one of the two players there or one of the others, familiar with the 40-minute session, who spoke to Van Natta.

That kind of imprecision, presumably to protect sources who demanded anonymity, gives the impression of cutting corners. The confession itself was paraphrased, never offered as a direct quote. Despite alluding to long, mostly off-the-record conversations with McQueary himself, Van Natta never states whether or not the coach actually confirmed his locker-room declaration, much less gave the reporter permission to reveal it.

For some, that was unacceptable. Typical was an e-mail from Marcia Wright-Soika of Wilmington, Del., who wrote: “The reporter revealed that Mike McQueary privately told members of the Penn State football team in 2011 that he was a victim of sexual abuse. … The magazine went ahead and printed it anyway, violating a long-time journalistic principle that protects the privacy of sexual abuse and rape victims.”

Ethicist Kelly McBride, who previously served in an ombudsman role at ESPN as part of the Poynter Review Project, expressed her criticism on the Poynter Institute site. She wrote that Van Natta had not put the sexual abuse issue in context with enough reporting and concluded, “The threshold for identifying someone as a sexual assault survivor against his or her wishes should be exceedingly high. … Is there reason to doubt McQueary’s truthfulness about the abuse? There’s no reporting that supports or undermines his claim. The writer could have at the very least revealed McQueary’s reaction and McQueary’s father’s reaction, when they learned that ESPN was going to publish the story of the abuse.”

Her original story was later revised to include a response by Chad Millman, editor-in-chief of ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com, who expressed confidence in the reporting and described a carefully reached decision to print McQueary’s declaration. ESPN guidelines clearly prohibit identifying a victim of sexual abuse unless the victim publicly steps forward, as in a legal setting such as a civil suit, or if the story has a higher editorial imperative. It is not clear whether McQueary speaking to players in a position meeting can be interpreted as a public disclosure.

Said Millman, “Given that he is a central figure in the upcoming trial of Penn State officials and his own whistleblower lawsuit, a big focus is on what he saw, what he said and who he said it to. As a result, we carefully considered that if he was a victim of sexual abuse, that may have affected how he processed what he saw and what his reaction and statements were in the aftermath.”

BASIC QUESTIONS

Whatever the setting, reporters need to answer the basic question, “Who told you that?” And in particularly sensitive stories, there is an accompanying question, “Why did that person tell you that?”

That second question applies here and includes the motivation of Ziegler for sharing information with Van Natta, in this case the grand juror’s contact information, and the motivation of the grand juror for speaking to either of them. The tricky relationship between reporter and source is at play here, especially complex when the source has an axe to grind, as does Ziegler.

It was Ziegler who levied perhaps the most serious charge against Van Natta -- exposing the identity of the grand juror. Ziegler believed that Sandusky, Paterno and the former university officials facing trial had been victims of a rush to judgment, and he saw Van Natta as “a great white hope” whose story would “get to the truth” and “eviscerate” McQueary’s credibility.

Van Natta was aware of Ziegler’s take, and in one e-mail exchange with Ziegler, he agreed to keep the name anonymous. The grand juror (who asked me not to use his name for this story despite it already being on ESPN.com) had his own reason to talk; he was a Penn State graduate, a Paterno loyalist who, he told me, “almost cried at the attacks on Joe.” He told Van Natta, according to the magazine article, that “he was skeptical of McQueary’s claim that sexual acts were going on between the boy and Sandusky.”

In his story, Van Natta mentioned the grand juror’s name, hometown and workplace. Van Natta told me that was justified because the promise of anonymity was between Ziegler and the grand juror, not between him and the grand juror -- and the juror became Van Natta’s source once they made contact. During their conversation, Van Natta told me, the grand juror never requested anonymity, even when the reporter asked for such specific details as the spelling of his name, his address and where he worked.

The grand juror told me he had never requested anonymity from Van Natta because he assumed it had been promised; it was the reason he allowed Ziegler to offer up his e-mail and phone number. He said he was shocked after the story appeared and he began getting calls at work.

Van Natta’s response: “A few days later, the grand juror sent an unsolicited follow-up email with additional comments, presumably for the record because, once again, he didn’t say those remarks were on background or that he should not be quoted by name. I came away from all my communications with the grand juror convinced that he was not only willing to go on the record, but he was eager to do so.”

There appears to have been a miscommunication between Van Natta and the grand juror, who made clear to me he was anxious to get his opinion on ESPN, but not with his name attached.

THE GAMBLING QUARTERBACK

Beating up on Van Natta for naming a source is ironic since the basic rap on journalists, certainly including ESPN investigative reporters, is the overuse of anonymous sources. Van Natta, among others, is quick to admit that he would be out of business without them. He said: “Without anonymous sources I could not have done this piece or most of my pieces.”

Anonymous sources are the only sources in Van Natta’s recounting of McQueary’s “compulsive gambling habit” as an undergraduate football player. People referred to as “some who knew him then” and “several of his classmates and teammates” and “former coaches” and “a woman who worked for years in the football office” describe his “façade” as a “model guy” while he was “fooling fans” and “pulling the wool over on Paterno,” who was “clueless” to the thousands of dollars McQueary lost to a bookie betting on his own game.

ESPN is rightly proud of tightening its guidelines on the use of anonymous sources in recent years, but the system seems to have slipped a gear here. Editors might have sent Van Natta back to find at least one identifiable voice. Van Natta contends that the entire issue is so “toxic” and the inhabitants of Happy Valley so sensitive that people simply refuse to go on the record even though what he was asking them about had happened 18 years earlier.

ESPN policy requires reporters to identify their anonymous sources to their supervising editors, which Van Natta says happened here. Millman seems to have been satisfied with the result. In answer to my question about why the gambling information was so important, he replied: “It revealed elements of McQueary's character and judgment from an early age and established, through comments of those in the football office, that Paterno could be unaware. Also, there is newsworthiness in discovering a college player and former starting quarterback for a high-profile program reportedly gambled on games, including his own when he was a backup.”

WHO DO WE TRUST?

Among the critics were those who argued ESPN and Van Natta left out details that could have countered that point of view. That’s all part of the deal for investigative reporters in the murky “Spy vs. Spy” world in which they operate. Because they usually know more -- or imply such -- than they can directly state or attribute, they often leave the reader/viewer with the choice of whether or not to trust the reporter. This is not always easy in an era of some infamous journalistic transgressions. Reporters become targets for those with special interests. In politics, it becomes more intense. In conflict zones, it can become deadly.

I wish Van Natta had come up with at least one on-the-record source for the gambling accusations; actually, I’d like to know whether McQueary kicked that habit or is still gambling. I wish Van Natta had clearly stated to the grand juror that their conversation was on-the-record, but I can understand the confusion; also, considering that the grand juror had a special interest in supporting the image of Paterno, I don’t think he was badly used.

And then there is the big hole in the story: Did Van Natta’s off-the-record conversations with McQueary confirm to him all those shards of information that, to the reader, could seem like rumor or speculation? Why was McQueary willing to talk so much to Van Natta yet not to the rest of us? Obviously we don’t know everything that Van Natta knows, but do we know everything we need to know to understand a tormented man with a key role in a terrible scandal?

Van Natta expects us to trust him. It’s what investigative reporters depend on. I happen to trust Don Van Natta Jr., but I feel forced to do so, and I’m not happy about that.

Agree or disagree? Reaction from readers

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
9:34
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The response to my most recent column about ESPN’s coverage of such topics as the N-word, gay players, bullying and concussions -- topics some fans consider unwelcome buzzkills -- was particularly gratifying. It was less an avalanche of agreement or disagreement (you’re a genius or you’re jerk) than a thoughtful extension of the original discussion. Bravo, Ombuddies!

Here are excerpts from my elite eight:
  • Trevor Frank of Hayden, Idaho: “I love Grantland and fivethirtyeight for their intelligent coverage and nuanced perspectives. If those types of outlets are where I need to go, then so be it, but I still think ESPN has a role in these discussions … boiling these issues down to a couple sentences on ‘SportsCenter’ does everyone a disservice because the people who don't want to hear about it are still 'forced' to listen but there's not enough depth to make the story meaningful to anyone. … Keep in-depth segments, articles, shows, films, etc., but don't bother mentioning these issues (all but the most massive stories) unless you're going to take the time to allow for a look beneath the surface of the headline. When you play the middle ground with devoting coverage to these issues, you just frustrate everyone.”

My view: Interesting that Trevor separates the boutique franchises from ESPN as a whole. Nevertheless, I think he’s got a point: Cover the story thoroughly, or why bother?
  • Michael Bennett of North Kingstown, R.I.: “The Michael Sam thing was a complete media thing. My stepbrother is gay and my sister is black. To me, the story should be no story. THE story is that no one cares. THAT shows the change in the country. THAT shows that no one cares that a gay man is playing in the NFL or a black man was elected president. Why try and find stories about people's reactions to it? The media was fishing for a fight and the only people that don't see that are people in the media.”

My view: Is this wishful thinking? It seems as though people do care, and unfortunately that often shows itself as negative reactions – whether that’s to an African-American in the White House or a gay man in the NFL.

LeBron launches … a drink?
  • Seth Rima of Richfield, Minn.: “I feel this ‘what should ESPN be shoving in fans' faces’ article completely missed the point. I can objectively agree that the four main stories that you claim are being complained about the most are worthy of stories on ESPN. My issue with ESPN is primarily with stories like the one currently holding forth on the main page titled ‘King's Flavor: Sprite launches LeBron drink’ WHAT? Can ESPN just let the obnoxious commercials do that marketing job? It is NOT a sports story. It's fluff. It does its job, it makes me aware of a LeBron-flavored Sprite (which is an upsetting thought). But that job should be left to ... Sprite. Or LeBron James. Not ESPN. It is stories like that, and there are MANY of them, that make ESPN less and less credible.”

My view: Good point, Seth. If James is going to take his talents to the carbonation station, let him take out an ad.
  • Ethan Ash of North Canton, Ohio: “While I recognize ESPN is fundamentally a segment of Disney, which is of course a business, ESPN does not seem to regard the call of journalism all that highly given the nature and composition of stories. The ‘Top 10’ epitomizes this -- despite a globe full of elite athletes in diverse arenas, an enormous percentage of these clips feature American men in either the NFL, NBA or MLB (with an occasional rise in NHL coverage). ... ESPN seems perfectly content to spew cliches and statistical non sequiturs, allowing a show like ‘Numbers Never Lie’ to occupy a prime spot when it, unlike the newly acquired fivethirtyeight.com, fails to take even the most basic of statistical principles into account in its ‘reasoning’ of facts.”

My view: “The call of journalism” at ESPN is a topic unto itself, but I think you’re right that “Numbers” has drifted toward words, perhaps because the original concept was unsustainable (and now maybe unnecessary with FiveThirtyEight.)
  • Evan Ikerd of Puyallup, Wash.: “I am one of those fans that enjoyed ESPN when it wasn't full of politics, news and cultural issues. … Our country is divided on many issues, please don't be another TV network that is tossing another wedge into that division to make it expand. Help unite people through sports, not divide.”

My view: I second Evan’s sentiments, but I don’t agree that covering controversial topics is in itself divisive.

Sportswriters Feeling Inferior?
  • Jason Kim of Seattle: “I can't tell you how frustrated I feel when, instead of sports, ESPN focuses on some dumb controversy involving the N-word or bullying or whatever. It’s not about the story, it’s about ratings and clicks. It’s clear they're catering to the more mainstream or lowest common denominator. … Is this some kind of inferiority complex by sportswriters because they're [so] ashamed of covering something other journalists find frivolous that they jump at chances to cover something serious to win a [Pulitzer] or whatever?”

My view: You might have a point -- some sportswriters feeling that their work is “frivolous” -- but maybe they are writing frivolously about topics they should be covering seriously. And I wouldn’t call the controversies we’ve been talking about “dumb.” Not when lives are involved.
  • Jim Mills of Reading, Pa.: “I rather like the blog about giving fans what they want, and I'm glad somebody is finally addressing what ESPN should be covering. ‘SportsCenter’ is far from the award-winning show that it used to be; I used to be able to turn it on in the morning and within a half hour see highlights from every sporting event from the previous night, in ALL sports: baseball, hockey, basketball, football, college and pro. Now they show a random run or two from a baseball game and then go to some analyst who talks about what they ‘think’ a team is going to do in the playoffs. Even worse is when so much time is spent talking about a sport in its offseason. …I want to see what ACTUALLY happened as opposed to what MIGHT happen.”

My view: You really made an end run on that one, but I know what you mean about analysts reading their tea leaves instead of the scoreboard.
  • Rich Leivenberg of Sherman Oaks, Calif.: “As sports fans, we should know and understand these issues. As people, we must try to deal with them.’

My view: Wish I’d written that, Rich. Probably will. Thanks, all.

Give fans what they want, or should have?

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
10:48
PM ET
Enough already about Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, concussions and the N-word. I turn on ESPN to get away from the stress of everyday life, to relax with my friends, to share some family time with the kids. Why do you keep shoving that stuff in my face?

Those sentiments have been coming up more and more often lately in the ombudsman’s mailbag. The standard answers to the question -- that those stories are news or important or drive ratings and clicks -- might be true yet still avoid the underlying question: What, exactly, is ESPN’s role and responsibility here? Should ESPN be giving its customers what many of them say they want or what ESPN thinks they need or what’s trending at the moment?

This is a major topic that will not be covered adequately in a single column, but right now, halfway through my scheduled 18-month tenure as ombudsman, it’s worth a drive-by, especially given that I don’t think ESPN is actually shoving enough of that stuff in enough faces often enough. The coverage of issues that jump the white lines tends to be hit-and-run, treated as isolated events rather than as a web of Jock Culture attitudes and politics that are connected and need continual attention.

Yet then again, maybe those ombuddies who want their sports unadulterated -- give us X's and O's and just the facts of the game, please, and maybe a seasoning of up-close-and-personal -- have a case. They’re the customers, after all, paying the top dollar in cable charges -- and for many, a magazine subscription and Insider fees -- and they have a right to deny those buzzkills if they can.

Spoiler alert! If you want to avoid the four main shove-in-the-face buzzkills that are currently dampening the pure pleasure of the sports fan experience, stop now.

Buzzkill 1: The N-Word

As expected, the hourlong “Outside the Lines” special show about the N-word on Feb. 23 was a solid piece of journalism with some fresh takes, worthy of ESPN’s first Alfred I. duPont winner.

The N-word (in itself a euphemism that has become ugly) was linked to slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and contemporary racism. It was the last word many African-Americans heard before they were lynched. The mind-bending complexity of the topic was epitomized by an Asian American high school student who told OTL he felt happily assimilated when a racial slur was directed against him. There was an interesting generational mix to the show; Mean Joe Greene and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted the word buried, but rapper Common extolled its power to communicate with his audience. Furthermore, he said that our “violent culture” with its “lack of jobs” was not caused by a word that can also be used “with love.”

Two of ESPN’s reliably interesting commentators, Jason Whitlock and Michael Wilbon, disagreed on the show, then carried their remarkably civil dialogue to the Feb. 27 edition of Whitlock’s podcast, “Real Talk.”

On the special and podcast and “Pardon the Interruption,” Wilbon kept reminding us that he uses the N-word “every day,” although not with his young son. He says African-Americans have taken ownership of the word from slave masters and racists and thus not only defused it but given it nuance. Wilbon claims racial exclusivity for the word -- he says he is ready to fight any white who dares use it in his presence.

Whitlock says he is “most offended” when a black person uses the word and thus continues a history of “mental enslavement.” Why should blacks be “part of our own destruction,” he wonders, and “let ourselves be defined in a way no other ethnic group has ever allowed?”

I can see how such a discussion gets in the way of blissing out in the endless discourse of, say, NFL draft picks, but consider the powerful impact of debating the topic in the very arenas where jocks and musicians have made it such a currency of mass communication and confusion.

The N-word has tentacles. On “PTI” last year, Wilbon characterized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s defense of the R-word to Congress (remember the Washington Redskins?) as “gutless… Redskin is like using the N-word to African-American people, OK?”

The NFL’s recent trial balloon about a 15-yard penalty for using the N-word on the field evoked this response from reader Wanda Kelly of Charlotte, N.C.: “I am a 60-year-old African-American female, who has watched ESPN, and sports for many years. … The NFL proudly has a relationship with these rappers and the hip hop culture who continually use the N-word in their music and culture. … Cut ties with the hip hop culture first, and then it looks like you are trying to make a statement!”

Beyond the N-word’s association with hip hop and entertainment, and the disagreement over its use, is the connection that seems to be willfully ignored; the NFL, like most American elite revenue-producing sports, is disproportionately black. March Madness reminds us every year the difference between the percentage of African-Americans on a college’s basketball team and of its general student population. We don’t need to hear this during every game, but it’s an important ongoing story that needs coverage. What does it tell us about our games, our possibilities and choices, our country? It might not be part of the entertainment, but it is part of the journalism. Separating those two aspects of ESPN is something else to be considered someday soon.

Buzzkill 2: Coming Out

The return of Jason Collins to the NBA as a journeyman brute with experience and finesse and the emergence of Michael Sam as a niche player who might be drafted into the NFL are not quite as dramatic scenarios as many gay rights activists had hoped for -- nothing like, say, an entire 4-3 defense coming out together or an established quarterback or a first-round draft pick. Although that would have been more sensational, the coming-out of Collins and Sam, who are more representative of everyday pro players, will do more to educate fans about the ordinariness of gay athletes. Maybe that’s what scares those who discriminate; true integration comes when you don’t have to be exceptional to join the club. Collins and Sam seem to be decent human beings and are not superstars. (See Elizabeth Merrill’s excellent piece on Sam’s time at Missouri in the March 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine)

Within the game, athletes who are uncomfortable with gay teammates (showering together is the avowed symbol of discomfort) may very well be insecure about the boundaries of their own sexuality. As far as I have seen, only one ESPN commentator, Keith Olbermann, has taken a run at that, and even he did so in an atypically oblique way.

Drawing on what he described as 20 years of conversations with friends who were elite athletes, Olbermann characterized the group as “ultra-physical beings” for whom “'love' and 'like' mean sex.” But they have “deep platonic affections” that come “closer than a family or a fraternity, closer than anything other than men at war.”

There can be a “confusion” here, says Olbermann, and a “fear that others might think [the athlete] was gay.” Gay slurs are often used by some athletes to “show they are not gay.”

Olbermann is smart and sophisticated, so I take his circumspection as respect for a minefield in sports -- so-called homoeroticism. It also exists in prisons, where I have taught, and in fraternity houses and Army barracks, where I’ve lived. It is, of course, “complex,” and needs more, not less, exposure because same-sex attraction can be very confusing to young athletes and fans; just what is platonic, homosexual or something in between? (One word sometimes used is “homosocial,” which can cover everything from, say, all-male "Monday Night Football" parties to man-crushes on celebrity players to the decisions young gay players must make about coming out or leaving a sport).

If you start listening through your sexuality/gender filters, the homosocial vibe is everywhere on ESPN. On Feb. 24, for example, “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith discussed how teams might disregard character or NFL combine scores to pick a player who is a great physical specimen. It would be like, he said, choosing to ignore a woman’s dicey past because “Oh, my god, she’s so fine.”

And then there was Sam’s comment at an NFL combine news conference. He described his triumphant appearance at a Missouri basketball game after his coming out, and said, “I want to cry, but I’m a man.”

For all the terrific work women do on every level of ESPN, testosterone is still the prevalent element in the air -- most of the players and sports officials who are being covered, as well as the writers, talent and executives, are male. This can create a kind of jocular male locker-room sensibility, making it a little inside-y and comfortable sometimes.

Understandably, everybody wants to feel like a member of the club, including readers and viewers. It’s part of the entertainment. But when stories fight that clubbiness -- gay athletes, major figures accused of sex crimes against women, the Penn State scandal, etc. -- ESPN has to make a greater effort on more platforms to report and explain, finding voices within and outside the company to offer perspective and context.

Buzzkill 3: Bullying

The N-word and the F-word lurked in the tale of Richie Incognito, a white man with a nasty past who drove a sensitive black colleague, Jonathan Martin, off the Miami Dolphins, abetted by two teammates of color. Some of the fascination with the NFL-sponsored Wells report had to do with big league bullying -- this was our own high school lives writ large.

Who couldn’t identify? But almost as absorbing was this nagging question: Should either Incognito and Martin be playing in the NFL? And what would the answer tell us about the game and our relation to it?

Dan Le Batard, in his Feb. 15 column came closest to answering those questions as he captured the story’s essence. Le Batard wrote: “There are a lot of clarity-of-hindsight gasbags on TV denouncing the lack of leadership in the Dolphins' locker room now. But maybe it wasn't a lack of leadership. Maybe it was an acceptance and understanding of that particular jungle. … We can all moralize about this now from the outside, choosing sides, but this wasn't about morality and immorality to the people on the inside. It was about strength and weakness. The players in that locker room think Martin is a soft, whining quitter who caused all this because he wasn't tough enough for their survival-of-the-fittest workplace.”

Le Batard continued: “Richie Incognito is an extreme character, obviously, a cartoonish and reckless meathead. But Martin is an extreme, too, as the report reveals. Weak by his own admission, thoughtfully complaining to his mother that he was unwilling to stand up for himself. You needed both of these extremes to create the larger one that is this scandal. … The Incognitos tend to get rewarded in this workplace, even when their idiocy spills into streets and bars. The Martins tend to get weeded out. When the very nature of your game is barbaric and primal, it is easier to try to tame the savages than it is to make the civilized more savage.”

One of those channeling the clarity of hindsight was Mark Schlereth, who played 12 years as an offensive lineman for the Redskins and Broncos before becoming, in my estimation, one of ESPN’s best NFL analysts. But on TV, on the ESPN radio show he co-hosts, “Sedano and Stink,” and in a column on ESPN.com, Schlereth became an NFL apologist by casting the Dolphins as something of an outlaw organization with poor leadership.

“Where were the men of character?” Schlereth wrote. “Where were the men of integrity who would intercede on behalf of a hurting teammate, a member of the family?”

He sets up a straw man: “In light of the Incognito/Martin story, people would have you believe that you have to be some raving lunatic to play in the NFL, wound so tightly that the slightest spark will [incite] an insatiable inferno. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

He bats away the straw man with personal stories of kindly locker rooms in which he has been befriended or his own leadership easily tamped down bullying. He expresses empathy for Martin by recounting his own pain at being bullied as a dyslexic kid.

On radio, Schlereth quickly dismissed callers who reflected any NFL negativity or echoed the sentiments of Oregon professor David Bradley, who declared on the OTL N-word show: “The NFL is not a civil society. It’s where we put our aggressions.”

Le Batard’s vision of the NFL as a primal, barbaric jungle and Schlereth’s as a rough-and-tumble yet fuzzy family, evoke an ongoing ESPN problem -- the gulf between journalists and analysts. The best ESPN journalists tend to be as skeptical of the sports world as the best political journalists are of government. Meanwhile, too many ESPN analysts, former athletes and coaches, tend to be -- like the ex-generals and senators who pop up on news shows -- mouthpieces for an industry to which they might like to return someday. ESPN hosts often have a hard time asserting themselves with jocks who pull the “I played the game” card. It’s up to ESPN producers to fashion shows so journalists aren’t blocked by analysts.

Not all hosts and commentators are as hard-nosed as Le Batard, nor are all former athletes and coaches apologists like Schlereth, although a majority seemed to blame Martin for being weak and a snitch.

One area of agreement was the assessment of Incognito’s future -- he has one if a team thinks he can help it win. Ombuddy Badrish Patel of Rose Valley, Pa., offered a thoughtful take on all this.

“Does the NFL represent an evolving thread of id-based violence, stretching back to pugilism, jousting, and roman gladiators, which still holds value for those who appreciate the salaciousness of watching our basest instincts on unadulterated display?” he wrote. “How much tolerance will a society which continues to civilize itself by promoting and defending gay players and depressed players in the hottest crucible of violence, the NFL, have for the seemingly essential elements which make up a culture of violence? Can those elements be conditioned away, or are they essential to a physically human activity?

“Put more simply, if androids with greater strength and speed but incapable of emotion played in the NFL, would it still be fun to watch? … I find [Tedy] Bruschi, and every other former player turned saintly ambassador for the game, utterly insincere when he says that the kind of over-the-top meathead attitude of Incognito is, by far, the exception in the NFL, and not the rule. Please. I remember public high school locker rooms before gym class.”

Martin has since landed with the San Francisco 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh, who also coached Martin at Stanford. Obviously, someone thinks Martin can help a team, too.

Some insight into Martin’s damage comes from an unexpected and welcome source -- ESPN’s fantasy guy, Matthew Berry, who might have written the most useful piece on the case so far, in his The Talented Mr. Roto column.

Berry describes his years of being bullied, of having to give up his dessert to be allowed to sit down at lunch in grade school, of humiliating pranks through high school, of always being afraid, distrustful, playing along and being nice in hopes the bullies would leave him alone. That feeling of being trapped.

“His detractors call him soft and say that he ‘shouldn't have run.’” Berry writes of Martin. “I gotta tell you: Doing what Jonathan Martin did took a lot more guts and bravery than just staying. Because there's always the fear. Not just the fear of retribution, but of what people will think, of looking weak and making yourself a bigger target.

“I have that fear. I have it to this day. In fact, I had planned on writing this column last week, when the story first broke. But when it came time to do it ... I was scared. Do I really want to admit to everyone that I was bullied? Doesn't it make me look pathetic? If you've followed my career at all, you know that promoting fantasy sports and the fantasy sports industry is important to me; painting it in a positive light and fighting all the stereotypes that the naysayers have labeled us with over the years. So the fantasy nerd got bullied? Well, that image ain't helping the cause, Berry.”

Buzzkill 4: Banging Heads

The concussion discussion has a twisted history at ESPN. On one hand, the removal of ESPN’s imprimatur from a joint project with PBS’ "Frontline" led to accusations that ESPN had been bullied by the NFL. The network derives significant revenue from broadcasting NFL games and talking about them. The conflict of interest is an ongoing topic within ESPN, as well as among critics.

On the other hand, much of the best work on brain trauma and the NFL’s attempt to deny and downplay its impact has been by ESPN reporters and producers, including the core of that "Frontline" show and accompanying book “League of Denial.”

And the fine reports keep coming. Two of the lead ESPN reporters on the story, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, continued breaking ground with their January piece on the dispute among the players’ lawyers over the settlement and their piece this month on the division between the league and the players’ association on the allocation of research funds.

For the NFL (and perhaps for ESPN, as well, given its financial partnership), the concussion discussion might be the most critical of the buzzkills. At stake could be the survival, or at least continuing prosperity, of the league. It could lose its player pipelines, its fans, its sponsors, if the game comes to be seen as a cynically managed gladiatorial spectacle dangerous to the physical and emotional well-being of its players.

Bringing up concussions on every hard hit in pro and college football next season is not the answer to the opening question about ESPN’s role and responsibility. However, neither are the long silences between eruptions of the N-word, gay bashing, bullying. These are all ongoing stories that give context to sports. Goodell has handily described the N-word issue as “complex,” which is a way of pushing it to a sideline as too hard to understand.

Concussions might top the list of complexity, a topic that simply can’t be wrapped in 90 seconds on “SportsCenter” or nibbled to death for days on the chat shows by gasbags who are offering stale opinions. Does ESPN need a “Concussion Watch,” a daily or weekly catch-up, 2 minutes, more if warranted, on the latest advances in science, rules changes, litigation, victims? What about this disagreement between owners and players on the allocation of research funds? Does it have anything to do with the possibility that Harvard could concentrate on the brain trauma to athletes but the National Institutes of Health would have to spread the investigation beyond football? Granted, this might not be conducive to stress-free family watching, but then again, maybe you should know if, by putting a helmet on your kids, you’re putting them in danger.

There’s hope. The creation of Exit 31, a division within ESPN that will include Bill Simmons’ Grantland, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films, is a clear indication of reshuffling the deck for more creativity. I look forward to Whitlock’s new site, which he sees as a home for black journalists and fans. There are other internal changes underway that should offer more platforms for the smarter coverage of stories that never go away, that fly just under the radar until they take us by surprise again.

And really disrupt your pure fan pleasure.

What do you think? My second half has begun.

Dr. V story understandable, inexcusable

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
12:21
PM ET
A young golfer’s obsession with an oddly shaped putter invented by a mysterious scientist and endorsed on YouTube? I will give that kind of story no more than a few paragraphs to grab my interest before I bail out, even if it is featured on a site known for compelling storytelling.

Just a few moments into reading that very story recently on Grantland, it was shaping up as another one of those bloated selfies that clog the arteries of sports-lit these days.

Four graphs and I was gone.

Thus, even though “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was hastily hailed in the Twitterverse as another long-form masterpiece, I didn’t get back to it until after what would turn out to be a powerful backlash -- an angry and anguished firestorm captured in this e-mail to the ombudsman from Brenna Winsett of Minneapolis:

“If ESPN writers can hound a transgender person to death over something like a golf club, is there any line they won't cross?” she wrote. “This garbage makes a mockery of this woman's life and encourages readers to view transgender people's identities as frauds.”

Now, the story had my attention. And, given the noisy reaction from many quarters in the past week, the nearly 8,000-word piece by freelance writer Caleb Hannan is destined to become a lesson in journalism, workplace dynamics and plain old humanity.

Critiques of the piece, in my mailbag, on media sites and in blogs (such as here) were sometimes brilliant in their insights into transgender lives (often their own) and condemnation of the way the corporate media cover communities they so often marginalize. Much of the criticism was generically true, although I don’t think this piece was a conscious persecution of a transgender person as much as it was an example of unawareness and arrogance. It was a rare breakdown in one of ESPN’s best and brightest places, and an understandable but inexcusable instance of how the conditioned drive to get to the core of a story can block the better angels of a journalist’s nature and possibly lead to tragic consequences.

The story lacked understanding, empathy and introspection -- no small ingredients. More reporting would have helped. It was a story worth telling, if told right. And aside from its humane shortcomings, I still don’t like it as a piece of writing.

The idea was classic

Yet, with fewer revisions than one might think, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” could have been a classic. It began classically: with a quest.

A 31-year-old writer with an inconsistent golf game sets out to find his Excalibur, in this case the innovative YAR putter he first spots being promoted by a TV golf announcer. His game improves, he thinks, but he wonders whether it’s real or an example of “positive contagion,” a belief that can confer unwarranted confidence. He soon becomes fascinated by the elusive inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a 60-year-old, red-headed 6-footer with a deep voice who claims connections to the Commodore Vanderbilt family, MIT and the Department of Defense. He connects with her, promising he will concentrate on “the science not the scientist,” as she demands.

Hannan never meets Vanderbilt in person, but, in his due diligence, he discovers that she probably has lied about her scientific and government credentials -- at least he is unable to verify her degrees and work record. He finds out toward the end of his reporting that Vanderbilt is transgender, with two ex-wives and three children. Almost accidentally, he later learns that she has committed suicide. His reaction seems careless, even callous.

Because he knows little about the besieged transgender community, he conflates all her personal lies and apparently comes to believe -- if he really thought about it -- that, as a presumed con artist, she was fair game and had no right to privacy.

The story itself is structurally clumsy and flabbily edited. Yet Grantland’s gatekeepers – including Bill Simmons, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, and more than a dozen editors in all -- waved the story on through seven months of meetings and drafts and tweaks. They might have been blinded by the idea that had captivated them in the first place, the self-absorbed young man looking for his quick fix, a metaphor for the times and perhaps Grantland’s demographic. But that was not the story anymore. The twists and turns were the story, the possible lack of resolution and some serious reflections on responsibility and death.

“The story kept changing, but the writer and editors did not,” said Jay Lovinger, who was not involved in the piece but is one of ESPN’s most respected editors. “This could have been a fascinating look at the human condition. Even with its flaws, there was a lot to learn here. I’m glad they ran it.”

That view certainly was not shared by critics, especially in the LGBT community, where the piece quickly became symbolic of corporate media’s ignorance if not hostility. Vanderbilt’s suicide was blamed by some on Hannan’s ambition and lack of compassion. In an excellent article in The Arizona Republic 10 days after the Grantland story was posted, knowledge of the factors around Vanderbilt’s suicide -- as well as other events -- became even more nuanced.

In the kind of deep, empathetic reporting Grantland might have achieved had it really stayed with the story to its core, Megan Finnerty of the Republic interviewed Vanderbilt’s post-operative patient care assistant as well as her business partner and former girlfriend, Geri Jordan. The two women offered portraits of Vanderbilt as a real person, loving and troubled; an aggressive businesswoman; and, wrenchingly, a mother who would be grieved over by her grown children.

Jordan said that Vanderbilt was depressed and that she had attempted suicide at least twice before. She said the impending Grantland publication contributed to the timing of the suicide, three months before the story appeared, but not necessarily to the suicide itself.

The Republic also offered some telling statistics: Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, and 97 percent report harassment. Those statistics alone, had Hannan looked them up, should have been a warning. He was dealing with a vulnerable, fragile personality, no matter her intimidating phone and email persona. At the least, he should have reached out to his LGBT colleagues at ESPN, if not to outside individuals and groups, for greater understanding of a community of which he apparently knew nothing. That’s not even empathy; that’s craft.

The choices

Beyond that were two choices.

One, the story could have been written without ever mentioning gender – a choice that makes old-school journalists blink; how could you not go there once you knew her history? Hadn’t Vanderbilt opened herself up to a total discovery with her lies? Isn’t a journalist’s obligation to inform the reader rather than protect the subject?

And yet … it’s a surprisingly easy editing exercise to remove that aspect of the story, which, in Hannan’s hands, becomes more of a prurient sideshow than an integral piece of a puzzle. It also excises Hannan’s misuse of gender pronouns, his use of the phrase “a chill actually ran up my spine” to signal his realization that Vanderbilt had once identified as a man and his outing of Vanderbilt to one of her investors. Critics maintain they prove Hannan’s antagonism toward Vanderbilt and toward transgender people.

To the contrary, to me they prove he was way over his head and somehow didn’t know that he had no right to out anyone, certainly not without a lot more contextual information and a confrontation with Vanderbilt. But one of those dozen editors should have known.

Two, the story could have been spiked, which is an interesting minority opinion from Kelly McBride, an ethicist at The Poynter Institute and a former ESPN ombudsman. McBride and her co-writer, Lauren Klinger, write: “It’s also possible that the writer and his editors could have determined the deceptions were inextricably entwined with the name change and transition. In which case, the news organization would then have to ask if the subject of the story itself was so pressing to Grantland’s audience that it had to be published. It seems unlikely that an upstart golf club company rises to that level.”

That takes us out of the golf course and into a minefield of choices -- which stories and facts should be run or squelched based on their potential effect? We are always complaining that journalists protect favored politicians, celebrities and athletes. Who makes that call: The writer? The editor? The ethicist? Is the choice clearer here because Hannan should have known that outing a transgender person can be considered, by some, an act of violence, potentially putting her in statistically proven physical and emotional danger?

If Hannan didn’t know that, shouldn’t his editors have known? They failed him, as Simmons admits in his extraordinary stand-up apology on Grantland.

“We definitely screwed up,” Simmons wrote. “Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”

The education process continued in Grantland with an accompanying column by Kahrl, an accomplished ESPN.com baseball editor who is transgender. Kahrl writes that Hannan’s story “figures to be a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”

Specific to the posthumous outing, she continues, “By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians -- or anyone else, for that matter -- trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity.”

Grantland is a promising site, only 32 months old, with a young staff being shaped by Simmons, a talented, overextended 44-year-old with less traditional, hard-core journalism experience but considerable vision and celebrity. Grantland is a leader in so-called long-form journalism on the Web (as opposed to short-form Twitter), which is being attacked lately for being ubiquitous and trendy.

It is a treasure when it’s in the right hands (see ESPN’s Wright Thompson and Grantland’s own Bryan Curtis, among others), mostly boring when not -- and sometimes, as we’ve seen, even dangerous. As are all forms.

“I feel really bad about the impact the piece had on transgender readers,” Simmons told me. “I read all those anguished emails about how badly the piece made them feel, the dark places it took them to.”

Some people feel that “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” should be taken down from the site, although, by now, with so many references, it would merely be a symbolic gesture.

"I would hope Grantland would defer to the wishes of the trans community on that issue, especially since, as I understand it, the story causes so much pain,” said Kate Fagan, an ESPN.com writer who is gay. “I understand Bill's impulse to leave it online as a learning tool, but having the story stay up seems as if we are valuing Grantland's right to learn over the trans community's right to not feel anguished. As many members of the trans community have said on social media, 'My life is not your teachable moment.'"

I suspect Grantland will not make similar mistakes again, that it will tighten its editing process, create more oversight and reach out more often from its Los Angeles-based headquarters to the broader resources at ESPN. But, if it is to grow and flourish, Grantland has to keep in mind what it learned from “Dr. V’s Magic Putter” without allowing the lessons to hold it back from edgy, risky journalism.

“We are not in the business to be safe,” said Lovinger, summing up the role of journalists at ESPN and elsewhere. “We are here to make a difference and open up lines of inquiry. You have to question what you do, but you also have to go where the story takes you.”

Lessons learned from Dan Le Batard caper

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
3:49
PM ET
A wave of hurt feelings, if not a sense of betrayal, seemed to sweep across ESPN last week after the sports website Deadspin revealed that its Baseball Hall of Fame mystery voter was Dan Le Batard, a rising star at the network who hosts a daily national radio program as well as a daily show on ESPN2.

Le Batard had given Deadspin use of his Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot in what he later described as a protest against the “hypocrisy” of voters who kept alleged steroid users out of the Hall and because “I always like a little anarchy inside the cathedral we've made of sports.”

It was a clever stunt with some unsettling implications, some worthy, some not. When the final score was posted (for now, anyway), none of the major players -- with the exception of Deadspin -- seemed totally satisfied.

I wasn’t, either.

Deadspin is a provocative gadfly that frequently criticizes ESPN, which it considers too dominant, “the Death Star” of sports media, according to editor Tommy Craggs. Deadspin’s original scheme, in this case, was to buy a ballot from any one of the nearly 600 members of the BWAA eligible to vote for players to be enshrined at Cooperstown.

The Hall outsources to the BBWAA its task of anointing immortals. Deadspin wanted to crowd source the privilege to its readers “to make a mockery and farce of the increasingly solemn and absurd election process, and to take some power from the duly appointed custodians of the game's history and turn it over to the public.”

After Deadspin polled more than 40,000 readers, according to Craggs, Le Batard used the results to fill out his ballot, which he submitted under his own name. Once the story broke, on Deadspin and on Le Batard’s ESPN show, “Highly Questionable,” reaction was intense, if not unexpected.

The BBWAA suspended Le Batard for a year, and revoked his voting privileges. Several of ESPN’s leading broadcasters and executives found Le Batard’s actions “sanctimonious” and “grandstanding,” wondering why he hadn’t conducted his crusade on his national ESPN platforms. ESPN tried to distance itself from Le Batard in a statement that read, “He received his vote while at the Miami Herald. We wouldn't have advocated his voting approach.”

Le Batard is a freelance columnist for the Herald and hosts national radio and TV shows for ESPN. The Ombudsman’s mailbag gave Le Batard mixed reviews: His action was variously described as “idiotic” and “self-serving” and as an example of his “fun, intelligent, and refreshingly diverse perspectives on sports and culture.”

His most vocal on-air ESPN critics were Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, hosts of “Pardon the Interruption,” a show on which Le Batard has appeared, sometimes as guest host.

“This is egotism run amok," said Kornheiser, who also likened Le Batard’s actions to “voter fraud.”

"It is so sanctimonious for Le Batard to offer up this garbage," Wilbon said. "Because when you have a radio show that is now national, a television show that's national every day, you write columns, you even wrote for Deadspin, you have a voice, a big fat voice that can reach everyone. Don't tell me that the process is flawed. Lobby for what you believe in."

Le Batard received support from Keith Olbermann, on his ESPN2 show, and from Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, who said they had come around to Le Batard’s point of view after he had explained it on their radio show, “Mike & Mike.” In his new podcast, “Real Talk,” ESPN’s Jason Whitlock gave Le Batard a sympathetic hearing as a fellow iconoclast while keeping his own distance by admitting his lack of knowledge about baseball.

On the contrary, Howard Bryant, an ESPN columnist and a fellow Hall of Fame voter, was point-blank in saying, “Dan screwed up big time. This wasn’t the way to make a statement. He could have chosen not to engage. It was a look-at-me move. How about showing respect for the baseball writers and not making a circus and undermining those who take it seriously?”

The ESPN front office clearly felt disrespected. Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of editorial for digital and print media, said: “He didn’t tell us [in advance], which was inappropriate to many at ESPN. The problem was not with the protest but the execution. Why didn’t he do a SportsNation vote on ESPN.com? Or offer the vote to his radio audience? We’d have allowed him to do it.”

Certainly irksome to ESPN was Le Batard’s justification that, had he merely campaigned for HOF voter reform on the network’s platforms, he would have been accused of “attention-seeking” without impact. Going through Deadspin “gave it the whiff of scandal, which propelled it into a larger point.”

In retrospect, however, Le Batard said: “I wish I had waited a day so I wouldn’t have taken attention from the three guys who got into the Hall. And I had a blind spot about how much Deadspin’s involvement would hurt colleagues, and I’m bummed about that. I thought I would create unrest, not pain.”

Deadspin, of course, was delighted. Said Craggs: “We’re antagonistic to ESPN because of the way it has come to dominate sports and sports media. How it sets the terms of the conversation and, because of its size, how it distorts that conversation. We want to push back. ESPN is our Death Star.”

So, just what was this caper all about? Was it a breach of collegiality or a progressive new direction? Was it unethical? Did it defy or ennoble the spirit of journalism, or baseball itself? Was there more under the surface? Were there lessons to be learned?

It started in November when Deadspin, a Gawker site, offered to buy a baseball writer’s HOF vote. When one such deal fell through, Le Batard “reached out,” according to both he and Craggs, and offered his ballot as “back-up” should no replacement deal be made.

For some time, Le Batard, among others, has complained about the HOF voting system. Only baseball writers with at least 10 years of membership in the BBWAA are allowed to vote; this skews the electorate older, more male and white, and draws it largely from traditional print organizations, hardly a reflection of these times. Voters are allowed to vote for no more than 10 players who have been retired for at least five years.

The process doesn’t offer guidelines about players under the cloud of steroid use, whether or not it has been proven. Said Bryant: “We don’t really know who used and who didn’t. Steroids balloting is too selective, we’re meting out justice based on reputation and who you like.”

When no replacement deal was found for the Deadspin ballot, Le Batard made good on his promise. According to Le Batard and Craggs, no money changed hands. Le Batard held his physical ballot, which gave him the option to renege if Deadspin’s results were outrageous -- for example, votes for the unlikely likes of Jacque Jones or Mike Timlin.

In phone and e-mail conversations, Le Batard has expressed uncertainty as to exactly what he would have done with such a flawed ballot. He wrote: “I THINK I would have changed it. Think. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have made a mockery of the thing and am relieved that the readers didn't and that I was never forced to.”

As it turned out, the Deadspin ballot was strikingly similar to the one submitted by ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of the most respected baseball commentators in the country, and one with his own strong opinions about the voting.

Deadspin readers voted for Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine, all of whom gained induction, as well as Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling.

The Deadspin audience, as well as Olney, cast votes in the minority compared to most BBWAA members, as well as the BBWAA subset of 17 ESPN voters; most ignored players under the steroids cloud. Bryant, for example, voted only for four players: Maddux, Thomas, Glavine and Morris.

FINAL SCORECARD

Was it unethical for Le Batard to give away his vote? Probably. There is a covenant to a BBWAA membership. It was certainly inimical to the higher vision of the BBWAA, which conscientiously tries to come up with players worthy of busts in Cooperstown (not to mention the trading card show bonanza that comes with induction.) On the other hand, how many voters convene friends to help make decisions? Some have confessed.

Was the caper in support of a good cause? I think so. Among the valid issues it raised were the moral ambiguity of steroid era voting, the out-of-date composition of the BBWAA and a big one for me -- why are sportswriters giving out awards to people they cover as subjects on behalf of institutions they cover? (For an excellent story on baseball writers in the steroid era, I recommend Bryan Curtis’ latest for Grantland).

ESPN allows staffers to vote for individual honors, and I wish it would reconsider that. Not only do I think there is a conflict of interest in voting for the Hall of Fame but I think it puts writers in the position of making news as well as covering it. That is against ESPN policy (and recently was one of the in-house arguments against banning use of the nickname of the NFL Washington franchise).

One side effect of this L’Affair Le Batard was the rare display of internecine ESPN criticism, which has always been discouraged. (The embraced debates don’t count.) I have always thought a more vigorous interchange -- short of feuds, of course -- could be healthy. Le Batard seems to agree.

“I was happy to be criticized by people I love and respect, like Tony and Mike, who love and respect me,” he said. “It elevated the discourse and maybe got ESPN to a place where we could be critical of each other.”

Le Batard is a terrific performer whose voter mischief was a clever stunt. But it is disingenuous for him to now express regret at involving Deadspin.

I welcome Deadspin’s frequently bracing antidote to cheesy sports coverage, but it’s no secret that Deadspin always has ESPN in its cross-hairs. It was wrong for Le Batard to embarrass ESPN, in much the way adolescents like to make their parents squirm.

On the other hand, there are lessons to be learned while squirming. ESPN has to keep reminding itself why it hires professional bad boys like Le Batard, Whitlock, Olbermann, and the baddest boy of all: Kornheiser. While they will occasionally “screw up big time” as they swing hard and free, they also have the rare ability to take viewers over the top and find new horizons.

Did ESPN cave on ad, or act appropriately?

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
11:25
AM ET
I leave you at year’s end with a definitive Ombudsman statement: There is no place at ESPN for religious advocacy, except when there is.

The first Ombud column of 2013 concerned a debate about Christian values on “Outside the Lines” (in a story about Jason Collins’ coming out) and this final column of the year concerns a commercial that ran on ESPN, celebrating Jesus and God (in a 30-second spot about a children’s hospital).

The “Tree of Hope 2013” commercial was initially turned down by ESPN because it did not meet its advertising standards. That decision resulted in a storm of protest, led by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News as part of his defense against what he calls a “war on Christmas.” ESPN then reversed its decision, stating that the ad did meet its standards, after all.

I asked a top ESPN executive if the company had rolled over for religious interests, responded appropriately to its audience or made a pragmatic business decision. You should decide, too. His answer comes later. But first, the background.

It began Dec. 5, when the venerable Missouri Valley Conference received a new public service commercial for the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, which is one of a number of non-profit Catholic hospitals and medical facilities operated in the Midwest by St. Louis-based SSM Health Care.

The commercial asked the public to write messages to sick children “who may not be able to come home for the holidays. At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Center, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the season of giving.” The ad calls on supporters to “help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas.”

The Valley, as the conference calls itself, submitted the ad to run on ESPN and, per contract, sought approval from the network’s commercial operations department. It seemed routine to the conference, an easy lay-up. Cardinal Glennon is The Valley’s “charity of choice” and the two organizations have a 20-year relationship. The conference and ESPN have an even longer one. This commercial would be run without cost to the hospital as a public service announcement, and was slated to run on Dec. 14 during ESPNU’s showing of the Virginia Commonwealth at Northern Iowa basketball game.

RED FLAGS

But the religious references raised red flags at ESPN, and the spot was turned down, based on ESPN’s Guidelines for Standards and Practices on Advertising, which state: “ESPN does not accept advertising that consists of, in whole or in part, political or religious advocacy, or issue-oriented advertising.”

Was the conference surprised by ESPN’s decision?

“We’ve never had a spot turned down for religious reasons before, but I understood,” said Jack R. Watkins, the associate commissioner of The Valley. “ESPN has turned commercials down for political reasons. There was an energy company that asked viewers to go to a political website. The energy company didn’t like it, but they changed the ad and they are back with us.”

Watkins notified Dan Buck, executive director of the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation, of ESPN’s ruling.

“I figured it was just a mistake,” said Buck, a former local TV anchor and producer for NBC and Fox. “I mean, Jesus and God at Christmas is a problem? What in the world is America coming to? This was not advocacy or proselytizing, just philanthropy for sick kids. I didn’t think it was a problem, just some lower-level person didn’t get it. I wanted to give ESPN every benefit of the doubt and the time to get it right.”

Meanwhile, because Buck didn’t want to lose the free spot, he submitted a substitute PSA about pediatric cardiology at Cardinal Glennon. This was already Dec. 9, just five days before the game on ESPNU.

“I wanted to be sure we got some kind of message out,” Buck said.

The original commercial was resubmitted to ESPN, and again it was turned down. News of ESPN’s decision headed toward the New York studios of Fox News. Buck has denied that he alerted O’Reilly, but he eventually admitted to me that, “I probably told someone I shouldn’t have told, who let the cat out of the bag.” He wouldn’t say who that was.

By Dec. 11, O’Reilly’s producers were calling Watkins, Buck and ESPN. There would be an O’Reilly report on the matter that night. The issue ran up the ESPN chain to Ed Durso, executive vice president for administration. Durso, a lawyer, is near the top of the organizational chart at ESPN, where he has worked for 25 years after 10 years at Major League Baseball, where he was chief operating officer of the Commissioner’s Office.

“I made a decision, a business decision,” Durso told me later, explaining ESPN’s ultimate reversal. “We accepted the original spot because this was not worth all this trouble.”

ESPN issued this statement at the time: “We have again reviewed the ads submitted for the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and have concluded that we will accept the original requested commercial. It will run in Saturday’s VCU at Northern Iowa basketball game on ESPNU. This decision is consistent with our practice of individual review of all ads under our commercial advocacy standards.”

By that point, O’Reilly had already broadcast a lengthy report in which he and a guest wondered why ESPN would “marginalize a national holiday” in which many families stay home and watch ESPN (which, along with ABC, broadcasts a slate of NBA games on Christmas Day). “Although,” he surmised of viewers, “maybe not anymore.”

THE OMBUDDY REACTION

After the initial ESPN ruling, the Ombud mailbag quickly bulged with words such as “disappointed” and “appalled” and promises to quit watching ESPN unless the decision was reversed. There were hundreds of e-mails, many referencing the O’Reilly broadcast.

Among the more provocative: Rick Snyder of St. George, Utah, wrote: “You have no problem showing a football player who tortures animals to death but can't show a commercial that mentions God and Jesus? We will not be watching any ESPN channels anymore.”

And Teddy Fleck of Springfield, Mo., wrote: “Why does ESPN hate Christianity? You know it’s simple: FOX Sports is Christians, ESPN is for lefty, Anti-White and Anti-Christian folks.”

There was another mail barrage, this one of thanks when the decision was reversed. But the trouble wasn’t quite over yet. On Dec. 14, ESPN experienced what Durso would call “a traffic problem.” Because of a communication mix-up, the back-up ad ran during the basketball game. Buck spotted the error and called Watkins, who called ESPN, which
quickly ran the original ad -- twice -- during the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament.

“Speaking for myself and not The Valley,” Watkins said, “I don’t feel good about this. At the least, I feel we were used. How can you interpret Jesus and God as not religious? This is the final year of our Cardinal Glennon contract and that will be looked at carefully. We went out of our way to spread their message -- a bonus spot at no cost to them.”

Watkins, who was concerned about his ongoing relations with ESPN, also said he finds it “hard to believe that Dan Buck had nothing to do with getting word to Fox.”

From Buck’s perspective, all turned out well, and with a lesson learned.

“This casts a light, tells you how God works, sometimes turning a negative into a positive,” he said. “America rallied to our support. There were donations from 29 states, not just Catholics, but Jews and other people who believe in freedom of speech.”

Said Durso: “They got three ads in three hours. They ended up doing all right.”

Speaking of the advertising policy, Durso said, “Our overarching effort is not to choose sides. We don’t want to pick and choose. We want to stay neutral. We’re not a vehicle for social, religious, political issues. It’s not what we do.”

How did he then justify, I asked, the athletes who thank God and Jesus after scoring touchdowns, slamming home runs or celebrating victories, all on ESPN’s air?

“It’s not practical to muzzle athletes,” he said.

How will ESPN handle the coming minefield of issues surrounding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi? Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning "gay propaganda.”

“We won’t take ads from GLAAD,” Durso said, referring to the organization that promotes the media image of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people, “or from supporters of Russian attitudes against gay rights. We are not in that business.

“You’re taking this into a much larger context, which is fine, but ESPN is not in that world of cause marketing. All we do is the Jimmy V Foundation [for Cancer Research]. We own it … it’s our charity of choice.”

Speaking of charities of choice, then, let’s go back to that ad for Cardinal Glennon and the original question: Had ESPN rolled over for religious interests, responded appropriately to its audience or made a pragmatic business decision?

Durso smiled and said, “I prefer the last one.”

More reluctantly, I guess I do, too. It doesn’t seem worth the trouble of getting into what would be a one-way battle with ideologues working for a network that also competes with ESPN in sports and thus has something to gain. On the other hand, I don’t think the ESPN guidelines on “religious advocacy” are well-defined enough to make a strong case for rejection or acceptance based on the phrase “God’s healing presence.”

Does it mean faith is a medical tool at Cardinal Glennon or is it a comforting reminder to the faithful that this is a Catholic hospital? It would be difficult, but useful, to make those guidelines less open to interpretation.

I hope my Ombuddies will help me take all this into that much larger context in the coming year. ESPN’s choices on issues are worth examination; sex, politics, religion and player health may be tricky subjects, especially for viewers and readers who prefer to believe that fandom is a never-never land. But, alas, as we learned yet again in 2013, they keep sticking their heads out of the dugout.

Happy New Year!

Answering questions about Cox interview

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
10:48
AM ET
In college football, the postgame on-field TV interview is too often a crime against journalism; a sycophantic “reporter” asks a star athlete who is impatient to celebrate something such as, “Could you talk about how wonderful you felt at the moment in which all your dreams came true?”

Ombuddies are so disdainful of such cringe-worthy questions that they frequently suggest “firing” the offending sideline interviewer.

Within hours of Jameis Winston leading Florida State to a 45-7 victory over Duke in the recent ACC championship game, a No. 1 ranking and a place in the national championship game, ombuddies were seeking to “fire” ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox despite one of the more appropriate and professional interviews of the season.

Go figure.

Cox was rude, they said. She intruded on Winston’s celebratory moment, they said, and brought the “real world” crashing into sports -- the place they go to briefly forget that the real world exists.

“Just watched Heather Cox embarrass herself and your Network by badgering a 19-year-old after he had just won the ACC Championship,” wrote Bill Griffith of Miami. “Unprofessional would be too kind of a term. Inexcusable would be a better description .”

Steve Snee of Baltimore wrote: “This is just another example of your network trying to be more like TMZ and less about sports.”

To recap: Cox asked the young quarterback about the investigation into an alleged sexual assault of a fellow student almost a year earlier. Two days before the game, it was announced that no charges would be brought against Winston – keeping the QB on the field for the title game, and clearing the way for Winston to win the Heisman Trophy.

ESPN’s coverage of the “Famous Jameis” circus leading up to the Duke game, including a live feed of a news conference and follow-up one-on-one interview with Willie Meggs, Florida state attorney, was suitably restrained. ESPN analysts went out of their way to remind the audience that issues more serious than X’s, O’s and trophies were involved, although they did move right on to the X’s, O’s and trophies after the announcement. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Jemele Hill offered particularly thoughtful commentary.

The night before the ACC title game and again that Saturday morning, Cox told me, she and the production crew went over the questions she would ask Winston. The plan was to concentrate on the investigation, unless the game was so dramatic and complex it required a debriefing. At that point, despite the national attention, Winston had not submitted to any interviews, in person, online or phone or Twitter, concerning the allegations. The postgame interview would be the first chance any media member would have to ask Winston about the allegations and the decision not to charge him.

According to Cox, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and the school’s sports information staff were given a heads-up on the interview plan and were still amenable to producing Winston. They seemed comfortable with the line of questioning. Had they objected, Cox said, ESPN would have passed on the interview; in effect, ESPN would not allow questions to be dictated.

NO X’s AND O’s, JUST Y’s

As it turned out, the lopsided game required little explication from the winning quarterback. After an opening setup question about getting to the national championship game, Cox asked how Winston had fared as “news of the investigation was sharing headlines with your on-the-field performance." She continued in that open-ended, diplomatic fashion with the somewhat repetitive “What did you learn?” and then asked about the importance of having his coach’s trust.

Winston seemed comfortable, even bubbly, during the interview as he praised the support of school and coach. He was smiling.

“His demeanor made me confident,” Cox said. She was confident enough, she said, to structure the end of the interview while she was conducting it. She planned to bring it back around to a positive finale about the looming Heisman. Her next-to-last question was "Jameis, how come you decided not to talk during the process, and on Thursday?"

As she finished the question, Winston turned toward someone who seemed to be pulling him away -- apparently a Florida State staffer had intervened – and the QB walked off. The interview was over.

Perplexed by the sudden-death ending of the interview, Cox said she later sought out Fisher, with whom she had always had good relations. Fisher said he did not remember agreeing to the line of questioning, according to Cox, but he quickly understood that it had been a minor glitch of communication. The interview was no ambush.

Cox, 43, a former college volleyball star, is an experienced broadcaster who has never seemed to be a “rogue” interrogator. She has stayed steady in the face of coach outrage (see Nick Saban).

ESPN supported Cox through the ensuing criticism. In response to an email inquiry, John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, wrote: “I thought Heather did an excellent job. Given this was the first time Jameis spoke since the announcement, we felt an obligation to ask questions which pertained to the case. We were also up front with FSU athletic communication [department] regarding this matter. The interview also addressed the just completed game. Last, given the game was a blowout, we felt comfortable with the entire body of the interview. In short, I was pleased and support Heather’s work.”

Laurie Orlando, ESPN’s senior vice president for talent development & planning, also supported Cox. No small matter, as Wildhack and Orlando are family TV guardians -- only days before, they had issued a stern joint memo advising ESPN broadcasters to stop using the word “sucks” on air.

TOO CONSIDERATE?

At risk of biting the hand that feeds my mailbag, I was disappointed at the narrow perspective of most of the ombuddies who addressed the issue; they seemed to expect a practiced ESPN broadcaster to act like a fan rather than a newsperson behaving in a considerate manner. Maybe too considerate.

I wonder whether they had been misled by the lack of aggression in the media -- including ESPN -- in pursuing the darker elements of the story. Questions were raised but never resolved about the performance of the Tallahassee Police Department: Had it dragged its feet in the investigation to protect the college football program? What about Winston’s teammates who told a detective that the “sexual event” (as Meggs termed it) was consensual? More light on those elements would have created a jock culture context and an ombuddy feeling closer to mine that Cox’s question might even have been too considerate.

I would make a case that Cox’s questions could justifiably have been more pointed and that the unanswered question about Winston’s prior silence could have been asked sooner. Too bad if he walked off at that point -- nothing of any value would have been lost. Also, his declaration to Cox that “I’ve got to get more mature, I’ve got to get better in everything I do,” demands the kind of analysis mostly reserved for his passing style.

Cox and Florida State will meet again. She is assigned to the Auburn sideline for ESPN’s broadcast of the Jan. 6 BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif. Tom Rinaldi will patrol the Florida State side. Cox said the decision on team assignments was purely a case of “scheduling” because Rinaldi will be covering the Seminoles leading up to the game. Wildhack confirmed as much, writing to me, “There is no other sub plot here.”

If Florida State should win the game, according to current plans, Rinaldi will interview Fisher and Cox will interview the game’s top player. It could be Famous Jameis again, and by then there might be even more unanswered questions. News takes funny bounces.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Now it’s my turn to ask a few sideline questions. It’s a different kind of football, but the answers are still going to be less than satisfying.

In late November, ESPNFC.com published a soccer story headlined “Inside Doha: Give Qatar a Chance to Shine,” by Phil Ball, a 56-year-old British writer. Here is the opening of the piece, which pretty much lays out the issues.

“DOHA, Qatar -- It's kind of difficult to write about Qatar 2022 at the moment because whatever you say, you'll annoy somebody. The issues are so wide-ranging that if you focus only on the football, you'll be accused of political naivety. If you focus only on the workers' conditions and the alleged corruption of FIFA officials, you'll get the bird from those who want a full analysis of the summer-winter debate. Nevertheless, I'll have a go, given that I just got back from four days in the capital, Doha -- revisiting the country where I lived in 2009 -- as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip to see the inner workings.”

By the next day, the story had been removed from the site. The public explanation was in this Nov. 22 tweet from ESPN FC: “Carefully re-evaluated our recent Qatar story and decided to remove it. It did not meet our journalistic standards. We apologize.”

The response to the piece had been quick and negative from media sites and ombuddies alike. This one from Daniel Hodge of Charlotte, N.C., was typical: “He accepted an all-expenses paid trip from Qatar officials to look at preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and then wrote a massive puff piece praising the country while barely acknowledging the documented human rights abuses of construction workers in that country and not touching at all on the medieval laws in place there. Of course, Phil is welcome to his opinion. However, he accepted a free trip and was feted for four days by Qatari bigwigs before publishing a glowing review of the country's preparations on ESPN's wide-reaching platform. To me, this article appears to be a paid-for travel advertisement masquerading as journalism.”

So here are my three sideline questions.

1) Why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

2) Why did ESPN run the piece – after heavily editing it, writing the headline and inserting the line “as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip”?

3) Why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

According to Ball’s account, which no one disputes, this report was one of more than 400 he has written for ESPN since 2002 -- mostly blog postings about La Liga, the Spanish pro soccer league. Ball, it should be noted, was at the bottom of the ESPN word chain, a freelancer who writes “at will,” receiving and asking for specific assignments. He was neither an employee nor a contractor, yet was a regular freelance contributor to the beat.

In late October, Ball sent a request to ESPNFC’s UK-based editorial team asking to make an expenses-paid trip to write two pieces on Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. It was a valid story -- Qatar, a natural gas-rich monarchy on a desert peninsula the size of Connecticut, would be the first Muslim nation to host the World Cup, continuing its bid to be a global geopolitical player. The request was approved, and, in late November, Ball filed two pieces much like his blogs -- long and chatty, with asides about his soccer-playing son.

The editors who merged Ball’s two pieces into one did an excellent job of retaining the information and opinions that were important. But Ball objected to an editor’s insertion of the reference to the “all-expenses paid trip” which he felt damaged the piece’s credibility. James Martin, deputy editor for ESPNFC, responded to Ball: “I think it’s important to provide full disclosure on how / why you were there to the reader. You still laid out a very well balanced, and very well written piece. But I always believe it’s best to provide full context to the reader.”

After the story was removed, Martin told Ball -- with direction from his supervisors -- that ESPN would no longer assign him stories. This was confirmed in a later email from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who told Ball that “at this point” his “freelance contributions to ESPNFC will no longer be required.”

Ball reached out to the ombudsman, sharing his version of events. For most of the 12 years that Ball has written for ESPN.com, the soccer site was called ESPN Soccernet, a holdover from a British soccer news service established in 1996. In 2012, it was rebranded ESPN FC (Football Club) and came directly under Stiegman’s supervision. Although he wouldn’t say it, it seemed to me there was a new sheriff in town.

In a somewhat guarded conversation, Stiegman said that, in taking over the site, he became aware “of practices that were not consistent with ESPN’s U.S. editorial standards.” He attributed that to different customs in reporting in “different markets” and “different cultures.” It sounded to me, although Stiegman would not comment on my speculation, that the soccer site would be operating under somewhat different editorial rules.

So, why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

The ESPN Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices, which Stiegman was instrumental in writing and disseminating over the past three years, address such potential conflicts of interest as follows: “We should not engage in outside activities or relationships that compromise the credibility or reputation of ESPN, pose a conflict of interest, or a reasonable appearance of such a conflict. We should not accept compensation for any services rendered to entities ESPN regularly covers.”

Stiegman said such all-expense-paid trips for reporters are “not customary or knowingly allowed.” He equated junkets with paying a source for a story, which is also specifically prohibited. “It was clearly a mistake in judgment,” Stiegman said of the approval.

Were the editors disciplined for that error? Stiegman did not provide specifics, but said “They know the mistakes were unacceptable, and this issue was dealt with directly.”

Why did ESPN run Ball’s piece in the first place, including the reference to the all-expenses-paid trip?

“The editor put in the line for the sake of transparency, which is something we always want to stress in our reporting,” Stiegman said. “But in this case, it shouldn’t have even gone that far. Posting the piece was a mistake because, at the minimum, it gave the appearance of conflict of interest. That should have been enough to spike it.”

And why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

Stiegman said he considers receiving compensation or significant benefits from a source “a breach of journalistic ethics” and that ESPN’s employee guidelines – for journalists and non-journalists alike – also limit the value of “gifts” provided by outside entities. And, although Ball was not an employee, and ESPN had no contractual obligation, Stiegman said, “Even the appearance of a conflict of interest compromises a reporter’s objectivity -- a fact that can create doubt in readers’ minds and falls short of our editorial standards.”

Having been a sometime freelancer (for ESPN, among other places), I believe freelancers should be able to trust their editors, presumably employees to whom the company does have obligations. I think ESPN needs to be more transparent in this matter. For example, I’d like to know whether Ball was the wrong man for the assignment? Was he was sent only because Qatar was paying for journalists to observe, along with the likes of Shaq and other celebrities, its dog and pony show?

According to Stiegman, the story was an important one for which ESPN would pay expenses, and one it probably will cover more extensively in the future.

At the least, ESPN should reiterate to its staffers the policy on such junkets. In the game of honest journalism, if ESPN isn’t paying, it shouldn’t be playing.

Untying the knots of ethics and attribution

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
1:58
PM ET
This is a story about a story, and if they both seem somewhat underwhelming, that's the point. Journalistic ethics are usually cited when major leaks or plagiarism meet partisan politics or national security. But the slippage often begins with far less fanfare, as in this recent dust-up between a local newspaper reporter and a national ESPN reporter.

On Nov. 6, Brent Zwerneman, who covers Texas A&M football for the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, posted what he considered "huge news in our fair state:" A&M was no longer interested in playing the University of Texas in the regular season. He based that assumption on the implications of this quote: "We hope to play them again in a BCS or playoff game at some point." He attributed the quote thusly: "A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told me this afternoon."

As Zwerneman wrote in blogs for the two newspapers (both owned by the Hearst Corporation, which also has a 20 percent interest in ESPN), that stance was a "far cry" from the Aggies' previous "Anytime, anywhere," attitude toward a game with the Longhorns, their former conference rivals in the Big 12. Zwerneman attributed this to the Aggies' recent success since moving to the Southeast Conference.

In reporting the story, Zwerneman tipped his hat to the Austin American-Statesman's Kirk Bohls, who had earlier tweeted that he was "told by a higher-up Longhorn that the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry 'perhaps' could resume."

Three hours later, Brett McMurphy, a college sports reporter for ESPN, filed a similar story with exactly the same quote. From the piece: "'We hope to play them again in a BCS bowl or playoff game at some point,' Texas A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told ESPN on Wednesday."

McMurphy wrote that "Cook would not elaborate," but he came to the same conclusion as Zwerneman. McMurphy wrote: "It's pretty clear the Aggies have no intention of scheduling any future regular-season games with Texas."

Zwerneman subsequently demanded that McMurphy credit him for the initial scoop, believing that McMurphy had been pointed to Cook and the story by Zwerneman's tweets and blogs on the topic (just as Zwerneman had been pointed to it by Bohls).

There was an unfriendly Twitter and email exchange between the two reporters until McMurphy refused to discuss the matter further. At least a half-dozen local journalists sent supporting tweets to Zwerneman, which apparently led him to threaten McMurphy that he would "take it up the ladder" if the ESPN reporter didn't give proper credit.

At that point, Zwerneman contacted the ESPN ombudsman, and I'm glad he did. Although this kerfuffle might seem trivial to nonjournalists and non-Texans alike, it brings up a topic that has nagged at ESPN -- and many other media outlets -- for a long time. This is not a concern exclusive to ESPN. It was certainly an issue in my early years at The New York Times, when the paper of record seemed loath to recognize groundbreaking work by other papers.

ESPN has gotten a lot better at giving credit since it changed its sourcing policies this year and adopted more rigorous standards of attribution. And this is not the first time an ESPN ombudsman has written about the subject.

Nevertheless, the impression exists -- right or wrong -- that ESPN, among other national bigfeet, use local media as the "sources that tell me" when they rip and run with a breaking story. It's not exactly a lie -- ESPNs initial "sources" on some stories can sometimes be local blogs, tweets and newspaper reports -- but it gives the false impression that the information came out of some indispensable analyst's magic cellphone.

Zwerneman, 42, the newspaper reporter, has covered the Aggies for 17 years and written three books about the school. He believes it was "simply wrong" of ESPN's McMurphy to fail to credit him with this "breaking story" and then "stunningly" claim credit for the quote, which "means one thing: an exclusive."

McMurphy, 51, spent 22 years at The Tampa Tribune as well as short stints at CBSSports.com and AOL Fanhouse before joining ESPN in August 2012. He doesn't dispute the fact that Zwerneman's blogs alerted him to the Cook quote or the story. But he saw no reason to offer attribution -- and his TV editor at ESPN concurs -- because he independently interviewed Cook by phone "for 10 or 15 minutes" as well as other sources.

Cook gave him the same quote, McMurphy told me, and he doesn't understand why Zwerneman "went off like a 12-year-old girl." Feisty on the phone and on email, McMurphy wrote to me that "Brent -- and now you -- will have spent more time on this than Kennedy historians spent dissecting the Zapruder film."

OK, timeout. What's the big deal, guys? It's not as if either story is about Johnny Manziel -- or nails shut the possibility that the Aggies and the Longhorns will meet again in the regular season. Ethics and professionalism aside (we'll get to them later), here's why it's such a big deal around College Station.

"That quote from Jason Cook was a unique nugget," said Brian Davis, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who will soon be covering Texas football and basketball for the Austin American-Statesman. He observed the pingponging tweets between Zwerneman and McMurphy with professional interest. "It was what I call a 'little wow' that makes your readers say, 'Hey, here's something I didn't know.' Sure, a reporter wants the 'big wow,' a major scoop, but you're not getting one of those every day, so you keep going for the little wows. They build up your followers and your sources. They could lead to the big one someday."

Reporters keep score with "little wows," which are as important as playing time and stats are to the athletes they cover. In recent years, Twitter's time code has helped keep score -- you know who posted what and when. The local groundswell among other reporters for Zwerneman was a response to the Twitter feud between him and McMurphy.

"Seeing Brent stand up, I wanted to applaud," said Kelly Brown, editor of the Bryan-College Station Eagle and a 23-year veteran of newspaper journalism. "We've gotten complacent about national reporters taking our stories. We don't complain anymore. And a lot of reporters don't want to make waves; they may want to work at ESPN someday. And we see that, when the media shows up, the coaches say hello to ESPN first."

Brown, who taught journalism at Texas A&M for five years, says she understands that readers might not care about this, "but we sure do. It's about ethics."

Lack of attribution is a breach of professional ethics; it's stealing, in a sense. Of course, there are violations, misdemeanors and felonies, and what makes this case so interesting to me is how petty it seems. Then there is the surrounding gray area and the dismissive attitude of McMurphy and his manager, Chuck Salituro, senior news editor on ESPN's TV news desk. Salituro has been at ESPN for 19 years, and, before that, spent 17 years at The Milwaukee Journal, including five as sports editor.

"This is not about crediting news; it's about two reporters getting the same quote," Salituro said. "Brett didn't steal the quote. He wanted to show he did his own interview. I don't consider this story a news break. Nobody has been more diligent in crediting others than Brett because he was a 'victim' of ESPN's old policies of taking credit for a story as soon as we confirmed it."

Nevertheless, I think there's a flag on this play. I disagree with Salituro that it's only about two reporters getting the same quote. Why would McMurphy call the Aggies' Cook in the first place if he hadn't been alerted by Zwerneman's reporting? Whether Cook repeated the quote verbatim to McMurphy or merely agreed it was authentic is immaterial -- that "told ESPN" is generally interpreted as ESPN having been told exclusively, or at least first. McMurphy might have slightly advanced the story by confirming it and adding some background of his own (neither story topped 250 words), but a tip of his hat would have been ethically proper.

After reviewing more of their work, I think Zwerneman and McMurphy are both solid, productive reporters. After talking to them, I think they are both bright, proud men who care about what they do. It's not hard to see how aggressive newshounds under pressure in this multiplatform, 24-hour news cycle can get caught up in a skirmish when their professionalism is challenged. That said, give credit where it's due and go work a little harder.

BLACKISTONE AND THE 'WAR ANTHEM'

Kevin Blackistone, a frequent ESPN commentator, recently found fault with the sports industry's embrace of military symbolism … and the ombud mailbag, in turn, found fault with him -- in substantial numbers.

On Nov. 6, responding to a question from host Tony Reali on "Around the Horn," Blackistone, a regular ATH panelist, said, "When you have military flyovers and the military symbolism that goes on in sports, I think you've got a problem."

At issue was Northwestern's usage of American flag and Army designs on its helmets and jerseys for an upcoming football game. Another ATH regular and fellow Northwestern graduate, J.A. Adande, also had reservations about the uniforms, but Blackistone went much further in his criticism, saying he was opposed to the sports-military connection "whether it's the singing of a war anthem to open every game, whether it's going to get a hot dog and being able to sign up for the Army at the same time, whether it's the NFL's embrace of the mythology of the Pat Tillman story."

It was the phrase "war anthem" that stirred the mailbag to call Blackistone's commentary "disrespectful" and "reprehensible." A typical, if restrained, message was from Patrick Mumford of Papillion, Neb., who wrote: "Kind of disgusted with Kevin Blackistone's statement objecting to the National Anthem being sung before sporting events because it's a 'war anthem.' I think most American's would call it a reminder of what this country has been through to become the nation it is. Or used to be anyway."

Blackistone, a former newspaper reporter and columnist, is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He is opinionated and ready to take on the thorniest issues in a thoughtful, though often passionate, manner. When I called him, his second thoughts were typically reflective. "I wish I could have fleshed it out, but I only had a few seconds," he said. "I wouldn't retract anything, but I wouldn't have let the anthem overshadow the larger theme of the conflation of sports and militarism."

Blackistone knew the question was coming. ATH producers meet daily at 8 a.m. to plan the show, then have a one-hour conference call with the panelists at 10:30 a.m. Blackistone not only had written previously about the partnership of the military and sports events but had devoted several class sessions to it. He had recently discussed in class the appropriateness of the national anthem as a game opener. He might have been too well-prepared on the subject for such a brief sound bite.

I thought Blackistone's commentary deserved to be unpacked on ESPN, if not to classroom-hour length, at least in a column or in a few minutes on a program that could show other examples of sports and military collaboration, perhaps exploring how purported displays of patriotism might disguise service recruiting, politicking and commercialization. Is football good preparation for combat (an active officer recently said that in a discussion of the Army-Navy game)? How come so few pro athletes ever use those wondrous muscles to actually defend their country (even though, as Ombuddy Paul Gigliotti of Andover, Mass., pointed out, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski insists on calling quarterbacks "warriors")?

I'm sure Blackistone has a lot of valuable insight on these and other matters that don't quite fit into the Horn. Of course, that might just make the mailbag come out fighting.

INCOGNITO, MARTIN AND THE N-WORD REDUX

The tale of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is far from over, but it has had two interesting spin-offs -- a number of fine related features and commentaries and Ombuddy messages, as well as another provocative edition of the N-word debate.

Ever since Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter first reported the curious collision of the two Miami Dolphins offensive linemen, ESPN has been ahead of the story, although, as NFL investigations into the incident began, coverage stalled. Involved individuals, the league and the team have restricted access. Sometimes, though, opinion, backgrounders and informed speculation are more than good enough.

I liked Elizabeth Merrill's sensitive yet cool profile of Incognito on ESPN.com and Matthew Berry's insightful piece on the lingering effect of his own childhood bullying. He even alluded to it as a reason for his fantasy life

Smart and funny was "Man Up," Brian Phillips' send-up of the Dolphins' "warrior culture," in Grantland. Rick Reilly's re-evaluation of his passion for football in light of current events, including the hazing/bullying story, was excellent.

And don't miss Jason Whitlock's unwrapping of the prison-yard mentality of the Dolphins' locker room as part of his "Incarceration Nation" theory on ESPN.com.

Beyond that, the mailbag was stuffed with kudos for ESPN analysts Cris Carter and Tom Jackson for thoughtful responses to locker room violence, and jeers for Mike ("Go to Fist City") Ditka and Mike Golic for seeming to defend violence and/or traditional hazing. On his radio show, for example, Golic expressed the sentiment that Martin should have punched out Incognito, taking care of the matter in a "manly" way.

The best of the mailbag was from Dennis McLaughlin of Pittsburgh, who wrote: "This morning, as details of the Richie Incognito story came out, there were countless NFL analysts (mostly former players) who came to defend the hazing practices of the NFL. Some even went so far as to say that Martin should have 'manned up' and stood up for himself. To insinuate, in any situation, that violence is an appropriate response to bullying is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worse. The results of using violence as a response to bullying can be seen from Columbine to Newtown. Like it or not, NFL players (and by proxy, ESPN analysts) have a bully pulpit. School-age children tune in to 'SportsCenter' all the time. ESPN management should pull all its on-air personalities in a room and make it clear that the appropriate response to bullying/hazing is to go to authorities. Anyone disagreeing on-air should be pulled and fired. Our kids' lives are at stake."

The Incognito-Martin story, with its illiberal use of the N-word, soon morphed into yet another look at that subject as ESPN commentators discussed who is allowed to use it and under what circumstances. Never, ever, Skip Bayless said. Only among black friends, said Michael Wilbon, who admitted to using it every day. Both made reasonable cases.

But again, Whitlock, who has been on a welcome Whitlockian tear since returning to ESPN, had a fine column that included this paragraph:

"I still use the N-word privately. I'm not proud of this fact. I would never defend my use of the word. I use it far less than I did a decade ago. I've been battling for years to eliminate it from my vocabulary. I object when anyone, regardless of color, uses the word around me. The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes. It's unhealthy. It is the foundational fertilizer at the root of the maladies plaguing black America. The word is more negatively powerful today than it was at its invention. It's a sign of the depth of our self-hatred."

A white person typically employs the word as a slur, a put-down, but the tonal variations of African-American usage include the entire love-hate spectrum. I suspect that, at ESPN, a white commentator using the N-word would be fired and a black commentator would at least have to do some serious explaining to stay on the job. I think that's about as commonsensical as we can be until the word is purged from public use.


Pollack, Peterson offer teachable moments

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
10:19
PM ET
In the late innings of the 20th century, ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., had a locker-room mindset, mostly guys talking sports, 24/7, with the passion and conviction of political policy wonks. The world beyond the Bristol Bubble often seemed less real than the games sucked in by the growing orchard of satellite dishes. It was a myopic boys club.

That was then. Every so often, however, there’s an unwelcome flashback to those less professional, less sophisticated days. There were two this month; first, on-air remarks by ESPN college football analyst David Pollack, then the stories -- and lack of stories -- about a tragedy in Adrian Peterson’s off-field life. Both were abundantly annotated in the ombudsman’s mailbag.

Pollack, 31, was an All-American linebacker for three years at Georgia and a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Early in his second pro season, he broke a cervical vertebra while making a tackle, ending his playing career. He has made a successful transition to television. On “College GameDay,” Pollack is engaging and quick. He is, as host Chris Fowler told me, “unfiltered, which is good for the show.”

On Oct. 5, responding to the announcement that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been appointed a member of the 2014 College Football Playoff selection committee, Pollack said, “Now I’m going to stick my foot in my mouth, probably. I want people on this committee, guys, that can watch tape, yes, that have played football, that are around football, that can tell you different teams, on tape, not on paper …”

“So no woman belongs on the committee, then?” Fowler asked.

“You said that … I’ll say it, yeah. Yeah,” Pollack said.

There was some laughter on the “GameDay” panel, and several analysts demurred, but the show moved on.

Later, on Twitter, Pollack attempted to qualify his remarks, writing, “I want people on the committee that eat, sleep & breathe college football during the season. It has nothing to do with male or female.”

In an exchange of text messages, he told me he would have nothing to add to the tweet. And Fowler? “I regret the tone of the conversation … [but] I don’t regret the question,” he told me. “I should have done a better job letting him clarify the point -- that it was not gender, but the feeling among many who have played the game that only those who have played or coached and can watch endless tape are qualified to make judgments.”

SOME STRONG RESPONSES -- FROM ESPN

Jane McManus, an ESPN football reporter writing a smart commentary for espnW, portrayed Pollack’s comments as yet another attempt “to decry women's gains into yet another boys' club. … Power never wants to give up power, and that's what this College Football Playoff selection committee represents to some of these guys. It's their fiefdom -- no girls allowed.”

One of my favorite ESPN broadcast teams, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, weighed in on their invariably lively “His & Hers” podcast. Said Hill: “I don’t know David Pollack, but it felt like one of those ‘good ol’ boys moments.’ Here is one of the most powerful women on earth [Rice], she was mentioned as a possible candidate for NFL commissioner. They never question other guys who didn’t play. Men get a pass, women have to do so much more.”

Smith agreed and added, “The analytics guys -- they get called nerds … sports writers are criticized for never personally having experienced the game. I’d say to Pollack, if you’re not a career politician, you shouldn’t vote.”

The Ombuddies chimed in. Wrote Susan McBee of Sound Beach, N.Y.: “What year is David Pollack living in? Maybe since he was a football player and didn't ‘live, live, live’ broadcasting, he shouldn't be an announcer.”

The ESPN female audience has risen to about 45 percent, according to last year’s figures, and the network has been making an effort to showcase female talent. The promotion of Doris Burke this month to studio analyst on “NBA Countdown” was a dramatic example.

But ESPN also has to do a better job of identifying those “good ol’ boy” comments and turning them into teachable moments for the guys who haven’t quite gotten their heads out of their lockers.

MORE COMPLICATED ISSUE

The Peterson case represents a more subtle example of old-style coverage.

The Minnesota Vikings’ star running back learned two weeks ago that a 2-year-old boy he had only recently discovered was his child was in critical condition after an alleged beating by his mother’s boyfriend. Peterson left his team in midweek for South Dakota and saw the boy for the first time at his hospital bedside while he was on life support. The child died the next day.

ESPN dealt with the tragedy, but once it covered the police news it focused on the impact of the Vikings’ best player missing practice. Would he play Sunday? And if he did, what kind of shape would his mind be in? But there was another, more real-world story here. The boy was one of at least five children Peterson reportedly fathered by at least four women, none of whom he was married to. Who was this man ESPN spent so much time praising for his comeback from a serious injury in 2011 to a Hall of Fame year in 2012?

This past Tuesday, on “E:60,” Peterson refused to answer Lisa Salter’s question about reports that he had allegedly fathered seven children. He was not pressed on a show that sees itself as hard-hitting and probing. The piece was sympathetic -- 28-year-old Peterson had “endured a lifetime of loss,” including the deaths of two brothers and the imprisonment of his father, implying that the child’s death was yet another hurdle he had to overcome. Peterson said he tried to stay positive and “not ask why.”

Even before that show, there was plenty of Ombuddy reaction.

Sue Piech of Winston Salem, N.C., wrote, “The sports ‘hero’ who came back so fast from injury didn't even know his son???? Pathetic. Where are your follow up stories on this? Will be watching Outside The Lines for some real journalism and truth.”

It seems excessive to refer to an athlete’s family life (whether we approve or not) every time he scores on the field. But ESPN does need to stay focused on balancing the locker-room celebration that its business partners prefer with the clear-eyed journalism its audiences deserve.

As for actor Bill Murray’s takedown of Chief Osceola (that was analyst Lee Corso in what several Native American commentators called “a red-face” minstrel show)
on Saturday’s “GameDay” set? It was the perfect combination of the good ol’ boy sensibility and the ongoing Washington Redskins’ name controversy.

The Ombud mind boggles.

Winning ugly: ESPN journalism prevails

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:43
AM ET
By the end of the show, after all the questioning, the carping and the confusion over credits, it was clear that serious journalism had won. ESPN could be proud of its contributions to the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

However, questions remained unanswered about both ESPN and the NFL.

Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma and when did it know? How much was actively concealed by, among other tactics, the attempted subversion of scientific inquiry? Just how was that settlement with players arrived at and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?

More pertinently for the ombudsman, will ESPN’s powerhouse investigative unit go after those stories? Why didn’t it produce such a documentary in the first place? How far can ESPN go reporting on the NFL, the network’s most important sports partner? What will be the ultimate fate of “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s most prestigious TV outlet for journalism, after its Sunday show was demoted to a lesser time slot on a lesser channel? OTL was home for much of the network’s concussion coverage.

Outside the network, the Ombud mailbag throbbed with concern as well. Correspondents praised “League of Denial” while attacking ESPN for taking its name off the show, ending a 15-month relationship with PBS. Jay McMillian of Goose Creek, S.C., charged that “ESPN basically took a dive at the behest of the NFL. Stick to showing games at this point because now your journalistic integrity is somewhere between TMZ and Mad Magazine.”

From the spring of 2012 until this past August, journalists from ESPN and Frontline worked in collaboration on the concussion story which was, in the words of one of the ESPN reporters involved, about the NFL’s “disservice” to players, parents and fans by “burying” information critical to public health. The collaboration produced nine TV and digital stories as it worked toward a two-hour documentary that aired Oct. 8.

Seven weeks before air, ESPN president John Skipper decided to remove the network’s name and logo from the PBS project. The New York Times reported at the time that ESPN had been pressured by the NFL, which Skipper denied. He said it was because ESPN did not have final editorial control, which he said he learned belatedly.

ESPN distanced itself from a documentary highly critical of the NFL just when the league didn’t need any more bad publicity. It was moving toward the trial of a reported $2 billion class-action suit representing more than 4,500 former players who claimed they sustained brain damage from playing pro football.

The league, one might assume, did not want fans, football moms and a prospective jury pool watching a show that could damage its case. In the documentary, the league was going to be charged with using its own doctors to disparage mounting evidence that head traumas in games and practices led to early dementia, Alzheimer’s and ALS, among other catastrophes. The show would portray the heartbreaking travails of revered football heroes such as Hall of Fame Pittsburgh center Mike Webster, who descended into madness, and former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself. A congresswoman compared the NFL to big tobacco in its refusal to acknowledge the dangers of its product.

It would be bad enough for the NFL that the respected PBS logo would be on the show. But the ESPN imprimatur, presumably, would give the damning accusations a seal of sports world approval, not to mention a far larger audience.

The reaction to ESPN’s debranding was mostly negative. The network was accused by the media -- and even by some inside ESPN -- of knuckling under to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Skipper has shown himself to be supportive of solid journalism as well as of Disney shareholders, but he and Goodell have a serious collaboration of their own, with billions at stake. Skipper’s job, among other tricky matters, is balancing ESPN’s built-in conflict between serious journalism and programming, which includes the demands of business partners.

At the time, Skipper told me that his decision came after seeing the Frontline trailer for the show, which had been OK’d by senior news producers. Skipper screened it and found it “sensational.” He particularly objected to its tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, Dr. McKee said, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper told me he found that comment to be “over the top.”

And then the game suddenly changed. On Aug. 29, the NFL announced a $765 million settlement to be divided not only among the 4,500 named plaintiffs, but among some 18,000 former players or their surviving family members. A portion of the amount would be paid out over 20 years. They would be awarded specified amounts for different maladies. At least for now, there would be no trial, no legal exposure of possible wrongdoing by the new national pastime.

The media and fan consensus was that the league had won by playing on the desperation of the plaintiffs, many of whom were seriously ill and burdened by health care debt. The NFL, a tax-exempt corporation that drew an estimated $9.5 billion in revenue last year, would not be thrown into default. And the league’s critics would lose the platform of a trial.

At around the same time, it was learned that OTL’s regular Sunday show at 9 a.m. on ESPN’s prime channel would be bumped down to 8 a.m. on ESPN2. Its replacement was a new football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. The OTL time change, according to ESPN executives, had been long planned, but the mood among some disheartened journalists was that the network was trying to keep the NFL happy (especially as the Sunday OTL audience dropped by more than 50 percent from August to September).

THE VICTORY LAP

And yet the documentary “League of Denial” was still on track, without the ESPN imprimatur but featuring lead reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who work for ESPN, and Peter Keating of ESPN The Magazine, who had been on the story for a decade.

To the surprise of some, during the week leading up to the Oct. 8 debut of the Frontline show, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines” and “Olbermann,” as well as various ESPN radio programs and ESPN.com, promoted the documentary and the Fainaru brothers’ simultaneous book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” Strong, extended clips from the documentary were shown. An excerpt from the book appeared in ESPN The Magazine and was the top story on ESPN.com. This all clearly happened with Skipper’s support.

"I have every confidence in Mark and Steve and take pride in the work they have done," Skipper told me last week. "That is confirmed by our continuing to feature their reporting on OTL and online, as well as their appearances across a number of ESPN shows discussing their book and the PBS documentary. I was kept aware of the coverage and fully in support."

Cynics claimed ESPN’s promotion of the book and documentary were merely attempts to salvage its journalistic integrity. Whatever the motive, it buoyed internal journalistic spirits and drummed up interest in the book and show.

There was also some smart accompanying journalism. Don Van Natta Jr. recapped the book’s myriad findings on ESPN.com, and Tania Ganguli, one of nearly two dozen reporters recently added to ESPN’s NFL Nation staff, interviewed players on the team she covers, the Houston Texans. One of them, Ed Reed, a 12-year veteran, told her that “the business of football is shady.” Another, Arian Foster, said, “It is what it is. It’s not good for you. That’s the risk I take to provide for my family.” That was hardly NFL puffery.

In the ESPN churn cycle, Ganguli’s piece became the subject for discussion with other players and Skip Bayless on “First Take.” Scott Van Pelt, in his signature “One Big Thing” essay on the “SVP and Russillo” show, called the documentary “haunting.” But he thought it would have little impact, especially among NFL players. Former players now working as analysts for ESPN told him, he said, that they still would have played; they knew they weren’t getting into “a pillow fight.”

The Frontline show itself was a triumph -- compelling and beautifully crafted. The NFL’s silence -- it had refused to have an official presence on the show after stonewalling the Fainarus and other reporters for months -- was very loud. Credit was given to Alan Schwarz, the New York Times reporter whose relentless coverage alerted a national audience to the issue several years ago.

As much as Bob Ley, the longtime host of OTL, liked the Frontline piece, he found the moment “bittersweet” because ESPN’s name wasn’t on it. He said, “The main points were all from original OTL reporting. We’ve been on the story for a decade.”

The PBS ombudsman, the distinguished journalist Michael Getler, said, “ESPN came off well. The Fainarus and Keating upheld journalism.”

“League of Denial” was also a ratings success. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of Frontline, it drew 2.2 million viewers. The program averages approximately 1.5 million viewers. And Frontline’s web traffic, which includes streaming video, broke the site’s record by 64 percent.

The controversy worked out well for Frontline, Aronson-Rath told me, although she regretted the disrupted collaboration. “It was a great think tank. [ESPN news executives] Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray and the ESPN team made it as good a collaboration for us as with The New York Times or ProPublica.” (The latter is a six-year-old independent nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism with what it calls “moral force.”)

Some ESPN journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were thrilled by the results of ESPN’s participation in the project, but felt a certain foreboding, even “weirdness.” Despite recent pep talks by newsroom leaders, they wondered about the future of investigative journalism on a network in which pro football is a 12-month sport and a football talk show prompted the Sunday time slot switch for OTL.

Ley also worries about “concussion fatigue” among the audience even as the topic takes on a greater importance. Scientific studies seem to indicate that the “insults” to the brain that begin in childhood football and gather impact through high school and college may be the starting points for the ravages in the brains of the Websters and Seaus. These are OTL-style stories.

“We’ve been working unfettered,” said Ley. “No one has tried to dial us back. We’ve got a piece coming up on college concussions. We’ve been assured, but we’ll watch the action.”

The Ombudsman and the Ombuddies will be watching to see what happens, too. Clara Showalter of Austin, Texas, wrote: “THIS is what I loved about ESPN. I loved ESPN that put out well done, hard hitting investigative reports. I'm blown away by the quality of Mark and Steve's work and can't help but ask ... ESPN, why did you take your name off this?”

Maybe a more important question is why didn’t ESPN do this show by itself in the first place? The short answer is that ESPN hasn’t done it before. Here’s the long answer, from Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news.

“The majority of documentaries here are done by ESPN Films, i.e. the 30-for-30 project,” he said. “By and large they are terrific story-telling vehicles, but they are director-driven films, not typically executed by investigative reporters, nor do they purport to be investigative in nature. On the news side, we’ve taken the approach that we will execute stories in a report-the-news-as-we-learn-it approach, hence the notion of doing lengthy pieces, 10-14 minutes, as the reporting occurs, rather than gather string for a one-hour or two-hour show.

“Much of the reporting in the documentary had appeared in shorter form on our air. Doesn’t mean that at times we couldn’t do those as-they-occur reports, and then compile them eventually in a documentary. But, in this case, Frontline came to us with the idea ... No more complicated than that.”

Actually, just a little more complicated. Here’s a quick recap of how the collaboration came about.

After reporting several concussion pieces for ESPN and contracting for a book on the subject, the Fainarus were asked by Phil Bennett, then managing editor of Frontline, to work on a documentary. Bennett had been an editor of Steve Fainaru’s at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. Doria and Bray gave the brothers permission to proceed, so long as they brought any breaking stories to ESPN, according to all involved. The ESPN supervisors eventually discussed more involvement, quickly agreed to by Aronson-Rath. There would be a book leave for the Fainarus, who would be paid by Frontline for the show. When I suggested to several involved that this sounded slightly seat of the pants, they sheepishly agreed; journalistic enthusiasm was way ahead of partnership paperwork.

There was plenty of enthusiasm. The Fainarus were relentless on the story (I recommend their book as well as the doc) in that outraged spirit common to cops and investigative reporters. They are not reformers. They are hard-core football fans. Mark told Jeremy Schaap, guest-hosting on “Olbermann,” that, “football is a brutal, violent sport. We know that and love it about the sport.”

Older brother Steve, who played high school football, agreed. “We love football,” he said. “The NFL did a disservice by trying to bury this information for so long because people -- especially players and parents -- need information to make informed decisions. But at the NFL level we don't want it to change. I like it raw and brutal."

They both felt that in youth and high school football, where the athletes are not grown men paid to absorb punishment, as many measures as possible should be taken to protect them. Given ESPN’s interest in youth sports, a start might be to “gather string” for a long-form documentary on the passions and pitfalls of the new world of high school football, money, concussions and all.

ESPN, in this triumphant yet bittersweet moment, has something to prove, and the means to prove it. It can continue to turn loose the Fainarus and Keating and Van Natta, and its stable of hard-nosed reporters such as T.J. Quinn, Tom Farrey, Mike Fish and Shaun Assael. There is no end of stories out there, not least the ramifications of the settlement and the sequestered information that the ESPN audience needs as parents, players and fans, to make their emotional, physical and moral choices.

Ultimately, the proof in journalism is not in good intentions or future promises. As in sports, it’s the current score. Despite what at times seemed like sloppiness or naivete or compromise, ESPN journalism won. It may have won ugly, but it won.

Fanning the flames: Lewis, Reilly, Redskins

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
1:28
PM ET
The Ombuddies have flooded the zone with opinions -- often thoughtful, occasionally rough -- about the Washington Redskins’ nickname controversy, Rick Reilly’s response to it, and the recent addition of Ray Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, as a prominent ESPN football analyst.

Lewis attracted mostly negative mailbag comments despite making an almost seamless segue from his second Super Bowl championship to the lineup on “Sunday NFL Countdown.”

“I know Ray Lewis is the most popular guy in the NFL and on all those commercials,” writes Kevin Morrissey of Aliquippa, Pa. “It seems in poor taste to have him talk about Aaron Hernandez like he was never involved in a similar incident.”

Morrissey and other correspondents referred to a 2000 incident in which Lewis and two companions were indicted for the murders of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis testified against his companions and eventually was sentenced to probation for misdemeanor obstruction of justice. He settled financially with the families of the victims, avoiding a civil trial. The incident haunted him for a while (even though he was voted MVP of the subsequent Super Bowl, he wasn’t chosen to utter the well-known “I’m going to Disney World,” and take the trip, a usual perk.)

But Lewis, who was inducted Sunday into the Ravens Ring of Honor, finally made it to Disney (at least the ESPN division of the corporation). Since his Sept. 8 debut, has been a smooth, insightful TV team player.

Much of Lewis’ 2000 case is still shrouded in mystery. Lewis’ companions were acquitted. No one has been convicted. During his “Countdown” debut, Lewis addressed the case -- if obliquely -- when he discussed Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who has been charged with murder. Lewis mentioned how Ravens management and teammates had supported him and helped set him on a straight path.

(For Lewis’ back story, check out this balanced story by ESPN writer Elizabeth Merrill, written just before Lewis led the Ravens to last season's Super Bowl victory.)

John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, told me he had “conversations with senior members of the Ravens and the NFL who enthusiastically recommended we pursue Ray.” Two other ESPN executives, Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer for NFL studio production, and Mark Gross, senior vice president and executive producer, told me they understood the seriousness of Lewis’ past legal issues and had discussed them before the hire. According to Markman, “Ray worked extremely hard to rebuild his reputation. In fact, he became a real role model who has positively impacted the lives of many people. Ray is off to a great start.”

Perhaps more important than dredging up Lewis’ past is examining the use of his legacy and future. He was a notably hard-hitting player, arguably the best of his time. Read this from Owen Waggy of Louisa, Va.: “Recently I came across a video linked to the ESPN mobile website entitled ‘6th Grade LB Channels Ray Lewis on Big Hit.’ ... I was sick to my stomach. Since when did ESPN become hypocritical in its methods to cover sports news that it runs a string of stories on violence in sports, the dangers of concussions and the steps the NFL has been taking to protect athletes and educate others on promoting safe play and at the same time provides a link to a video of a 12-year old kid pummeling another player in his JV football game? ... What this tells our children is that if they punish someone else on the playing field, they might get on ‘SportsCenter.’ "

THE R-WORD REVISITED

The reaction to my last column concerning the controversy over continued use of the nickname Redskins included hard-core Washington fans who defended it and civil rights advocates who were outraged.

There were also more nuanced messages such as this one from Jon Dewaard of Birmingham, Ala.: “There doesn't appear to be much outrage from the public over the name Redskins; rather the outrage seems reserved for the journalists of the ‘how-can-I-be-offended-today’ industry. The whole thing feels like a manufactured controversy designed for the primary purpose of showcasing the journalists' elevated moral standing on the issue. I suspect American Indians have other grievances that are far more important (and newsworthy) to them than the name of a football team.”

The many American Indians who agree there are more important grievances include Ray Halbritter, the CEO of the Oneida Nation. But that doesn’t mean the Washington nickname is acceptable. Halbritter connected the dots. He said that trivializing the use of a racist slur has had a negative impact on Native Americans’ self-esteem and helped create a cultural climate in which they could be further dehumanized and discriminated against.

Halbritter’s fresh and pertinent remarks were made during a recent segment on the controversy on “Outside the Lines,” which aired at 8 a.m. on a Sunday on ESPN2, its new, diminished time and place.

The drumbeat goes on. In an ESPN column last week, Reilly claimed there was white paternalism in the campaign to change the name, which he mocked and denigrated to the anger of a surprising number of Ombuddies, including Ryan Hurton of North Reading, Mass.: “It's as if Reilly is COMPLETELY unaware of the years of negative history suffered by Native Americans. Equating one of the blackest marks in American history with a recent debate driven by a renewed awareness of that tragedy is not a hot sports take -- it is either willfully ignorant, intentionally racist, or both. The entire article trivializes what was essentially a genocide.”

The Reilly column did seem unusually tone deaf from such a big-hearted observer. Of course, he was quoting his father-in-law, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

But I offer the last word on this from an old friend, Oren Lyons, the Onondaga faithkeeper and an international representative of the Iroquois Nation. He wrote to me: “There's the Yale bulldog, there's the Army mule, there's the Navy goat, and there's the Washington Redskins. That is apparently the classification of American Indians within the context of the social life of Americans. The political ramifications are obvious. ... As far as I'm concerned, I'm not anyone's mascot.”

So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
4:25
PM ET
Let’s talk about the R-word.

Monday night, on ESPN, the Washington franchise of the National Football League will open its season. The broadcasters will call the team by its 80-year-old nickname in an offhand way they would never use in public with the more recognized racial slur that has come to be referred to as the N-word.

We’ll get to that one later when we review the contrasting ways in which ESPN covered incidents involving a current NFL player, Riley Cooper, who used the N-word in public, and a former player, Hugh Douglas, who lost his job at ESPN in the wake of a more complex situation.

Because the Washington franchise of the NFL has a hot quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and Super Bowl dreams, it will get increased scrutiny this season. This will likely include continued attempts by commentators, civil rights groups and even members of Congress to persuade it to change its nickname. The current owner, Daniel Snyder, has said: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps.”

He was probably not amused when a local alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, began calling his team “the Pigskins.” Or when Slate, The New Republic and Mother Jones also announced they would no longer refer to the team with what is considered by many to be a Native American slur. These are obviously not hard-core sports publications, and one suspects their readerships were predisposed to such action.

Of more concern to Snyder, perhaps, was the announcement by a writer for TheMMQB.com, the new website of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, that this major source of pro football information was also considering banning the name. King has yet to officially confirm, but his column on Griffin posted Thursday referred to the team only as Washington.

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes.com, in reporting this week that The Associated Press and The New York Times have no plans to ban the nickname, notes that "it would take a broad-based boycott that included at least some of the biggest American media outlets [to prompt change]. Don’t expect the television networks, all of whom have to deal with the league as a corporate partner, to lead the charge, either."

A similar point of view has been offered on ESPN’s airwaves. After acknowledging that "the will of the people in Washington is strong for the Redskins" last week on "Pardon the Interruption," ESPN's Tony Kornheiser suggested media companies could be catalysts. "I don't think writers and bloggers and websites can make this happen," he said, "I do think television networks can make this happen. ... To pick two: If ESPN and Fox said 'We're not going to use Redskins anymore' and the NFL tacitly went along with that and didn't say anything, that would put pressure on CBS and NBC. I think it has to come from the larger institutions."

So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

That quixotic thought has been bubbling for a while in ESPN’s 150-person Stats & Information Group, where vice presidents Edmundo Macedo and Noel Nash collected information on the history of the team and opposition toward the name and then distributed it to network news managers. It was the start of a campaign to have ESPN stop using the name. Macedo told me that he thought the chances of actually succeeding were currently slim and none, but that it was worth the effort to get people thinking about it.

“Think about the name,” he wrote to me in an email. “Think about the stereotypical connotations around color. We would not accept anything similar as a team nickname if it were associated with any other ethnicity or any other race.

“Over the years, the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became using it. I’m not sure other Americans have stopped to hear the voices of Native Americans. I can only imagine how painful it must be to hear or see that word over and over, referenced so casually every day.”

Imagination becomes reality on the website of Indian Country Today a leading location for Native American news. The “pejorative” name is extensively examined, including coverage of a federal trademark lawsuit against the NFL team and of a congressional call for renaming.

NAME CHANGER, GAME CHANGER

Within ESPN, there were three main responses to Macedo’s recommendation, providing interesting insights into the thinking and workings of the network.

1) ESPN should be covering the news, not making it. Fair enough. The action Macedo proposed would be newsworthy enough to make ESPN a player in a controversy. We’ve been through this before in ESPN’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out. In one case, on “Outside the Lines,” instead of an in-depth look at the implications of Collins’ action, we got a debate on the varieties of religious experience.

But the argument to keep using the R-word for journalistic reasons alone runs up against ESPN’s role as a purveyor of commercial entertainment, which is then covered by ESPN’s news side. I have retired the routine use of the phrase “conflict of interest” when it comes to ESPN – it’s simply inadequate to the nuances of the, um, conflicts of interest. See The New York Times’ recent series on how ESPN creates bowl games it can then air and promotes leagues, teams, athletes for its own commercial purposes.

2) ESPN should consider how the consequences of an "adversarial environment" could limit "access" in covering the team. This is a solid practical point. Snyder would clearly not be happy at such a slap in his face and might make it more difficult for ESPN reporters to cover the team and its star quarterback, whose profile is so high he is known merely by what looks like a model number -- RG3. It could put ESPN at a journalistic disadvantage in the current frenetic competition among newsslingers for shards of information, not to mention interviews and documentaries such as “The Will to Win,” a one-hour film about Griffin that aired on ESPN, co-produced by NFL Films and offered up by Gatorade Productions. ‘Nuff said. Refer to my non-use of “conflict of interest.”

3) A gesture as aggressive as attacking a famous, long-standing team is antithetical to the ESPN business model. Snyder is a business associate (his Washington radio station is an ESPN affiliate), and the NFL is an important partner. ESPN is a major media corporation with a parent company (Disney) and shareholders. I am still in the early process of exploring the depths and facets of ESPN, but one thing is clear -- it is an entertainment company trying to maintain a vigorous journalistic presence. This is no simple matter. This so-called “bifurcation” -- business side and journalism side -- requires respect and mindfulness.

“I’m from the D.C. area and a fan all my life,” says Rob King, senior vice president of content for ESPN print and digital media, “and I’ve thought about the Generals and the Statesmen as names, even George Washington replacing the Indian on the logo.

“At ESPN, the only thing that really matters is serving fans. NFL fans think of the Washington, D.C.-area franchise as the Redskins. So that informs how we'll serve them across news, commentary, scores and fantasy coverage. We will use the term Redskins so long as fans expect this to be the nomenclature that drives their rooting experience.

“So hail to 'em.”

The most sensible ongoing strategy I’ve heard is from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who said: “To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding. We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.”

Macedo said he wanted to “generate greater long-term discussion and awareness.” The discussion waxes on, within the content group, and on ESPN shows. “OTL” plans a piece on the issue in mid-September. There have been a number of pieces on ESPN’s platforms that were critical of the nickname. For example, Grantland recently ran a strong open letter to Snyder by Dave Zirin.

I liked a piece by ESPN.com reporter Dan Graziano that covered the story superbly and included this fine paragraph: “The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago -- the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place.

“The word ‘Redskin’ has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone's still offended by the name today.

“If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy.”

AND YET ANOTHER WORD

I started thinking seriously about the R-word some 30 years ago while covering lacrosse on Iroquois reservations. I have an even older personal relationship with the N-word.

In 1964, the black comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory published his autobiography with this dedication: “Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

What a pipe dream that was. Nearly 50 years later, the book (which I co-wrote) is still in print and has sold more than a million copies, yet its title is as virulent as ever. If the word didn’t pack such a vicious punch, Riley Cooper, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, would not have reached for it in a moment of anger in late July … and Hugh Douglas, a former Eagles lineman who was working as an ESPN co-host, might not have been accused -- apparently incorrectly -- of using it in an incident with a colleague.

My correspondents, the ombuddies, have criticized the disparity in ESPN’s coverage of the two incidents. Here are two typical messages:

• Joe Smith of Baltimore wrote: “After a week of wall-to-wall coverage of Riley Cooper, I haven't heard or seen anything on ESPN about one if its own.”

• Arusha Stanislaus of Rockville, Md., wrote: “This is another example of a 'holier than thou' hypocrisy that I have been seeing for a long time. If an athlete gets stopped for speeding, its 'breaking news', but internal embarrassments are not? Not a good standard sir.”

The incidents were very different. Cooper, who is white, was frustrated by a black security guard who blocked his access at a concert – and was videotaped using the slur. With witnesses and pictures, it was an easy story to cover and chew on, which ESPN did incessantly, although sometimes interestingly. Skip Bayless, who is white, thought Cooper should be cut immediately for using the N-word. Stephen A. Smith, who is black, thought Cooper’s teammates, particularly the black ones, should decide whether his future contributions to winning were worth forgiving him. (Cooper is currently on the Eagles’ 53-man roster.)

The Douglas incident occurred during the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual conference, at a get-together to raise money for the group’s Sports Task Force Scholarship Fund.

A member of NABJ called me right after the incident, embarrassed and outraged. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the organization. A day later, in an email, he wrote: “One of the attractions the Sports Task Force uses to lure attendees is the presence of ESPN on-air talent. The sports people advertise the ESPN media stars expected to be there. In other words, come to the NABJ scholarship party and you can meet Stephen A. Smith. Jemele Hill, Hugh Douglas, Michael Smith, J.A. Adande, Jay Harris, Stan Verrett, Jalen Rose, Stuart Scott, etc, etc. The scholarship party is open to more than just sports journalists; NABJ people in news departments, features, entertainment, business, Internet, etc., are all welcome.” ‘

Douglas reportedly interrupted a presentation to rant at his “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith. Both men are black. Although early reports claimed use of the N-word, there has been no audio or video, and witnesses, as well as Douglas and Smith, said the word was not used. Some reports indicated that Douglas used another pejorative toward Smith.

ESPN originally acknowledged it was looking into “a disagreement between Hugh Douglas and Michael Smith” and then more than a week later said in a statement referring to Douglas: “He no longer works for us effective today.”

The NABJ incident seemed at least as important as a wide receiver’s outburst. Douglas and Smith were representing a network that offers news and commentary; don’t fans have a right to know as much about them as about a 25-year-old backup player caught in what seems to have been a moment of alcohol-fueled frustration? An airing out of why corporate decisions were made in the NABJ case was in order – or at least some discussion by the likes of Skip and Stephen A.

So just why was there little or no coverage or commentary about Douglas on ESPN? When I asked Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, if it could be attributed to the network’s longtime avoidance of media coverage (including itself), he said, “Yes, we generally have avoided covering our personnel matters. With higher-profile talent, we have made exceptions when we felt the story has resonated at a certain level. While the Riley Cooper story brought some attention to the Douglas story because of some perceived similarities, we didn't feel it merited coverage in ‘SportsCenter.’”

I disagree. The media’s role is a critical and ongoing aspect of sports coverage. Whether it’s the media’s choices of coverage (Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow, as well as teams and games the various outlets favor), its opinions (most proclaimed the NFL the winner in the recent concussions settlement) or its business decisions (getting into bed with a soccer league or creating a channel for a college football conference), the media shapes the audience’s perception. Sometimes we need to know as much about the media as we do about the sports it covers if we want to fully understand the sports.

I think ESPN’s formal editorial guidelines for “dealing with ESPN or other media in the news” might sometimes act as a deterrent to the kind of journalism allowed in its other sports coverage. Regard this: “Finally, we insist that communication take place prior to any public discussion in any ESPN medium. We ask that you let the top person in your department know what you plan to do. Engage in a dialogue over the topic and the format and come to a resolution to accomplish everyone’s goals.”

This gives us another reason to welcome the return of the talent once known at ESPN as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Keith Olbermann opened the debut broadcast of his ESPN2 show on Aug. 26 with a bravura tirade on useless, meaningless and pervasive journalistic churn. In this case, he blistered the New York Daily News writer who used his own tweet about the New York Jets’ coach and quarterback as the source for his next story, which led to more commentary by himself and others.

Raged Olbermann: “Reporting is dead; long live making something out of nothing.”

He followed that up at the end of the week with more than seven minutes of contained fury -- illustrating a CBSSports.com column that dismissed the NFL players' concussion suit as an unjustified "money grab" with a series of clips of the broken men who had played the game.

In execution, both Olbermann segments were vintage, but in content they were even better, especially if they herald a welcome push for ESPN toward pertinent, timely, sharp media criticism.

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