Ombudsman: Ombudsman

Agree or disagree? Reaction from readers

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
9:34
AM ET
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.

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!

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.

Tackling Olbermann, Silver and Nine for IX

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
1:03
PM ET
When I began writing about sports in the last century, women were not permitted in most press boxes. Press boxes! It was more than a decade later, in the late 1970s, that equal locker room access became an issue. A nasty skirmish in the gender wars erupted, mostly underreported, until this month’s airing of the splendid “Let Them Wear Towels,” the third installment in ESPN’s instant classic series, Nine for IX.

So how come the documentary’s debut was programmed against Fox’s broadcast of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game?

That confused me. Was it a mixed message, purposeful, accidental or, you know, dude, it is what it is? This was one of several confusing messages by ESPN in July, including the uncomfortably chummy spectacle of the ESPYS, the forced switch of the commentariat on ESPN.com to Facebook, and the trumpeted return of the former He Who Must Not Be Named to the network.

There was less confusion in the old days, at least regarding gender roles. The exceptions to the prohibition against women in the press box were revealing. In Los Angeles, for example, aging gossip columnist Walter Winchell was allowed to bring starlets into the press box at Dodger Stadium to watch him type. We all snickered, but didn’t much care. More threatening were the ambitious, talented, suppressed women writers who could take our jobs.

And they did. Many of them were hired to satisfy discrimination suits against newspapers and were determined to prove they deserved the jobs on their individual merits. Almost immediately, they smartened coverage by acting like journalists instead of fanboys. They found human interest stories, and they weren’t afraid of asking technical questions.

If those women could be stopped at the locker room door, thus stymied in picking up the quotes and the moods that are so often the heart of postgame coverage, they could be kept at a reporting disadvantage. The blame for that last stand has usually been heaped on players, coaches and officials, but male sports writers, jealous of their own access to the testosterone tree house, were at least complicit. I often wondered whether they were afraid the world would find out just how tenuous were their own relationships with the athletes, who often treated sportswriters as if they were, in the players’ phrase, “green ants at the picnic.”

The directors of the espnW film, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, assembled an all-star cast of sportswriters -- Melissa Ludtke, Robin Herman, Michele Himmelberg, Betty Cuniberti, Claire Smith, Jane Gross, Sheryl Flatow, Lesley Visser and Christine Brennan -- to tell their brave and harrowing stories. There are unexpected heroes (Billy Martin, Steve Garvey) and predictable villains (commissioner Bowie Kuhn, male sports writers).

The topic might not have gotten its due until now because women were humiliated (most of the pioneers did not stay in sports), men were shamed, and most academics writing about that era of major social movements dismissed it as merely sports -- although the issue proves again how sports were, and still are, a major definer of American masculinity and femininity.

There are still doors that need to open wider for women, including, as Herman pointed out in the documentary, the one that leads to the predominantly male play-by-play broadcast booth. That’s an ESPN issue, even with its fine roster of female reporters, producers and hosts. We will be returning to that topic in the future.

So, why did this terrific film have to go up against the All-Star Game?

According to Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, the Tuesday night airing was part of ESPN’s programming plan to create a consistent schedule to showcase the Nine for IX documentaries throughout the summer.

“It was not counterprogramming,” Williamson said. “It was part of a long-term strategy to create a flight for the marketing of quality shows -- not that all ESPN shows aren’t quality. But we wanted a window, almost appointment TV, for documentaries throughout the year. And Tuesday night was the night least likely to have a game.”

I like the idea of “classy Tuesday,” of a date with quality, but it makes me uneasy, too. Yes, the documentaries will air some 18 times each (on numerous ESPN channels, including ESPN Classic), and ratings indicate that the electorate prefers games and studio shows. But the word “marginalizing” still comes to mind. Meanwhile, no one has suggested that “Outside the Lines” should be a Tuesday night regular instead of making it even harder to find.

Even while we were talking about all this, OTL is being moved on Sundays from ESPN at 9 a.m. to ESPN2 at 8 a.m., coinciding with the football season, starting Sept. 8. Even with DVRs, that sends a message -- and not about quality.

Let Us Ponder the Pretty Ponders

One of the executive producers of “Let Them Wear Towels” is Robin Roberts, a pioneering reporter and anchor at, among other places, ESPN and ABC. The night after the documentary’s debut, Roberts was live on ESPN at the 20th annual ESPYS award show. She received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and spoke movingly of her battle back from health issues, a segment that was the highlight of the show.

The rest of the broadcast, however, was mostly the implied daps and chest bumps we’ve come to expect, with a few surprises, especially the grace and dignity of LeBron James on the red carpet, as a recipient of a top prize -- male athlete of the year -- and as Roberts’ presenter. He obviously took it seriously and prepared well.

Seeing athletes in different clothes and without their game faces is a pleasure of the watching the ESPYS. I particularly enjoyed watching Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ quarterback -- ESPN’s Ron Jaworski has him rated No. 27 of 32 in his NFL QB rankings -- apparently auditioning for his next career as a broadcast jock. Supported by the former Samantha Steele, an ESPN reporter and now also his wife, Ponder interviewed the amiable likes of Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (by throwing little footballs over his head). Ponder is actor-cute in that indie-film- and-TV mumblecore way. If he doesn’t make Jaws’ top 20 this season, he should scramble for a role on a cop show.

I also enjoyed watching athletes in the audience guffawing, often a beat late, at dumb -- and sometimes mean -- jokes by host Jon Hamm, often at Dwight Howard’s expense. The message here is that it’s all entertainment, folks, as sports should be, whether Adrian Peterson is running long on his acceptance speech, or just running long.

But the ESPYS offer another message, much like the annual White House Correspondents' dinner: We’re all in this together. It’s fine for news executives, columnists and anchors to party with politicians and lobbyists, to get to know them as human beings, just as it is fine for ESPN executives, columnists and anchors, to party with athletes (and maybe not to feel like green ants.)

The concern, though, is that viewers might be getting the idea that they are the rubes at these circuses, that the jocks and the pols who show up can expect, in return, access and favors from the media.

This might be why the audience doesn’t always trust political reporters and sometimes wonders whether ESPN is protecting a pal -- an employee of one of its partner leagues -- when “SportsCenter” is perceived as late or timid in reporting an athlete’s latest DUI or sexual assault charge. Most of the time, I think the typical ESPN explanation -- “We were exercising responsible caution” -- is true.

Still, it’s hard not to get the impression that certain athletes, like certain politicians, get a pass because members of the media hobnobbed with them and expect to do so again -- not to mention the revolving doors in which senators, QBs, generals and coaches rotate in and out of studios and anchor booths.

Perhaps even more pernicious than the once-a-year ESPYS are those ubiquitous “This Is SportsCenter” commercials. The latest example has anchor John Anderson, an avatar of authority, gravely suggesting to golfer Rickie Fowler, blithe in his signature orange jumpsuit as he pours orange juice into his coffee, that he might be colorblind. I think it’s hilarious.

But do those entertaining commercials undermine ESPN’s attempt to balance its reputation for the creative celebration of sports events with a reputation for serious journalism? Just imagine Brian Williams and Secretary of State John Kerry in the NBC copy room, scanning each other’s butts.

You Talkin’ To Me?

The mailbag trembled with the announcement earlier this month that fan conversations on ESPN.com were being diverted to Facebook’s commenting tools.

Jeff Gilbert of Miami wrote, in a typical message, “I don't want my inane sports comments posted to my page -- I guess there's a way to prevent this, but I'm unclear how a future change in Facebook policy will affect my decision to keep these comments semi-private. Will I need to monitor Facebook policy to make sure new comments don't just start showing up for friends to see? …. what if those without shame keep posting idiotic comments in spite of having their name attached and we just lose the thoughtful commentary by those wary of Facebook or too casual to worry about changing their privacy settings but still don't want their friends seeing sports non sequiturs and so refrain from sharing?”

Added Brian Hansen of Chicago, “Especially in light of the recent revelations that the federal government is literally storing everyone's data/communications/posts what have you from Facebook, doesn't this signal that ESPN is not an advocate of privacy? Something just feels wrong compelling your readers to express their views knowing that the federal government is literally monitoring what they say. … I assume the answer is money, but I wonder what the decision says about ESPN and the changing society we live in.”

Yes, Brian, money -- or at least traffic -- is a factor. Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, told Marie Shanahan of the Poynter Institute -- and later me -- that the change was partially a marketing tactic that will further extend the reach of ESPN. By removing anonymity, he said, the change was also intended to improve the “civility” of comments on the website. Stiegman said ESPN executed “a tremendously smooth transition” for its 25 million active registered users, about 80 percent of whom already have Facebook accounts.

Stiegman also confirmed that certain sections on ESPN’s digital products -- including columns by Rick Reilly, Bill Simmons, Grantland (except for its blogs) and the ombudsman -- don’t allow open comments.

ESPN is not the only media company to make this move. Steven Johnson, a leading media theorist and author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” told me, “There is a general, and I think understandable, backlash happening now against open comment threads, particularly on sites with a huge amount of traffic like ESPN. There's everything from bot-driven comment spam to typical Internet flame wars to just weird junk that shows up.

“I can see why ESPN is doing it. And it's not like Facebook is the end of online discussion -- it's just anchoring all the contributions in a known identity.”

The Return of He Who Must Not Be Named

Hardly any ombuddies thought the announced return of Keith Olbermann was a good idea. (ESPN says the former “SportsCenter” anchor will host his own late-night show on ESPN2 starting in August). But being the ombudsman’s mailbag, with names and addresses and phone numbers, they were civil.

• Bill Dart of Caldwell, Idaho: “I have removed all ESPN channels from my channel guide. I have no interest in supporting in any manner a network that hires one of the most partisan, mean, bigoted, commentators to ever disgrace television.”

• Thomas Strickland of Olathe, Kan.: “WHAT were you thinking? Olbermann made his living as a Left-wing fascist nut job bomb thrower that routinely mocked HALF your viewing audience! Olbermann is divisiveness incarnate! I'm starting Facebook and Twitter campaigns to let everyone know about the obscene nature of your actions. Olbermann is the anti-Christ!”

Although responses to Olbermann’s return were predominantly political, Williamson and other ESPN executives will be tracking age demographics after the new ESPN2 show debuts Aug. 26. As Williamson pointed out, Olbermann left ESPN 16 years ago, which means there are viewers who don’t remember when he and Dan Patrick were the reigning stars of “SportsCenter.”

Olbermann wasn’t the only recent blockbuster ESPN addition. Nate Silver, the sports and political statistician whose accurate projections have been a feature of The New York Times, will bring fivethirtyeight.com to ESPN. In a joint interview, Silver and ESPN President John Skipper emphasized the importance of the Simmons-led Grantland site as a model for Silver’s future at ESPN.

Watching this play out should be fascinating. Will Silver extend the reach of ESPN into politics, weather, education, you name it? Will the Silver site become a duchy within the ESPN kingdom? Will it affect other franchise players? ESPN reporters often talk about chemistry when an athlete joins a new team; will this move make ESPN more like the Miami Heat -- or the Los Angeles Lakers?

After the Silver announcement, Marc Tracy of The New Republic called it “the juiciest free agent signing since LeBron James bolted for Miami.”

All of this didn’t happen in a Bristol bubble. In mid-August, a month after ESPN’s comments switch to Facebook and nine days before Olbermann debuts, Fox rolls out its new sports channel, the first potentially serious challenger to ESPN’s hegemony. These will be interesting times for ESPN viewers, readers and listeners, not to mention the company’s employees.

The competition for rights and talent will be fierce. Pioneering executives such as Williamson, who remember when ESPN was an underdog begging other networks for scraps of video, admit they will have to adjust to the reality of the World Wide Leader actually looking over its shoulder.

Meanwhile, much of the staff might not totally understand those early days, and the role Olbermann played at the time: Of the company's almost 7,000 employees, Williamson says, 5,000 have worked at ESPN for less than 15 years. That’s after Olbermann quit ESPN the first time. (A move that later led Mike Soltys, now ESPN’s vice president for corporate communications, to famously comment, “He didn’t burn bridges here, he napalmed them.”)

If you’ve gotten down to here, I don’t have to say: Stay tuned.

Viewers weather Dwight Howard storm

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
10:27
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If you’re not of the hardwood hardcore, you might have thought last week that “Howard” was an extreme weather system originating in Los Angeles and threatening to head east. ESPN pro basketball cognoscenti such as Stephen A. Smith and Chris Broussard tracked every free-agent movement of Dwight Howard, the then-Lakers center, as if he were a storm center.

Would he stay in Los Angeles, land in Houston, veer off elsewhere? Citing their sources, ESPN reporters had him changing his mind all day and night Friday, even citing at one point the “50-50” odds of his uncertainty. Had he been a real storm, I would have stocked up on water and batteries just to be safe.

Some of the Ombudsman’s mailbag correspondents – I’m beginning to think of them as my Ombuddies -- thought it was too much Howard, too much NBA and too many unnamed sources.

I checked in with Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, about the use of anonymous sources. He emailed: “With a story like this, breaking on live television, you either make some decisions to trust sources that have been good in the past, or sit on the sidelines. Pretty sure we'd be equally criticized for doing the latter.”

Good points justifying the process. What about the rationale for flooding the zone on the story?

On to Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights at ESPN, who wrote: “Dwight Howard did more than join the Rockets. He joined a club of folks like [Brett] Favre, LeBron [James], Peyton [Manning], etc. A big story with a big star and the question is did ESPN cover it thoroughly or too much?”

Blyn and fellow ESPN researcher Kaylin VanDusen tried to answer the question: According to their research, the NBA is a 12-month sport now, not only on the rise but skewing toward youth and diversity, both prize targets at ESPN. There’s intense interest in offseason personnel movement that can change the direction of a team.

All of this bears watching for recurrent patterns. How often does heavy coverage spike the ratings and thus justify the heavy coverage? And what about all those anonymous sources? In situations like this, I’ll give reporters the benefit of the doubt; they are protecting useful insiders rather than interviewing each other or floating rumors.

But it does keep one glued to ESPN just the way storm warnings keep you following weather reports.

Columnist critique of Patriot Way falls short

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
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How dare Ashley Fox hold the New England Patriots culpable for Aaron Hernandez’s alleged transgressions? How can she accuse owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick of enabling the tight end’s murderous runs? Why doesn’t ESPN release her?

That has been the tenor of the ombudsman’s recent mail, not to mention the more than 4,000 overwhelmingly negative comments trailing behind Fox’s Monday column on ESPN.com about Hernandez and the Patriots.

For starters, let me say that I’m glad Fox wrote a strong opinion in what has seemed like careful coverage of the Hernandez case. While I thought the ESPN crime reporting, often in conjunction with ABC News, has been good, I wondered if the sidebars were a little too concerned with how the Patriots’ release of Hernandez might affect the team and how quickly his jerseys were pulled off the shelves and became collectibles.

I couldn’t find much criticism of a Patriot Way that included dumping a productive star before the justice system declared him guilty. Should any comparison be made to the case of Ray Lewis, implicated in a 2000 murder? That case is still a mystery. But the Ravens stood by their man and they all went on to win Super Bowl rings. Lewis is now an ESPN analyst.

When Fox weighed in on the Hernandez case, I wished she had been a little weightier. Casting blame is a columnist’s game, but other than taking a chance on a terrific player with “character issues” who had fallen to the fourth round of the 2010 draft, and then re-signing him for millions a few years later, what exactly had Kraft and Belichick done wrong?

How about this: If you hire a guy to risk serious physical injuries by performing violent acts for you, don’t you have some responsibility for checking on his mental state?

Jim Stewart, a former NFL player and now a licensed therapist who works with combat vets suffering from PTSD, has been lobbying the NFL and various teams to “embed” therapists whom players can talk to privately before their lives take terrible turns. He thinks, for example, such an embed might have prevented Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs from murdering his girlfriend in front of their baby and then killing himself in front of his coaches. That’s about as obvious a cry for franchise help as one can find. Could such a person have helped Hernandez?

A case could be made that Kraft and Belichick -- that any NFL owner and coach -- are somehow complicit in a player’s destructive act if a series of behavioral signs were ignored. There were certainly signs in the Hernandez file.

Ashley Fox didn’t make the case, thus opening herself to a zone-flooding tide of unpleasant mail. But give her some credit for thinking about this awful story in a fresh and serious way.

What are commentary boundaries at ESPN?

June, 28, 2013
6/28/13
12:52
PM ET
Jason Collins' coming-out party was a historic and controversial story, feel-good for some, an abomination for others and an "uncomfortable conversation" on "Outside the Lines" that still resonates in ESPN conference rooms and in the ombudsman's mailbag.

More than one ESPN manager told me it was "a learning experience" and then couldn't come up with what had been learned. How about this: The tricky trifecta of religion, race and sexuality exposed not only the fault-lines in "OTL's" preparation but the inconsistent performance of ESPN journalism in general. The old story won't die because it brings up too many unresolved questions that we will be addressing in my scheduled 18 months as ESPN's fifth ombudsman.

• What are the boundaries of sports talk, and on which shows?

• What is the distinction between a reporter and a commentator? The lines seem to blur sometimes.

• How can ESPN balance the varying sensibilities of its audience? There are people who want the network to provide a safe haven from the real world. But Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, tells me that he is finding in his research a "hunger for more challenging news." These people want information, they want to understand their world, including the world of their games.

• ESPN's resources are substantial, and as it continues to hire more experienced journalists, will it match their ambitions with a company will to give them reporting and commentating room?

• If it does, there will be another, more complex balancing act. What happens when ESPN's "partners" -- the teams, conferences, leagues whose games it airs and analyzes -- are made uncomfortable by tough reporting?

Let's start this journey back in April with the face of a seven-foot journeyman hoops bouncer, Jason Collins, smiling out of a Sports Illustrated cover online. It took most of sportsworld by surprise. The opening lines of his confessional essay, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," stirred the pro basketball, African-American and LGBT communities. It would stir Christians, as well.

ESPN seemed somewhat slower than the Internet to get excited by the announcement. A snide case had been made that it was, after all, a rival's scoop, that Tim Tebow was still adrift and that the NFL draft was looming. In any case, it was perfunctorily covered on early "SportsCenter" editions and briefly examined by ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard. He predicted, correctly, that the NBA and most players would publicly support Collins, who was a free agent. Whether Collins would sign another NBA contract, Broussard said, depended less on his sexual orientation than on whether any team needed an aging enforcer who averaged about nine minutes a game.

Some of those who had long hoped for a male active professional team athlete to come out were vaguely disappointed; as attractive and intelligent as Collins was, he was not a star and, as a free agent, was technically not even active. Also, there had been expectations of bigger names; ESPN's enterprise unit was one of a number trying to track down a months-old rumor that four NFL players were poised to come out together.

OTL was the first ESPN show to cover the story in any depth in its 3 p.m. airing. It had to shift gears from a planned Lakers dissection. LZ Granderson, an openly gay, black ESPN columnist, magazine writer and frequent TV commentator, came on by phone and celebrated a brave new locker room. He talked about the importance of Collins describing himself as black, thus eroding a stereotype of the African-American community as homophobic. He discussed the symbolism of Collins wearing No. 98 to memorialize the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. Granderson also imagined all the young gay players who could now believe there would be a place for them on high school, college, even pro teams.

In his turns, Broussard, who had been on hand for the scheduled Lakers show, was just as thoughtful, declaring the climate right for acceptance, acknowledging the overwhelming support (Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and Jason Kidd, not to mention Michelle Obama, had quickly weighed in with positive tweets). But tiny red flags popped up in Broussard's remarks. He wondered how much of the support reflected true feelings and how much "political correctness." There would be players, he said, who might be uncomfortable showering with and even just being around gays, but who didn't want to say so and risk being marked as bigots.

Granderson began to frame the story: He invoked his 10-year friendship with Broussard, back to their being colleagues at ESPN The Magazine and teammates in rec league basketball. He said he saw their relationship as an example of how people with very different points of view could have respectful and intelligent disagreements while remaining friends. Implicit was that this could be a model for NBA players.

Broussard broke in to "second" Granderson's remarks. He added "I am a Christian" and agreed with the idea that people can tolerate differing points of view.

The OTL host, Steve Weissman, asked Granderson whether there was a difference between tolerance and acceptance. Granderson said that there was, and he noted for the record that he was a Christian, too. He said that just as he and Broussard had had "this uncomfortable conversation" about gays and straights, as had the military before the end of "don't ask, don't tell," now it was the turn of the NBA.

'WALKING IN OPEN REBELLION TO GOD'

In a host decision, Weissman asked Broussard to comment on Collins declaring himself a Christian in his SI essay. Several ESPN executives, in casual, off-the-record conversations, attributed that decision to inexperience. Broussard told me later that he "was stunned when Weissman asked me a direct question," but said he felt he "needed to let the viewer know where I'm at for context and clarity."

Broussard said, "If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality [but] adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals … I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ." He added. "I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don't think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian."

At this point, as Weissman said to me later, the control room told him to let Granderson wrap up the segment.

Granderson's voice became passionate. He said that "faith, just like love and marriage, is personal." He talked about the unfairness of using the Bible to deprive others of equal rights. No one could define his Christianity. He declared that "Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior."

As both Granderson and Broussard would later say, they were sorry that the focus of the show had shifted from Collins' coming out to their personal beliefs. Yet both seemed to feel that an airing of those beliefs was intrinsic to understanding the scope of the story.

And in the context of the times, it was a big story. A few months earlier, ESPN had helped expose Mike Rice, the Rutgers men's basketball coach whose physical and emotional abuse of players included gay slurs. The use of homophobia to tyrannize and control straight athletes is an old-school tactic that can work only in a climate of fear and inequality. Rice was eventually fired.

A few months after Collins' coming out, when you might think we had all been sensitized, Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, at a playoff news conference, described himself as "no homo" to distance himself from the praise he had just given another man. My email called the phrase no big deal, a jokey-jock throwaway. But I think it reflected an uneasiness about sexuality even among large celebrity athletes we might assume should be more confident of their manhood.

Personally, I was most surprised by revelations, in excellent Magazine and OTL pieces by espnW reporter Kate Fagan, about Brittney Griner, the hot new WNBA star. She said she had been forced to stay in the closet during her years at Baylor. Her coach, Kim Mulkey, was apparently afraid that any hint of lesbianism on her team would affect recruiting. I had naively thought we were past the dark days of the 1990s when coach Rene Portland of Penn State promised the parents of prospects that no "predatory" lesbians would darken her locker room. (Is this still a pervasive recruiting tactic? I hope ESPN's enterprise commandos are on it.)

In such a climate, I wondered why ESPN did not do more to advance the Collins story or at least connect more dots to other sports stories, perhaps even link to the gay struggle for equal rights and its push-back and to the spike in assaults on gay men. (The next day's OTL devoted half the show to a "Good Morning America" sit-down with Collins and a phoner with John Amaechi, an ex-NBA player who had come out after his retirement.)

On the day of Collins' coming-out announcement, OTL had at least four hours to put together a produced news package, to gather more talking heads, to be smart in its analysis. Just what does this story mean, if anything, to sports, to gays, to the perception of manhood in America? For a traditional broadcast or cable news operation, four hours is enough time to crash such a report, with lunch included.

When ESPN does respond well to a breaking story, it leans on its superstars. The superb work of Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap after the Boston Marathon bombings is a good example.

So, too, the first-rate follow-ups to the Collins story by Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly. Simmons had two excellent podcasts, one a discerning discussion about the ramifications of Collins' announcement with Grantland writer Wesley Morris and one with Collins himself. Reilly came up with vintage columns, one in which he interviewed Collins' former fiancée, among other friends, and another with fresh material on flamboyant Dodgers outfielder, Glenn Burke, who was forced by baseball to stay in the closet, which eventually drove him out after a short, promising career.

More context would have made the OTL show far better. It was thin on the meaning of Collins' coming out and overly focused on two men discussing the differences in their Christian outlooks. And even the schisms in jock Christianity could have been made more pertinent. NASCAR drivers, who have incorporated religious services into their prerace rituals, are privately contemptuous of the "stick-and-ball" athletes who pray to "trinket Gods" to bring them luck.

Covering baseball in the last century, you would find clubhouses divided between so-called God-Squadders and Juicers. The born-again Christians, who attended pregame chapel, prayed that their teammates would find the path out of the barroom and show up sober for batting practice. The party boys expressed disdain for the "softness" of the observant, who, they claimed, didn't really need to win because religion forgives losers.

SAFE HAVENS AND SHOWERS

ESPN on-air coverage is driven by live games and studio analysis, and a Jock Culture hero-goat-scoreboard mentality prevails. By default, fault was found by some ESPN executives with Granderson, Broussard and Weissman, all of whom are otherwise generally well-regarded in Bristol. It was Granderson, it was said, who, knowing Broussard's religious views, led him into his remarks. It was Broussard who stepped out of his assigned role and went too far. It was Weissman who lost control of the show. The criticisms were casual and off-the-record; they seemed like a way to get past the show.

At the time, the company quickly issued a noncommittal statement: "We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today's news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins' announcement."

Two weeks later, ESPN President John Skipper told reporters, "I think we did great other than we made one mistake: The mistake was not being more careful with Chris Broussard, and there is a collective responsibility there." Answering a question from Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, Skipper said: "We don't quarrel with his right to have any personal point of view, although we do assert as a company that we have a tolerant point of view, we are a diverse company, and that does not represent what our company thinks."

The attitude, as I read it, was that these were small, regrettable, forgettable mistakes. No major fouls. In fact, considering ESPN's "Embrace Debate" mantra, it could have been far messier. In other words, we can move on. This was a one-off.

You think? Or was it another example of that Jock Culture sensibility of not dwelling on an error, fine for the playing of games but not for the journalistic issues that affect our understanding and appreciation of those games. The ESPN audience was not so ready to move on. There were hundreds of emails to the ombudsman. They tended to fall into four categories.

1. About 30 percent of the respondents not only supported Broussard's religious views but applauded the emergence of faith as an antidote to the "pro-gay" agenda of the media. Jim Wesson of LaFollette, Tenn. was expressing the opinion of many viewers when he wrote: "If Chris Broussard had expressed a pro-homosexual point of view you would not have criticized him for expressing his personal feelings rather than simply being a basketball analyst. It's very troubling that ESPN is tolerant of everyone except Christians."

2. Another 30 percent supported Broussard on First Amendment grounds. He had a right to speak his mind. Many of these also complained that the religious beliefs he espoused do not get a proper airing in the media.

3. About 20 percent said they thought Broussard was way out of line and had spoken inappropriately. Some thought he should be disciplined or fired. The case of former ESPN commentator Rob Parker was brought up as a precedent. Parker, who is black, had wondered on "First Take" whether Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was an authentic black or a "cornball brother" who was "not down with the cause." This was based on Griffin's lifestyle, hairstyle and white fiancée. Parker was suspended, and his ESPN contract was not renewed.

4. Another 20 percent thought any mention of homosexuality had no place on a sports network watched by families and children. They invoked the safe haven attitude about controversial matters that often includes complaints about commercials for male sexual enhancement drugs. Kerri Wittwer of Melissa, Texas, spoke for that point of view: "Very disappointed to walk into our family area to my elementary age sons watching ESPN and the coverage being a lengthy interview on being gay in the NFL. My sons love sports and ESPN. Just as I don't think that Sports coverage needs to include ball players and their romantic relationships with women, the same goes for a man's relationship with other men. Seems we have strayed from SPORTS coverage to relationship and political coverage."

By the time I started as ombudsman and got to talk to the principals in mid-June, the story had dropped off the table. No one at ESPN was particularly motivated to talk about it. But the audience, which I represent, was still interested, and so was I.

Granderson told me that "the conversation went too far - not too far for where it needs to go but too far for that news story. It was not necessarily a conversation for ESPN, which is not necessarily the place to examine theological differences."

Could he have done something differently? "I could have opted to put my ego aside and remember the purpose I was there for," he said. "I'm not backing away, but I'm disappointed to put Chris in a place to be defending his Christian views and values."

He had his parting shot: "What's heartbreaking is using God to spread hate."

COLLINS SEEMED OK WITH IT

A decade ago, Broussard and I were colleagues at The New York Times, where he was known for having given up seminary to pursue a career in sportswriting. He was forthright when we talked earlier this month.

"The media in general, not just ESPN, is lopsided in its coverage," he said. "It's a cheerleader for the lifestyle and same-sex marriage and puts those who disagree in an unfavorable light. You can see it in the eye rolling and body language of so-called objective journalists. Born-again people are made out to be bigots and intolerant even though there are Neanderthals present on both sides."

Broussard said he went on the show as "an objective journalist," but, because it was OTL, he was ready to let the host lead him. As it turned out, Granderson led.

"I was satisfied," Broussard said. "I would do it again. It was what I believed. It was not out of hate, not in a judgmental way. It was conventional Christian doctrine.

"I got a lot of support from players afterward, especially from Christians, who loved it. Others told me I had the courage to speak out. They said 'You got big balls, brother, you the man.'"

Broussard called Collins the next night and they talked for about 10 minutes. "I wanted him to know I wasn't trying to use his announcement for my own views. He seemed OK with it."

As was, Broussard thought, the company: "ESPN did not make me feel they were against me."

The third man in the ring, Weissman, who is being used more often as a host of OTL, knew nothing about Broussard's religious views, he told me. Nor did his producers. Should they have? In 2007, in response to Amaechi's coming out (his memoir, "Man in the Middle," was published by ESPN), Broussard wrote a column on the topic for ESPN.com.

In the piece, he maintained that although he believed that homosexuality, like any sex outside a male-female marriage, was a sin, he also believed that gay and straight players could be teammates. "If I can accept working side-by-side with a homosexual," he wrote, "then he/she can accept working side-by-side with someone who believes homosexuality is wrong."

He also wrote: "Granted, I don't shower with LZ after games like NBA teammates do, and I'll admit that if I had to, it might be a little uncomfortable at first.

The column was 6 years old, and was news to the immediate supervisors of the April OTL show, some of whom had been at ESPN when the column appeared. In fairness, Broussard was a magazine feature writer at the time, not lead NBA reporter for ESPN TV.

And would it have made a difference had they known? The big turning point in the conversation was when Weissman asked Broussard to comment on Collins' calling himself a Christian. Given that Broussard and Granderson had already described themselves as Christians, the host was tying up loose ends by asking a follow-up question. It was textbook journalism.

"At the end of the day," Weissman said, "I thought we had a respectful, intelligent and honest conversation."

I'm not so sure about that. The program was lumpy and unframed. A commentator and a reporter were put into a position of point-counterpoint. They went too far and yet not far enough. Granderson's concept of the "uncomfortable conversation" should be an aspect of ESPN's purported mission of injecting more journalism into its coverage. But it needs to be offered in a context that explains why you need to know about drugs, sexual abuse, money for college athletes, cheating, the topics that some in the audience will consider crucial, others alienating, still others just plain buzz killers. Maybe more of an effort has to be made to place these stories beyond a 13-minute, 46- second slot on OTL.

Nevertheless, that old coming-out story is constantly being renewed by the people it inspired. Two months later, in June, I noticed a new display being mounted in the ESPN employee cafeteria in Bristol. It was called OUT/field and was sponsored by the company's LGBT group. A series of panels honored gay athletes, including Martina Navratilova, Billy Bean and the man who sometimes got lost in this story, Jason Collins.

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