Ombudsman: Ombudsman

Probing the gray areas of ESPN's journalism

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
3:26
PM ET
My 18-month hitch as ESPN ombudsman ends later this year, so this column begins my goodbye tour; some observations here and some suggestions in the upcoming Part II. There’s time and space for your feedback.

EVERY DAY IS GAME DAY


In the early days of my ombudsmanship, a senior ESPN executive suggested I stay away from “conflict of interest” as a topic in my upcoming columns; it was an irrelevant issue, he said, nothing more than a way for lazy critics to attack ESPN.

Just the other day, a different senior ESPN executive told me that the “conflict-of-interest” topic was just too complex to explicate. He said, “There are no black-and-white areas at ESPN. Everything is gray.”

These were two smart and important executives, a generation apart in age and service, reflecting what I found to be the prevailing mindset of a company that has been enormously successful at making it up as it goes along -- shuffling personnel, sports, shows with a gambler’s pragmatism as it tries to balance the demands of the leagues that are its principal business partners with the journalistic obligations to cover them honestly.

It’s often a crapshoot. What seems like inconsistency in standards can as easily be described as an openness to innovation. A sometimes-hesitant approach to newsgathering is explained as prudence. A sometimes-confusing morality on issues of race, gender and religion might merely reflect larger society. A prevailing jockish sensibility might be an understanding of its audience.

One high-level ESPN decision has stuck with me as a clue to the ESPN mindset. In December 2013, abiding by its stated prohibition against “political or religious advocacy,” ESPN rejected a 30-second TV commercial for a St. Louis Catholic children’s hospital that included the phrase “help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas.” Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly all but declared the decision anti-Christian, and hundreds of protesting emails descended on ESPN. Another ESPN leader, Ed Durso, executive vice president for administration, told me at the time that he had made “a business decision” by reversing the rejection and accepting the original spot because “this was not worth all this trouble.”

Recently, Durso told me that, after some intense recent meetings, ESPN had decided -- based on current media customs and common sense -- to drop its blanket prohibition against “political or religious advocacy” ads. From now on, he said, commercials would be accepted or rejected “case by case,” without specific rules.

Case-by-case sounds like making it up as you go, pragmatically avoiding trouble. When I told Durso about my previous conversations regarding conflicts of interest and gray areas, he nodded and smiled.

If there is one show that best captures how ESPN maneuvers through those very same conflicts of interest and the gray areas, it is “College GameDay.”

From professional and symbolic points of view, “College GameDay” is my favorite ESPN show. It is superbly produced and comes close to perfection in fulfilling its apparent mission to entertain us while it promotes a live event, even if the best matchups are on other networks. The game -- that unscripted drama that is so valuable on TV because we have to watch it in real time, right through the commercials -- is the heart of ESPN’s appeal; all the news, debate, context, betting information, speculation and fanboy chitchat that make up much of the networks’ programming is the support that keeps the heart beating.

And for college football, at least, no one does that better than “GameDay.”

As a miniature of ESPN, “GameDay” seems like a good way of taking a snapshot of the strengths and weaknesses of the empire. The show is appealing in a nonthreatening way that allows the audience to relax, confident there will be no jarring surprises. The two main hosts, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, are likable, knowledgeable, easy to watch. They are bona fide members of the jock fraternity, with clowns, roughnecks and X-and-O analysts passing through and around their floating desk, at whichever over-jacked college town the Saturday morning fixture happens to land.

“GameDay” was recently in Tallahassee, Florida,, with the best college quarterback in the country, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, having been accused at various times of sexual assault, robbery, autograph peddling and inappropriate campus conduct. Fowler and Herbstreit smoothly affirmed our right to enjoy the show without the angst of moral judgment on college sports.

Hey, it’s “GameDay.” Leave the heavy breathing to “Outside the Lines” (if you can find it).

As is custom, the “GameDay” desk was in front of a crowd of Florida State students who held up signs (“What would Jameis Do?” and “Witch Hunt”). The boisterous crowd drowned out ESPN reporter Heather Cox’s questions of FSU coach Jimbo Fisher but hushed for his answers. Reporter Tom Rinaldi offered up something less than one of his usually first-rate pieces; he talked about “the uncertain trajectory” of Winston’s career with “criticism mounting.” David Pollack, an ESPN analyst, not surprisingly, wondered how the controversy around Winston (a further investigation is looming) would affect the team.

This approach -- discussing the impact on the team when a player comes under unusual scrutiny -- tends to be a default wonderment at ESPN, whether it’s about openly gay Michael Sam showering with teammates or Adrian Peterson briefly leaving the Vikings to visit a toddler he had just learned was his son or later beating an older son with a small tree branch.

The game between Florida State and Notre Dame was on network television, ESPN on ABC. Did that weaken any journalistic resolve to dig a little deeper on a three-hour program built around that game? Was “GameDay’s” function to be celebratory no matter what? Did it reflect the flabby reporting job -- for whatever reason -- that ESPN has done of late on the Winston story, which involves the way the university and Tallahassee have protected star athletes and the implications for all major football schools and their local police?

Did it reflect, according to a leading ESPN broadcaster speaking off the record, the routine “self-censorship” on stories that “balance the news and business consideration … the fact is everyone internalizes it, and factors it in”?

I think the answer to all those questions has to do with what I sense is ESPN’s ambivalence toward its role as the putative leader of sports journalism in that gray area.

THE J-WORD

People at ESPN are justifiably proud of their journalism and justifiably defensive when it is questioned. It can be prize-winning … and it can be an embarrassment. When I recently asked John Walsh, the network’s executive vice president and executive editor, about the well-chronicled removal of ESPN’s imprimatur from the PBS "Frontline" show on concussions, he replied, “Did it affect the product? It didn’t affect our journalism. We doubled down.”

The flap over that show was the most challenging to the idea of ESPN journalism, although not necessarily to the execution of it, in my time as ombudsman.

Walsh was right. The guts of the “Frontline” show were based on ESPN journalism, and ESPN continued to cover the story -- including airing two lengthy excerpts of the PBS show on “Outside the Lines” and running a series of on-air and online contributions from “League of Denial” authors and ESPN reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada -- although three questions I asked in that column a year ago have yet to be satisfactorily answered.

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

(To be fair, ESPN has not ignored these questions entirely, but I have been disappointed that they have not gotten the full-bore attacks of, say, the affairs of Donald Sterling, a far less important story and one that put a business partner -- the NBA -- in a good light.)

These are big, tough questions that require a media company with deep resources, talented reporters and the will to antagonize important business partners. ESPN certainly has the first two, but it seems mostly unwilling to go into its conflict-of-interest zone with the kind of rigor so many of its critics -- including many correspondents to the ombudsman’s mailbag -- demand.

So what should ESPN do? I recently asked several dozen people inside and outside ESPN to discuss journalism’s role at the company.

Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN Digital & Print Media, represented the company loyalist consensus. Said Stiegman: “Journalism is vital to our credibility with fans and drives viewership and traffic between live events. I believe our news division operates independently with great rigor, and it's not so much that journalistic standards vary between shows as the recognition that not all shows are pure journalism -- they may contain journalistic elements and segments but may also be entertainment driven, and fans understand that.”

Fans might understand that too well. Stephen Gessner, an educator and psychologist who played college football and frequently reads and watches ESPN, represented an older, outsider consensus that tends to see the network as “all entertainment,” which I find disappointing but common. Gessner wrote: “Even programs like ‘SportsCenter’ are not legitimate news programs. They are full of gimmicks -- Top 10 plays (we are in David Letterman territory here), Web Gems, etc. I think the ethos of the ESPN style compromises the announcers. Further with the conflicts of interest in reporting on something you own, you are no longer legitimate. I think when they started the [Longhorn] and SEC networks, they lost any chance of being journalists.”

Pointing out, as does Stiegman, that those college networks are considered “partner projects” and “not core ESPN journalism” is a distinction mostly lost on the audience.

Taking strenuous issue with the naysayers is Dwayne Bray, senior coordinating producer of enterprise reporting and a veteran of almost 20 years of newspapering, including editing at The Dallas Morning News. Said Bray: “Journalism distinguishes ESPN from some of the other players in the broadcast media landscape, such as the league-run networks. ESPN has been out front in the coverage of domestic violence in sports.”

Bray noted that, earlier this year, “It was ESPN’s interview with former Tar Heel basketball player Rashad McCants that reignited the debate over academics in major college sports” and said ESPN reporters Peter Keating, Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada have “comprehensively covered the NFL brain-injury story, dating back to 2009.” Bray also highlighted the coverage of the Biogenesis scandal in MLB by reporters Mike Fish, TJ Quinn and Pedro Gomez and noted that, in the past year, OTL won Peabody, Murrow and duPont awards for covering the ills of youth sports.

“I’m not aware of any conflicts of interest that have bled into our news coverage,” he said. “We have a church-and-state mindset. I deal with some of our most sensitive and prickly stories and some of our deepest and widest investigations, and never once has anyone from a non-journalism position dictated coverage to me. No one has ever said ‘don’t turn over that rock’ or ‘don’t look behind that curtain.’”

Jeremy Schaap, a go-to ace of ESPN’s reporting corps, says, “In just the last few years, we at 'E:60' have concentrated our resources reporting on human rights issues in Qatar, India, South Africa, Israel, Bahrain and Thailand; we’ve reported stories about sexual violence against women in our military and the mentally disabled; we spent months working on a story about the hundreds of thousands of high school athletes in this country who are uncovered by insurance and what happens to them when they suffer catastrophic injuries. Those are the kinds of stories my colleagues and I spend most of our time reporting -- but they are rarely mentioned when ESPN’s journalistic bona fides are discussed.”

Not everyone agrees. Sandy Padwe, a former editor at The New York Times and Sports Illustrated who has taught at the Columbia School of Journalism since 1989, takes a hard-eyed view (he was also a consultant at ESPN for 19 years).

“Journalism is important to ESPN when it needs it,” he said, “meaning when critics look at the whole product and wonder why it seems 99 percent of the daily report is devoted to noise and the current name of the moment. Then the network points to 'Outside the Lines' or some of the recent reporting on Roger Goodell.

“ESPN will mature when it starts bringing in people from the newest production assistant to the glitziest commentators who know how to diagram a courthouse as well as diagram the latest offense or defense. You can't get by anymore with a handful of people who know journalism and literally thousands who have no idea about it. What does it say when Bill Simmons doesn't even understand that he needs proof before calling Roger Goodell a liar?”

On any given moment of any day somewhere in the vast ESPN TV, radio, digital empire, any of the above opinions is true. The acceptance of conflict of interest as an acceptable climate, of gray as a moral position on most matters, makes it impossible to state what ESPN as a company actually stands for beyond entertainment and the bottom line, which is what major sports stands for -- making the fans happy and putting points on the scoreboard.

FACTS VS. OPINIONS

After ESPN suspended Simmons for three weeks, my mailbag throbbed with outrage at the punishment and at my defense of it; I supported the company’s official grounds that the Grantland founder and editor-in-chief had not met “journalistic obligations” by calling the NFL commissioner a “liar” in his response to the Ray Rice domestic abuse case. (There was also the charge of “insubordination” in Simmons’ implicit challenge to ESPN management to respond to his accusatory tirade against Goodell.)

Those aspects of the saga have been well covered. What continues to trouble me is the disconnect between those “journalistic obligations” ESPN claims to be straining to maintain and what the audience expects from the company, or at least from that celebrated corner of ESPN under Simmons’ banner. That includes freewheeling podcasts.

But now that Simmons is back, let’s look at the basis for the mailbag outrage, which I think is wrong-headed but understandable given the way ESPN has presented Simmons. The mailbag consensus is that Simmons is not a journalist and thus can express his opinion as freely on ESPN as he might in salon or saloon, just one of the boys, only smarter and funnier. This is immediately tricky because Simmons sometimes acts like a journalist, or at least seems to want to be taken seriously. If he were starring on BillSimmons.com or his own version of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” that split personality might work. But the site is owned by ESPN, and house rules always apply. If you call a subject a liar on ESPN, you better have definitive proof.

It’s that simple to me. But not to Simmons’ audience. Curtis Shields of Charlotte, North Carolina, gives us a typical sample of the Simmons fans I’ve heard from on this. He writes: “I don't know how people 40 and up view this, but post-moderns don't want to be lied to. That's a big reason Bill Simmons is so popular with 28-year-olds like me. He doesn't [B.S.] people. He's wrong a lot, but he's humble about it and laughs at himself. The only place that I can hear someone talk about how the NFL is amoral, or maybe I should say money moral, is from him.”

OK, Curtis, but does that approach make up for Simmons offering as a declared fact an opinion that is simply not nailed down? Simmons is a columnist paid for opinions, not a reporter paid to dig up facts. But don’t you think even a pundit’s speculations need a trail we can follow?

Throughout history, screaming accusations have destroyed lives. Simmons, correspondents imply, is a strong antidote to the weasel words and outright lies we so often get from major institutions, including the NFL (remember concussions?) and, of course, the media. But calling Goodell a liar without definitive proof is no antidote; it's just more of what we don’t need. That Goodell represents an important ESPN business partner might complicate the issue (gray, conflict of interest), but it doesn’t make a wrong right.

Here is Seth L. from Portland, Oregon, on the topic: “I would submit to you that, despite Mr. Simmons’ obviously immature rant, it is exactly that attitude of his -- the irreverence, the questioning of authority, etc. -- which makes him ‘relatable’ and therefore popular. To the extent that ESPN wants him to ‘grow’ out of that, it will diminish … [the] view of the world where nothing is what it appears on its face, in his commentary. That is the true dilemma.”

That is certainly one of the dilemmas. The audience loves Simmons just the way he seems to be -- unfettered and willing to speak his version of truth to power. But Simmons is speaking from a somewhat protected place. It’s a little like being at home and shouting out the window.

As a rising son in ESPN’s booming growth this past decade, Simmons was allowed to find the reach of his talents by testing the boundaries of his gilded cage. His audience was aware of his backstory, which included tussles with ESPN executives who alternately tried to spread and clip his wings. This was part of Simmons’ appeal. Young men could-- and, based on my mailbag, still do -- identify with the corporate Oedipal struggle. ESPN might seem to be keeping him in line by the occasional hand slap, but actually it is promoting his faux bad-boy appeal. Other prominent ESPN commentators such as Tony Kornheiser and Dan Le Batard also get that tough-love treatment reserved for superstars.

There’s blame to share here: Simmons, of course, for continuing to straddle the line between taking a stronger editorial grip on himself and playing leader of the pack with little to lose (even though he was actually unhappy, he had told me after the suspension, about the interruption just before the start of the NBA season -- one of his signature platforms).

ESPN wasn’t happy about it, either, but the company is certainly culpable, too. We’ve recently been over ESPN’s inconsistent approach to discipline, which helps to create an uncertain atmosphere; just how far can a contributor go before hitting that invisible electric dog fence? That, combined with guidelines for standards and practices that are not as clear as they need to be, can provoke risky behavior.

The third target for blame is Simmons’ fan base, which is younger, more male and less conservative than ESPN’s overall audience, at least based on my mail. It’s an audience that can imagine itself hanging out with Simmons, arguing hoops and best “Game of Thrones” lines. It’s an audience that puts pressure on Simmons to fulfill its fantasy of him as an older brother role model, a rebel in the benign father-knows-best world of ESPN. So every so often he gets grounded, they seem to say? Big deal.

I think it’s time everyone involved -- Simmons, ESPN and the audience -- evolves. Simmons can start by using his resources, smarts and connections to find some smoking video bearing the commissioner’s fingerprints. He might even investigate whether Goodell was lying in the life-and-death concussion stories. The audience needs to understand that, although refusing to kowtow to authority and rejecting lies is brave and praiseworthy, it’s just as important to demand accountability from anyone claiming to tell you the truth.

As for ESPN, it needs to be clearer about which rules of journalism it is going to enforce and why they need to be enforced equally in print and on pod, on Grantland and “SportsCenter” and “GameDay” and perhaps even on “partner projects.” ESPN needs to be more transparent about the role of journalism in its business model, the purpose behind it and how committed it is to supporting it.

There should be nothing gray about that.

Strengths, weaknesses and suspensions

September, 25, 2014
Sep 25
10:55
PM ET
Roger Goodell is the sports world’s villain du jour, but until the NFL’s elevator of investigation reaches the top -- or ESPN delivers a smoking gun that proves when the NFL viewed the Ray Rice video -- the commissioner is not a certified liar.

And Bill Simmons has no license to call him one without more justification than “I’m just saying it.”

Simmons is a columnist, podcast host, NBA analyst and editor-in-chief of ESPN-owned Grantland.com, and he did, in fact, call Goodell a “liar” in a podcast earlier this week. And ESPN in turn suspended him across all platforms for three weeks, citing his failure to meet journalistic “obligations.”

A case could be made that Simmons, who had done excellent work taking Goodell and the NFL to task up to this point, undermined ESPN’s solid journalistic efforts on the Rice story with some Grantland grandstanding. I don’t think that was his intent; Simmons tends to follow his passions as if they were truths, especially in podcasts, where he seems to act as if he is alone with a friend at the bar.

The following snippet of podcast transcription is not the way he writes his column.

“Goodell, if he didn't know what was on that tape, he's a liar,” Simmons said. “I'm just saying it. He is lying. I think that dude is lying. If you put him up on a lie detector test that guy would fail. ... And for him to go in that press conference and pretend otherwise, I was so insulted.”

Well, I was insulted, too. The past two Ombudsman columns had to do with the network’s still-evolving standards and practices guidelines, its inconsistent punishment policy (or lack thereof), and the excellent job it has done covering Rice and Goodell in the current case of domestic violence and its apparent cover-up.

Strengths and weaknesses

Simmons is, in my opinion, ESPN’s franchise player but by no stretch a leading journalist. On his 45th birthday Thursday, my gift to him was recounting my favorite quote from basketball coach Butch van Breda Kolff: “Everyone’s strength is their weakness.” He said he liked it.

In Simmons’ case, it has to do with his driving energy and creativity, which can morph into tunnel vision and self-absorption. What makes him always think that something’s right just because he thinks it is? Or that his sometimes loopy declarations are easy to interpret? Another provocative transcription from that podcast (since pulled by ESPN):

“I really hope somebody calls me or emails me and says I'm in trouble for anything I say about Roger Goodell,” Simmons said. “Because if one person says that to me, I'm going public. You leave me alone. The commissioner's a liar, and I get to talk about that on my podcast. Thank you. … Please, call me and say I'm in trouble. I dare you.”

It sounded a little like Gary Hart’s nutty 1987 dare to the media to catch him in the act of adultery. That challenge eventually denied Hart a presidential bid. In Simmons’ case, the “dare” was widely interpreted as a challenge to ESPN President John Skipper, who just happens to be Simmons’ most important booster at the company. When asked, Simmons refused to comment on whether it was directed at Skipper.

But Skipper certainly thought it was, and that insubordination was one of the main two reasons for the severity of the suspension. Particularly on podcasts, Skipper said, Simmons has a tendency to slip back into his “bad boy, let’s-go-to-Vegas” persona. Simmons, Skipper believes, is transitioning into an important influence and mentor at Grantland and needs to leave his well-worn punkishness behind.

Simmons, in our conversation, alluded to that, as well. He said he sees his podcasts as adhering to different standards than his column, closer to unstructured conversation.

The more important reason for the suspension, Skipper said, had to do with fairness and the difference between commentary and reporting. Both have been on exemplary display of late, as ESPN did its journalism proud covering Rice and Goodell -- including a terrific story arc by Don Van Natta Jr. that chronicled the league's and the Baltimore Ravens’ myriad missteps that led to Rice’s suspension. Skipper said Simmons had to advance the story, bring some evidence, before he could make flat-out charges against anyone.

Almost all of my voluminous mail since ESPN announced the suspension Wednesday has supported Simmons. Connor Nolan of Tucson, Arizona, called the decision “absolutely shameful. Bill Simmons' fiery opinions are what make him a great asset to your organization and silencing him because you don't like what he said or the way he said it is an absolute disgrace.”

Dave Movius of Cleveland took a longer perspective, writing, “It appears that the only debate ESPN truly embraces is the NFL's debate over what programming it wants to bury. ‘Playmakers?’ Gone before the fiction could be revealed as the truth. ‘Frontline?’ Not credible enough for ESPN to cede even a little on-air ‘editorial’ control. Now, Simmons (who I don't even particularly like) says what everyone is thinking -- including the predictably unhappy response by the network -- and ESPN takes the bait, hook, line and sinker. I'm not sure whose skin is thinner: ESPN's or the NFL's.”

Obviously I disagree with both letters, which were typical of others in the mailbag. And including Simmons’, there is plenty of thin skin to go around. But the big issues here are some of the same discussed in recent Ombudsman columns. Is anybody watching the baby? Who reviews content, such as podcasts, before posting? Do the people who review Simmons’ work report to him? Producers and editors are supposed to vet content before it hits the fans, even if the content is generated by a franchise player.

Sometimes that means keeping the reins on network superstars, challenging them, holding them to the highest of standards. That can be hard if you are working for the superstar.

Strengths are weaknesses, and both ESPN and Simmons need to acknowledge, address and take action against that fact if they want to achieve appropriate standards.

Content 'crimes' and punishment at ESPN

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
8:24
PM ET
If you wonder if there’s an invisible foul line running through ESPN over which on-air talent and contributors can stumble out of bounds, and which are allowed more stumbling room, so does the Ombudsman.

A number of recent transgressions by ESPN radio and television personalities, all of which included some public pronouncement by the network, brought that question to the forefront once again.

In the past month, Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Dan Le Batard were briefly suspended by the network in the wake of on-air comments or, in Le Batard’s case, an unauthorized stunt.

A fourth broadcaster, ESPN football analyst Mike Ditka, was not directly chided when, in a defense of the Washington nickname “Redskins,” he said, “What are you going to call them, Brownskins?” ESPN did subsequently issue a policy on use of the name on its platforms. The Ombudsman received many e-mails, some supporting Ditka and others calling for his dismissal.'

After a fifth broadcaster, NFL reporter Josina Anderson, informed a “SportsCenter” audience that Michael Sam might not be showering with his teammates in the St. Louis Rams’ locker room, ESPN issued an apology.

When I asked John Skipper about the consequences of these missteps, the president of ESPN analogized the company’s guidelines as “an electrical dog fence” that every so often zaps someone who needs to be reminded there are limits to free expression on company air. The problem, of course, is that many of the content “crimes” at ESPN are not specifically codified -- thus the seemingly covert nature of that foul line -- nor is punishment, which often seems inconsistent, even whimsical.

As correspondents to the Ombudsman’s mailbag constantly point out, ESPN personnel seem to be fired, suspended or forgiven for what appear to be similar offenses. This leaves an impression of unfairness or that some greater transgression, the real reason for the punishment, has been hushed up.

Let’s take a trek into this twilight zone with a caveat: I promise some transparency on the ESPN way of dealing with crime and punishment, but no hard-and-fast canon, because there isn’t any. Keep in mind this from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN digital and print media: “We don’t treat everyone the same but we treat everyone fairly.” It’s a recurring mantra in the ESPN belief system.

Provoked By The Word ‘Provoke’

Of the five cases referenced above, the bumbling attempt by Smith, co-host of ESPN2’s “First Take,” to articulate what some correspondents thought might have been a point worth making about the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice and domestic violence, elicited the most flurry in my mailbag. After the NFL suspended Rice for just two games after security videos showed him dragging his then-fiancee and now wife out of a hotel elevator, Smith called the punishment too lenient. But, he also said, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”

We’ve been through this case in a previous column.

Smith’s use of the word “provoke” was widely interpreted as a blame-the-victim comment. It might well have been a botched attempt to widen the context of the discussion. It would take a far more subtle hand than Smith’s to do that in this selectively censorious climate, and even then could use help from espnW and outside experts.
In any case, Smith was suspended for a week.

In a typical mailbag response, Dave Gustin of Leesburg, Ohio, wrote: “I have watched as women I care about provoked men until they did something that I would have called out of character. It never made it right to push them or grab them ... but it certainly was provoked. … ESPN needs to get a NON-PC clue about reality. Steven A., who is not one of my favorites, as he can unfairly play the race card sometimes, did not say anything worth suspending him for.”

Added Lee Weiss of Roslyn, New York: “ESPN's sole purpose in employing Stephen A. Smith is so that he can give controversial opinions and spark discussion. Are you really suggesting that his job is to be controversial, without being politically incorrect? And since when did provocation become a taboo topic?”

Skipper’s official statement declared the decision to suspend Smith had been arrived at after a “thoughtful discussion about appropriate next steps [with] a diverse group of women and men in our company.” He also said the “remarks did not reflect our company's point of view or our values. They certainly don't reflect my personal beliefs.”

Marcia Keegan, vice president in ESPN studio production, was one of the “diverse group” involved. She directly supervises “First Take,” among other shows. “I know John Skipper was involved in the discussion,” she told me. “He always plays some role, and the consensus was that Stephen went over the line. The word ‘provoke’ gave the impression it was her fault.”

Because Smith’s remarks were made on a Friday, ESPN executives and producers exchanged e-mails and conference calls rather than calling a meeting over the weekend. Four days later, ESPN announced the suspension, always a complex decision involving, according to Keegan, two main factors: the person involved and the impact on the brand.

“Stephen is a longtime contributor,” Keegan said. “He does an enormous amount of work. He’s professional. In this one case, he was wrong, which is unfortunate. But he was upset afterward and his apology was sincere. So you deal with it and move on.”

As for protecting the brand, that’s one of Skipper’s core jobs. As he told me, “There are really two parts to that: the internal culture -- making sure our people understand that we respect them and the workplace -- and the external PR impact.

“The headline was that Smith says domestic violence can be OK -- actually, it’s not clear what he was saying. But in public PR terms we had to counter that blame-the-victim suggestion, make it clear that this is not how we think. It’s not OK in our workplace or in our support of women’s sports or in our ideas of fairness.

“So, we have to do something to make this go away publicly and to retain our credibility internally -- and at the same time it can’t be too severe to this individual.”

While none of this was bombshell information, it did offer an unusual level of corporate candor. Skipper agreed but added, “There may seem to be a lack of consistency -- we are not a judicial body. I don’t think there is any public right to know about the discipline we hand out.”

I disagree. If ESPN commentators can freely discuss and criticize the range of NFL discipline -- a year’s suspension for marijuana, two games for domestic abuse, nothing for locker-room bullying -- then their own punishments should also be aired out. It ensures accountability, offers credibility to the company and gives the audience a reason for trust.

(Note: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell subsequently apologized for the leniency of Rice’s punishment and announced far more severe penalties for future cases of domestic violence by NFL players and personnel. The Ravens then released Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely this week after the release of video showing Rice knocking out his fiancée in the elevator. It is it still not clear what Goodell knew when he made the earlier decision and when he knew it.)

More Than We Needed to Know?

Several days after Smith’s suspension, Kellerman, co-host of both ESPN’s “SportsNation” and the drive-time radio show “Max and Marcellus,” made controversial comments on an ESPN LA radio show. More than 20 years ago, he recounted, at a party at which both had too much to drink, his then-girlfriend (now-wife) slapped him. Kellerman said he slapped her back.

ESPN never quite came out and stated that Kellerman was being punished for the comments; it announced that "Kellerman will return to ESPN LA Radio and 'SportsNation' on Thursday." It was a kind of stealth suspension. An ESPN spokesman refused to go beyond that statement for me. It is standard policy throughout corporate America to keep personnel matters private, as ESPN executives often remind me. But ESPN is no common corporation; it sells itself as a kind of public utility for all things sports and encourages all manner of customer/fan interaction.

An ESPN executive did tell me, “Max was showboating and the discussion had a sense of locker room banter. And this was after a clear edict that the topic of Smith and domestic violence was off limits. I’m at a loss for words about how dumb it was.”

I agree. But Kellerman, like all on-air talent, is not exactly a solo act. There are producers in the control room talking in his ear. Where were they? Were they punished, too? Mo Davenport, a 29-year ESPN veteran and senior vice president of ESPN Audio, wouldn’t tell me if any members of the production staff were punished, but he did agree that “they act as checks and balances and should be held accountable.

“The challenge of live radio is being on a high wire for three hours, trying to be smart, engaged and provocative, without a net,” he said. “Your best chance is a producer with strong sensibilities and a 9-second delay. Kellerman’s producer could have gotten him off that minefield, hit the button and told him to start talking about Kobe and the Lakers.”

Per standard process, Skipper was informed of the discussions about Kellerman. He says, “I actually don’t remember if I approved the punishment before or after it was meted out because I agreed with it.”

Slapping A Star’s Stunt

Skipper did pull the trigger on Le Batard’s suspension, although he says other senior leaders in the organization could have made the call. Interestingly, LeBatard told me he’s not certain about that, saying via e-mail, “Ultimately, nothing happens to me unless Skipper signs off. This one got to the top. But it's also why Skipper hired me, you know? Love that dude. Love him.”

Le Batard was suspended for two days for funding a billboard in Akron, Ohio, bearing images of the two NBA title rings LeBron James won with the Heat and the line, “You’re Welcome, LeBron. Love, Miami.” It was the denouement of a running joke on his radio show that included an unsuccessful attempt to place a full-page ad in a Cleveland newspaper, and hire a plane to promote it.

ESPN stated: “His recent stunt does not reflect ESPN’s standards and brand. Additionally, we were not made aware of his plans in advance.”

Le Batard admitted that he had been “insubordinate” and wrote in a column on ESPN.com, “This fun and ridiculous stunt all turned out to be accidental performance art that created media buzz and ratings in a benign way while sticking to my irreverent beliefs about not genuflecting in the cathedral we’ve made of fun and games.”

And while we’ve been down the caper trail before with Le Batard, not all Ombudsman feedback was in agreement with the network. A Florida resident, Gavin Avellanet of Davie wrote: “ESPN, Get over your righteous selves. Are you kidding about the Dan Le Batard suspension? I don't particularly care for the man, finding him to be a bit tasteless at times, but your applying your morality in this case is more than a bit irksome. Give me a break. How is this offensive? How were you surprised about an act that was planned for weeks now on air? Get your act together!”

Dennus Sklenar of Youngstown, Ohio, was less forgiving: “Why do you continue to carry Dan Le Batard's show on ESPN Radio? He reminds me of the juvenile FM radio ‘shock jocks’ with his stunts -- Hall of Fame vote, Akron billboards, and idiotic sidekick.”

Ditka On The Washington Nickname

In yet another controversy, Ditka caused a stir in an interview with RedskinsHistorian.com, asking, “What’s all the stink over the Redskin name? It’s so much horses--- it’s incredible. We’re going to let the liberals of the world run this world. It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Brownskin?"

When Ditka’s remarks were replayed on the ESPN radio show “Mike & Mike,” the topic landed in Davenport’s lap.

“He’s entitled to his opinion even if it differs from mine and even if he presents it inarticulately,” Davenport said. “Ditka reflects the feelings of a lot of fans, and perhaps many older people [Ditka is 74]."

The ESPN Editorial Board has been talking about this for a long time. Those board discussions produced a forward step for ESPN. In an increasingly negative climate around use of the nickname, ESPN stated in late August, “Our consistent company policy will continue: using official names and marks as presented by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover. We do, however, recognize the debate over the use of 'Washington Redskins' and have afforded individuals the opportunity to decide how they will use those words when reporting on the team."

Davenport said the timing of the statement, soon after Ditka’s remarks, was coincidental; the policy had been in the works for a while.

Creating A Media Distraction

And, finally, in this version of the police blotter, we have the case of Anderson. In response to a question from “SportsCenter” anchor Jay Crawford (“How is [Michael Sam] fitting in with his Ram teammates so far?”), Anderson quoted by name one player who thought Sam was fitting in fine, as well as an anonymous teammate who said he thought the openly gay rookie was “respecting our space” by “kinda waiting to take a shower so as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable.”

Anderson then quoted other players who said they weren’t “tracking” Sam’s shower time and that there were “a million reasons” for Sam not to be showering with fellow Rams, including extra rookie workouts.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher criticized ESPN for the “manufactured” controversy and Rams defensive end Chris Long tweeted “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.” (My view here: It should be embarrassing when our subjects make more journalistic sense than we do.)

The mailbag erupted over the report and ESPN’s lack of coverage of the overwhelmingly negative reaction. Was Anderson reporting from another planet? After all the silly, sometimes anti-gay, discussions about gays and straights showering together, she clumsily offered as journalism an anonymous quote, then knocked it down. Was there a point other than calling attention to herself and becoming the media distraction predicted when Sam was drafted? Could Crawford have called her on it, or the control room walked her back?

The company apologized, saying “ESPN regrets the manner in which we presented our report. Clearly yesterday we collectively failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports."

But what exactly are “the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports"? Where are they codified, and who is aware?

Most organizations that claim serious journalistic credentials have an editor or executive in charge of “standards and practices.” This is an older hand, usually with institutional memory and a background in ethics and newsgathering, who can offer counsel on the coverage of upcoming issues and explain, as needed, how the coverage fell short of standards.

ESPN does not have such a specifically designated person. John Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor, has long run the Editorial Board and serves as a “conscience” for the network’s journalism and policies, but there is no overall decision-maker outside of Skipper.

Stiegman, articulator of the fairness mantra, told me, “No one person on the editorial team manages all the voices and opinions at ESPN. We have guidelines on commentary that apply across the board; transgressions thereof are dealt with by the individual division or show unit, and move up the chain as needed.”

Walsh and Stiegman were among those instrumental in compiling ESPN’s “Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices,” a work in progress begun six years ago after internal discussions and prodding from two previous ombudsmen, Don Ohlmeyer and LeAnne Schrieber. It was last substantially updated in 2012, but is, as Stiegman says, “a living document subject to change.”

It’s a thoughtful and useful set of guidelines. Stiegman sees some values in its leeway for interpretation. ESPN is just too big a tent for hard-and-fast journalistic commandments (and we are talking mostly journalism here without embracing the debate for now on “First Take” as journalism). Consider the difference in purpose, personnel and audience for, say, “SportsCenter,” “College GameDay” and “Outside the Lines,” not to mention hot dog eating contests and 30-for-30 documentaries.

And that’s not even to mention the new SEC network, where potential conflicts of interest are mind boggling. How will Tim Tebow, already a hit as an entertaining broadcaster, cover the first transgression of a conference quarterback? Should he? Should there be a rule for that?

Another issue is the increasingly blurred line between reporting and commenting by reporters, analysts and anchors. My first Ombudsman column dealt with a reporter’s inappropriate opinion (at least for that show, at that moment, on a player’s Christianity and homosexuality).

Ombudsmen Have Weighed In

Eight years ago, ESPN’s first Ombudsman, George Solomon, had this to say about the company’s decision not to renew Jason Whitlock at the time after he made personal attacks on colleagues Mike Lupica and Scoop Jackson (which Solomon decorously did not repeat):

“I don't see enough tough editing and direction from people directly responsible for what gets on the air and on the Web site. …. Commentators, panelists and so-called ‘star talent’ need to be held to the same standards as everyone else at ESPN and other media. ESPN should make certain its guidelines and standards are known and followed by everyone taking its paychecks.”

Three years later, Ohlmeyer commented on an incident involving ESPN commentator Bob Griese. During a college football broadcast, a NASCAR promo appeared, wrote Ohlmeyer, “that included a full-screen graphic of the top five drivers in the Chase for the Cup. Fellow announcer Chris Spielman asked ‘Where's Montoya?’ (referring to Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who was not listed in the top five.) Griese responded, ‘Out eating a taco.’”

Griese received a one-game suspension.

After discussing the pros and pitfalls of humor, off-the cuff remarks and cultural sensitivity with several ESPN executives, Ohlmeyer wrote: “Will viewers use the Griese suspension as the yardstick for punishing announcers whom they believe have ‘offended’ them with some comment? Does ethnic sensitivity apply to all groups? Had Griese's observation been about an Irishman eating corned beef or a Pole enjoying kielbasa, for example, would the punishment have been the same?

“And then there are the pressure groups. A cottage industry exists made up of small but vocal organizations that further their interests and visibility by latching onto ‘slights and insults,’ real or perceived, and turning them into media events. Could ESPN's legitimate introspection and sensitivity end up unintentionally painting a target on its back?”

That was prescient. Three years later, ESPN fired one employee and suspended another for 30 days over “offensive and inappropriate comments” while reporting on then-New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, who is Chinese-American. "Chink in the armor" was the offending phrase. It was probably used in a more lazy, mindless and insensitive manner rather than a bigoted one. These days, you can find senior ESPN executives who admit that the severity of the punishments was a response to just the kind of pressure Ohlmeyer had warned against.

So what does ESPN need? Mostly a better trained and empowered production staff patrolling that electrical dog fence. Behind them, a senior staff willing to stand up to pressure groups and a standards-and-practices editor, sort of a pre-Ombudsman, alerting, coaching and needling the pack to be smarter, less entitled and more sensitive.

That person’s first job would be to convene a team to consistently monitor and update the guidelines. That’s critical because, as Schrieber wrote six years ago, “ESPN's many layers of editors and producers are not all on the same page, not even about some basic principles that define the nature of a journalistic enterprise. … [L]ike the rest of the country, they lack common perspectives, values, frames of reference, sensibilities and verbal manners.

“That variety of voices is one of ESPN's strengths, but it also requires shepherding by means other than suspension and PR-vetted public apologies that more often than not miss the mark, failing both to appease the offended and to teach the right lessons to potential offenders.”

The good news is that kind of awareness already exists. I was impressed by the glossary distributed by the ESPN news desk ahead of the NFL draft and again just before the Aug. 30 cut-down date at which Sam might have – but did not -- make the Rams’ active roster to become the first openly gay player in the NFL (he later signed with Dallas). The document offered proper usage as well as offensive words to avoid.

That kind of detail combined with some real or hypothetical case histories would go a long way toward buttressing the current guidelines – including some specific directives regarding consequences. Otherwise, it’s going to continue to be seat of the pants, which will be increasingly less effective as ESPN continues to go boldly where no network has gone before.

To be clear, I don’t think the system is broken: How many hours of TV and radio, and thousands of print and digital words are produced every day without incident, often with distinction? But the system certainly could be improved.

And we’ll all know it when that seemingly invisible foul line comes into focus.

Behind ESPN's affinity with 'affinity' sites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Numbers Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The W Issue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
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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
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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
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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
AM ET
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
10:47
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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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