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.