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Did ESPN cave on ad, or act appropriately?

12/31/2013

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!