Give fans what they want, or should have?

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzkill 1: The N-Word

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzkill 2: Coming Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzkill 3: Bullying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buzzkill 4: Banging Heads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And really disrupt your pure fan pleasure.

What do you think? My second half has begun.

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