When embracement of debate goes wrong

July, 30, 2014
7/30/14
10:34
AM ET
As covered in this space before, ESPN has championed an “embrace debate” mantra for a number of its programs, including the popular morning show on ESPN2 called “First Take.” This has at times served the network well, growing audience and offering sometimes thought-provoking, entertaining television. Of course, that also means ESPN has to live with -- or at least take more responsibility -- when that particular septic tank overflows.

The latest example came on Friday, when the Ombudsman mailbag justifiably exploded after ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith seemed to cast blame on victims of domestic violence in his “First Take” commentary about the NFL’s punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice. The Ravens running back, who had been caught on videotape dragging his then-fiancée out of a hotel elevator in February, was indicted on March 27 for aggravated assault. The next day he was married. On Thursday, the NFL suspended Rice for two games for violating the league’s personal conduct policy after the offseason arrest for domestic violence.

Smith repeatedly said that he thought the NFL’s punishment of Rice was too light, but created a storm of criticism when he added, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions. If we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that doesn’t happen.”

In response to that quote, reader Jen Lofquist of Sterling, Virginia, wrote: “As someone who has worked at a homeless shelter where most women were fleeing domestic violence, a past victim of emotional abuse, and a mother to daughter, I am deeply concerned. … This treads dangerously close, and I feel goes over, the ‘If she would just do what I say, I wouldn't have to hit her’ and ‘Why did you make me so angry.’ This sort of ‘Well, what did you do?’ response to domestic violence is what keeps women silent, forces them to go back to abusers and, in some cases, marry them.”

The attention shifted from Rice and the role of the NFL in the off-field transgressions of its players to Smith and ESPN when Michelle Beadle, co-host of the network’s “SportsNation” show, quickly posted a series of tweets challenging Smith’s remarks. Her first tweet that Friday afternoon, was: “So I was just forced to watch this morning's First Take. A) I'll never feel clean again B) I'm now aware that I can provoke my own beating.”

That became a media story because of ESPN’s stance against its personnel engaging in internecine sniping. Stars such as Bill Simmons have been disciplined in the past for criticizing colleagues. The Ombudsman mailbag was firmly behind Beadle as a champion of victims’ rights, and indications are that ESPN will not take action against her. I think Beadle’s tweets were appropriate, even if she did violate ESPN’s social media policies.

Reader consensus is that Smith’s comments were clearly inappropriate. ESPN initially issued a remarkably noncommittal statement, noting that “Stephen's comments last Friday do not reflect our company's point of view.” The network showed more teeth Tuesday, announcing that Smith will not appear on “First Take” or ESPN Radio for the next week. He will return to ESPN next Wednesday.

Smith’s attempts to clarify his remarks on Twitter later on Friday -- and then to apologize Monday in a taped statement before “First Take” -- did not satisfy his critics. Said Smith, “I made what can only amount to the most egregious error of my career. I ventured beyond the scope of our discussion by alluding to a woman’s role in such heinous matters, going so far as to use the word ‘provoke’ in my diatribe. My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It was not what I was trying to say.”

He has not yet said exactly what he was trying to say, which might be just as well; Smith’s attempts at coherency are often as exciting as Tim Tebow’s scrambling.

"Stephen has called what took place 'the most egregious mistake' of his career," said ESPN president John Skipper in a memo to staff. "I believe his apology was sincere and that he and we have learned from what we've collectively experienced. I'm confident we will all move forward with a greater sense of enlightenment and perspective as the lasting impact of these last few days."

I think Smith’s problems have always been more mechanical than moral. His mouth runs faster than his mind, and his footwork is not always nimble enough to navigate the mazes of his ornate sentences. His cadences can mesmerize, whether he’s convoluting an already complicated trade or, as he did in 2012 talking about a football player head-butting his then-wife: “There are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there. I'm saying, ‘Can we go a step further?’ Since we want to dig all deeper into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her?’”

Smith clearly has been down this low road before. I think he was doing what he is paid to do -- pontification on the fly aimed to attract an audience and provoke it into coming back. In harness with Skip Bayless, he has made “First Take” an extremely popular show. But that again left the network to clean up a mess of his making.

And it should not be lost that ESPN actually had several very good responses to the Rice situation. On Thursday night, on his ESPN2 show, Keith Olbermann had harsh words for the light punishment, and on Monday’s night’s show even harsher words for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. On espnW.com, there were two excellent columns, one by Jane McManus and the other by Mina Kimes.

And this topic led to some unexpected twists in the Ombudsman mailbag. One reader called out a recent column by Bill Simmons. In a typically breezy Grantland story on sports movies as romantic comedies, Simmons described the Susan Sarandon character in “Bull Durham,” who takes on as lover and project a fresh new minor league player each season, as a “tramp.”

Wrote Dan Lee of Pickerington, Ohio, “Would Simmons refer similarly to a male who has had a number of girlfriends? Is Derek Jeter a tramp? He has had a number of high-profile romantic interests. Does Simmons hold it against him? The column appears to have been published on the same day that Stephen A. Smith made his much-publicized comments regarding the responsibility of women to make sure they don't provoke their boyfriends into beating them unconscious. Is this how women are viewed at ESPN?”

Some would say that criticism is a stretch, that it pokes too far into the Jock Culture boys club that marks much of ESPN coverage and commentary. Others would say it’s time for ESPN to address what seems to be an underlying attitude toward women as not quite the audience it needs. What’s the right answer? If you have specific comments and questions, let’s hear them. We will be revisiting that topic, among others, in far greater detail in upcoming columns.

TRANSACTIONAL JOURNALISM

Too much of what passes for sports reporting these days has the feel of an old-fashioned stock-market ticker, continuous burps of newslike items about commodities called players, slightly amended information on prices, buys and sells. It’s ubiquitous on ESPN platforms, among other places -- TV, radio, online, Twitter -- and sometimes it’s even accurate.

Since it’s all about the possibility of coming transactions, let’s call it “transactional journalism” and rewind the ticker to those fevered days when LeBron James was a member of the Miami Heat and the scramble was on to be the first to post the news about his next destination (ultimately landing in Cleveland, where he can also oversee his share of Johnny Manziel, new Browns quarterback and a piece of LeBron’s growing business empire).

That scramble ended with a stunning reveal of LeBron’s marketing chops and the breathless pathos of the transactors. A Sports Illustrated writer, Lee Jenkins, who had developed a rapport with the star, helped him write a thoughtful first-person story explaining his decision to take his talents back home. It was old-school journalism, evoking the humiliation of old-school newspaper writers in 1957 when Jackie Robinson bypassed them to announce his retirement from the Brooklyn Dodgers in Look magazine.

The prelude to the LeBron frenzy was the June churn of NBA speculation, part of what Grantland’s Bryan Curtis recently dubbed “The Trade Rumor Era” in which “The fate of [Jason] Kidd and LeBron and Melo [Anthony] is now more important, in media terms, than the San Antonio Spurs winning the NBA title.”

For those who are swept along in it, “The Trade Rumor Era” is exciting in much the way day-trading is exciting or, more passively, monitoring the news as a hurricane makes its way to your hometown. For skeptics, there is always the possibility that local weather forecasters inject urgency into their reports to keep you tuned to their station; trade rumormongers might be doing the same, although we ask for it. As Curtis puts it, “Fantasy sports have rewired our brains so that deals interest us almost as much as wins and losses.”

Transactional journalism is exciting and stressful for the practitioners, who are under terrific competitive pressure to ride the whirlwind of tiny shards of information. According to Curtis, “A player is (in descending order of desirability) an ‘asset,’ a ‘piece,’ a ‘trade chip,’ a ‘salary dump,’ or an ‘amnesty case.’”

To give an authenticity to their whirlwind of shards, transactional journalists drop in phrases such as “league source,” and “I’m told” and “I’m hearing.” I’m as convinced by such phrases as I am by anonymous sources in more substantial stories. You have to trust the authors because you have no way of knowing whether they are making it up or whether it’s true. Their “source” might be using them to float a trial balloon or send a false message.

I liked this email from reader Jay Margolis of Delray Beach, Florida, who wrote: “There comes a time when a news organization needs to examine its policy on not naming sources, and the Kevin Love story is a prime example. It is clear that ESPN is being used by the Timberwolves to stoke trade conversation in hope of driving up the price it gets. [The] report that the Bulls were involved seems like bull after reading the Chicago newspapers. ESPN does no service to anyone, especially itself, by broadcasting stories that permit these so-called sources to commandeer the network's effort to practice real journalism.”

What passes as a scoop today is usually the last tweeter who wasn’t wrong. A real scoop is rare. Since sports journalism so often turns out to be a lab for political reporting, a larger ramification of all this might be its insidious seep into mainstream news gathering, where the stakes -- involving stock prices, wars and elections -- are higher. It already has had its effect on sports, where the attention to the transactors, hedging bets as they bark their daydreams, tends to discourage and obscure quality reporting and thinking. This is a shame because quality exists.

I was reminded of this right after LeBron’s Decision II. On the very next “Sports Reporters” show, Mike Lupica, Jemele Hill, Israel Gutierrez and John Saunders examined the event in a smart and human way. ESPN.com reporter Brian Windhorst had a fine story on LeBron’s brain, and Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne put the return of the king to Cleveland in solid context. Also on ESPN.com, Jason Whitlock’s column, which read like a warm-up for his forthcoming African-American website, added to the mix.

Compared with such solid work, the chatter can feel like a midsummer night when the bugs swarm. Some find it annoying. It drives them indoors. Others obviously enjoy getting bitten by gnats. Call it transactional entertainment, but it’s not journalism.

MORE ON AFFINITY SITES

Speaking of Whitlock, several Ombuddies responded to my column about ESPN’s affinity sites, which referenced both the project that he will front as well as espnW, which got some low marks here (mostly due, I think, to ESPN neglect.)

One email that managed to capture the complaints was from Gretchen Atwood of San Francisco, who questioned the size of ESPN’s investment in efforts fronted by Bill Simmons (Grantland) and Nate Silver (FiveThirtyEight) compared with that of espnW. Atwood also said of the forthcoming Whitlock site, “I certainly wish a black woman like Jemele Hill had been given the reins rather than Whitlock … who fits in more in the yell-to-hear-his-own-voice crowd with Skip Bayless. Instead of pretending that ESPN cares to serve its audience, just admit that marketing dollars are driving the decisions re: espnW as opposed to Grantland, where the site has been given time and resources to find its voice.”

Expect more when Whitlock’s site makes its debut and I visit the new editor of espnW.com. Atwood’s criticism of Whitlock was echoed by a number of Ombuddies, who chided me for omitting mention of a recent Deadspin story and ongoing criticism of him by other African-American writers, some at ESPN. Guilty as charged. The thought was to save such elements for the review of the site.

THE DUNGY DEBATE

No issue inflames the mailbag as consistently as ESPN’s coverage of gays and lesbians, including coverage of Michael Sam. There was the Feb. 9 announcement on “Outside The Lines” that the Missouri defensive end was gay, and on May 10 there was the long kiss with his boyfriend, live on ESPN, when he was drafted by the St. Louis Rams. I gave ESPN coverage generally high marks on those efforts.

Here we go again with a flood of emails about ESPN commentators’ various responses to a recent comment made by NBC analyst and former NFL coach Tony Dungy to Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune. Asked to react to the Rams’ selecting Sam in the seventh round, Dungy said, “I wouldn’t have taken him. Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”

Among the ESPN commentators who weighed in on Dungy’s remarks were Olbermann, Whitlock, Smith, Kevin Seifert, Dan Graziano and Colin Cowherd. Some chided Dungy for bigotry, others gave him slack; his remarks, after all, were an opinion, based on his evaluation of Sam’s talent and a media circus he wouldn’t want to deal with as a coach. Kaufman’s later analysis was that Dungy was not homophobic, merely too polite to say Sam was not worth the trouble.

The Ombudsman’s mailbag pulsed with accusations that ESPN was once again pushing a liberal, pro-gay agenda by attacking a highly respected coach known for his Christian faith and his opposition to gay marriage. There was one email, however, that was so different and thought-provoking that it seemed worthy of publishing, in a respectfully edited version.

Wrote Mike Singer of St. Petersburg, Florida: “As a late-20's heterosexual who regularly consumes ESPN via the TV and web, please use some more discretion in both the quantity and quality of your coverage of Michael Sam when it comes to his sexuality. Not because it’s offensive, but because it’s excessive and reckless. After being drafted, you yourself referred to a downside of Sam's employment as ‘a distracting media carnival.’ ESPN is the ringleader of all such media carnivals and has considerable power and responsibility when it comes to the scale and tone of the media frenzies, which it both lives off of and feeds into. As applied to Michael Sam, there's an emphasis on making a story out of how his sexual preference might negatively impact his team both internally and through the attention applied externally by the media; and then how all that plays into the larger picture of LGBT presence within amateur and professional athletics. …

“ESPN so fervently jumped all over Dungy's short quip without any contextual basis, to make him out as homophobic, and to use his words to bring Sam's story back to the front page. When Tony finally clarified what he meant, he said that ‘I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. Unfortunately we are all seeing this play out now, and I feel badly that my remarks played a role in the distraction.’

“This brings us back to the heart of the issue -- the extent to which ESPN contributes to the distraction-inducing media attention that reduces the value which Michael Sam (and those who come after him) can offer their current and prospective employers. … At the end of the day, the worst part of it all, for some of us ESPN consumers, isn't the boring repetitiveness of the coverage surrounding a player's sexuality; it’s a feeling that we're somehow complicit in creating this negative-distraction by feeding the ratings. The most important sentence from your prior posting on the Michael Sam draft coverage was ‘ESPN’s point of view here is nonideological, unless you believe capitalism and proper journalism are ideological.’ Maybe it’s time for ESPN's Sam coverage to become ideological. …

“Maybe it’s time to focus less on the controversy surrounding Sam's sexuality and treat him more like the regular athlete that many of his peers, and many of your consumers, see him as. There will be plenty of time for overanalysis of Sam's experience in the little and big pictures when reflecting on whatever triumphs and tragedies occur as Sam's career unfolds; just try less to be the driving force behind those events.”

PRINCE AND THE BODY ISSUE

For many years now, a newspaper photo of a thickset 9-year-old boy in a major league locker room with his dad has been pinned to my office bulletin board. The dad is Cecil Fielder, then a Detroit Tigers slugger. The boy is Prince Fielder, now a Texas Rangers slugger and a star of ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue.

My positive feelings for the intent and execution of the magazine issue were not shared by a number of readers who objected to the print version and even more strenuously to the photos appearing on ESPN.com. Here’s a representative letter from Matthew Meridieth of Lebanon, Tennessee: “I work with a large group of teens and many of them are teen guys. This does nothing more than to cause them to search for the images of the naked female athletes. The Body Issue is nothing more than soft pornography.”

For many years, I thought the Magazine struggled to find its place in the ESPN empire. It was a showcase for fine writers, yet hampered by a biweekly schedule in an increasingly tweet-timed news cycle. The advent of themed issues gave editors a chance to craft increasingly focused and interesting packages.

The Body Issue seemed like a masterstroke, not only as a back-handed rebuke to the airbrushed soft-core of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue but as a celebration of the aesthetics or erotica of fandom -- or both. These bodies were used for something we could cheer about and from which we could derive inspiration without the attendant eating disorders that can come with model bodies.

Cheers for having the cover photos include 30-year-old Prince, still thickish, also strong and confident in his body, the quintessential slugger in the flesh.

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