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ESPN's analysts paid for opinions, not to be objective

One of the issues that most confounds ESPN’s audience is how to assess the differing roles played by its many on-camera personalities. What’s the difference between a SportsCenter anchor, an on-air reporter, an analyst or a sideline reporter? Who’s expected to live by the traditional rules and ethics of journalism, and who isn't?

These questions run through much of the feedback I get from ESPN’s audience. It’s hot again this week, after Deadspin called out ESPN’s Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen for sending out sponsored tweets for a Domino’s Pizza deal that were not labeled as advertising. It was hot last week back when Mike Ditka responded to Al-Jazeera’s HGH report on Peyton Manning by calling the network “garbage.” It was hot back in November when it was revealed that ESPN NFL pregame analyst Ray Lewis had given a motivational speech to the Bills the night before a Monday Night Football game he was working.

To be fair to ESPN’s consumers, it’s a complicated issue. Each personality on ESPN doesn’t come wearing a sign that communicates the range and responsibilities of various roles. And analysts sit on set, often right next to journalists or anchors playing different roles, but many viewers are not aware of those distinctions. These blurred lines often result in legitimate confusion for fans and headaches for the network.

The easiest group to define is the trained journalists. Schefter, Mortensen and many other ESPN reporters have become personalities in their own right, and receive oodles of airtime, but, at heart, they are ink-stained wretches -- Schefter, Mortensen and many other ESPN reporters started at newspapers. As such, using Twitter to promote ESPN business deals without acknowledging that fact publicly is clearly out of bounds and a mistake I hope doesn't occur with any other personalities. Beyond the obvious church-state issues raised by these tweets, missteps such as these chisel away at the trust between ESPN and its consumers, a subject I'll come back to in subsequent columns. I'll also go deeper on the Domino's issue in an upcoming column.

But the main focus of this piece is analysts and how their role is defined in the ESPN ecosystem. This group is made up largely of former players, coaches and executives who are brought on to bring insight into what is happening on fields and in locker rooms and front offices. And if you believe -- as many readers do -- that these analysts are on a looser leash than they have been in years past, you are right.

“We have evolved in permitting our anchors and analysts greater freedom to express and embrace their fandom,” said Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news. “Being a fan is what connects our employees to our audience. … Our audience is smart and well aware of any prior allegiances among our forward-facing talent. These allegiances can provide authority, which we value, but they can offer potential for bias, which we work diligently to police.”

But perceived bias wasn't the only issue regarding Lewis' speech to the Bills; the lack of transparency rankled many ESPN fans, as well. It wasn't until two days after the speech that it became public knowledge, when Bills coach Rex Ryan mentioned it.

According to Seth Markman, ESPN’s senior coordinating producer for NFL studio production, Lewis did not tell ESPN he was going to speak to the Bills.

"I'm not mad that he did it,” Markman said. “But, in the future, we talked about giving us a heads-up so we could have been more transparent on the pregame. He understands that, and, in the future, he'll let me know."

Clearly, Lewis should have told his ESPN bosses he was going to speak to the Bills. At the least, it would have been a courtesy to ESPN and could have prevented the criticism that ensued. If they had been informed, ESPN producers could have made it part of the pregame show, in which viewers would have gotten a double dose of transparency and insight.

Many readers felt strongly that Lewis should not have given the speech at all. How could he be objective in analyzing the game when he’s speaking to a participating team before it begins? That begs many questions, maybe the most obvious of which is: "Is Ray Lewis supposed to be objective?" Lewis is not a journalist, and I strongly doubt he’d be offended at being excluded from our beleaguered profession. He’s an ex-player on air to express his opinions about a sport he knows deeply from his 17 years on the field. Does he have some of the same responsibilities as a journalist? Sure, he’s no more allowed to libel or slander someone than a journalist or any other citizen. Will analysts sometimes be asked to do on-camera interviews with other players or coaches? Sure, but those conversations tend to resemble shoptalk more than a standard adversarial Q&A between a newsmaker and journalist.

“I don't think it is fair to expect someone who is not a journalist to perform in that arena,” said Mo Davenport, senior vice president of ESPN Audio and Talent Office. “If an athlete has just concluded his playing career, we coach him up on things he may need, like how to ask a good question. We do expect them to be prepared and well informed.”

As for Lewis giving a speech to the Bills, his long relationship with Rex Ryan is no mystery. Nor is the long, intense rivalry Lewis had with the Patriots -- the team the Bills were playing the night after Lewis' speech. Had he not given the speech, these facts were already evidence in the court of public opinion. I don’t see his speaking to the Bills changing much of that. Those who dislike Lewis or think he's a poor analyst almost certainly felt that way before he spoke to the Bills.

Clearly, none of the professional journalists at ESPN is in an ethical position to speak to a team before a game. Then again, it’s unlikely any of them would ever be asked.

“Our reporters and columnists are independent journalists, and we think it’s important that they maintain their objectivity,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president & editorial director for digital and print media. “When we hire former players, coaches and front-office executives as analysts, they clearly come with associations with teams and sports, and often remain connected to those teams. And in some cases, the connection is exactly the value they can bring us as analysts.”

Conflicts like these are hardly rare in ESPN’s world. In fact, just two weeks after the Patriots-Bills game, Jon Gruden was ESPN’s color commentator in a Monday Night Football game in which one of the teams was coached by his brother. Analysts inevitably find themselves in the position of covering games in which they have longstanding histories -- good or bad -- with involved coaches, players or referees.

“We expect our analysts to be fair and balanced in their discussion of teams and players, including those they may have a former relationship with,” said Craig Bengtson, ESPN’s vice president and managing editor of newsgathering and reporting. “That said, the analysts are often able to bring more insight to the fans about those teams and players they know best, which is fine.”

Added Markman: "Everybody is from somewhere; guys played for certain teams. It is what it is."

Markman said Lewis’ speech wasn’t even necessarily about the game: "I think it'd be wrong to call it a pep talk. Ray is a motivational speaker,” he said. “What Rex asked him to do was talk to his men about life lessons, teamwork and how to get the most out of each person. This wasn't Ray Lewis getting them frosted up to beat the Patriots."

Maybe, but some social media outrage was ginned up when, during the pregame show, Lewis was asked whether he’d rather play for Rex Ryan or Bill Belichick. Lewis, unsurprisingly, chose the guy he played 10 years for and with whom he has a close personal relationship.

"I'm not choosing nobody else but Rex Ryan," Lewis said. "If you're asking me Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan, I'm taking Rex Ryan all day."

This was treated as a stunning response, as if there’s a “right” answer to a question meant to solicit an opinion. Sure, Belichick has won four more Super Bowls than Ryan and is legitimately regarded as one of the NFL's all-time great coaches, but Lewis’ connection to Ryan is personal and part of what fuels him. One would assume ESPN analyst Tedy Bruschi would give an equally unsurprising response if he were asked the same question.

In fact, when asked about Deflategate by Boston radio station WEEI early last year, Bruschi said, “I think it’s a very difficult position for me to be on set with certain people that said certain things that of course I was listening to and I heard. Every man is entitled to their opinion. I disagree with them as strongly as I possibly can because I’ve been in this organization for 13 years. Tom Brady, I know. Bill Belichick, I know. If vouch is the word, vouch is the word I’ll use. I vouch for these guys. I know their character.”

And there’s no reason Bruschi shouldn't be able to say that. Isn't that insight what we expect from him?

By the way, here’s something else Lewis said on that pregame show, when he was discussing the Patriots’ dealing with injuries.

“It speaks volumes of this organization because I always believe the fundamentals will overcome injury, because you’re going to have somebody get hurt, whether it’s sooner or later. But when they come in, can they fill that same role? … I think that’s what the Patriots demand, and everybody that comes through this organization, you must understand what’s going on the moment you hit the field, whether it’s offensively or defensively. … And I think that’s why, when you look at the core, on how they can plug so many players in, it’s because of Bill’s system.” Lewis also had kind things to say about Brady, Chandler Jones and other New England players.

Expecting analysts to magically transform into journalists is not a realistic expectation -- and, frankly, not the role they are being asked to play.

IN THE QUEUE

Here are the issues I'll be tackling in the coming weeks.