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Friday, September 6, 2013
So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

By Robert Lipsyte
ESPN Ombudsman

Let’s talk about the R-word.

Monday night, on ESPN, the Washington franchise of the National Football League will open its season. The broadcasters will call the team by its 80-year-old nickname in an offhand way they would never use in public with the more recognized racial slur that has come to be referred to as the N-word.

We’ll get to that one later when we review the contrasting ways in which ESPN covered incidents involving a current NFL player, Riley Cooper, who used the N-word in public, and a former player, Hugh Douglas, who lost his job at ESPN in the wake of a more complex situation.

Because the Washington franchise of the NFL has a hot quarterback, Robert Griffin III, and Super Bowl dreams, it will get increased scrutiny this season. This will likely include continued attempts by commentators, civil rights groups and even members of Congress to persuade it to change its nickname. The current owner, Daniel Snyder, has said: “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER -- you can use caps.”

He was probably not amused when a local alternative weekly, the Washington City Paper, began calling his team “the Pigskins.” Or when Slate, The New Republic and Mother Jones also announced they would no longer refer to the team with what is considered by many to be a Native American slur. These are obviously not hard-core sports publications, and one suspects their readerships were predisposed to such action.

Of more concern to Snyder, perhaps, was the announcement by a writer for TheMMQB.com, the new website of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, that this major source of pro football information was also considering banning the name. King has yet to officially confirm, but his column on Griffin posted Thursday referred to the team only as Washington.

Jeff Bercovici of Forbes.com, in reporting this week that The Associated Press and The New York Times have no plans to ban the nickname, notes that "it would take a broad-based boycott that included at least some of the biggest American media outlets [to prompt change]. Don’t expect the television networks, all of whom have to deal with the league as a corporate partner, to lead the charge, either."

A similar point of view has been offered on ESPN’s airwaves. After acknowledging that "the will of the people in Washington is strong for the Redskins" last week on "Pardon the Interruption," ESPN's Tony Kornheiser suggested media companies could be catalysts. "I don't think writers and bloggers and websites can make this happen," he said, "I do think television networks can make this happen. ... To pick two: If ESPN and Fox said 'We're not going to use Redskins anymore' and the NFL tacitly went along with that and didn't say anything, that would put pressure on CBS and NBC. I think it has to come from the larger institutions."

So what if ESPN refused to use the R-word?

That quixotic thought has been bubbling for a while in ESPN’s 150-person Stats & Information Group, where vice presidents Edmundo Macedo and Noel Nash collected information on the history of the team and opposition toward the name and then distributed it to network news managers. It was the start of a campaign to have ESPN stop using the name. Macedo told me that he thought the chances of actually succeeding were currently slim and none, but that it was worth the effort to get people thinking about it.

“Think about the name,” he wrote to me in an email. “Think about the stereotypical connotations around color. We would not accept anything similar as a team nickname if it were associated with any other ethnicity or any other race.

“Over the years, the more I thought about it, the less comfortable I became using it. I’m not sure other Americans have stopped to hear the voices of Native Americans. I can only imagine how painful it must be to hear or see that word over and over, referenced so casually every day.”

Imagination becomes reality on the website of Indian Country Today a leading location for Native American news. The “pejorative” name is extensively examined, including coverage of a federal trademark lawsuit against the NFL team and of a congressional call for renaming.

NAME CHANGER, GAME CHANGER

Within ESPN, there were three main responses to Macedo’s recommendation, providing interesting insights into the thinking and workings of the network.

1) ESPN should be covering the news, not making it. Fair enough. The action Macedo proposed would be newsworthy enough to make ESPN a player in a controversy. We’ve been through this before in ESPN’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out. In one case, on “Outside the Lines,” instead of an in-depth look at the implications of Collins’ action, we got a debate on the varieties of religious experience.

But the argument to keep using the R-word for journalistic reasons alone runs up against ESPN’s role as a purveyor of commercial entertainment, which is then covered by ESPN’s news side. I have retired the routine use of the phrase “conflict of interest” when it comes to ESPN – it’s simply inadequate to the nuances of the, um, conflicts of interest. See The New York Times’ recent series on how ESPN creates bowl games it can then air and promotes leagues, teams, athletes for its own commercial purposes.

2) ESPN should consider how the consequences of an "adversarial environment" could limit "access" in covering the team. This is a solid practical point. Snyder would clearly not be happy at such a slap in his face and might make it more difficult for ESPN reporters to cover the team and its star quarterback, whose profile is so high he is known merely by what looks like a model number -- RG3. It could put ESPN at a journalistic disadvantage in the current frenetic competition among newsslingers for shards of information, not to mention interviews and documentaries such as “The Will to Win,” a one-hour film about Griffin that aired on ESPN, co-produced by NFL Films and offered up by Gatorade Productions. ‘Nuff said. Refer to my non-use of “conflict of interest.”

3) A gesture as aggressive as attacking a famous, long-standing team is antithetical to the ESPN business model. Snyder is a business associate (his Washington radio station is an ESPN affiliate), and the NFL is an important partner. ESPN is a major media corporation with a parent company (Disney) and shareholders. I am still in the early process of exploring the depths and facets of ESPN, but one thing is clear -- it is an entertainment company trying to maintain a vigorous journalistic presence. This is no simple matter. This so-called “bifurcation” -- business side and journalism side -- requires respect and mindfulness.

“I’m from the D.C. area and a fan all my life,” says Rob King, senior vice president of content for ESPN print and digital media, “and I’ve thought about the Generals and the Statesmen as names, even George Washington replacing the Indian on the logo.

“At ESPN, the only thing that really matters is serving fans. NFL fans think of the Washington, D.C.-area franchise as the Redskins. So that informs how we'll serve them across news, commentary, scores and fantasy coverage. We will use the term Redskins so long as fans expect this to be the nomenclature that drives their rooting experience.

“So hail to 'em.”

The most sensible ongoing strategy I’ve heard is from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who said: “To simply ignore the nickname in our coverage seems like nothing more than grandstanding. We can use the name of the team, but our best service to fans is to report the hell out of the story, draw attention to the issue and cover all aspects of the controversy.”

Macedo said he wanted to “generate greater long-term discussion and awareness.” The discussion waxes on, within the content group, and on ESPN shows. “OTL” plans a piece on the issue in mid-September. There have been a number of pieces on ESPN’s platforms that were critical of the nickname. For example, Grantland recently ran a strong open letter to Snyder by Dave Zirin.

I liked a piece by ESPN.com reporter Dan Graziano that covered the story superbly and included this fine paragraph: “The reason the Redskins should change their name is the same reason they should have changed it decades ago -- the same reason they never should have picked the name in the first place.

“The word ‘Redskin’ has a well-established history as a racist epithet, and such words have no business being sung and chanted in support of a professional sports team. Simple as that, and it has nothing to do with tradition or fan pride or whether anyone's still offended by the name today.

“If the word has ever been used to ridicule or belittle human beings on the grounds of race, what's the good reason to keep it alive in a glorifying context? Changing it would harm literally no one. It would be an act with no motive but basic human courtesy.”

AND YET ANOTHER WORD

I started thinking seriously about the R-word some 30 years ago while covering lacrosse on Iroquois reservations. I have an even older personal relationship with the N-word.

In 1964, the black comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory published his autobiography with this dedication: “Dear Momma -- Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

What a pipe dream that was. Nearly 50 years later, the book (which I co-wrote) is still in print and has sold more than a million copies, yet its title is as virulent as ever. If the word didn’t pack such a vicious punch, Riley Cooper, a wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles, would not have reached for it in a moment of anger in late July … and Hugh Douglas, a former Eagles lineman who was working as an ESPN co-host, might not have been accused -- apparently incorrectly -- of using it in an incident with a colleague.

My correspondents, the ombuddies, have criticized the disparity in ESPN’s coverage of the two incidents. Here are two typical messages:

• Joe Smith of Baltimore wrote: “After a week of wall-to-wall coverage of Riley Cooper, I haven't heard or seen anything on ESPN about one if its own.”

• Arusha Stanislaus of Rockville, Md., wrote: “This is another example of a 'holier than thou' hypocrisy that I have been seeing for a long time. If an athlete gets stopped for speeding, its 'breaking news', but internal embarrassments are not? Not a good standard sir.”

The incidents were very different. Cooper, who is white, was frustrated by a black security guard who blocked his access at a concert – and was videotaped using the slur. With witnesses and pictures, it was an easy story to cover and chew on, which ESPN did incessantly, although sometimes interestingly. Skip Bayless, who is white, thought Cooper should be cut immediately for using the N-word. Stephen A. Smith, who is black, thought Cooper’s teammates, particularly the black ones, should decide whether his future contributions to winning were worth forgiving him. (Cooper is currently on the Eagles’ 53-man roster.)

The Douglas incident occurred during the National Association of Black Journalists’ annual conference, at a get-together to raise money for the group’s Sports Task Force Scholarship Fund.

A member of NABJ called me right after the incident, embarrassed and outraged. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to speak for the organization. A day later, in an email, he wrote: “One of the attractions the Sports Task Force uses to lure attendees is the presence of ESPN on-air talent. The sports people advertise the ESPN media stars expected to be there. In other words, come to the NABJ scholarship party and you can meet Stephen A. Smith. Jemele Hill, Hugh Douglas, Michael Smith, J.A. Adande, Jay Harris, Stan Verrett, Jalen Rose, Stuart Scott, etc, etc. The scholarship party is open to more than just sports journalists; NABJ people in news departments, features, entertainment, business, Internet, etc., are all welcome.” ‘

Douglas reportedly interrupted a presentation to rant at his “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith. Both men are black. Although early reports claimed use of the N-word, there has been no audio or video, and witnesses, as well as Douglas and Smith, said the word was not used. Some reports indicated that Douglas used another pejorative toward Smith.

ESPN originally acknowledged it was looking into “a disagreement between Hugh Douglas and Michael Smith” and then more than a week later said in a statement referring to Douglas: “He no longer works for us effective today.”

The NABJ incident seemed at least as important as a wide receiver’s outburst. Douglas and Smith were representing a network that offers news and commentary; don’t fans have a right to know as much about them as about a 25-year-old backup player caught in what seems to have been a moment of alcohol-fueled frustration? An airing out of why corporate decisions were made in the NABJ case was in order – or at least some discussion by the likes of Skip and Stephen A.

So just why was there little or no coverage or commentary about Douglas on ESPN? When I asked Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, if it could be attributed to the network’s longtime avoidance of media coverage (including itself), he said, “Yes, we generally have avoided covering our personnel matters. With higher-profile talent, we have made exceptions when we felt the story has resonated at a certain level. While the Riley Cooper story brought some attention to the Douglas story because of some perceived similarities, we didn't feel it merited coverage in ‘SportsCenter.’”

I disagree. The media’s role is a critical and ongoing aspect of sports coverage. Whether it’s the media’s choices of coverage (Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow, as well as teams and games the various outlets favor), its opinions (most proclaimed the NFL the winner in the recent concussions settlement) or its business decisions (getting into bed with a soccer league or creating a channel for a college football conference), the media shapes the audience’s perception. Sometimes we need to know as much about the media as we do about the sports it covers if we want to fully understand the sports.

I think ESPN’s formal editorial guidelines for “dealing with ESPN or other media in the news” might sometimes act as a deterrent to the kind of journalism allowed in its other sports coverage. Regard this: “Finally, we insist that communication take place prior to any public discussion in any ESPN medium. We ask that you let the top person in your department know what you plan to do. Engage in a dialogue over the topic and the format and come to a resolution to accomplish everyone’s goals.”

This gives us another reason to welcome the return of the talent once known at ESPN as He Who Must Not Be Named.

Keith Olbermann opened the debut broadcast of his ESPN2 show on Aug. 26 with a bravura tirade on useless, meaningless and pervasive journalistic churn. In this case, he blistered the New York Daily News writer who used his own tweet about the New York Jets’ coach and quarterback as the source for his next story, which led to more commentary by himself and others.

Raged Olbermann: “Reporting is dead; long live making something out of nothing.”

He followed that up at the end of the week with more than seven minutes of contained fury -- illustrating a CBSSports.com column that dismissed the NFL players' concussion suit as an unjustified "money grab" with a series of clips of the broken men who had played the game.

In execution, both Olbermann segments were vintage, but in content they were even better, especially if they herald a welcome push for ESPN toward pertinent, timely, sharp media criticism.