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Friday, January 17, 2014
Lessons learned from Dan Le Batard caper

By Robert Lipsyte
ESPN Ombudsman

A wave of hurt feelings, if not a sense of betrayal, seemed to sweep across ESPN last week after the sports website Deadspin revealed that its Baseball Hall of Fame mystery voter was Dan Le Batard, a rising star at the network who hosts a daily national radio program as well as a daily show on ESPN2.

Le Batard had given Deadspin use of his Baseball Writers' Association of America ballot in what he later described as a protest against the “hypocrisy” of voters who kept alleged steroid users out of the Hall and because “I always like a little anarchy inside the cathedral we've made of sports.”

It was a clever stunt with some unsettling implications, some worthy, some not. When the final score was posted (for now, anyway), none of the major players -- with the exception of Deadspin -- seemed totally satisfied.

I wasn’t, either.

Deadspin is a provocative gadfly that frequently criticizes ESPN, which it considers too dominant, “the Death Star” of sports media, according to editor Tommy Craggs. Deadspin’s original scheme, in this case, was to buy a ballot from any one of the nearly 600 members of the BWAA eligible to vote for players to be enshrined at Cooperstown.

The Hall outsources to the BBWAA its task of anointing immortals. Deadspin wanted to crowd source the privilege to its readers “to make a mockery and farce of the increasingly solemn and absurd election process, and to take some power from the duly appointed custodians of the game's history and turn it over to the public.”

After Deadspin polled more than 40,000 readers, according to Craggs, Le Batard used the results to fill out his ballot, which he submitted under his own name. Once the story broke, on Deadspin and on Le Batard’s ESPN show, “Highly Questionable,” reaction was intense, if not unexpected.

The BBWAA suspended Le Batard for a year, and revoked his voting privileges. Several of ESPN’s leading broadcasters and executives found Le Batard’s actions “sanctimonious” and “grandstanding,” wondering why he hadn’t conducted his crusade on his national ESPN platforms. ESPN tried to distance itself from Le Batard in a statement that read, “He received his vote while at the Miami Herald. We wouldn't have advocated his voting approach.”

Le Batard is a freelance columnist for the Herald and hosts national radio and TV shows for ESPN. The Ombudsman’s mailbag gave Le Batard mixed reviews: His action was variously described as “idiotic” and “self-serving” and as an example of his “fun, intelligent, and refreshingly diverse perspectives on sports and culture.”

His most vocal on-air ESPN critics were Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, hosts of “Pardon the Interruption,” a show on which Le Batard has appeared, sometimes as guest host.

“This is egotism run amok," said Kornheiser, who also likened Le Batard’s actions to “voter fraud.”

"It is so sanctimonious for Le Batard to offer up this garbage," Wilbon said. "Because when you have a radio show that is now national, a television show that's national every day, you write columns, you even wrote for Deadspin, you have a voice, a big fat voice that can reach everyone. Don't tell me that the process is flawed. Lobby for what you believe in."

Le Batard received support from Keith Olbermann, on his ESPN2 show, and from Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic, who said they had come around to Le Batard’s point of view after he had explained it on their radio show, “Mike & Mike.” In his new podcast, “Real Talk,” ESPN’s Jason Whitlock gave Le Batard a sympathetic hearing as a fellow iconoclast while keeping his own distance by admitting his lack of knowledge about baseball.

On the contrary, Howard Bryant, an ESPN columnist and a fellow Hall of Fame voter, was point-blank in saying, “Dan screwed up big time. This wasn’t the way to make a statement. He could have chosen not to engage. It was a look-at-me move. How about showing respect for the baseball writers and not making a circus and undermining those who take it seriously?”

The ESPN front office clearly felt disrespected. Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of editorial for digital and print media, said: “He didn’t tell us [in advance], which was inappropriate to many at ESPN. The problem was not with the protest but the execution. Why didn’t he do a SportsNation vote on ESPN.com? Or offer the vote to his radio audience? We’d have allowed him to do it.”

Certainly irksome to ESPN was Le Batard’s justification that, had he merely campaigned for HOF voter reform on the network’s platforms, he would have been accused of “attention-seeking” without impact. Going through Deadspin “gave it the whiff of scandal, which propelled it into a larger point.”

In retrospect, however, Le Batard said: “I wish I had waited a day so I wouldn’t have taken attention from the three guys who got into the Hall. And I had a blind spot about how much Deadspin’s involvement would hurt colleagues, and I’m bummed about that. I thought I would create unrest, not pain.”

Deadspin, of course, was delighted. Said Craggs: “We’re antagonistic to ESPN because of the way it has come to dominate sports and sports media. How it sets the terms of the conversation and, because of its size, how it distorts that conversation. We want to push back. ESPN is our Death Star.”

So, just what was this caper all about? Was it a breach of collegiality or a progressive new direction? Was it unethical? Did it defy or ennoble the spirit of journalism, or baseball itself? Was there more under the surface? Were there lessons to be learned?

It started in November when Deadspin, a Gawker site, offered to buy a baseball writer’s HOF vote. When one such deal fell through, Le Batard “reached out,” according to both he and Craggs, and offered his ballot as “back-up” should no replacement deal be made.

For some time, Le Batard, among others, has complained about the HOF voting system. Only baseball writers with at least 10 years of membership in the BBWAA are allowed to vote; this skews the electorate older, more male and white, and draws it largely from traditional print organizations, hardly a reflection of these times. Voters are allowed to vote for no more than 10 players who have been retired for at least five years.

The process doesn’t offer guidelines about players under the cloud of steroid use, whether or not it has been proven. Said Bryant: “We don’t really know who used and who didn’t. Steroids balloting is too selective, we’re meting out justice based on reputation and who you like.”

When no replacement deal was found for the Deadspin ballot, Le Batard made good on his promise. According to Le Batard and Craggs, no money changed hands. Le Batard held his physical ballot, which gave him the option to renege if Deadspin’s results were outrageous -- for example, votes for the unlikely likes of Jacque Jones or Mike Timlin.

In phone and e-mail conversations, Le Batard has expressed uncertainty as to exactly what he would have done with such a flawed ballot. He wrote: “I THINK I would have changed it. Think. I'd like to think that I wouldn't have made a mockery of the thing and am relieved that the readers didn't and that I was never forced to.”

As it turned out, the Deadspin ballot was strikingly similar to the one submitted by ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of the most respected baseball commentators in the country, and one with his own strong opinions about the voting.

Deadspin readers voted for Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine, all of whom gained induction, as well as Mike Piazza, Craig Biggio, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Curt Schilling.

The Deadspin audience, as well as Olney, cast votes in the minority compared to most BBWAA members, as well as the BBWAA subset of 17 ESPN voters; most ignored players under the steroids cloud. Bryant, for example, voted only for four players: Maddux, Thomas, Glavine and Morris.

FINAL SCORECARD

Was it unethical for Le Batard to give away his vote? Probably. There is a covenant to a BBWAA membership. It was certainly inimical to the higher vision of the BBWAA, which conscientiously tries to come up with players worthy of busts in Cooperstown (not to mention the trading card show bonanza that comes with induction.) On the other hand, how many voters convene friends to help make decisions? Some have confessed.

Was the caper in support of a good cause? I think so. Among the valid issues it raised were the moral ambiguity of steroid era voting, the out-of-date composition of the BBWAA and a big one for me -- why are sportswriters giving out awards to people they cover as subjects on behalf of institutions they cover? (For an excellent story on baseball writers in the steroid era, I recommend Bryan Curtis’ latest for Grantland).

ESPN allows staffers to vote for individual honors, and I wish it would reconsider that. Not only do I think there is a conflict of interest in voting for the Hall of Fame but I think it puts writers in the position of making news as well as covering it. That is against ESPN policy (and recently was one of the in-house arguments against banning use of the nickname of the NFL Washington franchise).

One side effect of this L’Affair Le Batard was the rare display of internecine ESPN criticism, which has always been discouraged. (The embraced debates don’t count.) I have always thought a more vigorous interchange -- short of feuds, of course -- could be healthy. Le Batard seems to agree.

“I was happy to be criticized by people I love and respect, like Tony and Mike, who love and respect me,” he said. “It elevated the discourse and maybe got ESPN to a place where we could be critical of each other.”

Le Batard is a terrific performer whose voter mischief was a clever stunt. But it is disingenuous for him to now express regret at involving Deadspin.

I welcome Deadspin’s frequently bracing antidote to cheesy sports coverage, but it’s no secret that Deadspin always has ESPN in its cross-hairs. It was wrong for Le Batard to embarrass ESPN, in much the way adolescents like to make their parents squirm.

On the other hand, there are lessons to be learned while squirming. ESPN has to keep reminding itself why it hires professional bad boys like Le Batard, Whitlock, Olbermann, and the baddest boy of all: Kornheiser. While they will occasionally “screw up big time” as they swing hard and free, they also have the rare ability to take viewers over the top and find new horizons.