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Tuesday, July 30, 2013
Tackling Olbermann, Silver and Nine for IX

By Robert Lipsyte
ESPN Ombudsman

When I began writing about sports in the last century, women were not permitted in most press boxes. Press boxes! It was more than a decade later, in the late 1970s, that equal locker room access became an issue. A nasty skirmish in the gender wars erupted, mostly underreported, until this month’s airing of the splendid “Let Them Wear Towels,” the third installment in ESPN’s instant classic series, Nine for IX.

So how come the documentary’s debut was programmed against Fox’s broadcast of the Major League Baseball All-Star Game?

That confused me. Was it a mixed message, purposeful, accidental or, you know, dude, it is what it is? This was one of several confusing messages by ESPN in July, including the uncomfortably chummy spectacle of the ESPYS, the forced switch of the commentariat on ESPN.com to Facebook, and the trumpeted return of the former He Who Must Not Be Named to the network.

There was less confusion in the old days, at least regarding gender roles. The exceptions to the prohibition against women in the press box were revealing. In Los Angeles, for example, aging gossip columnist Walter Winchell was allowed to bring starlets into the press box at Dodger Stadium to watch him type. We all snickered, but didn’t much care. More threatening were the ambitious, talented, suppressed women writers who could take our jobs.

And they did. Many of them were hired to satisfy discrimination suits against newspapers and were determined to prove they deserved the jobs on their individual merits. Almost immediately, they smartened coverage by acting like journalists instead of fanboys. They found human interest stories, and they weren’t afraid of asking technical questions.

If those women could be stopped at the locker room door, thus stymied in picking up the quotes and the moods that are so often the heart of postgame coverage, they could be kept at a reporting disadvantage. The blame for that last stand has usually been heaped on players, coaches and officials, but male sports writers, jealous of their own access to the testosterone tree house, were at least complicit. I often wondered whether they were afraid the world would find out just how tenuous were their own relationships with the athletes, who often treated sportswriters as if they were, in the players’ phrase, “green ants at the picnic.”

The directors of the espnW film, Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, assembled an all-star cast of sportswriters -- Melissa Ludtke, Robin Herman, Michele Himmelberg, Betty Cuniberti, Claire Smith, Jane Gross, Sheryl Flatow, Lesley Visser and Christine Brennan -- to tell their brave and harrowing stories. There are unexpected heroes (Billy Martin, Steve Garvey) and predictable villains (commissioner Bowie Kuhn, male sports writers).

The topic might not have gotten its due until now because women were humiliated (most of the pioneers did not stay in sports), men were shamed, and most academics writing about that era of major social movements dismissed it as merely sports -- although the issue proves again how sports were, and still are, a major definer of American masculinity and femininity.

There are still doors that need to open wider for women, including, as Herman pointed out in the documentary, the one that leads to the predominantly male play-by-play broadcast booth. That’s an ESPN issue, even with its fine roster of female reporters, producers and hosts. We will be returning to that topic in the future.

So, why did this terrific film have to go up against the All-Star Game?

According to Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president of programming and acquisitions, the Tuesday night airing was part of ESPN’s programming plan to create a consistent schedule to showcase the Nine for IX documentaries throughout the summer.

“It was not counterprogramming,” Williamson said. “It was part of a long-term strategy to create a flight for the marketing of quality shows -- not that all ESPN shows aren’t quality. But we wanted a window, almost appointment TV, for documentaries throughout the year. And Tuesday night was the night least likely to have a game.”

I like the idea of “classy Tuesday,” of a date with quality, but it makes me uneasy, too. Yes, the documentaries will air some 18 times each (on numerous ESPN channels, including ESPN Classic), and ratings indicate that the electorate prefers games and studio shows. But the word “marginalizing” still comes to mind. Meanwhile, no one has suggested that “Outside the Lines” should be a Tuesday night regular instead of making it even harder to find.

Even while we were talking about all this, OTL is being moved on Sundays from ESPN at 9 a.m. to ESPN2 at 8 a.m., coinciding with the football season, starting Sept. 8. Even with DVRs, that sends a message -- and not about quality.

Let Us Ponder the Pretty Ponders

One of the executive producers of “Let Them Wear Towels” is Robin Roberts, a pioneering reporter and anchor at, among other places, ESPN and ABC. The night after the documentary’s debut, Roberts was live on ESPN at the 20th annual ESPYS award show. She received the Arthur Ashe Courage Award and spoke movingly of her battle back from health issues, a segment that was the highlight of the show.

The rest of the broadcast, however, was mostly the implied daps and chest bumps we’ve come to expect, with a few surprises, especially the grace and dignity of LeBron James on the red carpet, as a recipient of a top prize -- male athlete of the year -- and as Roberts’ presenter. He obviously took it seriously and prepared well.

Seeing athletes in different clothes and without their game faces is a pleasure of the watching the ESPYS. I particularly enjoyed watching Christian Ponder, the Vikings’ quarterback -- ESPN’s Ron Jaworski has him rated No. 27 of 32 in his NFL QB rankings -- apparently auditioning for his next career as a broadcast jock. Supported by the former Samantha Steele, an ESPN reporter and now also his wife, Ponder interviewed the amiable likes of Houston defensive end J.J. Watt (by throwing little footballs over his head). Ponder is actor-cute in that indie-film- and-TV mumblecore way. If he doesn’t make Jaws’ top 20 this season, he should scramble for a role on a cop show.

I also enjoyed watching athletes in the audience guffawing, often a beat late, at dumb -- and sometimes mean -- jokes by host Jon Hamm, often at Dwight Howard’s expense. The message here is that it’s all entertainment, folks, as sports should be, whether Adrian Peterson is running long on his acceptance speech, or just running long.

But the ESPYS offer another message, much like the annual White House Correspondents' dinner: We’re all in this together. It’s fine for news executives, columnists and anchors to party with politicians and lobbyists, to get to know them as human beings, just as it is fine for ESPN executives, columnists and anchors, to party with athletes (and maybe not to feel like green ants.)

The concern, though, is that viewers might be getting the idea that they are the rubes at these circuses, that the jocks and the pols who show up can expect, in return, access and favors from the media.

This might be why the audience doesn’t always trust political reporters and sometimes wonders whether ESPN is protecting a pal -- an employee of one of its partner leagues -- when “SportsCenter” is perceived as late or timid in reporting an athlete’s latest DUI or sexual assault charge. Most of the time, I think the typical ESPN explanation -- “We were exercising responsible caution” -- is true.

Still, it’s hard not to get the impression that certain athletes, like certain politicians, get a pass because members of the media hobnobbed with them and expect to do so again -- not to mention the revolving doors in which senators, QBs, generals and coaches rotate in and out of studios and anchor booths.

Perhaps even more pernicious than the once-a-year ESPYS are those ubiquitous “This Is SportsCenter” commercials. The latest example has anchor John Anderson, an avatar of authority, gravely suggesting to golfer Rickie Fowler, blithe in his signature orange jumpsuit as he pours orange juice into his coffee, that he might be colorblind. I think it’s hilarious.

But do those entertaining commercials undermine ESPN’s attempt to balance its reputation for the creative celebration of sports events with a reputation for serious journalism? Just imagine Brian Williams and Secretary of State John Kerry in the NBC copy room, scanning each other’s butts.

You Talkin’ To Me?

The mailbag trembled with the announcement earlier this month that fan conversations on ESPN.com were being diverted to Facebook’s commenting tools.

Jeff Gilbert of Miami wrote, in a typical message, “I don't want my inane sports comments posted to my page -- I guess there's a way to prevent this, but I'm unclear how a future change in Facebook policy will affect my decision to keep these comments semi-private. Will I need to monitor Facebook policy to make sure new comments don't just start showing up for friends to see? …. what if those without shame keep posting idiotic comments in spite of having their name attached and we just lose the thoughtful commentary by those wary of Facebook or too casual to worry about changing their privacy settings but still don't want their friends seeing sports non sequiturs and so refrain from sharing?”

Added Brian Hansen of Chicago, “Especially in light of the recent revelations that the federal government is literally storing everyone's data/communications/posts what have you from Facebook, doesn't this signal that ESPN is not an advocate of privacy? Something just feels wrong compelling your readers to express their views knowing that the federal government is literally monitoring what they say. … I assume the answer is money, but I wonder what the decision says about ESPN and the changing society we live in.”

Yes, Brian, money -- or at least traffic -- is a factor. Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, told Marie Shanahan of the Poynter Institute -- and later me -- that the change was partially a marketing tactic that will further extend the reach of ESPN. By removing anonymity, he said, the change was also intended to improve the “civility” of comments on the website. Stiegman said ESPN executed “a tremendously smooth transition” for its 25 million active registered users, about 80 percent of whom already have Facebook accounts.

Stiegman also confirmed that certain sections on ESPN’s digital products -- including columns by Rick Reilly, Bill Simmons, Grantland (except for its blogs) and the ombudsman -- don’t allow open comments.

ESPN is not the only media company to make this move. Steven Johnson, a leading media theorist and author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” told me, “There is a general, and I think understandable, backlash happening now against open comment threads, particularly on sites with a huge amount of traffic like ESPN. There's everything from bot-driven comment spam to typical Internet flame wars to just weird junk that shows up.

“I can see why ESPN is doing it. And it's not like Facebook is the end of online discussion -- it's just anchoring all the contributions in a known identity.”

The Return of He Who Must Not Be Named

Hardly any ombuddies thought the announced return of Keith Olbermann was a good idea. (ESPN says the former “SportsCenter” anchor will host his own late-night show on ESPN2 starting in August). But being the ombudsman’s mailbag, with names and addresses and phone numbers, they were civil.

• Bill Dart of Caldwell, Idaho: “I have removed all ESPN channels from my channel guide. I have no interest in supporting in any manner a network that hires one of the most partisan, mean, bigoted, commentators to ever disgrace television.”

• Thomas Strickland of Olathe, Kan.: “WHAT were you thinking? Olbermann made his living as a Left-wing fascist nut job bomb thrower that routinely mocked HALF your viewing audience! Olbermann is divisiveness incarnate! I'm starting Facebook and Twitter campaigns to let everyone know about the obscene nature of your actions. Olbermann is the anti-Christ!”

Although responses to Olbermann’s return were predominantly political, Williamson and other ESPN executives will be tracking age demographics after the new ESPN2 show debuts Aug. 26. As Williamson pointed out, Olbermann left ESPN 16 years ago, which means there are viewers who don’t remember when he and Dan Patrick were the reigning stars of “SportsCenter.”

Olbermann wasn’t the only recent blockbuster ESPN addition. Nate Silver, the sports and political statistician whose accurate projections have been a feature of The New York Times, will bring fivethirtyeight.com to ESPN. In a joint interview, Silver and ESPN President John Skipper emphasized the importance of the Simmons-led Grantland site as a model for Silver’s future at ESPN.

Watching this play out should be fascinating. Will Silver extend the reach of ESPN into politics, weather, education, you name it? Will the Silver site become a duchy within the ESPN kingdom? Will it affect other franchise players? ESPN reporters often talk about chemistry when an athlete joins a new team; will this move make ESPN more like the Miami Heat -- or the Los Angeles Lakers?

After the Silver announcement, Marc Tracy of The New Republic called it “the juiciest free agent signing since LeBron James bolted for Miami.”

All of this didn’t happen in a Bristol bubble. In mid-August, a month after ESPN’s comments switch to Facebook and nine days before Olbermann debuts, Fox rolls out its new sports channel, the first potentially serious challenger to ESPN’s hegemony. These will be interesting times for ESPN viewers, readers and listeners, not to mention the company’s employees.

The competition for rights and talent will be fierce. Pioneering executives such as Williamson, who remember when ESPN was an underdog begging other networks for scraps of video, admit they will have to adjust to the reality of the World Wide Leader actually looking over its shoulder.

Meanwhile, much of the staff might not totally understand those early days, and the role Olbermann played at the time: Of the company's almost 7,000 employees, Williamson says, 5,000 have worked at ESPN for less than 15 years. That’s after Olbermann quit ESPN the first time. (A move that later led Mike Soltys, now ESPN’s vice president for corporate communications, to famously comment, “He didn’t burn bridges here, he napalmed them.”)

If you’ve gotten down to here, I don’t have to say: Stay tuned.