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Friday, June 28, 2013
What are commentary boundaries at ESPN?

By Robert Lipsyte
ESPN Ombudsman

Jason Collins' coming-out party was a historic and controversial story, feel-good for some, an abomination for others and an "uncomfortable conversation" on "Outside the Lines" that still resonates in ESPN conference rooms and in the ombudsman's mailbag.

More than one ESPN manager told me it was "a learning experience" and then couldn't come up with what had been learned. How about this: The tricky trifecta of religion, race and sexuality exposed not only the fault-lines in "OTL's" preparation but the inconsistent performance of ESPN journalism in general. The old story won't die because it brings up too many unresolved questions that we will be addressing in my scheduled 18 months as ESPN's fifth ombudsman.

• What are the boundaries of sports talk, and on which shows?

• What is the distinction between a reporter and a commentator? The lines seem to blur sometimes.

• How can ESPN balance the varying sensibilities of its audience? There are people who want the network to provide a safe haven from the real world. But Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, tells me that he is finding in his research a "hunger for more challenging news." These people want information, they want to understand their world, including the world of their games.

• ESPN's resources are substantial, and as it continues to hire more experienced journalists, will it match their ambitions with a company will to give them reporting and commentating room?

• If it does, there will be another, more complex balancing act. What happens when ESPN's "partners" -- the teams, conferences, leagues whose games it airs and analyzes -- are made uncomfortable by tough reporting?

Let's start this journey back in April with the face of a seven-foot journeyman hoops bouncer, Jason Collins, smiling out of a Sports Illustrated cover online. It took most of sportsworld by surprise. The opening lines of his confessional essay, "I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay," stirred the pro basketball, African-American and LGBT communities. It would stir Christians, as well.

ESPN seemed somewhat slower than the Internet to get excited by the announcement. A snide case had been made that it was, after all, a rival's scoop, that Tim Tebow was still adrift and that the NFL draft was looming. In any case, it was perfunctorily covered on early "SportsCenter" editions and briefly examined by ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard. He predicted, correctly, that the NBA and most players would publicly support Collins, who was a free agent. Whether Collins would sign another NBA contract, Broussard said, depended less on his sexual orientation than on whether any team needed an aging enforcer who averaged about nine minutes a game.

Some of those who had long hoped for a male active professional team athlete to come out were vaguely disappointed; as attractive and intelligent as Collins was, he was not a star and, as a free agent, was technically not even active. Also, there had been expectations of bigger names; ESPN's enterprise unit was one of a number trying to track down a months-old rumor that four NFL players were poised to come out together.

OTL was the first ESPN show to cover the story in any depth in its 3 p.m. airing. It had to shift gears from a planned Lakers dissection. LZ Granderson, an openly gay, black ESPN columnist, magazine writer and frequent TV commentator, came on by phone and celebrated a brave new locker room. He talked about the importance of Collins describing himself as black, thus eroding a stereotype of the African-American community as homophobic. He discussed the symbolism of Collins wearing No. 98 to memorialize the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student. Granderson also imagined all the young gay players who could now believe there would be a place for them on high school, college, even pro teams.

In his turns, Broussard, who had been on hand for the scheduled Lakers show, was just as thoughtful, declaring the climate right for acceptance, acknowledging the overwhelming support (Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker and Jason Kidd, not to mention Michelle Obama, had quickly weighed in with positive tweets). But tiny red flags popped up in Broussard's remarks. He wondered how much of the support reflected true feelings and how much "political correctness." There would be players, he said, who might be uncomfortable showering with and even just being around gays, but who didn't want to say so and risk being marked as bigots.

Granderson began to frame the story: He invoked his 10-year friendship with Broussard, back to their being colleagues at ESPN The Magazine and teammates in rec league basketball. He said he saw their relationship as an example of how people with very different points of view could have respectful and intelligent disagreements while remaining friends. Implicit was that this could be a model for NBA players.

Broussard broke in to "second" Granderson's remarks. He added "I am a Christian" and agreed with the idea that people can tolerate differing points of view.

The OTL host, Steve Weissman, asked Granderson whether there was a difference between tolerance and acceptance. Granderson said that there was, and he noted for the record that he was a Christian, too. He said that just as he and Broussard had had "this uncomfortable conversation" about gays and straights, as had the military before the end of "don't ask, don't tell," now it was the turn of the NBA.

'WALKING IN OPEN REBELLION TO GOD'

In a host decision, Weissman asked Broussard to comment on Collins declaring himself a Christian in his SI essay. Several ESPN executives, in casual, off-the-record conversations, attributed that decision to inexperience. Broussard told me later that he "was stunned when Weissman asked me a direct question," but said he felt he "needed to let the viewer know where I'm at for context and clarity."

Broussard said, "If you're openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality [but] adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals … I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ." He added. "I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don't think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian."

At this point, as Weissman said to me later, the control room told him to let Granderson wrap up the segment.

Granderson's voice became passionate. He said that "faith, just like love and marriage, is personal." He talked about the unfairness of using the Bible to deprive others of equal rights. No one could define his Christianity. He declared that "Jesus Christ is my personal Lord and Savior."

As both Granderson and Broussard would later say, they were sorry that the focus of the show had shifted from Collins' coming out to their personal beliefs. Yet both seemed to feel that an airing of those beliefs was intrinsic to understanding the scope of the story.

And in the context of the times, it was a big story. A few months earlier, ESPN had helped expose Mike Rice, the Rutgers men's basketball coach whose physical and emotional abuse of players included gay slurs. The use of homophobia to tyrannize and control straight athletes is an old-school tactic that can work only in a climate of fear and inequality. Rice was eventually fired.

A few months after Collins' coming out, when you might think we had all been sensitized, Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, at a playoff news conference, described himself as "no homo" to distance himself from the praise he had just given another man. My email called the phrase no big deal, a jokey-jock throwaway. But I think it reflected an uneasiness about sexuality even among large celebrity athletes we might assume should be more confident of their manhood.

Personally, I was most surprised by revelations, in excellent Magazine and OTL pieces by espnW reporter Kate Fagan, about Brittney Griner, the hot new WNBA star. She said she had been forced to stay in the closet during her years at Baylor. Her coach, Kim Mulkey, was apparently afraid that any hint of lesbianism on her team would affect recruiting. I had naively thought we were past the dark days of the 1990s when coach Rene Portland of Penn State promised the parents of prospects that no "predatory" lesbians would darken her locker room. (Is this still a pervasive recruiting tactic? I hope ESPN's enterprise commandos are on it.)

In such a climate, I wondered why ESPN did not do more to advance the Collins story or at least connect more dots to other sports stories, perhaps even link to the gay struggle for equal rights and its push-back and to the spike in assaults on gay men. (The next day's OTL devoted half the show to a "Good Morning America" sit-down with Collins and a phoner with John Amaechi, an ex-NBA player who had come out after his retirement.)

On the day of Collins' coming-out announcement, OTL had at least four hours to put together a produced news package, to gather more talking heads, to be smart in its analysis. Just what does this story mean, if anything, to sports, to gays, to the perception of manhood in America? For a traditional broadcast or cable news operation, four hours is enough time to crash such a report, with lunch included.

When ESPN does respond well to a breaking story, it leans on its superstars. The superb work of Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap after the Boston Marathon bombings is a good example.

So, too, the first-rate follow-ups to the Collins story by Bill Simmons and Rick Reilly. Simmons had two excellent podcasts, one a discerning discussion about the ramifications of Collins' announcement with Grantland writer Wesley Morris and one with Collins himself. Reilly came up with vintage columns, one in which he interviewed Collins' former fiancée, among other friends, and another with fresh material on flamboyant Dodgers outfielder, Glenn Burke, who was forced by baseball to stay in the closet, which eventually drove him out after a short, promising career.

More context would have made the OTL show far better. It was thin on the meaning of Collins' coming out and overly focused on two men discussing the differences in their Christian outlooks. And even the schisms in jock Christianity could have been made more pertinent. NASCAR drivers, who have incorporated religious services into their prerace rituals, are privately contemptuous of the "stick-and-ball" athletes who pray to "trinket Gods" to bring them luck.

Covering baseball in the last century, you would find clubhouses divided between so-called God-Squadders and Juicers. The born-again Christians, who attended pregame chapel, prayed that their teammates would find the path out of the barroom and show up sober for batting practice. The party boys expressed disdain for the "softness" of the observant, who, they claimed, didn't really need to win because religion forgives losers.

SAFE HAVENS AND SHOWERS

ESPN on-air coverage is driven by live games and studio analysis, and a Jock Culture hero-goat-scoreboard mentality prevails. By default, fault was found by some ESPN executives with Granderson, Broussard and Weissman, all of whom are otherwise generally well-regarded in Bristol. It was Granderson, it was said, who, knowing Broussard's religious views, led him into his remarks. It was Broussard who stepped out of his assigned role and went too far. It was Weissman who lost control of the show. The criticisms were casual and off-the-record; they seemed like a way to get past the show.

At the time, the company quickly issued a noncommittal statement: "We regret that a respectful discussion of personal viewpoints became a distraction from today's news. ESPN is fully committed to diversity and welcomes Jason Collins' announcement."

Two weeks later, ESPN President John Skipper told reporters, "I think we did great other than we made one mistake: The mistake was not being more careful with Chris Broussard, and there is a collective responsibility there." Answering a question from Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, Skipper said: "We don't quarrel with his right to have any personal point of view, although we do assert as a company that we have a tolerant point of view, we are a diverse company, and that does not represent what our company thinks."

The attitude, as I read it, was that these were small, regrettable, forgettable mistakes. No major fouls. In fact, considering ESPN's "Embrace Debate" mantra, it could have been far messier. In other words, we can move on. This was a one-off.

You think? Or was it another example of that Jock Culture sensibility of not dwelling on an error, fine for the playing of games but not for the journalistic issues that affect our understanding and appreciation of those games. The ESPN audience was not so ready to move on. There were hundreds of emails to the ombudsman. They tended to fall into four categories.

1. About 30 percent of the respondents not only supported Broussard's religious views but applauded the emergence of faith as an antidote to the "pro-gay" agenda of the media. Jim Wesson of LaFollette, Tenn. was expressing the opinion of many viewers when he wrote: "If Chris Broussard had expressed a pro-homosexual point of view you would not have criticized him for expressing his personal feelings rather than simply being a basketball analyst. It's very troubling that ESPN is tolerant of everyone except Christians."

2. Another 30 percent supported Broussard on First Amendment grounds. He had a right to speak his mind. Many of these also complained that the religious beliefs he espoused do not get a proper airing in the media.

3. About 20 percent said they thought Broussard was way out of line and had spoken inappropriately. Some thought he should be disciplined or fired. The case of former ESPN commentator Rob Parker was brought up as a precedent. Parker, who is black, had wondered on "First Take" whether Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was an authentic black or a "cornball brother" who was "not down with the cause." This was based on Griffin's lifestyle, hairstyle and white fiancée. Parker was suspended, and his ESPN contract was not renewed.

4. Another 20 percent thought any mention of homosexuality had no place on a sports network watched by families and children. They invoked the safe haven attitude about controversial matters that often includes complaints about commercials for male sexual enhancement drugs. Kerri Wittwer of Melissa, Texas, spoke for that point of view: "Very disappointed to walk into our family area to my elementary age sons watching ESPN and the coverage being a lengthy interview on being gay in the NFL. My sons love sports and ESPN. Just as I don't think that Sports coverage needs to include ball players and their romantic relationships with women, the same goes for a man's relationship with other men. Seems we have strayed from SPORTS coverage to relationship and political coverage."

By the time I started as ombudsman and got to talk to the principals in mid-June, the story had dropped off the table. No one at ESPN was particularly motivated to talk about it. But the audience, which I represent, was still interested, and so was I.

Granderson told me that "the conversation went too far - not too far for where it needs to go but too far for that news story. It was not necessarily a conversation for ESPN, which is not necessarily the place to examine theological differences."

Could he have done something differently? "I could have opted to put my ego aside and remember the purpose I was there for," he said. "I'm not backing away, but I'm disappointed to put Chris in a place to be defending his Christian views and values."

He had his parting shot: "What's heartbreaking is using God to spread hate."

COLLINS SEEMED OK WITH IT

A decade ago, Broussard and I were colleagues at The New York Times, where he was known for having given up seminary to pursue a career in sportswriting. He was forthright when we talked earlier this month.

"The media in general, not just ESPN, is lopsided in its coverage," he said. "It's a cheerleader for the lifestyle and same-sex marriage and puts those who disagree in an unfavorable light. You can see it in the eye rolling and body language of so-called objective journalists. Born-again people are made out to be bigots and intolerant even though there are Neanderthals present on both sides."

Broussard said he went on the show as "an objective journalist," but, because it was OTL, he was ready to let the host lead him. As it turned out, Granderson led.

"I was satisfied," Broussard said. "I would do it again. It was what I believed. It was not out of hate, not in a judgmental way. It was conventional Christian doctrine.

"I got a lot of support from players afterward, especially from Christians, who loved it. Others told me I had the courage to speak out. They said 'You got big balls, brother, you the man.'"

Broussard called Collins the next night and they talked for about 10 minutes. "I wanted him to know I wasn't trying to use his announcement for my own views. He seemed OK with it."

As was, Broussard thought, the company: "ESPN did not make me feel they were against me."

The third man in the ring, Weissman, who is being used more often as a host of OTL, knew nothing about Broussard's religious views, he told me. Nor did his producers. Should they have? In 2007, in response to Amaechi's coming out (his memoir, "Man in the Middle," was published by ESPN), Broussard wrote a column on the topic for ESPN.com.

In the piece, he maintained that although he believed that homosexuality, like any sex outside a male-female marriage, was a sin, he also believed that gay and straight players could be teammates. "If I can accept working side-by-side with a homosexual," he wrote, "then he/she can accept working side-by-side with someone who believes homosexuality is wrong."

He also wrote: "Granted, I don't shower with LZ after games like NBA teammates do, and I'll admit that if I had to, it might be a little uncomfortable at first.

The column was 6 years old, and was news to the immediate supervisors of the April OTL show, some of whom had been at ESPN when the column appeared. In fairness, Broussard was a magazine feature writer at the time, not lead NBA reporter for ESPN TV.

And would it have made a difference had they known? The big turning point in the conversation was when Weissman asked Broussard to comment on Collins' calling himself a Christian. Given that Broussard and Granderson had already described themselves as Christians, the host was tying up loose ends by asking a follow-up question. It was textbook journalism.

"At the end of the day," Weissman said, "I thought we had a respectful, intelligent and honest conversation."

I'm not so sure about that. The program was lumpy and unframed. A commentator and a reporter were put into a position of point-counterpoint. They went too far and yet not far enough. Granderson's concept of the "uncomfortable conversation" should be an aspect of ESPN's purported mission of injecting more journalism into its coverage. But it needs to be offered in a context that explains why you need to know about drugs, sexual abuse, money for college athletes, cheating, the topics that some in the audience will consider crucial, others alienating, still others just plain buzz killers. Maybe more of an effort has to be made to place these stories beyond a 13-minute, 46- second slot on OTL.

Nevertheless, that old coming-out story is constantly being renewed by the people it inspired. Two months later, in June, I noticed a new display being mounted in the ESPN employee cafeteria in Bristol. It was called OUT/field and was sponsored by the company's LGBT group. A series of panels honored gay athletes, including Martina Navratilova, Billy Bean and the man who sometimes got lost in this story, Jason Collins.