Ombudsman: Robert Lipsyte

Agree or disagree? Reaction from readers

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
9:34
AM ET
The response to my most recent column about ESPN’s coverage of such topics as the N-word, gay players, bullying and concussions -- topics some fans consider unwelcome buzzkills -- was particularly gratifying. It was less an avalanche of agreement or disagreement (you’re a genius or you’re jerk) than a thoughtful extension of the original discussion. Bravo, Ombuddies!

Here are excerpts from my elite eight:
  • Trevor Frank of Hayden, Idaho: “I love Grantland and fivethirtyeight for their intelligent coverage and nuanced perspectives. If those types of outlets are where I need to go, then so be it, but I still think ESPN has a role in these discussions … boiling these issues down to a couple sentences on ‘SportsCenter’ does everyone a disservice because the people who don't want to hear about it are still 'forced' to listen but there's not enough depth to make the story meaningful to anyone. … Keep in-depth segments, articles, shows, films, etc., but don't bother mentioning these issues (all but the most massive stories) unless you're going to take the time to allow for a look beneath the surface of the headline. When you play the middle ground with devoting coverage to these issues, you just frustrate everyone.”

My view: Interesting that Trevor separates the boutique franchises from ESPN as a whole. Nevertheless, I think he’s got a point: Cover the story thoroughly, or why bother?
  • Michael Bennett of North Kingstown, R.I.: “The Michael Sam thing was a complete media thing. My stepbrother is gay and my sister is black. To me, the story should be no story. THE story is that no one cares. THAT shows the change in the country. THAT shows that no one cares that a gay man is playing in the NFL or a black man was elected president. Why try and find stories about people's reactions to it? The media was fishing for a fight and the only people that don't see that are people in the media.”

My view: Is this wishful thinking? It seems as though people do care, and unfortunately that often shows itself as negative reactions – whether that’s to an African-American in the White House or a gay man in the NFL.

LeBron launches … a drink?
  • Seth Rima of Richfield, Minn.: “I feel this ‘what should ESPN be shoving in fans' faces’ article completely missed the point. I can objectively agree that the four main stories that you claim are being complained about the most are worthy of stories on ESPN. My issue with ESPN is primarily with stories like the one currently holding forth on the main page titled ‘King's Flavor: Sprite launches LeBron drink’ WHAT? Can ESPN just let the obnoxious commercials do that marketing job? It is NOT a sports story. It's fluff. It does its job, it makes me aware of a LeBron-flavored Sprite (which is an upsetting thought). But that job should be left to ... Sprite. Or LeBron James. Not ESPN. It is stories like that, and there are MANY of them, that make ESPN less and less credible.”

My view: Good point, Seth. If James is going to take his talents to the carbonation station, let him take out an ad.
  • Ethan Ash of North Canton, Ohio: “While I recognize ESPN is fundamentally a segment of Disney, which is of course a business, ESPN does not seem to regard the call of journalism all that highly given the nature and composition of stories. The ‘Top 10’ epitomizes this -- despite a globe full of elite athletes in diverse arenas, an enormous percentage of these clips feature American men in either the NFL, NBA or MLB (with an occasional rise in NHL coverage). ... ESPN seems perfectly content to spew cliches and statistical non sequiturs, allowing a show like ‘Numbers Never Lie’ to occupy a prime spot when it, unlike the newly acquired fivethirtyeight.com, fails to take even the most basic of statistical principles into account in its ‘reasoning’ of facts.”

My view: “The call of journalism” at ESPN is a topic unto itself, but I think you’re right that “Numbers” has drifted toward words, perhaps because the original concept was unsustainable (and now maybe unnecessary with FiveThirtyEight.)
  • Evan Ikerd of Puyallup, Wash.: “I am one of those fans that enjoyed ESPN when it wasn't full of politics, news and cultural issues. … Our country is divided on many issues, please don't be another TV network that is tossing another wedge into that division to make it expand. Help unite people through sports, not divide.”

My view: I second Evan’s sentiments, but I don’t agree that covering controversial topics is in itself divisive.

Sportswriters Feeling Inferior?
  • Jason Kim of Seattle: “I can't tell you how frustrated I feel when, instead of sports, ESPN focuses on some dumb controversy involving the N-word or bullying or whatever. It’s not about the story, it’s about ratings and clicks. It’s clear they're catering to the more mainstream or lowest common denominator. … Is this some kind of inferiority complex by sportswriters because they're [so] ashamed of covering something other journalists find frivolous that they jump at chances to cover something serious to win a [Pulitzer] or whatever?”

My view: You might have a point -- some sportswriters feeling that their work is “frivolous” -- but maybe they are writing frivolously about topics they should be covering seriously. And I wouldn’t call the controversies we’ve been talking about “dumb.” Not when lives are involved.
  • Jim Mills of Reading, Pa.: “I rather like the blog about giving fans what they want, and I'm glad somebody is finally addressing what ESPN should be covering. ‘SportsCenter’ is far from the award-winning show that it used to be; I used to be able to turn it on in the morning and within a half hour see highlights from every sporting event from the previous night, in ALL sports: baseball, hockey, basketball, football, college and pro. Now they show a random run or two from a baseball game and then go to some analyst who talks about what they ‘think’ a team is going to do in the playoffs. Even worse is when so much time is spent talking about a sport in its offseason. …I want to see what ACTUALLY happened as opposed to what MIGHT happen.”

My view: You really made an end run on that one, but I know what you mean about analysts reading their tea leaves instead of the scoreboard.
  • Rich Leivenberg of Sherman Oaks, Calif.: “As sports fans, we should know and understand these issues. As people, we must try to deal with them.’

My view: Wish I’d written that, Rich. Probably will. Thanks, all.

Give fans what they want, or should have?

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
10:48
PM ET
Enough already about Michael Sam, Jason Collins, Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, concussions and the N-word. I turn on ESPN to get away from the stress of everyday life, to relax with my friends, to share some family time with the kids. Why do you keep shoving that stuff in my face?

Those sentiments have been coming up more and more often lately in the ombudsman’s mailbag. The standard answers to the question -- that those stories are news or important or drive ratings and clicks -- might be true yet still avoid the underlying question: What, exactly, is ESPN’s role and responsibility here? Should ESPN be giving its customers what many of them say they want or what ESPN thinks they need or what’s trending at the moment?

This is a major topic that will not be covered adequately in a single column, but right now, halfway through my scheduled 18-month tenure as ombudsman, it’s worth a drive-by, especially given that I don’t think ESPN is actually shoving enough of that stuff in enough faces often enough. The coverage of issues that jump the white lines tends to be hit-and-run, treated as isolated events rather than as a web of Jock Culture attitudes and politics that are connected and need continual attention.

Yet then again, maybe those ombuddies who want their sports unadulterated -- give us X's and O's and just the facts of the game, please, and maybe a seasoning of up-close-and-personal -- have a case. They’re the customers, after all, paying the top dollar in cable charges -- and for many, a magazine subscription and Insider fees -- and they have a right to deny those buzzkills if they can.

Spoiler alert! If you want to avoid the four main shove-in-the-face buzzkills that are currently dampening the pure pleasure of the sports fan experience, stop now.

Buzzkill 1: The N-Word

As expected, the hourlong “Outside the Lines” special show about the N-word on Feb. 23 was a solid piece of journalism with some fresh takes, worthy of ESPN’s first Alfred I. duPont winner.

The N-word (in itself a euphemism that has become ugly) was linked to slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and contemporary racism. It was the last word many African-Americans heard before they were lynched. The mind-bending complexity of the topic was epitomized by an Asian American high school student who told OTL he felt happily assimilated when a racial slur was directed against him. There was an interesting generational mix to the show; Mean Joe Greene and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wanted the word buried, but rapper Common extolled its power to communicate with his audience. Furthermore, he said that our “violent culture” with its “lack of jobs” was not caused by a word that can also be used “with love.”

Two of ESPN’s reliably interesting commentators, Jason Whitlock and Michael Wilbon, disagreed on the show, then carried their remarkably civil dialogue to the Feb. 27 edition of Whitlock’s podcast, “Real Talk.”

On the special and podcast and “Pardon the Interruption,” Wilbon kept reminding us that he uses the N-word “every day,” although not with his young son. He says African-Americans have taken ownership of the word from slave masters and racists and thus not only defused it but given it nuance. Wilbon claims racial exclusivity for the word -- he says he is ready to fight any white who dares use it in his presence.

Whitlock says he is “most offended” when a black person uses the word and thus continues a history of “mental enslavement.” Why should blacks be “part of our own destruction,” he wonders, and “let ourselves be defined in a way no other ethnic group has ever allowed?”

I can see how such a discussion gets in the way of blissing out in the endless discourse of, say, NFL draft picks, but consider the powerful impact of debating the topic in the very arenas where jocks and musicians have made it such a currency of mass communication and confusion.

The N-word has tentacles. On “PTI” last year, Wilbon characterized NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s defense of the R-word to Congress (remember the Washington Redskins?) as “gutless… Redskin is like using the N-word to African-American people, OK?”

The NFL’s recent trial balloon about a 15-yard penalty for using the N-word on the field evoked this response from reader Wanda Kelly of Charlotte, N.C.: “I am a 60-year-old African-American female, who has watched ESPN, and sports for many years. … The NFL proudly has a relationship with these rappers and the hip hop culture who continually use the N-word in their music and culture. … Cut ties with the hip hop culture first, and then it looks like you are trying to make a statement!”

Beyond the N-word’s association with hip hop and entertainment, and the disagreement over its use, is the connection that seems to be willfully ignored; the NFL, like most American elite revenue-producing sports, is disproportionately black. March Madness reminds us every year the difference between the percentage of African-Americans on a college’s basketball team and of its general student population. We don’t need to hear this during every game, but it’s an important ongoing story that needs coverage. What does it tell us about our games, our possibilities and choices, our country? It might not be part of the entertainment, but it is part of the journalism. Separating those two aspects of ESPN is something else to be considered someday soon.

Buzzkill 2: Coming Out

The return of Jason Collins to the NBA as a journeyman brute with experience and finesse and the emergence of Michael Sam as a niche player who might be drafted into the NFL are not quite as dramatic scenarios as many gay rights activists had hoped for -- nothing like, say, an entire 4-3 defense coming out together or an established quarterback or a first-round draft pick. Although that would have been more sensational, the coming-out of Collins and Sam, who are more representative of everyday pro players, will do more to educate fans about the ordinariness of gay athletes. Maybe that’s what scares those who discriminate; true integration comes when you don’t have to be exceptional to join the club. Collins and Sam seem to be decent human beings and are not superstars. (See Elizabeth Merrill’s excellent piece on Sam’s time at Missouri in the March 3 issue of ESPN The Magazine)

Within the game, athletes who are uncomfortable with gay teammates (showering together is the avowed symbol of discomfort) may very well be insecure about the boundaries of their own sexuality. As far as I have seen, only one ESPN commentator, Keith Olbermann, has taken a run at that, and even he did so in an atypically oblique way.

Drawing on what he described as 20 years of conversations with friends who were elite athletes, Olbermann characterized the group as “ultra-physical beings” for whom “'love' and 'like' mean sex.” But they have “deep platonic affections” that come “closer than a family or a fraternity, closer than anything other than men at war.”

There can be a “confusion” here, says Olbermann, and a “fear that others might think [the athlete] was gay.” Gay slurs are often used by some athletes to “show they are not gay.”

Olbermann is smart and sophisticated, so I take his circumspection as respect for a minefield in sports -- so-called homoeroticism. It also exists in prisons, where I have taught, and in fraternity houses and Army barracks, where I’ve lived. It is, of course, “complex,” and needs more, not less, exposure because same-sex attraction can be very confusing to young athletes and fans; just what is platonic, homosexual or something in between? (One word sometimes used is “homosocial,” which can cover everything from, say, all-male "Monday Night Football" parties to man-crushes on celebrity players to the decisions young gay players must make about coming out or leaving a sport).

If you start listening through your sexuality/gender filters, the homosocial vibe is everywhere on ESPN. On Feb. 24, for example, “Numbers Never Lie” co-host Michael Smith discussed how teams might disregard character or NFL combine scores to pick a player who is a great physical specimen. It would be like, he said, choosing to ignore a woman’s dicey past because “Oh, my god, she’s so fine.”

And then there was Sam’s comment at an NFL combine news conference. He described his triumphant appearance at a Missouri basketball game after his coming out, and said, “I want to cry, but I’m a man.”

For all the terrific work women do on every level of ESPN, testosterone is still the prevalent element in the air -- most of the players and sports officials who are being covered, as well as the writers, talent and executives, are male. This can create a kind of jocular male locker-room sensibility, making it a little inside-y and comfortable sometimes.

Understandably, everybody wants to feel like a member of the club, including readers and viewers. It’s part of the entertainment. But when stories fight that clubbiness -- gay athletes, major figures accused of sex crimes against women, the Penn State scandal, etc. -- ESPN has to make a greater effort on more platforms to report and explain, finding voices within and outside the company to offer perspective and context.

Buzzkill 3: Bullying

The N-word and the F-word lurked in the tale of Richie Incognito, a white man with a nasty past who drove a sensitive black colleague, Jonathan Martin, off the Miami Dolphins, abetted by two teammates of color. Some of the fascination with the NFL-sponsored Wells report had to do with big league bullying -- this was our own high school lives writ large.

Who couldn’t identify? But almost as absorbing was this nagging question: Should either Incognito and Martin be playing in the NFL? And what would the answer tell us about the game and our relation to it?

Dan Le Batard, in his Feb. 15 column came closest to answering those questions as he captured the story’s essence. Le Batard wrote: “There are a lot of clarity-of-hindsight gasbags on TV denouncing the lack of leadership in the Dolphins' locker room now. But maybe it wasn't a lack of leadership. Maybe it was an acceptance and understanding of that particular jungle. … We can all moralize about this now from the outside, choosing sides, but this wasn't about morality and immorality to the people on the inside. It was about strength and weakness. The players in that locker room think Martin is a soft, whining quitter who caused all this because he wasn't tough enough for their survival-of-the-fittest workplace.”

Le Batard continued: “Richie Incognito is an extreme character, obviously, a cartoonish and reckless meathead. But Martin is an extreme, too, as the report reveals. Weak by his own admission, thoughtfully complaining to his mother that he was unwilling to stand up for himself. You needed both of these extremes to create the larger one that is this scandal. … The Incognitos tend to get rewarded in this workplace, even when their idiocy spills into streets and bars. The Martins tend to get weeded out. When the very nature of your game is barbaric and primal, it is easier to try to tame the savages than it is to make the civilized more savage.”

One of those channeling the clarity of hindsight was Mark Schlereth, who played 12 years as an offensive lineman for the Redskins and Broncos before becoming, in my estimation, one of ESPN’s best NFL analysts. But on TV, on the ESPN radio show he co-hosts, “Sedano and Stink,” and in a column on ESPN.com, Schlereth became an NFL apologist by casting the Dolphins as something of an outlaw organization with poor leadership.

“Where were the men of character?” Schlereth wrote. “Where were the men of integrity who would intercede on behalf of a hurting teammate, a member of the family?”

He sets up a straw man: “In light of the Incognito/Martin story, people would have you believe that you have to be some raving lunatic to play in the NFL, wound so tightly that the slightest spark will [incite] an insatiable inferno. Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

He bats away the straw man with personal stories of kindly locker rooms in which he has been befriended or his own leadership easily tamped down bullying. He expresses empathy for Martin by recounting his own pain at being bullied as a dyslexic kid.

On radio, Schlereth quickly dismissed callers who reflected any NFL negativity or echoed the sentiments of Oregon professor David Bradley, who declared on the OTL N-word show: “The NFL is not a civil society. It’s where we put our aggressions.”

Le Batard’s vision of the NFL as a primal, barbaric jungle and Schlereth’s as a rough-and-tumble yet fuzzy family, evoke an ongoing ESPN problem -- the gulf between journalists and analysts. The best ESPN journalists tend to be as skeptical of the sports world as the best political journalists are of government. Meanwhile, too many ESPN analysts, former athletes and coaches, tend to be -- like the ex-generals and senators who pop up on news shows -- mouthpieces for an industry to which they might like to return someday. ESPN hosts often have a hard time asserting themselves with jocks who pull the “I played the game” card. It’s up to ESPN producers to fashion shows so journalists aren’t blocked by analysts.

Not all hosts and commentators are as hard-nosed as Le Batard, nor are all former athletes and coaches apologists like Schlereth, although a majority seemed to blame Martin for being weak and a snitch.

One area of agreement was the assessment of Incognito’s future -- he has one if a team thinks he can help it win. Ombuddy Badrish Patel of Rose Valley, Pa., offered a thoughtful take on all this.

“Does the NFL represent an evolving thread of id-based violence, stretching back to pugilism, jousting, and roman gladiators, which still holds value for those who appreciate the salaciousness of watching our basest instincts on unadulterated display?” he wrote. “How much tolerance will a society which continues to civilize itself by promoting and defending gay players and depressed players in the hottest crucible of violence, the NFL, have for the seemingly essential elements which make up a culture of violence? Can those elements be conditioned away, or are they essential to a physically human activity?

“Put more simply, if androids with greater strength and speed but incapable of emotion played in the NFL, would it still be fun to watch? … I find [Tedy] Bruschi, and every other former player turned saintly ambassador for the game, utterly insincere when he says that the kind of over-the-top meathead attitude of Incognito is, by far, the exception in the NFL, and not the rule. Please. I remember public high school locker rooms before gym class.”

Martin has since landed with the San Francisco 49ers under coach Jim Harbaugh, who also coached Martin at Stanford. Obviously, someone thinks Martin can help a team, too.

Some insight into Martin’s damage comes from an unexpected and welcome source -- ESPN’s fantasy guy, Matthew Berry, who might have written the most useful piece on the case so far, in his The Talented Mr. Roto column.

Berry describes his years of being bullied, of having to give up his dessert to be allowed to sit down at lunch in grade school, of humiliating pranks through high school, of always being afraid, distrustful, playing along and being nice in hopes the bullies would leave him alone. That feeling of being trapped.

“His detractors call him soft and say that he ‘shouldn't have run.’” Berry writes of Martin. “I gotta tell you: Doing what Jonathan Martin did took a lot more guts and bravery than just staying. Because there's always the fear. Not just the fear of retribution, but of what people will think, of looking weak and making yourself a bigger target.

“I have that fear. I have it to this day. In fact, I had planned on writing this column last week, when the story first broke. But when it came time to do it ... I was scared. Do I really want to admit to everyone that I was bullied? Doesn't it make me look pathetic? If you've followed my career at all, you know that promoting fantasy sports and the fantasy sports industry is important to me; painting it in a positive light and fighting all the stereotypes that the naysayers have labeled us with over the years. So the fantasy nerd got bullied? Well, that image ain't helping the cause, Berry.”

Buzzkill 4: Banging Heads

The concussion discussion has a twisted history at ESPN. On one hand, the removal of ESPN’s imprimatur from a joint project with PBS’ "Frontline" led to accusations that ESPN had been bullied by the NFL. The network derives significant revenue from broadcasting NFL games and talking about them. The conflict of interest is an ongoing topic within ESPN, as well as among critics.

On the other hand, much of the best work on brain trauma and the NFL’s attempt to deny and downplay its impact has been by ESPN reporters and producers, including the core of that "Frontline" show and accompanying book “League of Denial.”

And the fine reports keep coming. Two of the lead ESPN reporters on the story, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, continued breaking ground with their January piece on the dispute among the players’ lawyers over the settlement and their piece this month on the division between the league and the players’ association on the allocation of research funds.

For the NFL (and perhaps for ESPN, as well, given its financial partnership), the concussion discussion might be the most critical of the buzzkills. At stake could be the survival, or at least continuing prosperity, of the league. It could lose its player pipelines, its fans, its sponsors, if the game comes to be seen as a cynically managed gladiatorial spectacle dangerous to the physical and emotional well-being of its players.

Bringing up concussions on every hard hit in pro and college football next season is not the answer to the opening question about ESPN’s role and responsibility. However, neither are the long silences between eruptions of the N-word, gay bashing, bullying. These are all ongoing stories that give context to sports. Goodell has handily described the N-word issue as “complex,” which is a way of pushing it to a sideline as too hard to understand.

Concussions might top the list of complexity, a topic that simply can’t be wrapped in 90 seconds on “SportsCenter” or nibbled to death for days on the chat shows by gasbags who are offering stale opinions. Does ESPN need a “Concussion Watch,” a daily or weekly catch-up, 2 minutes, more if warranted, on the latest advances in science, rules changes, litigation, victims? What about this disagreement between owners and players on the allocation of research funds? Does it have anything to do with the possibility that Harvard could concentrate on the brain trauma to athletes but the National Institutes of Health would have to spread the investigation beyond football? Granted, this might not be conducive to stress-free family watching, but then again, maybe you should know if, by putting a helmet on your kids, you’re putting them in danger.

There’s hope. The creation of Exit 31, a division within ESPN that will include Bill Simmons’ Grantland, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and ESPN Films, is a clear indication of reshuffling the deck for more creativity. I look forward to Whitlock’s new site, which he sees as a home for black journalists and fans. There are other internal changes underway that should offer more platforms for the smarter coverage of stories that never go away, that fly just under the radar until they take us by surprise again.

And really disrupt your pure fan pleasure.

What do you think? My second half has begun.

Dr. V story understandable, inexcusable

January, 27, 2014
Jan 27
12:21
PM ET
A young golfer’s obsession with an oddly shaped putter invented by a mysterious scientist and endorsed on YouTube? I will give that kind of story no more than a few paragraphs to grab my interest before I bail out, even if it is featured on a site known for compelling storytelling.

Just a few moments into reading that very story recently on Grantland, it was shaping up as another one of those bloated selfies that clog the arteries of sports-lit these days.

Four graphs and I was gone.

Thus, even though “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” was hastily hailed in the Twitterverse as another long-form masterpiece, I didn’t get back to it until after what would turn out to be a powerful backlash -- an angry and anguished firestorm captured in this e-mail to the ombudsman from Brenna Winsett of Minneapolis:

“If ESPN writers can hound a transgender person to death over something like a golf club, is there any line they won't cross?” she wrote. “This garbage makes a mockery of this woman's life and encourages readers to view transgender people's identities as frauds.”

Now, the story had my attention. And, given the noisy reaction from many quarters in the past week, the nearly 8,000-word piece by freelance writer Caleb Hannan is destined to become a lesson in journalism, workplace dynamics and plain old humanity.

Critiques of the piece, in my mailbag, on media sites and in blogs (such as here) were sometimes brilliant in their insights into transgender lives (often their own) and condemnation of the way the corporate media cover communities they so often marginalize. Much of the criticism was generically true, although I don’t think this piece was a conscious persecution of a transgender person as much as it was an example of unawareness and arrogance. It was a rare breakdown in one of ESPN’s best and brightest places, and an understandable but inexcusable instance of how the conditioned drive to get to the core of a story can block the better angels of a journalist’s nature and possibly lead to tragic consequences.

The story lacked understanding, empathy and introspection -- no small ingredients. More reporting would have helped. It was a story worth telling, if told right. And aside from its humane shortcomings, I still don’t like it as a piece of writing.

The idea was classic

Yet, with fewer revisions than one might think, “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” could have been a classic. It began classically: with a quest.

A 31-year-old writer with an inconsistent golf game sets out to find his Excalibur, in this case the innovative YAR putter he first spots being promoted by a TV golf announcer. His game improves, he thinks, but he wonders whether it’s real or an example of “positive contagion,” a belief that can confer unwarranted confidence. He soon becomes fascinated by the elusive inventor, Dr. Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a 60-year-old, red-headed 6-footer with a deep voice who claims connections to the Commodore Vanderbilt family, MIT and the Department of Defense. He connects with her, promising he will concentrate on “the science not the scientist,” as she demands.

Hannan never meets Vanderbilt in person, but, in his due diligence, he discovers that she probably has lied about her scientific and government credentials -- at least he is unable to verify her degrees and work record. He finds out toward the end of his reporting that Vanderbilt is transgender, with two ex-wives and three children. Almost accidentally, he later learns that she has committed suicide. His reaction seems careless, even callous.

Because he knows little about the besieged transgender community, he conflates all her personal lies and apparently comes to believe -- if he really thought about it -- that, as a presumed con artist, she was fair game and had no right to privacy.

The story itself is structurally clumsy and flabbily edited. Yet Grantland’s gatekeepers – including Bill Simmons, the site’s founder and editor-in-chief, and more than a dozen editors in all -- waved the story on through seven months of meetings and drafts and tweaks. They might have been blinded by the idea that had captivated them in the first place, the self-absorbed young man looking for his quick fix, a metaphor for the times and perhaps Grantland’s demographic. But that was not the story anymore. The twists and turns were the story, the possible lack of resolution and some serious reflections on responsibility and death.

“The story kept changing, but the writer and editors did not,” said Jay Lovinger, who was not involved in the piece but is one of ESPN’s most respected editors. “This could have been a fascinating look at the human condition. Even with its flaws, there was a lot to learn here. I’m glad they ran it.”

That view certainly was not shared by critics, especially in the LGBT community, where the piece quickly became symbolic of corporate media’s ignorance if not hostility. Vanderbilt’s suicide was blamed by some on Hannan’s ambition and lack of compassion. In an excellent article in The Arizona Republic 10 days after the Grantland story was posted, knowledge of the factors around Vanderbilt’s suicide -- as well as other events -- became even more nuanced.

In the kind of deep, empathetic reporting Grantland might have achieved had it really stayed with the story to its core, Megan Finnerty of the Republic interviewed Vanderbilt’s post-operative patient care assistant as well as her business partner and former girlfriend, Geri Jordan. The two women offered portraits of Vanderbilt as a real person, loving and troubled; an aggressive businesswoman; and, wrenchingly, a mother who would be grieved over by her grown children.

Jordan said that Vanderbilt was depressed and that she had attempted suicide at least twice before. She said the impending Grantland publication contributed to the timing of the suicide, three months before the story appeared, but not necessarily to the suicide itself.

The Republic also offered some telling statistics: Forty-one percent of transgender people attempt suicide, and 97 percent report harassment. Those statistics alone, had Hannan looked them up, should have been a warning. He was dealing with a vulnerable, fragile personality, no matter her intimidating phone and email persona. At the least, he should have reached out to his LGBT colleagues at ESPN, if not to outside individuals and groups, for greater understanding of a community of which he apparently knew nothing. That’s not even empathy; that’s craft.

The choices

Beyond that were two choices.

One, the story could have been written without ever mentioning gender – a choice that makes old-school journalists blink; how could you not go there once you knew her history? Hadn’t Vanderbilt opened herself up to a total discovery with her lies? Isn’t a journalist’s obligation to inform the reader rather than protect the subject?

And yet … it’s a surprisingly easy editing exercise to remove that aspect of the story, which, in Hannan’s hands, becomes more of a prurient sideshow than an integral piece of a puzzle. It also excises Hannan’s misuse of gender pronouns, his use of the phrase “a chill actually ran up my spine” to signal his realization that Vanderbilt had once identified as a man and his outing of Vanderbilt to one of her investors. Critics maintain they prove Hannan’s antagonism toward Vanderbilt and toward transgender people.

To the contrary, to me they prove he was way over his head and somehow didn’t know that he had no right to out anyone, certainly not without a lot more contextual information and a confrontation with Vanderbilt. But one of those dozen editors should have known.

Two, the story could have been spiked, which is an interesting minority opinion from Kelly McBride, an ethicist at The Poynter Institute and a former ESPN ombudsman. McBride and her co-writer, Lauren Klinger, write: “It’s also possible that the writer and his editors could have determined the deceptions were inextricably entwined with the name change and transition. In which case, the news organization would then have to ask if the subject of the story itself was so pressing to Grantland’s audience that it had to be published. It seems unlikely that an upstart golf club company rises to that level.”

That takes us out of the golf course and into a minefield of choices -- which stories and facts should be run or squelched based on their potential effect? We are always complaining that journalists protect favored politicians, celebrities and athletes. Who makes that call: The writer? The editor? The ethicist? Is the choice clearer here because Hannan should have known that outing a transgender person can be considered, by some, an act of violence, potentially putting her in statistically proven physical and emotional danger?

If Hannan didn’t know that, shouldn’t his editors have known? They failed him, as Simmons admits in his extraordinary stand-up apology on Grantland.

“We definitely screwed up,” Simmons wrote. “Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland. That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”

The education process continued in Grantland with an accompanying column by Kahrl, an accomplished ESPN.com baseball editor who is transgender. Kahrl writes that Hannan’s story “figures to be a permanent exhibit of what not to do, and how not to treat a fellow human being.”

Specific to the posthumous outing, she continues, “By any professional or ethical standard, that wasn’t merely irrelevant to the story, it wasn’t his information to share. Like gays or lesbians -- or anyone else, for that matter -- trans folk get to determine for themselves what they’re willing to divulge about their sexuality and gender identity.”

Grantland is a promising site, only 32 months old, with a young staff being shaped by Simmons, a talented, overextended 44-year-old with less traditional, hard-core journalism experience but considerable vision and celebrity. Grantland is a leader in so-called long-form journalism on the Web (as opposed to short-form Twitter), which is being attacked lately for being ubiquitous and trendy.

It is a treasure when it’s in the right hands (see ESPN’s Wright Thompson and Grantland’s own Bryan Curtis, among others), mostly boring when not -- and sometimes, as we’ve seen, even dangerous. As are all forms.

“I feel really bad about the impact the piece had on transgender readers,” Simmons told me. “I read all those anguished emails about how badly the piece made them feel, the dark places it took them to.”

Some people feel that “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” should be taken down from the site, although, by now, with so many references, it would merely be a symbolic gesture.

"I would hope Grantland would defer to the wishes of the trans community on that issue, especially since, as I understand it, the story causes so much pain,” said Kate Fagan, an ESPN.com writer who is gay. “I understand Bill's impulse to leave it online as a learning tool, but having the story stay up seems as if we are valuing Grantland's right to learn over the trans community's right to not feel anguished. As many members of the trans community have said on social media, 'My life is not your teachable moment.'"

I suspect Grantland will not make similar mistakes again, that it will tighten its editing process, create more oversight and reach out more often from its Los Angeles-based headquarters to the broader resources at ESPN. But, if it is to grow and flourish, Grantland has to keep in mind what it learned from “Dr. V’s Magic Putter” without allowing the lessons to hold it back from edgy, risky journalism.

“We are not in the business to be safe,” said Lovinger, summing up the role of journalists at ESPN and elsewhere. “We are here to make a difference and open up lines of inquiry. You have to question what you do, but you also have to go where the story takes you.”

Lessons learned from Dan Le Batard caper

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
3:49
PM ET
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.

Did ESPN cave on ad, or act appropriately?

December, 31, 2013
12/31/13
11:25
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I leave you at year’s end with a definitive Ombudsman statement: There is no place at ESPN for religious advocacy, except when there is.

The first Ombud column of 2013 concerned a debate about Christian values on “Outside the Lines” (in a story about Jason Collins’ coming out) and this final column of the year concerns a commercial that ran on ESPN, celebrating Jesus and God (in a 30-second spot about a children’s hospital).

The “Tree of Hope 2013” commercial was initially turned down by ESPN because it did not meet its advertising standards. That decision resulted in a storm of protest, led by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News as part of his defense against what he calls a “war on Christmas.” ESPN then reversed its decision, stating that the ad did meet its standards, after all.

I asked a top ESPN executive if the company had rolled over for religious interests, responded appropriately to its audience or made a pragmatic business decision. You should decide, too. His answer comes later. But first, the background.

It began Dec. 5, when the venerable Missouri Valley Conference received a new public service commercial for the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center in St. Louis, which is one of a number of non-profit Catholic hospitals and medical facilities operated in the Midwest by St. Louis-based SSM Health Care.

The commercial asked the public to write messages to sick children “who may not be able to come home for the holidays. At SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Center, we celebrate the birth of Jesus and the season of giving.” The ad calls on supporters to “help us reveal God’s healing presence this Christmas.”

The Valley, as the conference calls itself, submitted the ad to run on ESPN and, per contract, sought approval from the network’s commercial operations department. It seemed routine to the conference, an easy lay-up. Cardinal Glennon is The Valley’s “charity of choice” and the two organizations have a 20-year relationship. The conference and ESPN have an even longer one. This commercial would be run without cost to the hospital as a public service announcement, and was slated to run on Dec. 14 during ESPNU’s showing of the Virginia Commonwealth at Northern Iowa basketball game.

RED FLAGS

But the religious references raised red flags at ESPN, and the spot was turned down, based on ESPN’s Guidelines for Standards and Practices on Advertising, which state: “ESPN does not accept advertising that consists of, in whole or in part, political or religious advocacy, or issue-oriented advertising.”

Was the conference surprised by ESPN’s decision?

“We’ve never had a spot turned down for religious reasons before, but I understood,” said Jack R. Watkins, the associate commissioner of The Valley. “ESPN has turned commercials down for political reasons. There was an energy company that asked viewers to go to a political website. The energy company didn’t like it, but they changed the ad and they are back with us.”

Watkins notified Dan Buck, executive director of the Cardinal Glennon Children’s Foundation, of ESPN’s ruling.

“I figured it was just a mistake,” said Buck, a former local TV anchor and producer for NBC and Fox. “I mean, Jesus and God at Christmas is a problem? What in the world is America coming to? This was not advocacy or proselytizing, just philanthropy for sick kids. I didn’t think it was a problem, just some lower-level person didn’t get it. I wanted to give ESPN every benefit of the doubt and the time to get it right.”

Meanwhile, because Buck didn’t want to lose the free spot, he submitted a substitute PSA about pediatric cardiology at Cardinal Glennon. This was already Dec. 9, just five days before the game on ESPNU.

“I wanted to be sure we got some kind of message out,” Buck said.

The original commercial was resubmitted to ESPN, and again it was turned down. News of ESPN’s decision headed toward the New York studios of Fox News. Buck has denied that he alerted O’Reilly, but he eventually admitted to me that, “I probably told someone I shouldn’t have told, who let the cat out of the bag.” He wouldn’t say who that was.

By Dec. 11, O’Reilly’s producers were calling Watkins, Buck and ESPN. There would be an O’Reilly report on the matter that night. The issue ran up the ESPN chain to Ed Durso, executive vice president for administration. Durso, a lawyer, is near the top of the organizational chart at ESPN, where he has worked for 25 years after 10 years at Major League Baseball, where he was chief operating officer of the Commissioner’s Office.

“I made a decision, a business decision,” Durso told me later, explaining ESPN’s ultimate reversal. “We accepted the original spot because this was not worth all this trouble.”

ESPN issued this statement at the time: “We have again reviewed the ads submitted for the SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and have concluded that we will accept the original requested commercial. It will run in Saturday’s VCU at Northern Iowa basketball game on ESPNU. This decision is consistent with our practice of individual review of all ads under our commercial advocacy standards.”

By that point, O’Reilly had already broadcast a lengthy report in which he and a guest wondered why ESPN would “marginalize a national holiday” in which many families stay home and watch ESPN (which, along with ABC, broadcasts a slate of NBA games on Christmas Day). “Although,” he surmised of viewers, “maybe not anymore.”

THE OMBUDDY REACTION

After the initial ESPN ruling, the Ombud mailbag quickly bulged with words such as “disappointed” and “appalled” and promises to quit watching ESPN unless the decision was reversed. There were hundreds of e-mails, many referencing the O’Reilly broadcast.

Among the more provocative: Rick Snyder of St. George, Utah, wrote: “You have no problem showing a football player who tortures animals to death but can't show a commercial that mentions God and Jesus? We will not be watching any ESPN channels anymore.”

And Teddy Fleck of Springfield, Mo., wrote: “Why does ESPN hate Christianity? You know it’s simple: FOX Sports is Christians, ESPN is for lefty, Anti-White and Anti-Christian folks.”

There was another mail barrage, this one of thanks when the decision was reversed. But the trouble wasn’t quite over yet. On Dec. 14, ESPN experienced what Durso would call “a traffic problem.” Because of a communication mix-up, the back-up ad ran during the basketball game. Buck spotted the error and called Watkins, who called ESPN, which
quickly ran the original ad -- twice -- during the NCAA women’s volleyball tournament.

“Speaking for myself and not The Valley,” Watkins said, “I don’t feel good about this. At the least, I feel we were used. How can you interpret Jesus and God as not religious? This is the final year of our Cardinal Glennon contract and that will be looked at carefully. We went out of our way to spread their message -- a bonus spot at no cost to them.”

Watkins, who was concerned about his ongoing relations with ESPN, also said he finds it “hard to believe that Dan Buck had nothing to do with getting word to Fox.”

From Buck’s perspective, all turned out well, and with a lesson learned.

“This casts a light, tells you how God works, sometimes turning a negative into a positive,” he said. “America rallied to our support. There were donations from 29 states, not just Catholics, but Jews and other people who believe in freedom of speech.”

Said Durso: “They got three ads in three hours. They ended up doing all right.”

Speaking of the advertising policy, Durso said, “Our overarching effort is not to choose sides. We don’t want to pick and choose. We want to stay neutral. We’re not a vehicle for social, religious, political issues. It’s not what we do.”

How did he then justify, I asked, the athletes who thank God and Jesus after scoring touchdowns, slamming home runs or celebrating victories, all on ESPN’s air?

“It’s not practical to muzzle athletes,” he said.

How will ESPN handle the coming minefield of issues surrounding the 2014 Olympics in Sochi? Russia has come under fierce criticism for passing national laws banning "gay propaganda.”

“We won’t take ads from GLAAD,” Durso said, referring to the organization that promotes the media image of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender people, “or from supporters of Russian attitudes against gay rights. We are not in that business.

“You’re taking this into a much larger context, which is fine, but ESPN is not in that world of cause marketing. All we do is the Jimmy V Foundation [for Cancer Research]. We own it … it’s our charity of choice.”

Speaking of charities of choice, then, let’s go back to that ad for Cardinal Glennon and the original question: Had ESPN rolled over for religious interests, responded appropriately to its audience or made a pragmatic business decision?

Durso smiled and said, “I prefer the last one.”

More reluctantly, I guess I do, too. It doesn’t seem worth the trouble of getting into what would be a one-way battle with ideologues working for a network that also competes with ESPN in sports and thus has something to gain. On the other hand, I don’t think the ESPN guidelines on “religious advocacy” are well-defined enough to make a strong case for rejection or acceptance based on the phrase “God’s healing presence.”

Does it mean faith is a medical tool at Cardinal Glennon or is it a comforting reminder to the faithful that this is a Catholic hospital? It would be difficult, but useful, to make those guidelines less open to interpretation.

I hope my Ombuddies will help me take all this into that much larger context in the coming year. ESPN’s choices on issues are worth examination; sex, politics, religion and player health may be tricky subjects, especially for viewers and readers who prefer to believe that fandom is a never-never land. But, alas, as we learned yet again in 2013, they keep sticking their heads out of the dugout.

Happy New Year!

Answering questions about Cox interview

December, 18, 2013
12/18/13
10:48
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In college football, the postgame on-field TV interview is too often a crime against journalism; a sycophantic “reporter” asks a star athlete who is impatient to celebrate something such as, “Could you talk about how wonderful you felt at the moment in which all your dreams came true?”

Ombuddies are so disdainful of such cringe-worthy questions that they frequently suggest “firing” the offending sideline interviewer.

Within hours of Jameis Winston leading Florida State to a 45-7 victory over Duke in the recent ACC championship game, a No. 1 ranking and a place in the national championship game, ombuddies were seeking to “fire” ESPN sideline reporter Heather Cox despite one of the more appropriate and professional interviews of the season.

Go figure.

Cox was rude, they said. She intruded on Winston’s celebratory moment, they said, and brought the “real world” crashing into sports -- the place they go to briefly forget that the real world exists.

“Just watched Heather Cox embarrass herself and your Network by badgering a 19-year-old after he had just won the ACC Championship,” wrote Bill Griffith of Miami. “Unprofessional would be too kind of a term. Inexcusable would be a better description .”

Steve Snee of Baltimore wrote: “This is just another example of your network trying to be more like TMZ and less about sports.”

To recap: Cox asked the young quarterback about the investigation into an alleged sexual assault of a fellow student almost a year earlier. Two days before the game, it was announced that no charges would be brought against Winston – keeping the QB on the field for the title game, and clearing the way for Winston to win the Heisman Trophy.

ESPN’s coverage of the “Famous Jameis” circus leading up to the Duke game, including a live feed of a news conference and follow-up one-on-one interview with Willie Meggs, Florida state attorney, was suitably restrained. ESPN analysts went out of their way to remind the audience that issues more serious than X’s, O’s and trophies were involved, although they did move right on to the X’s, O’s and trophies after the announcement. ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Jemele Hill offered particularly thoughtful commentary.

The night before the ACC title game and again that Saturday morning, Cox told me, she and the production crew went over the questions she would ask Winston. The plan was to concentrate on the investigation, unless the game was so dramatic and complex it required a debriefing. At that point, despite the national attention, Winston had not submitted to any interviews, in person, online or phone or Twitter, concerning the allegations. The postgame interview would be the first chance any media member would have to ask Winston about the allegations and the decision not to charge him.

According to Cox, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher and the school’s sports information staff were given a heads-up on the interview plan and were still amenable to producing Winston. They seemed comfortable with the line of questioning. Had they objected, Cox said, ESPN would have passed on the interview; in effect, ESPN would not allow questions to be dictated.

NO X’s AND O’s, JUST Y’s

As it turned out, the lopsided game required little explication from the winning quarterback. After an opening setup question about getting to the national championship game, Cox asked how Winston had fared as “news of the investigation was sharing headlines with your on-the-field performance." She continued in that open-ended, diplomatic fashion with the somewhat repetitive “What did you learn?” and then asked about the importance of having his coach’s trust.

Winston seemed comfortable, even bubbly, during the interview as he praised the support of school and coach. He was smiling.

“His demeanor made me confident,” Cox said. She was confident enough, she said, to structure the end of the interview while she was conducting it. She planned to bring it back around to a positive finale about the looming Heisman. Her next-to-last question was "Jameis, how come you decided not to talk during the process, and on Thursday?"

As she finished the question, Winston turned toward someone who seemed to be pulling him away -- apparently a Florida State staffer had intervened – and the QB walked off. The interview was over.

Perplexed by the sudden-death ending of the interview, Cox said she later sought out Fisher, with whom she had always had good relations. Fisher said he did not remember agreeing to the line of questioning, according to Cox, but he quickly understood that it had been a minor glitch of communication. The interview was no ambush.

Cox, 43, a former college volleyball star, is an experienced broadcaster who has never seemed to be a “rogue” interrogator. She has stayed steady in the face of coach outrage (see Nick Saban).

ESPN supported Cox through the ensuing criticism. In response to an email inquiry, John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, wrote: “I thought Heather did an excellent job. Given this was the first time Jameis spoke since the announcement, we felt an obligation to ask questions which pertained to the case. We were also up front with FSU athletic communication [department] regarding this matter. The interview also addressed the just completed game. Last, given the game was a blowout, we felt comfortable with the entire body of the interview. In short, I was pleased and support Heather’s work.”

Laurie Orlando, ESPN’s senior vice president for talent development & planning, also supported Cox. No small matter, as Wildhack and Orlando are family TV guardians -- only days before, they had issued a stern joint memo advising ESPN broadcasters to stop using the word “sucks” on air.

TOO CONSIDERATE?

At risk of biting the hand that feeds my mailbag, I was disappointed at the narrow perspective of most of the ombuddies who addressed the issue; they seemed to expect a practiced ESPN broadcaster to act like a fan rather than a newsperson behaving in a considerate manner. Maybe too considerate.

I wonder whether they had been misled by the lack of aggression in the media -- including ESPN -- in pursuing the darker elements of the story. Questions were raised but never resolved about the performance of the Tallahassee Police Department: Had it dragged its feet in the investigation to protect the college football program? What about Winston’s teammates who told a detective that the “sexual event” (as Meggs termed it) was consensual? More light on those elements would have created a jock culture context and an ombuddy feeling closer to mine that Cox’s question might even have been too considerate.

I would make a case that Cox’s questions could justifiably have been more pointed and that the unanswered question about Winston’s prior silence could have been asked sooner. Too bad if he walked off at that point -- nothing of any value would have been lost. Also, his declaration to Cox that “I’ve got to get more mature, I’ve got to get better in everything I do,” demands the kind of analysis mostly reserved for his passing style.

Cox and Florida State will meet again. She is assigned to the Auburn sideline for ESPN’s broadcast of the Jan. 6 BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif. Tom Rinaldi will patrol the Florida State side. Cox said the decision on team assignments was purely a case of “scheduling” because Rinaldi will be covering the Seminoles leading up to the game. Wildhack confirmed as much, writing to me, “There is no other sub plot here.”

If Florida State should win the game, according to current plans, Rinaldi will interview Fisher and Cox will interview the game’s top player. It could be Famous Jameis again, and by then there might be even more unanswered questions. News takes funny bounces.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST?

Now it’s my turn to ask a few sideline questions. It’s a different kind of football, but the answers are still going to be less than satisfying.

In late November, ESPNFC.com published a soccer story headlined “Inside Doha: Give Qatar a Chance to Shine,” by Phil Ball, a 56-year-old British writer. Here is the opening of the piece, which pretty much lays out the issues.

“DOHA, Qatar -- It's kind of difficult to write about Qatar 2022 at the moment because whatever you say, you'll annoy somebody. The issues are so wide-ranging that if you focus only on the football, you'll be accused of political naivety. If you focus only on the workers' conditions and the alleged corruption of FIFA officials, you'll get the bird from those who want a full analysis of the summer-winter debate. Nevertheless, I'll have a go, given that I just got back from four days in the capital, Doha -- revisiting the country where I lived in 2009 -- as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip to see the inner workings.”

By the next day, the story had been removed from the site. The public explanation was in this Nov. 22 tweet from ESPN FC: “Carefully re-evaluated our recent Qatar story and decided to remove it. It did not meet our journalistic standards. We apologize.”

The response to the piece had been quick and negative from media sites and ombuddies alike. This one from Daniel Hodge of Charlotte, N.C., was typical: “He accepted an all-expenses paid trip from Qatar officials to look at preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and then wrote a massive puff piece praising the country while barely acknowledging the documented human rights abuses of construction workers in that country and not touching at all on the medieval laws in place there. Of course, Phil is welcome to his opinion. However, he accepted a free trip and was feted for four days by Qatari bigwigs before publishing a glowing review of the country's preparations on ESPN's wide-reaching platform. To me, this article appears to be a paid-for travel advertisement masquerading as journalism.”

So here are my three sideline questions.

1) Why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

2) Why did ESPN run the piece – after heavily editing it, writing the headline and inserting the line “as one of a handful of journalists invited on an all-expenses paid trip”?

3) Why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

According to Ball’s account, which no one disputes, this report was one of more than 400 he has written for ESPN since 2002 -- mostly blog postings about La Liga, the Spanish pro soccer league. Ball, it should be noted, was at the bottom of the ESPN word chain, a freelancer who writes “at will,” receiving and asking for specific assignments. He was neither an employee nor a contractor, yet was a regular freelance contributor to the beat.

In late October, Ball sent a request to ESPNFC’s UK-based editorial team asking to make an expenses-paid trip to write two pieces on Qatar’s preparations for the 2022 World Cup. It was a valid story -- Qatar, a natural gas-rich monarchy on a desert peninsula the size of Connecticut, would be the first Muslim nation to host the World Cup, continuing its bid to be a global geopolitical player. The request was approved, and, in late November, Ball filed two pieces much like his blogs -- long and chatty, with asides about his soccer-playing son.

The editors who merged Ball’s two pieces into one did an excellent job of retaining the information and opinions that were important. But Ball objected to an editor’s insertion of the reference to the “all-expenses paid trip” which he felt damaged the piece’s credibility. James Martin, deputy editor for ESPNFC, responded to Ball: “I think it’s important to provide full disclosure on how / why you were there to the reader. You still laid out a very well balanced, and very well written piece. But I always believe it’s best to provide full context to the reader.”

After the story was removed, Martin told Ball -- with direction from his supervisors -- that ESPN would no longer assign him stories. This was confirmed in a later email from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, who told Ball that “at this point” his “freelance contributions to ESPNFC will no longer be required.”

Ball reached out to the ombudsman, sharing his version of events. For most of the 12 years that Ball has written for ESPN.com, the soccer site was called ESPN Soccernet, a holdover from a British soccer news service established in 1996. In 2012, it was rebranded ESPN FC (Football Club) and came directly under Stiegman’s supervision. Although he wouldn’t say it, it seemed to me there was a new sheriff in town.

In a somewhat guarded conversation, Stiegman said that, in taking over the site, he became aware “of practices that were not consistent with ESPN’s U.S. editorial standards.” He attributed that to different customs in reporting in “different markets” and “different cultures.” It sounded to me, although Stiegman would not comment on my speculation, that the soccer site would be operating under somewhat different editorial rules.

So, why did ESPN give Ball permission to take the junket?

The ESPN Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices, which Stiegman was instrumental in writing and disseminating over the past three years, address such potential conflicts of interest as follows: “We should not engage in outside activities or relationships that compromise the credibility or reputation of ESPN, pose a conflict of interest, or a reasonable appearance of such a conflict. We should not accept compensation for any services rendered to entities ESPN regularly covers.”

Stiegman said such all-expense-paid trips for reporters are “not customary or knowingly allowed.” He equated junkets with paying a source for a story, which is also specifically prohibited. “It was clearly a mistake in judgment,” Stiegman said of the approval.

Were the editors disciplined for that error? Stiegman did not provide specifics, but said “They know the mistakes were unacceptable, and this issue was dealt with directly.”

Why did ESPN run Ball’s piece in the first place, including the reference to the all-expenses-paid trip?

“The editor put in the line for the sake of transparency, which is something we always want to stress in our reporting,” Stiegman said. “But in this case, it shouldn’t have even gone that far. Posting the piece was a mistake because, at the minimum, it gave the appearance of conflict of interest. That should have been enough to spike it.”

And why is Ball no longer contributing to ESPNFC?

Stiegman said he considers receiving compensation or significant benefits from a source “a breach of journalistic ethics” and that ESPN’s employee guidelines – for journalists and non-journalists alike – also limit the value of “gifts” provided by outside entities. And, although Ball was not an employee, and ESPN had no contractual obligation, Stiegman said, “Even the appearance of a conflict of interest compromises a reporter’s objectivity -- a fact that can create doubt in readers’ minds and falls short of our editorial standards.”

Having been a sometime freelancer (for ESPN, among other places), I believe freelancers should be able to trust their editors, presumably employees to whom the company does have obligations. I think ESPN needs to be more transparent in this matter. For example, I’d like to know whether Ball was the wrong man for the assignment? Was he was sent only because Qatar was paying for journalists to observe, along with the likes of Shaq and other celebrities, its dog and pony show?

According to Stiegman, the story was an important one for which ESPN would pay expenses, and one it probably will cover more extensively in the future.

At the least, ESPN should reiterate to its staffers the policy on such junkets. In the game of honest journalism, if ESPN isn’t paying, it shouldn’t be playing.

Untying the knots of ethics and attribution

November, 22, 2013
11/22/13
1:58
PM ET
This is a story about a story, and if they both seem somewhat underwhelming, that's the point. Journalistic ethics are usually cited when major leaks or plagiarism meet partisan politics or national security. But the slippage often begins with far less fanfare, as in this recent dust-up between a local newspaper reporter and a national ESPN reporter.

On Nov. 6, Brent Zwerneman, who covers Texas A&M football for the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, posted what he considered "huge news in our fair state:" A&M was no longer interested in playing the University of Texas in the regular season. He based that assumption on the implications of this quote: "We hope to play them again in a BCS or playoff game at some point." He attributed the quote thusly: "A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told me this afternoon."

As Zwerneman wrote in blogs for the two newspapers (both owned by the Hearst Corporation, which also has a 20 percent interest in ESPN), that stance was a "far cry" from the Aggies' previous "Anytime, anywhere," attitude toward a game with the Longhorns, their former conference rivals in the Big 12. Zwerneman attributed this to the Aggies' recent success since moving to the Southeast Conference.

In reporting the story, Zwerneman tipped his hat to the Austin American-Statesman's Kirk Bohls, who had earlier tweeted that he was "told by a higher-up Longhorn that the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry 'perhaps' could resume."

Three hours later, Brett McMurphy, a college sports reporter for ESPN, filed a similar story with exactly the same quote. From the piece: "'We hope to play them again in a BCS bowl or playoff game at some point,' Texas A&M senior associate athletic director Jason Cook told ESPN on Wednesday."

McMurphy wrote that "Cook would not elaborate," but he came to the same conclusion as Zwerneman. McMurphy wrote: "It's pretty clear the Aggies have no intention of scheduling any future regular-season games with Texas."

Zwerneman subsequently demanded that McMurphy credit him for the initial scoop, believing that McMurphy had been pointed to Cook and the story by Zwerneman's tweets and blogs on the topic (just as Zwerneman had been pointed to it by Bohls).

There was an unfriendly Twitter and email exchange between the two reporters until McMurphy refused to discuss the matter further. At least a half-dozen local journalists sent supporting tweets to Zwerneman, which apparently led him to threaten McMurphy that he would "take it up the ladder" if the ESPN reporter didn't give proper credit.

At that point, Zwerneman contacted the ESPN ombudsman, and I'm glad he did. Although this kerfuffle might seem trivial to nonjournalists and non-Texans alike, it brings up a topic that has nagged at ESPN -- and many other media outlets -- for a long time. This is not a concern exclusive to ESPN. It was certainly an issue in my early years at The New York Times, when the paper of record seemed loath to recognize groundbreaking work by other papers.

ESPN has gotten a lot better at giving credit since it changed its sourcing policies this year and adopted more rigorous standards of attribution. And this is not the first time an ESPN ombudsman has written about the subject.

Nevertheless, the impression exists -- right or wrong -- that ESPN, among other national bigfeet, use local media as the "sources that tell me" when they rip and run with a breaking story. It's not exactly a lie -- ESPNs initial "sources" on some stories can sometimes be local blogs, tweets and newspaper reports -- but it gives the false impression that the information came out of some indispensable analyst's magic cellphone.

Zwerneman, 42, the newspaper reporter, has covered the Aggies for 17 years and written three books about the school. He believes it was "simply wrong" of ESPN's McMurphy to fail to credit him with this "breaking story" and then "stunningly" claim credit for the quote, which "means one thing: an exclusive."

McMurphy, 51, spent 22 years at The Tampa Tribune as well as short stints at CBSSports.com and AOL Fanhouse before joining ESPN in August 2012. He doesn't dispute the fact that Zwerneman's blogs alerted him to the Cook quote or the story. But he saw no reason to offer attribution -- and his TV editor at ESPN concurs -- because he independently interviewed Cook by phone "for 10 or 15 minutes" as well as other sources.

Cook gave him the same quote, McMurphy told me, and he doesn't understand why Zwerneman "went off like a 12-year-old girl." Feisty on the phone and on email, McMurphy wrote to me that "Brent -- and now you -- will have spent more time on this than Kennedy historians spent dissecting the Zapruder film."

OK, timeout. What's the big deal, guys? It's not as if either story is about Johnny Manziel -- or nails shut the possibility that the Aggies and the Longhorns will meet again in the regular season. Ethics and professionalism aside (we'll get to them later), here's why it's such a big deal around College Station.

"That quote from Jason Cook was a unique nugget," said Brian Davis, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who will soon be covering Texas football and basketball for the Austin American-Statesman. He observed the pingponging tweets between Zwerneman and McMurphy with professional interest. "It was what I call a 'little wow' that makes your readers say, 'Hey, here's something I didn't know.' Sure, a reporter wants the 'big wow,' a major scoop, but you're not getting one of those every day, so you keep going for the little wows. They build up your followers and your sources. They could lead to the big one someday."

Reporters keep score with "little wows," which are as important as playing time and stats are to the athletes they cover. In recent years, Twitter's time code has helped keep score -- you know who posted what and when. The local groundswell among other reporters for Zwerneman was a response to the Twitter feud between him and McMurphy.

"Seeing Brent stand up, I wanted to applaud," said Kelly Brown, editor of the Bryan-College Station Eagle and a 23-year veteran of newspaper journalism. "We've gotten complacent about national reporters taking our stories. We don't complain anymore. And a lot of reporters don't want to make waves; they may want to work at ESPN someday. And we see that, when the media shows up, the coaches say hello to ESPN first."

Brown, who taught journalism at Texas A&M for five years, says she understands that readers might not care about this, "but we sure do. It's about ethics."

Lack of attribution is a breach of professional ethics; it's stealing, in a sense. Of course, there are violations, misdemeanors and felonies, and what makes this case so interesting to me is how petty it seems. Then there is the surrounding gray area and the dismissive attitude of McMurphy and his manager, Chuck Salituro, senior news editor on ESPN's TV news desk. Salituro has been at ESPN for 19 years, and, before that, spent 17 years at The Milwaukee Journal, including five as sports editor.

"This is not about crediting news; it's about two reporters getting the same quote," Salituro said. "Brett didn't steal the quote. He wanted to show he did his own interview. I don't consider this story a news break. Nobody has been more diligent in crediting others than Brett because he was a 'victim' of ESPN's old policies of taking credit for a story as soon as we confirmed it."

Nevertheless, I think there's a flag on this play. I disagree with Salituro that it's only about two reporters getting the same quote. Why would McMurphy call the Aggies' Cook in the first place if he hadn't been alerted by Zwerneman's reporting? Whether Cook repeated the quote verbatim to McMurphy or merely agreed it was authentic is immaterial -- that "told ESPN" is generally interpreted as ESPN having been told exclusively, or at least first. McMurphy might have slightly advanced the story by confirming it and adding some background of his own (neither story topped 250 words), but a tip of his hat would have been ethically proper.

After reviewing more of their work, I think Zwerneman and McMurphy are both solid, productive reporters. After talking to them, I think they are both bright, proud men who care about what they do. It's not hard to see how aggressive newshounds under pressure in this multiplatform, 24-hour news cycle can get caught up in a skirmish when their professionalism is challenged. That said, give credit where it's due and go work a little harder.

BLACKISTONE AND THE 'WAR ANTHEM'

Kevin Blackistone, a frequent ESPN commentator, recently found fault with the sports industry's embrace of military symbolism … and the ombud mailbag, in turn, found fault with him -- in substantial numbers.

On Nov. 6, responding to a question from host Tony Reali on "Around the Horn," Blackistone, a regular ATH panelist, said, "When you have military flyovers and the military symbolism that goes on in sports, I think you've got a problem."

At issue was Northwestern's usage of American flag and Army designs on its helmets and jerseys for an upcoming football game. Another ATH regular and fellow Northwestern graduate, J.A. Adande, also had reservations about the uniforms, but Blackistone went much further in his criticism, saying he was opposed to the sports-military connection "whether it's the singing of a war anthem to open every game, whether it's going to get a hot dog and being able to sign up for the Army at the same time, whether it's the NFL's embrace of the mythology of the Pat Tillman story."

It was the phrase "war anthem" that stirred the mailbag to call Blackistone's commentary "disrespectful" and "reprehensible." A typical, if restrained, message was from Patrick Mumford of Papillion, Neb., who wrote: "Kind of disgusted with Kevin Blackistone's statement objecting to the National Anthem being sung before sporting events because it's a 'war anthem.' I think most American's would call it a reminder of what this country has been through to become the nation it is. Or used to be anyway."

Blackistone, a former newspaper reporter and columnist, is a journalism professor at the University of Maryland. He is opinionated and ready to take on the thorniest issues in a thoughtful, though often passionate, manner. When I called him, his second thoughts were typically reflective. "I wish I could have fleshed it out, but I only had a few seconds," he said. "I wouldn't retract anything, but I wouldn't have let the anthem overshadow the larger theme of the conflation of sports and militarism."

Blackistone knew the question was coming. ATH producers meet daily at 8 a.m. to plan the show, then have a one-hour conference call with the panelists at 10:30 a.m. Blackistone not only had written previously about the partnership of the military and sports events but had devoted several class sessions to it. He had recently discussed in class the appropriateness of the national anthem as a game opener. He might have been too well-prepared on the subject for such a brief sound bite.

I thought Blackistone's commentary deserved to be unpacked on ESPN, if not to classroom-hour length, at least in a column or in a few minutes on a program that could show other examples of sports and military collaboration, perhaps exploring how purported displays of patriotism might disguise service recruiting, politicking and commercialization. Is football good preparation for combat (an active officer recently said that in a discussion of the Army-Navy game)? How come so few pro athletes ever use those wondrous muscles to actually defend their country (even though, as Ombuddy Paul Gigliotti of Andover, Mass., pointed out, ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski insists on calling quarterbacks "warriors")?

I'm sure Blackistone has a lot of valuable insight on these and other matters that don't quite fit into the Horn. Of course, that might just make the mailbag come out fighting.

INCOGNITO, MARTIN AND THE N-WORD REDUX

The tale of Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin is far from over, but it has had two interesting spin-offs -- a number of fine related features and commentaries and Ombuddy messages, as well as another provocative edition of the N-word debate.

Ever since Chris Mortensen and Adam Schefter first reported the curious collision of the two Miami Dolphins offensive linemen, ESPN has been ahead of the story, although, as NFL investigations into the incident began, coverage stalled. Involved individuals, the league and the team have restricted access. Sometimes, though, opinion, backgrounders and informed speculation are more than good enough.

I liked Elizabeth Merrill's sensitive yet cool profile of Incognito on ESPN.com and Matthew Berry's insightful piece on the lingering effect of his own childhood bullying. He even alluded to it as a reason for his fantasy life

Smart and funny was "Man Up," Brian Phillips' send-up of the Dolphins' "warrior culture," in Grantland. Rick Reilly's re-evaluation of his passion for football in light of current events, including the hazing/bullying story, was excellent.

And don't miss Jason Whitlock's unwrapping of the prison-yard mentality of the Dolphins' locker room as part of his "Incarceration Nation" theory on ESPN.com.

Beyond that, the mailbag was stuffed with kudos for ESPN analysts Cris Carter and Tom Jackson for thoughtful responses to locker room violence, and jeers for Mike ("Go to Fist City") Ditka and Mike Golic for seeming to defend violence and/or traditional hazing. On his radio show, for example, Golic expressed the sentiment that Martin should have punched out Incognito, taking care of the matter in a "manly" way.

The best of the mailbag was from Dennis McLaughlin of Pittsburgh, who wrote: "This morning, as details of the Richie Incognito story came out, there were countless NFL analysts (mostly former players) who came to defend the hazing practices of the NFL. Some even went so far as to say that Martin should have 'manned up' and stood up for himself. To insinuate, in any situation, that violence is an appropriate response to bullying is irresponsible at best and dangerous at worse. The results of using violence as a response to bullying can be seen from Columbine to Newtown. Like it or not, NFL players (and by proxy, ESPN analysts) have a bully pulpit. School-age children tune in to 'SportsCenter' all the time. ESPN management should pull all its on-air personalities in a room and make it clear that the appropriate response to bullying/hazing is to go to authorities. Anyone disagreeing on-air should be pulled and fired. Our kids' lives are at stake."

The Incognito-Martin story, with its illiberal use of the N-word, soon morphed into yet another look at that subject as ESPN commentators discussed who is allowed to use it and under what circumstances. Never, ever, Skip Bayless said. Only among black friends, said Michael Wilbon, who admitted to using it every day. Both made reasonable cases.

But again, Whitlock, who has been on a welcome Whitlockian tear since returning to ESPN, had a fine column that included this paragraph:

"I still use the N-word privately. I'm not proud of this fact. I would never defend my use of the word. I use it far less than I did a decade ago. I've been battling for years to eliminate it from my vocabulary. I object when anyone, regardless of color, uses the word around me. The N-word is like fast food or cigarettes. It's unhealthy. It is the foundational fertilizer at the root of the maladies plaguing black America. The word is more negatively powerful today than it was at its invention. It's a sign of the depth of our self-hatred."

A white person typically employs the word as a slur, a put-down, but the tonal variations of African-American usage include the entire love-hate spectrum. I suspect that, at ESPN, a white commentator using the N-word would be fired and a black commentator would at least have to do some serious explaining to stay on the job. I think that's about as commonsensical as we can be until the word is purged from public use.


Pollack, Peterson offer teachable moments

October, 24, 2013
10/24/13
10:19
PM ET
In the late innings of the 20th century, ESPN’s campus in Bristol, Conn., had a locker-room mindset, mostly guys talking sports, 24/7, with the passion and conviction of political policy wonks. The world beyond the Bristol Bubble often seemed less real than the games sucked in by the growing orchard of satellite dishes. It was a myopic boys club.

That was then. Every so often, however, there’s an unwelcome flashback to those less professional, less sophisticated days. There were two this month; first, on-air remarks by ESPN college football analyst David Pollack, then the stories -- and lack of stories -- about a tragedy in Adrian Peterson’s off-field life. Both were abundantly annotated in the ombudsman’s mailbag.

Pollack, 31, was an All-American linebacker for three years at Georgia and a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Bengals. Early in his second pro season, he broke a cervical vertebra while making a tackle, ending his playing career. He has made a successful transition to television. On “College GameDay,” Pollack is engaging and quick. He is, as host Chris Fowler told me, “unfiltered, which is good for the show.”

On Oct. 5, responding to the announcement that former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had been appointed a member of the 2014 College Football Playoff selection committee, Pollack said, “Now I’m going to stick my foot in my mouth, probably. I want people on this committee, guys, that can watch tape, yes, that have played football, that are around football, that can tell you different teams, on tape, not on paper …”

“So no woman belongs on the committee, then?” Fowler asked.

“You said that … I’ll say it, yeah. Yeah,” Pollack said.

There was some laughter on the “GameDay” panel, and several analysts demurred, but the show moved on.

Later, on Twitter, Pollack attempted to qualify his remarks, writing, “I want people on the committee that eat, sleep & breathe college football during the season. It has nothing to do with male or female.”

In an exchange of text messages, he told me he would have nothing to add to the tweet. And Fowler? “I regret the tone of the conversation … [but] I don’t regret the question,” he told me. “I should have done a better job letting him clarify the point -- that it was not gender, but the feeling among many who have played the game that only those who have played or coached and can watch endless tape are qualified to make judgments.”

SOME STRONG RESPONSES -- FROM ESPN

Jane McManus, an ESPN football reporter writing a smart commentary for espnW, portrayed Pollack’s comments as yet another attempt “to decry women's gains into yet another boys' club. … Power never wants to give up power, and that's what this College Football Playoff selection committee represents to some of these guys. It's their fiefdom -- no girls allowed.”

One of my favorite ESPN broadcast teams, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, weighed in on their invariably lively “His & Hers” podcast. Said Hill: “I don’t know David Pollack, but it felt like one of those ‘good ol’ boys moments.’ Here is one of the most powerful women on earth [Rice], she was mentioned as a possible candidate for NFL commissioner. They never question other guys who didn’t play. Men get a pass, women have to do so much more.”

Smith agreed and added, “The analytics guys -- they get called nerds … sports writers are criticized for never personally having experienced the game. I’d say to Pollack, if you’re not a career politician, you shouldn’t vote.”

The Ombuddies chimed in. Wrote Susan McBee of Sound Beach, N.Y.: “What year is David Pollack living in? Maybe since he was a football player and didn't ‘live, live, live’ broadcasting, he shouldn't be an announcer.”

The ESPN female audience has risen to about 45 percent, according to last year’s figures, and the network has been making an effort to showcase female talent. The promotion of Doris Burke this month to studio analyst on “NBA Countdown” was a dramatic example.

But ESPN also has to do a better job of identifying those “good ol’ boy” comments and turning them into teachable moments for the guys who haven’t quite gotten their heads out of their lockers.

MORE COMPLICATED ISSUE

The Peterson case represents a more subtle example of old-style coverage.

The Minnesota Vikings’ star running back learned two weeks ago that a 2-year-old boy he had only recently discovered was his child was in critical condition after an alleged beating by his mother’s boyfriend. Peterson left his team in midweek for South Dakota and saw the boy for the first time at his hospital bedside while he was on life support. The child died the next day.

ESPN dealt with the tragedy, but once it covered the police news it focused on the impact of the Vikings’ best player missing practice. Would he play Sunday? And if he did, what kind of shape would his mind be in? But there was another, more real-world story here. The boy was one of at least five children Peterson reportedly fathered by at least four women, none of whom he was married to. Who was this man ESPN spent so much time praising for his comeback from a serious injury in 2011 to a Hall of Fame year in 2012?

This past Tuesday, on “E:60,” Peterson refused to answer Lisa Salter’s question about reports that he had allegedly fathered seven children. He was not pressed on a show that sees itself as hard-hitting and probing. The piece was sympathetic -- 28-year-old Peterson had “endured a lifetime of loss,” including the deaths of two brothers and the imprisonment of his father, implying that the child’s death was yet another hurdle he had to overcome. Peterson said he tried to stay positive and “not ask why.”

Even before that show, there was plenty of Ombuddy reaction.

Sue Piech of Winston Salem, N.C., wrote, “The sports ‘hero’ who came back so fast from injury didn't even know his son???? Pathetic. Where are your follow up stories on this? Will be watching Outside The Lines for some real journalism and truth.”

It seems excessive to refer to an athlete’s family life (whether we approve or not) every time he scores on the field. But ESPN does need to stay focused on balancing the locker-room celebration that its business partners prefer with the clear-eyed journalism its audiences deserve.

As for actor Bill Murray’s takedown of Chief Osceola (that was analyst Lee Corso in what several Native American commentators called “a red-face” minstrel show)
on Saturday’s “GameDay” set? It was the perfect combination of the good ol’ boy sensibility and the ongoing Washington Redskins’ name controversy.

The Ombud mind boggles.

Winning ugly: ESPN journalism prevails

October, 15, 2013
10/15/13
11:43
AM ET
By the end of the show, after all the questioning, the carping and the confusion over credits, it was clear that serious journalism had won. ESPN could be proud of its contributions to the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.”

However, questions remained unanswered about both ESPN and the NFL.

Exactly how much did the league know about the dangers of head trauma and when did it know? How much was actively concealed by, among other tactics, the attempted subversion of scientific inquiry? Just how was that settlement with players arrived at and how will the plaintiffs ultimately be affected?

More pertinently for the ombudsman, will ESPN’s powerhouse investigative unit go after those stories? Why didn’t it produce such a documentary in the first place? How far can ESPN go reporting on the NFL, the network’s most important sports partner? What will be the ultimate fate of “Outside the Lines,” ESPN’s most prestigious TV outlet for journalism, after its Sunday show was demoted to a lesser time slot on a lesser channel? OTL was home for much of the network’s concussion coverage.

Outside the network, the Ombud mailbag throbbed with concern as well. Correspondents praised “League of Denial” while attacking ESPN for taking its name off the show, ending a 15-month relationship with PBS. Jay McMillian of Goose Creek, S.C., charged that “ESPN basically took a dive at the behest of the NFL. Stick to showing games at this point because now your journalistic integrity is somewhere between TMZ and Mad Magazine.”

From the spring of 2012 until this past August, journalists from ESPN and Frontline worked in collaboration on the concussion story which was, in the words of one of the ESPN reporters involved, about the NFL’s “disservice” to players, parents and fans by “burying” information critical to public health. The collaboration produced nine TV and digital stories as it worked toward a two-hour documentary that aired Oct. 8.

Seven weeks before air, ESPN president John Skipper decided to remove the network’s name and logo from the PBS project. The New York Times reported at the time that ESPN had been pressured by the NFL, which Skipper denied. He said it was because ESPN did not have final editorial control, which he said he learned belatedly.

ESPN distanced itself from a documentary highly critical of the NFL just when the league didn’t need any more bad publicity. It was moving toward the trial of a reported $2 billion class-action suit representing more than 4,500 former players who claimed they sustained brain damage from playing pro football.

The league, one might assume, did not want fans, football moms and a prospective jury pool watching a show that could damage its case. In the documentary, the league was going to be charged with using its own doctors to disparage mounting evidence that head traumas in games and practices led to early dementia, Alzheimer’s and ALS, among other catastrophes. The show would portray the heartbreaking travails of revered football heroes such as Hall of Fame Pittsburgh center Mike Webster, who descended into madness, and former All-Pro linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself. A congresswoman compared the NFL to big tobacco in its refusal to acknowledge the dangers of its product.

It would be bad enough for the NFL that the respected PBS logo would be on the show. But the ESPN imprimatur, presumably, would give the damning accusations a seal of sports world approval, not to mention a far larger audience.

The reaction to ESPN’s debranding was mostly negative. The network was accused by the media -- and even by some inside ESPN -- of knuckling under to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Skipper has shown himself to be supportive of solid journalism as well as of Disney shareholders, but he and Goodell have a serious collaboration of their own, with billions at stake. Skipper’s job, among other tricky matters, is balancing ESPN’s built-in conflict between serious journalism and programming, which includes the demands of business partners.

At the time, Skipper told me that his decision came after seeing the Frontline trailer for the show, which had been OK’d by senior news producers. Skipper screened it and found it “sensational.” He particularly objected to its tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, Dr. McKee said, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper told me he found that comment to be “over the top.”

And then the game suddenly changed. On Aug. 29, the NFL announced a $765 million settlement to be divided not only among the 4,500 named plaintiffs, but among some 18,000 former players or their surviving family members. A portion of the amount would be paid out over 20 years. They would be awarded specified amounts for different maladies. At least for now, there would be no trial, no legal exposure of possible wrongdoing by the new national pastime.

The media and fan consensus was that the league had won by playing on the desperation of the plaintiffs, many of whom were seriously ill and burdened by health care debt. The NFL, a tax-exempt corporation that drew an estimated $9.5 billion in revenue last year, would not be thrown into default. And the league’s critics would lose the platform of a trial.

At around the same time, it was learned that OTL’s regular Sunday show at 9 a.m. on ESPN’s prime channel would be bumped down to 8 a.m. on ESPN2. Its replacement was a new football show hosted by Colin Cowherd. The OTL time change, according to ESPN executives, had been long planned, but the mood among some disheartened journalists was that the network was trying to keep the NFL happy (especially as the Sunday OTL audience dropped by more than 50 percent from August to September).

THE VICTORY LAP

And yet the documentary “League of Denial” was still on track, without the ESPN imprimatur but featuring lead reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who work for ESPN, and Peter Keating of ESPN The Magazine, who had been on the story for a decade.

To the surprise of some, during the week leading up to the Oct. 8 debut of the Frontline show, “SportsCenter,” “Outside the Lines” and “Olbermann,” as well as various ESPN radio programs and ESPN.com, promoted the documentary and the Fainaru brothers’ simultaneous book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.” Strong, extended clips from the documentary were shown. An excerpt from the book appeared in ESPN The Magazine and was the top story on ESPN.com. This all clearly happened with Skipper’s support.

"I have every confidence in Mark and Steve and take pride in the work they have done," Skipper told me last week. "That is confirmed by our continuing to feature their reporting on OTL and online, as well as their appearances across a number of ESPN shows discussing their book and the PBS documentary. I was kept aware of the coverage and fully in support."

Cynics claimed ESPN’s promotion of the book and documentary were merely attempts to salvage its journalistic integrity. Whatever the motive, it buoyed internal journalistic spirits and drummed up interest in the book and show.

There was also some smart accompanying journalism. Don Van Natta Jr. recapped the book’s myriad findings on ESPN.com, and Tania Ganguli, one of nearly two dozen reporters recently added to ESPN’s NFL Nation staff, interviewed players on the team she covers, the Houston Texans. One of them, Ed Reed, a 12-year veteran, told her that “the business of football is shady.” Another, Arian Foster, said, “It is what it is. It’s not good for you. That’s the risk I take to provide for my family.” That was hardly NFL puffery.

In the ESPN churn cycle, Ganguli’s piece became the subject for discussion with other players and Skip Bayless on “First Take.” Scott Van Pelt, in his signature “One Big Thing” essay on the “SVP and Russillo” show, called the documentary “haunting.” But he thought it would have little impact, especially among NFL players. Former players now working as analysts for ESPN told him, he said, that they still would have played; they knew they weren’t getting into “a pillow fight.”

The Frontline show itself was a triumph -- compelling and beautifully crafted. The NFL’s silence -- it had refused to have an official presence on the show after stonewalling the Fainarus and other reporters for months -- was very loud. Credit was given to Alan Schwarz, the New York Times reporter whose relentless coverage alerted a national audience to the issue several years ago.

As much as Bob Ley, the longtime host of OTL, liked the Frontline piece, he found the moment “bittersweet” because ESPN’s name wasn’t on it. He said, “The main points were all from original OTL reporting. We’ve been on the story for a decade.”

The PBS ombudsman, the distinguished journalist Michael Getler, said, “ESPN came off well. The Fainarus and Keating upheld journalism.”

“League of Denial” was also a ratings success. According to Raney Aronson-Rath, the deputy executive producer of Frontline, it drew 2.2 million viewers. The program averages approximately 1.5 million viewers. And Frontline’s web traffic, which includes streaming video, broke the site’s record by 64 percent.

The controversy worked out well for Frontline, Aronson-Rath told me, although she regretted the disrupted collaboration. “It was a great think tank. [ESPN news executives] Vince Doria and Dwayne Bray and the ESPN team made it as good a collaboration for us as with The New York Times or ProPublica.” (The latter is a six-year-old independent nonprofit newsroom dedicated to investigative journalism with what it calls “moral force.”)

Some ESPN journalists, who asked to remain anonymous, said they were thrilled by the results of ESPN’s participation in the project, but felt a certain foreboding, even “weirdness.” Despite recent pep talks by newsroom leaders, they wondered about the future of investigative journalism on a network in which pro football is a 12-month sport and a football talk show prompted the Sunday time slot switch for OTL.

Ley also worries about “concussion fatigue” among the audience even as the topic takes on a greater importance. Scientific studies seem to indicate that the “insults” to the brain that begin in childhood football and gather impact through high school and college may be the starting points for the ravages in the brains of the Websters and Seaus. These are OTL-style stories.

“We’ve been working unfettered,” said Ley. “No one has tried to dial us back. We’ve got a piece coming up on college concussions. We’ve been assured, but we’ll watch the action.”

The Ombudsman and the Ombuddies will be watching to see what happens, too. Clara Showalter of Austin, Texas, wrote: “THIS is what I loved about ESPN. I loved ESPN that put out well done, hard hitting investigative reports. I'm blown away by the quality of Mark and Steve's work and can't help but ask ... ESPN, why did you take your name off this?”

Maybe a more important question is why didn’t ESPN do this show by itself in the first place? The short answer is that ESPN hasn’t done it before. Here’s the long answer, from Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news.

“The majority of documentaries here are done by ESPN Films, i.e. the 30-for-30 project,” he said. “By and large they are terrific story-telling vehicles, but they are director-driven films, not typically executed by investigative reporters, nor do they purport to be investigative in nature. On the news side, we’ve taken the approach that we will execute stories in a report-the-news-as-we-learn-it approach, hence the notion of doing lengthy pieces, 10-14 minutes, as the reporting occurs, rather than gather string for a one-hour or two-hour show.

“Much of the reporting in the documentary had appeared in shorter form on our air. Doesn’t mean that at times we couldn’t do those as-they-occur reports, and then compile them eventually in a documentary. But, in this case, Frontline came to us with the idea ... No more complicated than that.”

Actually, just a little more complicated. Here’s a quick recap of how the collaboration came about.

After reporting several concussion pieces for ESPN and contracting for a book on the subject, the Fainarus were asked by Phil Bennett, then managing editor of Frontline, to work on a documentary. Bennett had been an editor of Steve Fainaru’s at the Boston Globe and Washington Post. Doria and Bray gave the brothers permission to proceed, so long as they brought any breaking stories to ESPN, according to all involved. The ESPN supervisors eventually discussed more involvement, quickly agreed to by Aronson-Rath. There would be a book leave for the Fainarus, who would be paid by Frontline for the show. When I suggested to several involved that this sounded slightly seat of the pants, they sheepishly agreed; journalistic enthusiasm was way ahead of partnership paperwork.

There was plenty of enthusiasm. The Fainarus were relentless on the story (I recommend their book as well as the doc) in that outraged spirit common to cops and investigative reporters. They are not reformers. They are hard-core football fans. Mark told Jeremy Schaap, guest-hosting on “Olbermann,” that, “football is a brutal, violent sport. We know that and love it about the sport.”

Older brother Steve, who played high school football, agreed. “We love football,” he said. “The NFL did a disservice by trying to bury this information for so long because people -- especially players and parents -- need information to make informed decisions. But at the NFL level we don't want it to change. I like it raw and brutal."

They both felt that in youth and high school football, where the athletes are not grown men paid to absorb punishment, as many measures as possible should be taken to protect them. Given ESPN’s interest in youth sports, a start might be to “gather string” for a long-form documentary on the passions and pitfalls of the new world of high school football, money, concussions and all.

ESPN, in this triumphant yet bittersweet moment, has something to prove, and the means to prove it. It can continue to turn loose the Fainarus and Keating and Van Natta, and its stable of hard-nosed reporters such as T.J. Quinn, Tom Farrey, Mike Fish and Shaun Assael. There is no end of stories out there, not least the ramifications of the settlement and the sequestered information that the ESPN audience needs as parents, players and fans, to make their emotional, physical and moral choices.

Ultimately, the proof in journalism is not in good intentions or future promises. As in sports, it’s the current score. Despite what at times seemed like sloppiness or naivete or compromise, ESPN journalism won. It may have won ugly, but it won.

Fanning the flames: Lewis, Reilly, Redskins

September, 23, 2013
9/23/13
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The Ombuddies have flooded the zone with opinions -- often thoughtful, occasionally rough -- about the Washington Redskins’ nickname controversy, Rick Reilly’s response to it, and the recent addition of Ray Lewis, the former Baltimore Ravens linebacker, as a prominent ESPN football analyst.

Lewis attracted mostly negative mailbag comments despite making an almost seamless segue from his second Super Bowl championship to the lineup on “Sunday NFL Countdown.”

“I know Ray Lewis is the most popular guy in the NFL and on all those commercials,” writes Kevin Morrissey of Aliquippa, Pa. “It seems in poor taste to have him talk about Aaron Hernandez like he was never involved in a similar incident.”

Morrissey and other correspondents referred to a 2000 incident in which Lewis and two companions were indicted for the murders of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub. Lewis testified against his companions and eventually was sentenced to probation for misdemeanor obstruction of justice. He settled financially with the families of the victims, avoiding a civil trial. The incident haunted him for a while (even though he was voted MVP of the subsequent Super Bowl, he wasn’t chosen to utter the well-known “I’m going to Disney World,” and take the trip, a usual perk.)

But Lewis, who was inducted Sunday into the Ravens Ring of Honor, finally made it to Disney (at least the ESPN division of the corporation). Since his Sept. 8 debut, has been a smooth, insightful TV team player.

Much of Lewis’ 2000 case is still shrouded in mystery. Lewis’ companions were acquitted. No one has been convicted. During his “Countdown” debut, Lewis addressed the case -- if obliquely -- when he discussed Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end who has been charged with murder. Lewis mentioned how Ravens management and teammates had supported him and helped set him on a straight path.

(For Lewis’ back story, check out this balanced story by ESPN writer Elizabeth Merrill, written just before Lewis led the Ravens to last season's Super Bowl victory.)

John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president of production, told me he had “conversations with senior members of the Ravens and the NFL who enthusiastically recommended we pursue Ray.” Two other ESPN executives, Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer for NFL studio production, and Mark Gross, senior vice president and executive producer, told me they understood the seriousness of Lewis’ past legal issues and had discussed them before the hire. According to Markman, “Ray worked extremely hard to rebuild his reputation. In fact, he became a real role model who has positively impacted the lives of many people. Ray is off to a great start.”

Perhaps more important than dredging up Lewis’ past is examining the use of his legacy and future. He was a notably hard-hitting player, arguably the best of his time. Read this from Owen Waggy of Louisa, Va.: “Recently I came across a video linked to the ESPN mobile website entitled ‘6th Grade LB Channels Ray Lewis on Big Hit.’ ... I was sick to my stomach. Since when did ESPN become hypocritical in its methods to cover sports news that it runs a string of stories on violence in sports, the dangers of concussions and the steps the NFL has been taking to protect athletes and educate others on promoting safe play and at the same time provides a link to a video of a 12-year old kid pummeling another player in his JV football game? ... What this tells our children is that if they punish someone else on the playing field, they might get on ‘SportsCenter.’ "

THE R-WORD REVISITED

The reaction to my last column concerning the controversy over continued use of the nickname Redskins included hard-core Washington fans who defended it and civil rights advocates who were outraged.

There were also more nuanced messages such as this one from Jon Dewaard of Birmingham, Ala.: “There doesn't appear to be much outrage from the public over the name Redskins; rather the outrage seems reserved for the journalists of the ‘how-can-I-be-offended-today’ industry. The whole thing feels like a manufactured controversy designed for the primary purpose of showcasing the journalists' elevated moral standing on the issue. I suspect American Indians have other grievances that are far more important (and newsworthy) to them than the name of a football team.”

The many American Indians who agree there are more important grievances include Ray Halbritter, the CEO of the Oneida Nation. But that doesn’t mean the Washington nickname is acceptable. Halbritter connected the dots. He said that trivializing the use of a racist slur has had a negative impact on Native Americans’ self-esteem and helped create a cultural climate in which they could be further dehumanized and discriminated against.

Halbritter’s fresh and pertinent remarks were made during a recent segment on the controversy on “Outside the Lines,” which aired at 8 a.m. on a Sunday on ESPN2, its new, diminished time and place.

The drumbeat goes on. In an ESPN column last week, Reilly claimed there was white paternalism in the campaign to change the name, which he mocked and denigrated to the anger of a surprising number of Ombuddies, including Ryan Hurton of North Reading, Mass.: “It's as if Reilly is COMPLETELY unaware of the years of negative history suffered by Native Americans. Equating one of the blackest marks in American history with a recent debate driven by a renewed awareness of that tragedy is not a hot sports take -- it is either willfully ignorant, intentionally racist, or both. The entire article trivializes what was essentially a genocide.”

The Reilly column did seem unusually tone deaf from such a big-hearted observer. Of course, he was quoting his father-in-law, a member of the Blackfeet Nation.

But I offer the last word on this from an old friend, Oren Lyons, the Onondaga faithkeeper and an international representative of the Iroquois Nation. He wrote to me: “There's the Yale bulldog, there's the Army mule, there's the Navy goat, and there's the Washington Redskins. That is apparently the classification of American Indians within the context of the social life of Americans. The political ramifications are obvious. ... As far as I'm concerned, I'm not anyone's mascot.”

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

September, 6, 2013
9/06/13
4:25
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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.

Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?

August, 25, 2013
8/25/13
1:13
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So what’s more damaging to a corporate image: to be considered sloppy, na´ve or compromised? Or all three? You get to pick in the wake of ESPN’s announcement Thursday that it was removing its brand from an upcoming two-part documentary by PBS’s “Frontline” that “reveals the hidden story of the NFL and brain injuries” (or so it claims in a controversial trailer).

The ESPN action drew immediate media and mailbag accusations that the NFL had pressured the network into severing ties to the PBS films. I thought the best and briefest characterization came from Ombuddy Philip Berenbroick of Arlington, Va., who saw ESPN’s decision as an example of “the dueling journalism and profit motives [via protecting valued partners] at the network.”

It’s hard to argue with that depiction. That duel also turns out to be the major ongoing conflict that the ombudsman deals with. This column is a first response to the current issue; there may be more columns to come as we learn more on the topic.

The background: For the past 15 months, ESPN’s enterprise/investigative unit has been working “in collaboration” with “Frontline” on two shows scheduled to air in October. They are titled “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for the Truth,” and are in parallel with a forthcoming book of the same name by Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada -- brothers and investigative reporters for ESPN.

By all accounts, it has been a close and happy collaboration between elite news teams, producers and writers. Results of that collaboration have already appeared on ESPN.com and “Outside the Lines,” the ESPN show that most closely resembles the PBS show in serious intent, as well as on the “Frontline” site. Indeed, ESPN has done extensive reporting on the NFL and concussions, from its “Football at a Crossroads” series to revealing reports by Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada on concussion controversies involving Mike Webster and Junior Seau.

There were mutual corporate benefits. PBS would draw new viewers from the crowds in the ESPN grandstand, and ESPN would derive a dash of PBS prestige from its association with one of the nation’s most respected documentary broadcasts. Both sides trumpeted the relationship. In July 2012 at the Aspen Ideas Festival, on a panel with PBS president Paula Kerger, ESPN president John Skipper said: “We're not the public trust that PBS is, but we do a certain amount of programming that is a bit of the public trust.”

That attitude was a point of pride among ESPN journalists, including Dwayne Bray, a senior news producer who was working closely with “Frontline.” On Aug. 6, on a joint media panel with “Frontline” in Los Angeles to promote the documentary, Bray took on the question of ESPN reporting on the toughest topic bedeviling its most important business partner. Pro football is the most popular sport on ESPN and generates the most income. But the NFL is also dealing with more than 4,200 named player-plaintiffs in lawsuits over concussion-linked injuries.

At a news conference on the tour, Bray boasted of ESPN’s “bifurcated” structure in which journalism and business remained separate. He pointed out that ESPN has been reporting on football concussions since 1994, and that “the NFL is just going to have to understand” the nature of the ESPN-“Frontline” partnership.

That event, Skipper told me, was for him “the catalyst or starting episode” of what ultimately resulted in ESPN’s decision to part ways with “Frontline.” Skipper didn’t attend the event, and said he was “startled” when he read about a promotional trailer for the documentary which was screened at the news conference. He hadn’t seen the trailer or approved its content, which included the ESPN logo and a collaboration credit. He thought it was “odd for me not to get a heads up,” and said it made him “quite unhappy” to discover that ESPN had no editorial control over the trailer.

Upon screening it, Skipper said he found the trailer to be “sensational.” He particularly objected to the tagline -- “Get ready to change the way you see the game” -- and to the final sound bite in the piece, from neuropathologist Ann McKee. Referring to brain injuries, she says, “I’m really wondering if every single football player doesn’t have this.”

Skipper said he found that comment to be “over the top.”

Eight days after the catalytic news conference, on Aug. 14, Skipper and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had lunch in New York City. It’s not hard to assume, as many have, that Goodell raised issues about the “Frontline” documentary and demanded that Skipper take some action to protect the NFL brand.

Commissioners are always trying to strong-arm or sweet-talk ESPN executives, especially Skipper. How well they succeed is a matter of constant speculation, both among Ombuddies and from some inside ESPN. Right or wrong, there is a perception that the company’s decisions -- both long-term and moment-by-moment -- are often made to promote, or at least not provoke, important “partners.”

When I spoke to Skipper on Friday and told him that my sources indicated he had discussed the “Frontline” partnership with Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger, as well as lawyers at both Disney and ESPN, he confirmed that was true. Skipper noted, however, that he had made the calls to advise those parties of his decision to “remove the brand because we did not control the content.” He denied that anyone at Disney or the NFL demanded the action.

Said Skipper, “I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming.”

ESPN’s public reasoning for separating from “Frontline” was tied to oversight, with the network saying “Because ESPN is neither producing nor exercising editorial control over the Frontline documentaries, there will be no co-branding involving ESPN on the documentaries or their marketing materials.” On Friday, Skipper released a statement of editorial support, saying “I want to be clear about ESPN’s commitment to journalism and the work of our award-winning enterprise team. We will continue to report this story and will continue to support the work of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. We have respect as well for the efforts of the people at ‘Frontline.’ ”

Which takes us back to the challenge of ESPN’s “dueling journalism and profit motives.” What exactly happened here, and how should we feel about it?

If, as Skipper told me, the ESPN-“Frontline” association was “a loose arrangement,” it seems an unusually sloppy execution for ESPN, an organization that is usually much more buttoned-up. (Raney Aronson, the deputy executive producer for “Frontline,” told me the arrangement was more of an “editorial exchange” and that “we were working on a piece of paper” -- meaning some legal memorialization of the partnership.)

Was attention not being paid at ESPN? Too much time spent acquiring tennis rights, the SEC, Keith Olbermann, Nate Silver and Jason Whitlock, and not enough on journalism?

Was ESPN na´ve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also na´ve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with “Frontline” (no league footage, no Goodell interview, limited access to doctors who advise the NFL on concussions)? The league was not happy with a recent OTL report on one of its main doctors -- which ran on ESPN’s platforms just last weekend -- so why would it support “League of Denial”?

Or did ESPN cave in to pressure from the NFL or Disney or both? And if so, really, what was the point? It couldn’t have been to stifle interest in the project. The media coverage of ESPN’s decision to remove its imprimatur from the “Frontline” films will probably result in both a sales and ratings boost for the book and documentaries, respectively.

So what just happened? Beats me. At best we've seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn't very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.

This is a dicey time for the journalism side of the ESPN bifurcation. For all the current fuss, an even stronger message than ESPN’s disassociation from the “Frontline” project was the network’s recent decision to reschedule the Sunday morning OTL show from 9 a.m. on ESPN to 8 a.m. on ESPN 2 during the fall. A justifiably proud show is being demoted … for more football talk!

I’ll be staying on this story, as circumstances warrant, but will leave you for now with both foreboding and optimism.

“It’s sad because it sounds like a terrible blow for journalism at ESPN,” Sandy Padwe, a Columbia journalism professor, said of ESPN’s breakup with “Frontline.” Padwe, who recently ended a hitch of almost 19 years as a consultant to OTL, added that many journalists inside of ESPN are “demoralized by the capitulation and so much fine work is being marginalized.”

But Bray, the producer who has been among several in the forefront of the concussion investigations for ESPN, told me, “This issue is about branding, not about journalism. We will still get to do the stories, and no one will interfere with that.”

Let’s hope so.

Tackling Olbermann, Silver and Nine for IX

July, 30, 2013
7/30/13
1:03
PM ET
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.

Viewers weather Dwight Howard storm

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
10:27
AM ET
If you’re not of the hardwood hardcore, you might have thought last week that “Howard” was an extreme weather system originating in Los Angeles and threatening to head east. ESPN pro basketball cognoscenti such as Stephen A. Smith and Chris Broussard tracked every free-agent movement of Dwight Howard, the then-Lakers center, as if he were a storm center.

Would he stay in Los Angeles, land in Houston, veer off elsewhere? Citing their sources, ESPN reporters had him changing his mind all day and night Friday, even citing at one point the “50-50” odds of his uncertainty. Had he been a real storm, I would have stocked up on water and batteries just to be safe.

Some of the Ombudsman’s mailbag correspondents – I’m beginning to think of them as my Ombuddies -- thought it was too much Howard, too much NBA and too many unnamed sources.

I checked in with Vince Doria, ESPN’s senior vice president and director of news, about the use of anonymous sources. He emailed: “With a story like this, breaking on live television, you either make some decisions to trust sources that have been good in the past, or sit on the sidelines. Pretty sure we'd be equally criticized for doing the latter.”

Good points justifying the process. What about the rationale for flooding the zone on the story?

On to Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights at ESPN, who wrote: “Dwight Howard did more than join the Rockets. He joined a club of folks like [Brett] Favre, LeBron [James], Peyton [Manning], etc. A big story with a big star and the question is did ESPN cover it thoroughly or too much?”

Blyn and fellow ESPN researcher Kaylin VanDusen tried to answer the question: According to their research, the NBA is a 12-month sport now, not only on the rise but skewing toward youth and diversity, both prize targets at ESPN. There’s intense interest in offseason personnel movement that can change the direction of a team.

All of this bears watching for recurrent patterns. How often does heavy coverage spike the ratings and thus justify the heavy coverage? And what about all those anonymous sources? In situations like this, I’ll give reporters the benefit of the doubt; they are protecting useful insiders rather than interviewing each other or floating rumors.

But it does keep one glued to ESPN just the way storm warnings keep you following weather reports.

Columnist critique of Patriot Way falls short

July, 3, 2013
7/03/13
10:47
AM ET
How dare Ashley Fox hold the New England Patriots culpable for Aaron Hernandez’s alleged transgressions? How can she accuse owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick of enabling the tight end’s murderous runs? Why doesn’t ESPN release her?

That has been the tenor of the ombudsman’s recent mail, not to mention the more than 4,000 overwhelmingly negative comments trailing behind Fox’s Monday column on ESPN.com about Hernandez and the Patriots.

For starters, let me say that I’m glad Fox wrote a strong opinion in what has seemed like careful coverage of the Hernandez case. While I thought the ESPN crime reporting, often in conjunction with ABC News, has been good, I wondered if the sidebars were a little too concerned with how the Patriots’ release of Hernandez might affect the team and how quickly his jerseys were pulled off the shelves and became collectibles.

I couldn’t find much criticism of a Patriot Way that included dumping a productive star before the justice system declared him guilty. Should any comparison be made to the case of Ray Lewis, implicated in a 2000 murder? That case is still a mystery. But the Ravens stood by their man and they all went on to win Super Bowl rings. Lewis is now an ESPN analyst.

When Fox weighed in on the Hernandez case, I wished she had been a little weightier. Casting blame is a columnist’s game, but other than taking a chance on a terrific player with “character issues” who had fallen to the fourth round of the 2010 draft, and then re-signing him for millions a few years later, what exactly had Kraft and Belichick done wrong?

How about this: If you hire a guy to risk serious physical injuries by performing violent acts for you, don’t you have some responsibility for checking on his mental state?

Jim Stewart, a former NFL player and now a licensed therapist who works with combat vets suffering from PTSD, has been lobbying the NFL and various teams to “embed” therapists whom players can talk to privately before their lives take terrible turns. He thinks, for example, such an embed might have prevented Jovan Belcher of the Kansas City Chiefs from murdering his girlfriend in front of their baby and then killing himself in front of his coaches. That’s about as obvious a cry for franchise help as one can find. Could such a person have helped Hernandez?

A case could be made that Kraft and Belichick -- that any NFL owner and coach -- are somehow complicit in a player’s destructive act if a series of behavioral signs were ignored. There were certainly signs in the Hernandez file.

Ashley Fox didn’t make the case, thus opening herself to a zone-flooding tide of unpleasant mail. But give her some credit for thinking about this awful story in a fresh and serious way.

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