In the first weeks of the new year, no subject resonated with ESPN's viewers more than the coverage of the Indianapolis Colts' Tony Dungy and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith becoming the first African-American coaches to take their teams to the Super Bowl.
"Would you please stop talking about this," pleaded one viewer from Lima, Ohio.
"What's the big deal?" another viewer from the Midwest asked.
Dungy and Smith clearly were the No. 1 story line of Super Bowl week -- a fact that obviously irritated some viewers who believed it was overdone. ESPN commentator Michael Irvin, however, put the subject in context after the Colts' 29-17 victory over the Bears, noting on SportsCenter, "I couldn't be prouder of Tony Dungy ... and I'd like to look ahead to the time when such an event is not monumental."
That time, however, has not yet arrived and ESPN's coverage of the race issue was generally all-encompassing, smart and creative. On "NFL PrimeTime," commentator Tom Jackson also said he was "proud" of Dungy, adding "you don't have to be someone who yells and screams and still be a winning coach." Added Steve Young, "The African-American thing was massive -- and he [Dungy] did it the right way."
Both Dungy and Smith were eloquent and forthcoming in interviews and quick to address the subject of race with candor and depth.
Still, some viewers do not like to have their sports mixed with social issues, regardless of the significance of those issues. I hear from some of those viewers when commentators share their political views on ESPN's many talk shows. "If I want to hear someone's political bent, I'll watch political shows" is a common refrain. These viewers have a point, as I've previously written, especially when most political views expressed on ESPN come from the left side of the plate.
ESPN's weeklong coverage leading up to the game and its postgame coverage were solid, including the professionally entertaining Chris Berman-Jackson setups and feature pieces starting with Tom Rinaldi's work on the Mannings and Dungy. On the day of the game, I thought "Sunday NFL Countdown" and the pregame show from the stadium with Young, Stuart Scott and Chris Mortensen ran together. Some viewers were quick to question why Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was added to the pregame team. Lewis did not add much.
After the game, ESPN helped the viewers in a number of ways, including:
Sal Paolantonio's quick, on-field postgame interview with Dungy that captured the coach's emotions as well as anyone did.
Peyton Manning telling Mortensen his bruised right thumb might have been a "help" in the rain because "it's better not to grip the ball as hard" when it is wet. Who knew?
Young saying that Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman's two fumbles showed "irresponsibility" and that his two interceptions were "flimsy" passes.
Jackson saying, "You can't hide your quarterback in a game like this."
Sean Salisbury saying of Grossman, "He'll be the Bears quarterback" next season.
Ron Jaworski saying of Grossman, "He didn't get a lot of help."
Still, ESPN, with all its knowledge and experience, could provide even more strategy and less banter before and after games. And the coverage didn't provide any sense of the resentment many Baltimore fans still feel toward the Colts franchise and its ownership (the Irsay family) for pulling the team out of that city in the middle of the night when it moved to Indianapolis. Those horseshoes on the side of the Colt helmets still make many think Johnny Unitas.
And for those of us who think retired Redskins' receiver Art Monk should have been elected to the Hall of Fame last weekend, the celebratory yuks by Irvin's colleagues seemed out of place.
I had an opportunity to see two copies of the home-delivered ESPN The Magazine "special promotional" covers that wrap around the actual editorial covers. One of the promotional covers features LaDainian Tomlinson running next to "Vitaminwater 21" and wraps over the actual Jan. 29 editorial cover featuring Denver's Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. If you're a subscriber and see the Tomlinson cover, you'd probably think that was the actual editorial cover.
"Selling advertising is a tough game, so we've had to be more creative," said Keith Clinkscales, senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine. Clinkscales said, from a journalistic viewpoint, the promotional covers "are a work in progress." He added that editions with promotional covers in the future would contain "a notice in the table of contents" and that subscribers would be given the option of not receiving those covers.
Although I understand the financial pressures of the magazine and news businesses, I long for the days when magazines would simply feature a news-driven cover.
" ESPN made a mistake televising Michael Jordan's two sons' high school basketball game last week, then taking note of the event on SportsCenter. The kids do fine -- and might play college basketball somewhere. But they shouldn't get such national attention because they happen to be the sons of a famous retired player.
" Another mistake, in my view, is assigning Jaworski to do commentary on Arena Football League games when Jaworski is part-owner of one of the league's franchises (Philadelphia Soul). "We'll acknowledge his involvement and will not assign him to do any of Philadelphia's games," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news. With ESPN holding a stake in the league, Doria believes Jaworski's knowledge of the AFL is a positive. "It's an experiment we would not do with the NFL or Major League Baseball," he said. ESPN's involvement with the AFL should be a red light to network executives in how it covers the league. Organizations such as the National Hockey League, which believes it has been getting short shrift from ESPN since its business relationship with ESPN ended three years ago, will be watching closely.
" I think ESPN needs to do a better job of explaining to viewers the "ESPN Deportes" feature on SportsCenter.
" ESPN did well on the story of international soccer star David Beckham leaving Real Madrid for the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer, but there's much reporting yet to do. Same with the NHL -- a league that merits more attention.
" Follow-up stories remain a problem. Last month the reporting of Michael Vick being stopped in the Miami airport and having his water bottle confiscated by security personnel under suspicion the bottle might contain drugs was given some prominence. The follow-up story that no charges were filed against Vick was reported but, in the eyes of some viewers, not as prominently. "We reported the [original] story only after the Falcons addressed the issue," Doria said. "And we did the follow-up as soon as we were told there would be no charges filed." Also, some viewers would like to see more coverage on developments involving the Duke lacrosse story.
" In light of recent stories on the dangers of concussions in football, ESPN might want to reconsider its "Jacked-Up" feature that highlights big hits. Same with hockey.