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Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Radio aims to be provocative, fair

By George Solomon
ESPN Ombudsman

It's holiday time, so does anyone want to see an ombudsman lurking in the shadows? Probably not, which is why we'll take a quick, fun run through the lineup, trying to keep with the spirit of the season.

Let's start with the competitive world of radio, where ESPN has tried and succeeded in becoming a major player with some 750 outlets taking its various shows, game updates and event coverage -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"Our mandate is to serve the sports fan with opinions from the hosts, debate, discussion and speculation," ESPN Radio general manager Bruce Gilbert said recently.

It's one thing to have admirable goals; it's another to achieve them. For the most part, ESPN Radio serves its listeners well. However, there are lapses, and some of them are major, including daytime host Colin Cowherd's insensitive remarks last month in the aftermath of the death of professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero from natural causes due to heart disease.

"Colin asked if Guerrero's obit belonged in the sports pages and, regrettably, made a reference that steroids might have been a factor in his death," said Gilbert, who added he spoke with Cowherd "about the seriousness of implying things we cannot prove."

Gilbert further said Cowherd (and other ESPN commentators) cannot do "off-kilter rants and bits" and what's reported on the network should be "factual and accurate."

Don't faint, but there are sports radio commentators, including some at ESPN, who don't always follow Gilbert's high-road mandate. The shoot-from-the-hip tone and devil-may-care attitude of sports-talk radio has in many ways -- along with the Internet -- dramatically changed the landscape of sports and sports reporting in this country. Athletes are traded daily, often without attribution; coaches are fired, at the whim of a single listener; and anyone wearing a uniform or whistle is fair game for trashing.

Sports-talk commentators are encouraged to be provocative and controversial, and few hold their fire. At ESPN, "SportsCenter" anchor Dan Patrick also has a daily three-hour radio show in which "he's pushed to be opinionated," said Pete Gianesini, senior director of radio programming. But on the "SportsCenter" set, Patrick is supposed to play it straight -- a juxtaposition that is confusing to some viewers and listeners who track him on both radio and TV.

Patrick, along with Mike Golic and Mike Greenberg ("Mike & Mike in the Morning"), has a large following on the radio as well as television ("Mike & Mike" is simulcast on ESPNEWS and will be moving to ESPN2 next week). The three of them are entertaining, knowledgeable and fun -- though at times, they seem to bully their guests or pound their opinions into the ground. An example of that occurred earlier this fall, when Patrick steamrolled Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville after the coach wondered whether ESPN commentators have too much influence on college football.

Keith Olbermann's rejoining Patrick makes for good radio and shows ESPN is willing to forgive even the most bitter of breakups. Nor should anyone discount the quality of play-by-play reporting of many ESPN events and updates, particularly by Dan "The Duke" Davis and the Sunday NFL update team led by Mike Ditka and Sean Salisbury.

Still, ESPN Radio executives and producers need to be more assertive to their on-air personnel that standards and practices of fairness, taste and objectivity are in play over the airwaves, just as they are in newspapers and on television. The opportunity to have a forum to so many listeners is a privilege not to be taken lightly.

Good show moving
The popular "NFL PrimeTime" show will move after 19 years next season from its Sunday night slot (7:30-8:30 p.m. ET) to another time -- probably on Monday. The time change for one of the best and longest-running sports shows on television is a result of the "Monday Night Football" move to ESPN, and the Sunday night game's switch to NBC. Contractually, that gives the one-hour lead-up to the Sunday night game to NBC.

Bob Rauscher, senior coordinating producer for ESPN NFL studio shows, said no decision has been reached regarding where "NFL PrimeTime" might show up (late Sunday night and Monday pregame are in the mix). But he added, "We want to keep PrimeTime as part of our program schedule, but we're looking for the right spot while evaluating our lineup and distribution of our workload."

The Tom Jackson-Chris Berman combo worked so well, in my mind, because the mix of highlights was great, and Jackson's professionalism was a perfect complement to Berman's shtick. I continue to enjoy Berman's shtick, although some viewers believe it has gotten old. Still, I hope ESPN can keep the show alive, and I wish ESPN could run "PrimeTime" against NBC and let the public decide.

Surfing
• Finally getting around to commentator Steve Young's assertion last month that Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms might not be tough enough for the NFL, because of the "laissez-faire" atmosphere he grew up in in the home of former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms. It was a ridiculous statement to make, and an insult to Simms, now a commentator for CBS, and his wife. Not to mention Chris Simms, who has done well with his opportunity this season. An example of a commentator talking without knowing what he was talking about.

• The same goes for Michael Irvin, who didn't have enough trouble this month that he had to attend a birthday party last week for Terrell Owens held in Atlantic City, N.J., which was attended by a number of Philadelphia Eagles. ESPN senior vice president and director of news Vince Doria said Irvin "was invited to the party as someone who has known Owens over the years, and attended in that capacity." Doria added that reporter Jeremy Schaap was assigned to cover the event, indicating ESPN realized the event was important enough to cover. Irvin's problem, it seems to me, is he still believes he's an athlete/celebrity and doesn't understand that in his role as an ESPN commentator, it was questionable for him to attend the Owens function as a guest. Irvin's confusion is understandable, because one reason networks hire former athletes is because many still have relationships with current players and coaches.

• USC quarterback Matt Leinart's recent promotional plug for an upcoming "SportsCenter" briefly resulted in the loss of his eligibility -- until the NCAA restored it Dec. 20. The Los Angeles Times last Wednesday reported that, according to the NCAA's Kent Barrett, Leinart's actions were "unintentional and inadvertent." Leinart made the promotional announcement after USC's Nov. 27 victory over UCLA. Though this was against NCAA regulations, "it was obvious the student athlete was not attempting to become an endorser of a network," Barrett told The Times. After USC self-reported the incident, Leinart was not required to miss any practices for the Rose Bowl, since athletes can continue to participate while their cases are under NCAA consideration. Still, this was clearly a situation in which ESPN went beyond covering a star athlete for no purpose. Normal coverage of the athlete would have suited me.

• Some viewers question whether Bill Walton should be covering games in which his son, Luke, participates for the Los Angeles Lakers. ESPN should make sure that Bill Walton makes the relationship clear to viewers beforehand.

• Worse was Ditka, a favorite of mine, criticizing New Orleans owner Tom Benson this month -- the same Benson who once fired Ditka.

• I thought the reporting and play of the Minnesota Vikings "party boat" controversy was very good, beginning with Colleen Dominguez's reporting of the event when it occurred last fall, and ending with last week's coverage of the indictment by Andrea Kremer. Smart, straight and informative from start to finish.

• Suzy Kolber does an excellent job as a reporter for ESPN and as a TV pitch person for Chevrolet. I just wish she would choose one of the two jobs, as should other ESPN personnel, including Patrick, who report and comment on news and events and sell products over the air. "Our policy is to review these cases individually and make decisions on how appropriate or inappropriate each situation might be," Doria said. He added studio anchors and commentators might be given more latitude than bureau reporters for such opportunities. My take: ESPN would be better served not permitting its on-air personnel to go outside the compound and do commercials.

• Some viewers wondered whether "Sunday Night Football" commentators Mike Patrick and Paul Maguire had done sufficient homework in the area of urban planning and rebuilding of devastated cities before their Nov. 27 discussion on the future of New Orleans as a community and NFL franchise. Good question.

• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution expressed unhappiness with ESPN.com for not giving credit to the newspaper for a quote used in a story on Atlanta Falcons defensive back Bryan Scott's injury. The New York Daily News had a similar complaint with ESPN The Magazine for not giving sufficient props for some information it previously published before the magazine's extensive steroid report appeared. While both ESPN organizations made statements of apology, the complaining parties involved did not seem completely satisfied, again showing the need for an improved method of corrections.

• Some viewers wanted more coverage of the Oakland A's offseason moves, again asserting ESPN is too consumed with the Yankees and Red Sox. Others wrote they could do without Stuart Scott's attempts at poetry. Still others believe Virginia Tech's Marcus Vick's off-field transgressions in 2004 were overcovered in 2005. I agree. A number of viewers believe the byplay between Salisbury and John Clayton has become too nasty; and others object to being called "knuckleheads and weasels" by the popular Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser when they sign off nightly -- terms of endearment compared to what those guys called me as their editor for more than 25 years.

• Critics wonder if the "Jacked Up" segments during NFL coverage promote violence and encourage dirty play. Doria said, "We make it a point to show clean hits, involving no serious injuries." He added, "We're spotlighting hard hitting -- which is a prominent part of the game. It is video entertainment, and we're in the entertainment business. I don't see it glorifying violence." Borderline, in my view.

• And that would be it for 2005. Happy New Year.