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Monday, March 5, 2007
Updated: March 6, 4:22 PM ET
Given conflicts, Amaechi coverage 'over the top'

By George Solomon
ESPN Ombudsman

A viewer from Peoria, Ill., spoke for many when he expressed concern about how ESPN covered former NBA player John Amaechi's recent revelation that he is gay. "How does ESPN handle conflicts of interest by publishing a book [by Amaechi] and then highlighting that book in its magazine, TV programs and Web site?" the viewer asked.

Another viewer felt the coverage was self-serving, while a third asked the Ombudsman, "Don't you think ESPN's coverage was over the top?"

And my answer is: Yes.

Amaechi, retired from professional basketball for four years and living in London, became the first NBA player to disclose that he is gay. His autobiography, "Man in the Middle," was published by ESPN in February amid blanket coverage by ESPN's television, radio and Web outlets, as well as the Feb. 26 cover of ESPN The Magazine.

Not to be flip, but someone announcing his or her candidacy for the presidency could only hope to match the saturation coverage ESPN accorded Amaechi. The synergism generated by ESPN's multimedia operation was never better illustrated by this story, with critics suggesting all of it occurred in the name of selling an ESPN book.

"If they didn't have the TV stuff and everything else, they'd be as hard-pressed as other publishers to make these books into major events," Rick Wolff, executive editor at Lagardere SCA's Warner Books, told The Wall Street Journal's Jeffrey A. Tractenberg.

ESPN executives were quick to remind production staffers to alert viewers, listeners and readers about the corporate/network relationship when covering the Amaechi story.

And Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production, defended the network's coverage, saying, "When a former NBA player makes this kind of revelation, it's a newsworthy story. The interview on 'Outside the Lines' and the ESPN Magazine story created strong reaction from the public that we felt was worthy of the coverage we subsequently provided on 'SportsCenter' and other outlets."

Williamson also pointed to reaction to the story nationally, including former All-Star Tim Hardaway's banishment from NBA All-Star Weekend activities because of anti-gay remarks he made on Dan Le Batard's radio show in Miami.

That noted, ESPN would have been better served by showing more restraint. In my view, you can cover a story without overkilling it -- scale back on the position the story receives on news shows, and the number of stories on TV and on ESPN.com. In this case, ESPN failed to do so.

Mature voices

Some ESPN viewers, in the 20-to-30-year-old demographic, have inquired where the network came up with guys "like Brent Musburger and Dick Enberg" and have even asked, "Who are these guys?"

I had to laugh at that. Musburger and Enberg have been major players in television sports for about four decades, working all those years with the kind of professionalism and skill their younger colleagues would do well to emulate.

Musburger's work on college football and basketball and Enberg's efforts at the recent Australian Open were welcomed by those of us who appreciate play-by-play announcers willing to allow the game to be the story.

"I think the majority of today's announcers are more knowledgeable because they grew up watching coverage and understand games more than the older group," Musburger said. "They're also more outspoken, which is good and bad. If someone calls attention to themselves, that's more competition for the viewer's attention."

Musburger feels his primary job is to provide "entertaining information to help the viewer get away for a couple of hours" and to do the job "honestly."

Enberg believes his role "is to personalize the numbers; the people we cover are interesting and the more we can tell their story the better we serve the viewer. To me, the first quarter of a football game is like the first act of a play."

Enberg, who began his career doing play-by-play on radio, said the evolution of the craft has turned his ilk into "docents" to make it easier for analysts. His remarks were made without bitterness. He added: "The play-by-play announcer is less important these days. But what's remained the same is the importance of the picture the viewer sees."

Irvin's departure

ESPN is very private when it comes to internal decisions, and that was the case in February when the network decided not to sign NFL analyst Michael Irvin to a new contract.

"I worked hard at ESPN, and I loved my job and the people there," Irvin told Barry Horn of the Dallas Morning News. "But I wanted to do different things and not be stuck in a box. They had other ideas."

ESPN spokesman Bill Hoffheimer said: "There was an evaluation of the studio talent lineup, and a decision was made to go in a different direction. There is nothing here but good feelings about Michael."

This is a case in which the viewers deserved a final ESPN interview of Irvin with an ESPN media reporter, which, unfortunately, ESPN lacks.

Surfing

  • ESPN's growth internationally is apparent in many ways, including the nightly 30- to 45-second "SportsCenter" appearance of Michele LaFountain of ESPN Deportes. LaFountain's reports usually feature soccer games of interest to Hispanic viewers. "We need to be sensitive to the demographics of the population we're serving," ESPN's Williamson said. "These demographics are changing all the time."

  • Those viewers who believe professional hockey has been getting short shrift from ESPN since the NHL left the network will be closely watching ESPN's coverage of the Arena Football League and NASCAR. ESPN/Disney has a business relationship with both organizations, making it important that ESPN not show favoritism. Additional NASCAR and AFL programming does not help the viewers' perception of network impartiality. Which is why the annual ESPN weekend celebration at Disney World in Orlando puzzles me. Who needs it?

  • On the other hand, ESPN finally has a corrections policy in place that should please ESPN viewers and readers.

  • Note that, as ESPN's current Ombudsman, I will conclude my 21-month tour April 1, with a final column due this month.