ESPN is an empire.
And as I’ve roamed its city-states, duchies and colonies for the past 18 months, literally and figuratively, I’ve been constantly impressed by its size, reach and impact on games, athletes and the audience. ESPN’s coverage, for example, of the NFL’s head trauma crisis and of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case helped widen and deepen national conversations that went far beyond the world of sports.
However, as ESPN’s fifth ombudsman in his final inning, I wasn’t hired to polish this shield. I was hired, as they said, to enhance transparency and make constructive criticism. So here goes.
I think that improvement is most needed in ESPN’s inconsistent execution of journalism, which does not appear to be the highest of company priorities. That’s understandable from an economic perspective. College football and basketball, for example, are important revenue producers for the company. Extensive investigative reporting into the exploitation of college athletes, and the legal battles around that, would seem to conflict with ESPN’s business model. How do you turn over the rocks in the Southeastern Conference, for instance, while owning the SEC Network?
And why should ESPN bother? Its dominance in sports broadcasting is apparent, its bottom line is rising and, at the risk of shield-polishing, I think its live event coverage and studio production, the core of its renown and revenue, is as good as or better than any of its competitors.
However, I think ESPN should bother because no other media company has the resources, the talent pool, the access, the leadership and the institutional intelligence to cover sports as well. It feels like a responsibility.
I think ESPN should bother because American sports needs to be seriously examined in a turbulent time. There is an ongoing safety issue involving child athletes as well as professionals. Despite the great advances powered by Title IX, the equal-play gap between male and female athletes is still too wide. The rise of gambling and fantasy leagues -- some would argue often the same thing -- will have social consequences that need to be monitored.
Video gaming is emerging as a competitive spectacle -- think X Games for nerds -- and might come to rival current sports for audiences and participants. That’s a revolution that will be televised.
The biggest journalistic game-changer of our time has been the rise of social media and the overgrowth of faux news sources – league- and team-sponsored blogs, player tweets, fanboy sites, rumor mills -- churning bits of information and speculation into a clattering fog storm. Who will cut through the drivel and whim-wham to tell us what’s really going on?
All of that, and the relentless coming changes, might widen the racial, economic and class divides between the current audiences for the major sports and the gladiatorial castes that increasingly perform for them.
In recent years, ESPN’s journalistic integrity has taken hits for its perceived slow response to stories that reflected poorly on business partners; for broadcasting “The Decision,” a selfie for LeBron James, the face of the NBA, an essential ESPN pay-pal; and for removing the company’s brand from a joint enterprise with PBS on the documentary “League of Denial,” which covered that most important sports story of our time: the deadly concussions in the NFL and the accompanying cover-up.
For ESPN to become universally respected for legitimate and timely sports news would require time, money and a shift in sensibilities from the frequent Jock Culture first response of “How will this affect the team’s next game?” whenever a star is caught in an off-field transgression. That response needs to be replaced by thorough coverage of what actually happened and then a deeper analysis. For example, could so many football players be acting badly because the game is attracting -- or recruiting -- more sociopathic personalities? Or because they are significantly compromised by the effects of concussions? Or both?
A starting point: cut through ESPN’s variety of voices offering various kinds of information and speculation -- reporters embedded with teams and college conferences; “First Take” debaters; Insiders with rumors of trades and injuries; squawk radio; Grantland podcasters and espnW profilers. Well, to do that, ESPN needs to create a central news desk with its own dedicated staff of writers, reporters, producers and on-air talent. It would be a news firehose ready to crash on a story and get it on digital, radio and/or TV.
It would be costly and difficult to keep a staff both ready when needed and otherwise productive between assignments. But doing so would mean that when a Penn State/Sandusky story breaks, a team is on its way. When a Boston Marathon bombing occurs, ESPN doesn’t have to depend on the great good fortune that its stars Bob Ley and Jeremy Schaap – and help from sister company ABC News -- and support staff were available.
One element in place is the cross-platform newsgathering unit, tasked largely with investigative and enterprise efforts across digital, print and TV. But it’s not enough. As Vince Doria, ESPN’s soon-to-retire senior vice president and director of news, recently explained to me, this unit has a “dotted line” connection to such dependable newsgatherers as senior NFL analyst Chris Mortensen, who did excellent work on the Ray Rice domestic violence case; Don Van Natta Jr., the digital and print investigative ace; Jane McManus of espnW, often cited here for excellence in commentary; and Howard Bryant, a respected columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
But each of those contributors, among others, reports to a different unit on a primary basis and thus has time constraints.
Reacting to my central desk suggestion, Doria wrote: “Of course, we could place virtually everybody in a ‘news’ division, and then essentially ‘lend’ them out to provide other functions. I think it works best under the current set-up, where the news operation isn’t necessarily responsible for all the administrative duties that would attach to these people, and thereby less encumbered with things that might take away from the time devoted to pursuing, vetting and reporting news.”
I respectfully disagree.
Borrow those bigfoots when you want them, but have trained newspeople ready to rock. A hard-core news squad would not be subject to the demands of specific shows. More important, reporters would not have to worry that a story that draws blood would affect relationships with subjects; many reporters who depend on easy access need to make decisions about whether a report might chill the climate with sources. Is it worth it? Do they sometimes feel they need to pull punches?
Of course, these central desk commandos would be able to pick the brains of the fellow ESPN reporters whose regular beats might coincide with crash assignments. They would also have access to ESPN analysts, that changing roster of former coaches and athletes and GMs whose presence on air and on the digital front adds jock glamour and Insider insight -- as well some concomitant problems.
As Laurie Orlando, ESPN’s senior vice president of talent development and planning, told me last year, “This is a halfway house for coaches. We build up relationships, and we have better access when they go back to coaching. And they’ll come back to us again if they had a good experience.”
Those kinds of revolving doors (similar to ones that spin for former political operatives on mainstream news shows) can end up turning some of the analysts into spokespeople for an industry they might want to return to, rather than full-hearted sharers of informed opinions. They need to be used more skillfully by producers as opinionated sidekicks to journalists rather than as alpha dogs with host puppies.
One ESPN broadcast journalist complained to me about having to deal with “guys who have no idea about issues and storylines, who have to be guided back to areas they know something about. They are always falling back on that they played the game and you didn’t.”
This journalist, a rising multiplatform star who did not want to be named, added: “Athletes never identify with the media. Even once they come to ESPN, they still want to be considered ‘players.’ And then there’s the tendency for ESPN managers not to help them improve because they know another crop is coming next year. Just more pressure on the journalists.”
Regardless, ex-athletes learning a new trade or staffers with graduate degrees in communications, all can use more in-house training in the sensitive topics that keep intruding into the world of X’s and O’s. I was impressed, for example, with an internal guide distributed by ESPN’s news operation when Michael Sam became news in the NFL on how to properly refer to the first openly gay NFL draftee. It included a list of LGBT resources and a roster of gay athletes in all sports, past and present.
This doesn’t mean that every single Jameis Winston story needs to dredge up the Florida State quarterback’s litany of misdeeds, along with a primer on campus sexual assault and the seemingly lenient treatment athletes receive from their universities and local police. But it does seem like a journalistic dereliction when that part of the story fades for long stretches. Chris Fowler, host of “College GameDay,” addressed this toward the end of a recent interview with Rolling Stone in which he was asked about my recent column about “flabby coverage” on the topic.
Said Fowler: “When you cover this sport, you always have to live in a bit of denial. You check some things at the door. It’s entertainment, it’s a diversion, it’s a distraction from the real world.”
I appreciate Fowler’s insight and candor, but denial, in all its forms, is at the core of most of sports’ current crises.
The prodigious work by the Fainaru brothers (Mark and Steve) on NFL concussions and the league’s presumed cover-up has created a standard for sports journalism. But ESPN’s subsequent coverage of the topic has been spotty. A news organization that can run a continuing feature on the changing fashions of athletic uniforms (UniWatch), on ESPN.com can at the least run a continuing feature on NFL and maybe even college concussions: who gets them, how long before they are cleared for return and follow-ups. Call it Conc-Watch.
This kind of harder-edged journalism will win plaudits and prizes. It might even occasionally make a positive difference in the conduct of sports. But it will also, from time to time, enrage financial partners. This is no small matter. One thing I’ve come to recognize in the past 18 months is the constant tug between honest journalism and practical business dealings. As an ombudsman with a fixed tenure, it’s easy to tell ESPN what I think is right. Whether the company thinks it can afford to do it is something else entirely.
And then there’s the audience. I’ve been told that ESPN consumer surveys show a receptivity to journalism, but it’s not clear whether that means more exposes of college programs, more TMZ-type news on sexual assaults and DUIs, or a sharper analysis of what’s wrong with the Lakers. The sense I’ve gotten from the mailbag is that the audience mostly wants glad stories about games and role-model players.
The most frequent message I received had to do with ESPN betraying its presumed role as an escapist sanctuary. The correspondents invariably complained about a “societal issue” such as “homosexuality” becoming a continuing storyline on “SportsCenter” and thus invading the living room during family time.
I had no good answers for those complainants; using ESPN as a primary sports news source or as an inspirational and recreational never-never land can be mutually exclusive. With myriad voices at ESPN and the many ways people consume the network’s various content offerings, I think the company’s best course is in its continuing drive toward diversity and the goal of understanding.
Thus, my last thought: the creation of a new, hands-on network, ESPN-J.
Several months ago, ESPN President John Skipper reminisced to me about his North Carolina boyhood. He recalled sitting at segregated lunch counters, looking through the kitchen at African-Americans eating on the other side. The memory haunts him.
“The greatest injustice in our business,” Skipper said, “is the lack of black sportswriters. I want to try to do something about that. ESPN fellowships, ESPN as a birthplace for careers.”
One way to jump-start that vision would be to set up a network of ESPN sports journalism workshops in high schools across the country, concentrating on schools in underserved neighborhoods and those with large populations of color. Working with schools’ English and journalism teachers wherever possible, ESPN men and women from digital, print, radio and TV would explain their jobs and how they got them, assign and critique written and visual stories, and allow students to observe remote game sites and staffers on the job. There could be follow-ups by email and via Skype.
There could be support for school publications and radio stations -- even the establishment of such. Based on their own academic experiences, ESPN staffers could point these students toward colleges where they might continue their ESPN-J education -- with a further goal being internships, those Skipper-professed fellowships and entry-level jobs in Bristol.
If not ESPN, who? Especially now, as the company, its hegemony seemingly secure, looks to make a positive social impact within its ambitious mission TO SERVE SPORTS FANS/ANYTIME/ANYWHERE.
Such a project is invariably two-way. As anyone who has taught kids knows, the teacher usually learns more. The gifts of ESPN-J will show up on the air and on the pages, as increased understanding and sensitivity and less willful denial.
It’s been a fascinating run, this ombudsman role, with smart, helpful people. Even when they disagreed with me, ESPN’s staffers mostly remained accessible and cordial, committed to improvement through detached oversight, especially Skipper, perhaps the most enlightened, thoughtful and candid of them all.
My assistant, Russell Goldstein, not only helped me wade through the mailbag but offered valuable insights and the experiences of ombudsmen past. My constant companion on this journey has been Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN Digital & Print Media. He was the only one to handle my copy before it was posted. We did not always concur, but even when he disagreed with my point of view, he respected that my job was to form and present my own opinons. In a complex role as both ESPN editor and ombudsman adviser, he invariably helped me make my points clearer. Patrick is a straight shooter, and his support was indispensable.
And many, many thanks to the many, many readers, listeners and viewers whose contributions to the Ombudsman’s Mailbag -- opinions, observations, information and criticism -- were encouraging and helpful. They were my fuel.