ESPN can define boundaries and keep its edge, too

The college football bowl championship season is upon us, and the annual debate rages: To replace or not to replace the current skewed bowl selection system, based on computer and poll rankings, with a playoff system, based on teams competing on a level field.

It is arguably the sports world's most lopsided debate, with the vast majority of those weighing in arguing for (nay, demanding!) a playoff system to determine the best team in the land. Every other NCAA sport has a playoff to determine its champion, they point out, and there is no good reason for the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) to be the sole exception.

Among those roaring the loudest against the bowls-as-usual status quo are ESPN-paid pundits, analysts and even "SportsCenter" anchors like Josh Elliott, who last month blasted to smithereens any vestige of anchorite neutrality on this issue by delivering an Olbermanesque rant against the "anti-playoff zealots" who defend "the annual embarrassment" of the Bowl Championship Series.

Last fall, an outburst like that might have prompted an ombudsman column about the role of an anchor at ESPN. This fall, however, the more urgent question on viewers' minds is what will happen to such outbursts now that ESPN has obtained rights to televise the BCS games for four years, beginning in January 2011.

As soon as news of the reported $500 million deal broke last month, my mailbag filled with messages like this one: "Will ESPN's analysts be muzzled now that ESPN is in a contractual relationship with [the] BCS?"

"The answer," said John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president for content, "is emphatically no, which is borne out every day on our media right now."

Viewers also wanted to know if ESPN's rights contract with the BCS precluded the possibility of a playoff system until at least 2015. Skipper's answer: "I would only say that format is the decision of the BCS."

John Wildhack, executive vice president of programming and acquisitions and one of ESPN's two lead negotiators for the BCS contract, said, "Our focus throughout the negotiation was to acquire the package the BCS was willing to sell. At no time did any BCS commissioner discuss or ask our opinion of a playoff. Ultimately, if a playoff is ever enacted, it would take the support of the university presidents and commissioners to make that happen. Those two groups have been quite consistent that they do not favor a playoff system such as the NFL has. That's the landscape today, and we don't see that changing through 2014."

OK, then, barring a miraculous or congressionally imposed change of heart, the BCS powers are likely to turn a deaf ear to the clamor for a playoff. Barring a coup against present ESPN top management, ESPN's writers and talkers will be allowed to continue railing against the BCS powers. The railing will, by definition, be harmless, because it is ineffectual.

To my mind, beginning in 2011, the far greater challenge to ESPN's college football programmers, analysts, announcers and pundits will be fending off charges of bias in doling out air time and praise to particular college football teams. Fans of all sports routinely charge ESPN with bias toward particular teams and players, but in no other professional or collegiate sport does network bias have the potential to play so large a role in which team gets to play for the national championship.

Because a team's BCS standing is determined not only by dispassionate computer rankings but also by two polls of subjective human beings -- the USA Today coaches poll and the Harris poll, which draws votes from a panel of media members, former players and coaches -- ESPN has the power to influence the fate of teams. Not manipulate, but influence -- through the visibility given to teams chosen for the most prominent regular-season telecasts, through the variable coverage given teams on "SportsCenter" and college football studio shows, through the talking up and down of teams by its fleet of analysts.

Bias, bias everywhere

That power already exists, of course, and ESPN is already accused by college football fans of misusing it in myriad inventive ways.

From my perch atop the overloaded ombudsman mailbag, I can say with conviction that college football fans are the quickest of all fans to perceive bias. Their sensitivity to perceived slights is so acute that I received, for instance, several complaints about the biased arrangement of helmets on the set of ESPN's "Bowl Selection Special."

"In front of the desk were the helmets of six BCS Bowl schools," wrote one viewer. "All were one-loss teams with one exception: [two-loss] Ohio State. Noticeably absent was an Alabama helmet. It was a slap in the face not to see our helmet on that set, especially since we were the No. 1 team in the country until yesterday."

Some attributed the Ohio State helmet favoritism to the presence of ESPN college football analyst and former Buckeyes quarterback Kirk Herbstreit. Some faulted Rece Davis, the selection show's host and an Alabama alum, for not having his alma mater's back in helmet selection.

If fans take offense at such subtle signs of perceived disrespect, you can imagine how Michigan fans reacted when ESPN announcer Chris Spielman, while talking on a Columbus, Ohio, radio show about the annual Ohio State-Michigan game, said to fellow Buckeyes alum Herbstreit, "They [the Wolverines] stink. ... I love to see them beaten down. It's great."

Spielman was not speaking on an ESPN platform. He was speaking as a former Ohio State player on a local radio station that caters to Buckeyes fans. But given his high profile as an ESPN TV analyst for college football games, his words ricocheted around the Internet to reach far-flung Michigan fans. It was not the professional assessment ("They stink") but the alum gloating that brought me messages like this one from Virginia: "All Michigan fans deserve future coverage of Michigan football on the ESPN network without the participation of Mr. Spielman and Mr. Herbstreit."

Citing the messages I received about Spielman's comments, I asked Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president and executive producer for event production, what restraint he asked announcers to exercise in flaunting their alumni loyalties.

"I can't control what they say outside the realm in which I am responsible," Drake said. "I might say, not on a formal basis, that he is not helping out his credibility, but what I have to go on is what he says on our air in the booth."

But couldn't ESPN set standards for outside-the-booth conduct that affects the perception of in-the-booth bias?

"But these guys are also paid to opine," Drake said, "and at some levels, their objectivity is not what people seek; it's their subjectivity. In the booth, though, objectivity is the name of the game."

Since alumni affiliation is a common source of alleged bias, does ESPN take that into consideration when making booth assignments for college games?

"No," Drake said. "We have faith in our announcers that they understand the scrutiny under which they will be put. For that reason, and because they are hired to be professional, we make those assignments with comfort, not knowing but surmising they will do the same job covering their alma mater as they would for a team that is not their alma mater."

Drake knows and accepts the fact that many fans do not share his faith in his announcers' objectivity. Given what he calls "the semi-maniacal nature of the ardent college football fan," Drake said, "seeing bias everywhere is part of the culture of being a fan."

Battle fatigue

Talking to Drake reinforced an impression I have garnered from speaking to many others at ESPN in my time as ombudsman -- that ESPN has become inured to charges of bias. The allegations, whether founded or unfounded, are so incessant that ESPN has thrown in the towel in the battle for perception.

I understand the battle fatigue, because I too threw in the towel long ago on trying to sort out the founded from the unfounded charges about bias in college football coverage. There were simply too many games, too many announcing teams, for me to monitor; too many contradictory messages from too many fans charging undue favoritism or negativity, sometimes toward the same team.

The only way I have found to act on all those messages is to sound the alarm about the shrieking outcry ESPN can reasonably expect to hear when charges of bias are magnified by charges of corporate conflict of interest -- when ESPN not only has the power to influence BCS rankings, but will stand to profit from the highest-profile, most-storied teams playing in the bowl games it telecasts.

When I asked Drake if he thought the acquisition of BCS rights made the time right for setting some clear-cut written standards to minimize the perception of bias among ESPN's announcing teams, he told me the best employee guidebook he ever heard of contained one sentence: "Use your best judgment at all times."

With all due respect to Drake, who reminded me his department coordinates coverage of 1,700 events a year, I don't think ESPN can afford to rely solely on the best judgment of a fast-growing and changing cast of sports personalities whose allegiances and professionalism may be works in progress.

Even longtime pros of the soundest judgment would be challenged by the compartmentalization of qualities ESPN asks of its on-air and online talent: be objective in the booth, subjective outside it; stick to the facts as a reporter on ESPN.com, but speculate beyond the facts when we ask for your analysis on TV; be edgy in your Page 2 columns, but don't cross any lines. Where are the lines? We'll tell you when you've crossed one.

Put it in writing

Last July, when I first asked several ESPN executives why they did not have an official guidebook of journalistic standards and practices for their employees, I was told that such a document had been proposed several times, but there had never been much of an appetite for it. Apparently, the appetite has grown.

John Walsh, ESPN's senior vice president and executive editor, has formed a committee, headed by Patrick Stiegman, vice president and executive editor/executive producer of ESPN.com, to create a standards and practices guidebook. Though still in development, it is likely to address such topics as sourcing, attribution of credit in reporting, editorial/advertising relationships and conflicts of interest.

A second committee, headed by Gary Hoenig, general manager and editorial director of ESPN Publishing, is working on guidelines for commentary. The guidebook will not only be put into the hands of all employees, it will be made available publicly (perhaps as a file on ESPN.com) so that fans can judge for themselves whether ESPN is meeting its own standards.

According to Walsh, the enormous growth in hires at ESPN in recent years has forced recognition of the need for formal guidelines. Based on figures provided by ESPN's human resources department, the number of on-air and online freelancers, which includes many of ESPN's announcers and studio show analysts, has nearly doubled since 2000 and now exceeds 1,000 people. The number of full-time positions at ESPN.com has increased 500 percent since 2000.

Without a guidebook, keeping those employees on anything close to the same page about standards will remain a haphazard process. For the past five years or so, ESPN has had an editorial board, headed by Walsh, that meets monthly to discuss issues of journalistic ethics, the agenda often determined by problems that arose during the month. Policy memos are framed and distributed via meetings or e-mails to those who need to know. Then, it is not that the policy memos are forgotten, but they seem to not get into the hands of the next 100 hires or the newly promoted who need to know.

The Sports Guy dilemma

Needless to say, I fully support the effort to create this guidebook, despite the potential for downside risks, especially in the area of commentary. The concern is that commentary guidelines be too constricting, censorious, a list of banned words or thoughts. To air that fear, I talked to the person who I imagined most harbored it -- ESPN.com's Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.

When I told Simmons about the guidebook in progress, he said, "You mean they are planning on cracking down?"

When I suggested he think of it as clarifying rather than cracking down, he said, "So I'm writing a column and I have to consult the rule book."

I reversed field and asked him what he found most troublesome about writing for ESPN.com.

"When you are supposed to push the envelope," Simmons said, "but you are afraid of the repercussions of every decision, I think it affects you. I don't really blame the editors, because those guys aren't really sure where the lines are anymore, so they're going to take stuff out that is anywhere close to the line. But if you're going to take something out, the reason can't be 'We'd rather be safe than sorry.' You have to put some thought into it and say, 'If this stays in, what are the potential repercussions?'"

What if guidelines meant editors didn't have to resort to the better-safe-than-sorry stance, because they knew and could articulate where the lines were, and didn't have to wait to see how PR would draw the lines after some genuine or manufactured public outcry?

"If these guidelines could help me do my job, great," Simmons said.

I am not privy to all the bumps in the road that led to gaps in Simmons' recent production of columns and podcasts, but I do know this: His niche at ESPN.com -- representing the voice and mentality of a fan, ranging outside of sport into other areas of pop culture -- is a uniquely problematic one for ESPN. Pop culture of the moment for ESPN's demographic is Comedy Central, YouTube and media blogs that dissect the follies of CNN, Fox and, yes, ESPN. For Simmons, those unfettered voices are also his competitors, and I have no doubt he worries about becoming the rule-bound fogey among them.

If ESPN wants Simmons, or anyone, to fill that niche, they may have to make niche-specific, show-specific, platform-specific guidelines that allow ESPN the flexibility to respond to changes in the cultural landscape while remaining consistent on basic journalistic values.

In the case of Simmons' podcasts, the addition of a simple disclaimer -- "The B.S. Report is a free-wheeling conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects" -- solved the problem. It is a solution appropriate to podcasts, which require intentional downloading, that would not work for ESPN.com columns, which require only one idle click to access.

My overall point: Setting firm guidelines for news coverage and news-related commentary that has a direct impact on players, teams and leagues does not have to constrict other forms of engagement with sports fans. If the boundaries are clear, there are ways for ESPN to be as edgy as it wants.