After a nearly yearlong retreat into the shadows, the squirrelly topic of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball darted into view several times in the past few weeks, before finally bursting onto center screen. A pattering of new allegations, denials and evasions emerged from a book by convicted steroid dealer Kirk Radomski, a book proposal by Mark McGwire's estranged brother, Jay, and from evidentiary hearings for Barry Bonds' impending perjury trial.
Then, on Feb. 7 came the explosion of SI.com's report on Alex Rodriguez's positive drug test for steroids in 2003, followed 48 hours later by Rodriguez's much-aired and re-aired admission of guilt to ESPN's Peter Gammons.
It was the kind of news cycle that in the past would have brought me a spate of blame-the-messenger mail from fans who just want to enjoy games, watch highlights and find escape in sports from the bombardment of dreary headlines about so many other aspects of our times.
This chapter of the steroids saga, however, did not elicit that response. It was eerily quiet in my mailbag. Perhaps baseball fans are simply resigned to the sad story that won't die. Perhaps fans can't find the ombudsman link in ESPN.com's newly redesigned main page. (Go to the "Columnists" tab on sitewide top left navigation.) Or perhaps ESPN's handling of this chapter minimized those complaints.
The notable difference in ESPN's coverage of major breaking news this time was an absence of the multihour "SportsCenter Specials" that in the past left many viewers feeling more force-fed than informed. ESPN certainly didn't stint on coverage -- on any given day since the news broke, one could find a couple dozen stories, videos or podcasts on ESPN.com dissecting every aspect of the A-Rod story. This time, however, each new element of news, analysis or opinion was allowed to find its proportionate place in the mix of other sports stories on the cycle of live "SportsCenters" that ESPN launched last August.
The largest proportion by far went to the 45-minute A-Rod interview of Feb. 9, in which Rodriguez told Gammons that he had used banned substances during his three years with the Texas Rangers, 2001-03. His admission, though far from complete, was so much more self-incriminating than any offered by other high-profile MLB stars that the interview got prominent play on the nightly news shows of all the broadcast networks, was discussed by President Obama in his first televised news conference, and was the topic of David Letterman's Top Ten List later that same night.
Getting that kind of crossover exposure for an interview, not to mention the ratings bump it engendered, has to be an ESPN dream come true. It is also a dream that begs for interpretation.
Under the bus
Several viewers who sent me their analysis of the A-Rod interview spotted a recurrent pattern. I'll call it the "Throw Selena Under the Bus" pattern, echoing the "Throw Ed Under the Bus" mail that I discussed in last month's column.
The pattern is this: A reporter, be it ESPN's Ed Werder or SI.com's Selena Roberts, puts in time investigating a damaging rumor about a sports star to see if it can be transformed into reliable, multiple-sourced information. That effort succeeds, the star's image is tarnished, and the star, abetted by his agent, looks for a way to make a damage-reducing response.
If the star, be it Terrell Owens or A-Rod, is big enough, a good enough get, he will be able to choose whomever he wants to sit down across from him as he tells his side of the story. The star, understandably, will never choose the reporter whose work damaged him, and is, in fact, likely to try to undermine that reporter's work.
To avoid complicity in this pattern, the chosen interviewer, be it Stephen A. Smith or Gammons, must not let the star unfairly disparage the work of the original reporter, who after all provided the occasion of his great get. That is just one part of the interviewer's overall challenge, which is not to let his own reputation be tarnished while the star tries to polish his. If the interviewer lobs softball questions to the star as if he's a partner in a slugger's Home Run Derby performance, the good get becomes his undoing and the interviewer has, in effect, thrown himself under the bus.
Gammons and A-Rod
That was the risk Gammons ran. So how did he fare? Who is wearing the tire tracks? Postmortems in the mainstream media as well as my mailbag have been mixed, with some, like New York Times sports media critic Richard Sandomir, writing that "A-Rod gave Gammons plenty," and others, like this viewer from Kentucky, judging the interview a major missed opportunity:
"I feel that what could have been a groundbreaking and insightful interview was submarined by an interviewer who was either unwilling or unable to ask tough questions and dig deeper. ESPN can pat itself on the back all it wants for getting this interview, but should be ashamed that it allowed this segment to be Rodriguez's first step toward personal redemption rather than a hard hitting informative interview."
My own assessment is that Gammons asked the hard questions -- Did you take steroids? For how long? Where did you get them? Did you lie to Katie Couric? -- but that after getting Rodriguez's opening admission of guilt, he did not press hard enough when Rodriguez gave evasive or self-serving answers to the what/where/when/why questions. I also think Gammons' lack of follow-up was attributable, in large part, to his genuine sympathetic engagement in the human drama of what the viewer somewhat cynically called "Rodriguez's first step toward personal redemption."
Gammons told me, as well as other interviewers, that he was stunned by Rodriguez's admission that he had taken banned substances for three years.
"When I talked informally with Alex the night before," Gammons said, "I got the impression he was going to say whatever he tested positive for in 2003 was related to prescription drugs he had taken for a back injury in spring training."
When Gammons returned the next day for the interview -- which Rodriguez had first rescheduled from Sunday night to Monday morning, and then postponed again to early that afternoon -- he was prepared, with input from several ESPN producers and reporters, to do a more prosecutorial interview than the one that transpired. But Rodriguez offered his unexpected admission of guilt after the first question, and, Gammons says, "Obviously, there was a shift in direction."
"I realized right away that this was the first surefire, by his performance, Hall-of-Famer to admit this," Gammons said, "and therefore I thought keeping him talking, and getting as much as I could out there, was very important. I really felt my first duty was to get his words onto my employer's network."
The potential obstacle was the emotionality in the room.
"Sitting across from him, I felt he was tremendously emotional," Gammons said. "Alex has been very guarded over the years. I sometimes said I felt he cared so much about what other people thought that he often was wearing a mask. And as he started to answer the first question, I felt the mask come off."
When he saw Rodriguez drop his mask, Gammons put on one of his own, a poker face that registered no surprise, no judgment and no skepticism.
"At first, I was really shocked," Gammons said, "but I was trying not to be shocked and just continue on, so he didn't get a negative feed off my energy. He was so emotional I felt I was sailing though a nor'easter, and I was trying to keep the tiller and keep cutting through the wind and get there, from place A to Z."
What Gammons meant by getting "from place A to Z" was steering a steady course through a series of questions he thought it important to ask.
"I was trying to keep him talking without getting him defensive," he said. "I mean, I was trying to make it substantive but also just keep it going, because I was really afraid that the emotion might lead to a dead end."
That was why Gammons didn't press harder on certain questions.
"I tried to push him on specifics of what he took, where he got it, and he wouldn't go there," Gammons said, "and I thought to keep badgering him would have broken up the interview and I don't think we would have been able to get to the number of different questions we got to. In hindsight, I wish I had gone one more time on the question, 'How could you not know what you were putting in your body?' "
Did he feel sympathy for Rodriguez?
"Yes," Gammons said, "for this reason -- it really came out of his pores how painful it was for him to pull down the mask and admit this. I definitely felt some empathy for a person having to do the mea culpa in public."
Despite that sympathy, Gammons said he regrets not challenging Rodriguez when he mounted an attack on Roberts, calling the Sports Illustrated reporter "a stalker" and falsely accusing her of trespassing and trying "to break into my house where my girls are up there sleeping."
"I know Selena and have great respect for her," Gammons said, "and I know a lot of people were offended that I didn't rise up immediately to defend her. It so stunned me, I was sitting there thinking, people at home are going to say, 'Alex, your first answer already validated what she wrote.' But in hindsight, I wish I had said, 'This is not germane here,' and cut it off."
Hypothetical hard cop/A-Rod
After talking with Peter Gammons, I had two strong feelings. The first was, if I ever have a confession to make, I want to make it to Peter Gammons. The second was, I wish I knew how that interview might have gone down with a less sympathetic interviewer.
Gammons is a Hall of Fame baseball writer whose career as reporter, columnist and analyst has been devoted primarily to the game he loves and respects. What might have happened if the interview had been conducted not by someone embedded in baseball, but by a reporter from ESPN's investigative unit, a designated corps of "hard cops"?
We will never know how that alternative would have played out, but hypothetically, after A-Rod made his opening admission, a classic hard-cop reporter would ask, "What did you take? When and where did it start? Where did you learn about it? Who gave it to you?" and keep pressing him on those questions, putting Rodriguez to the test of how honest he was willing to be. If he didn't answer those questions, he would ask him his reasons for not answering, and if Rodriguez continued to be evasive, he would ask him what the purpose of the interview was if he was not going to give a full accounting.
If the reporter remained calm and professional, asking legitimate questions without any facial or vocal theatrics, and Rodriguez cut off the interview, it would have been a reflection on both Rodriguez and the hard-cop style, which in this case should not be confused with the "gotcha" style of entrapping a subject surprised and off-guard. Rodriguez knew in advance what the interview would be about, and he agreed to sit for it without preconditions other than the choice of interviewer.
In this hard-cop scenario, pressing does not result in any more of the who/what/where/when information than not pressing, but by underscoring the evasions, it tells the viewing audience something about who this person is and what he is doing with the interview. That, of course, is why no one with the mindset of an investigative reporter will ever be the player-chosen interviewer for a televised sit-down with an alleged steroids user.
Which brings me to Frost/Nixon.
As I thought about the good-cop/bad-cop options, it occurred to me that the televised sit-down interview with an accused celebrity is almost always a journalistic no-win format. At one point in my conversation with Gammons, he said of his sit-down with A-Rod, "My feeling is, this was not Frost/Nixon."
The fact is, not only was Gammons/A-Rod not Frost/Nixon, the movie "Frost/Nixon" was nothing like the actual 1977 Frost/Nixon interview. There was in actuality no climactic, character-exposing, drunken late night call from Nixon to Frost; the playwright and screenwriter had to invent a scene to satisfy the audience's desire for a more revealing portrait of Nixon than the actual interviews offered.
And as political journalist Elizabeth Drew made clear in her online essay "Frost/Nixon: A Dishonorable Distortion of History," the real David Frost did not succeed in getting the real Richard Nixon to admit to illegal activity as the movie Frost did. Like A-Rod, Nixon admitted to making "mistakes," to letting the country down, but his actual -- as opposed to cinematic -- final words on the Watergate break-in were, "You're wanting me to say that I participated in an illegal cover-up. No!"
If any accused celebrity, athlete or politician is a good enough get to name his interviewer for a sit-down, then he is almost inevitably also practiced enough and coached enough in dealing with the media to avoid revealing anything he doesn't want to reveal.
The interviewer's option is to let him have his say relatively unchallenged, or to press him into a stubborn display of nondisclosure. In either case, the emerging portrait of character is partial, unsatisfying, and the amount of actual information elicited has largely been determined ahead of time by the celebrity.
Whose get is it, anyway?
This does not mean, however, that ESPN should not try to strike a better balance between good-cop and bad-cop interviewing. Gammons could have pressed harder, as he admits, on certain questions. More importantly, ESPN should seriously consider taking more risks with sports stars who ask for sit-downs.
They come to ESPN for the many platforms of exposure it offers to reach the greatest number of fans. Why not say to the agent who calls, 'OK, you can name your interviewer for the televised sit-down, but only if you let us name the reporter for an accompanying off-camera interview that we will post on ESPN.com.' "
Let fans have both good cop and bad cop, each contributing as much as they can to filling in the portrait. That would eliminate a lot of the frustration fans feel when the big sit-down on "SportsCenter" is followed by days of speculation about the unanswered questions on other shows and on ESPN.com. The unknowns provide fodder for ESPN's legion of pundits and analysts, but fans would rather know ESPN had done its best to get answers when the suspect was still in their custody.
A dual approach to sit-downs would also help break the "Throw-Reporter-Under-The-Bus" pattern that threatens to divide ESPN's ranks.
"It would never happen," Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, said of my suggestion. "The possibility of getting a high-profile personality to sit for a second interview is not realistic. They have too many other places to go to get similar exposure -- '60 Minutes,' morning network shows, etc."
To which I can only respond: Try it. Or at least staff these sit-downs with a hard-cop producer, who has the authority to insist that a certain few questions be asked or re-asked.
The A-Rod interview had such a producer, Willie Weinbaum, but as he told me, "I can't tell Peter Gammons what to ask, and I wouldn't presume to. I can strongly suggest questions in advance and during tape breaks, but Peter Gammons is going to be in the chair asking the questions. This was Peter Gammons' get and Peter Gammons' interview."
This was also ESPN's get, and ESPN's reputation was as much at stake as Gammons'. A dispassionate hard-cop producer could have been given more than an advisory role in guiding the interview. Nobody, including ESPN's star-picked interviewers, wants to be labeled softball. Add three or four tough questions to the A-Rod interview, and Gammons wouldn't have to put up with second-guessers like me.
Two final notes
As all the above demonstrates, rumors of my departure have been premature. My term as ombudsman ends soon, by mutual prearrangement, but there will be a column next month, and if it is my last, I will say a proper goodbye.
I have been remiss in not using this column to relay to ESPN the unanimous dislike my correspondents have expressed for a certain Interactive Tuesday feature employed during college football and basketball games. They have called the top screen scrolls of text messages from viewers silly, bothersome, worthless and "the dumbest, most distracting gimmick I've ever been subjected to." After the Feb. 10 Marquette-Villanova game, fed-up fans of both teams mounted a write-the-ombudsman campaign that outweighed, by far, any mail I received about the A-Rod coverage. Thanks for the feedback, but you can stop now. You have been heard, loud and clear.