ESPN's coverage of the brawl in the third period of the Florida International-University of Miami football game in the Orange Bowl in mid-October elicited a torrent of e-mails from viewers who claimed the network was one-sided and unfair to the Hurricanes.
The melee was prompted by an FIU player jumping on Miami's holder following a third-quarter point-after attempt and resulted in dozens of players fighting each other, including many rushing the field from their respective sidelines. FIU's response was to dismiss two players from the team and suspend 16 indefinitely.
Miami suspended 12 players for one game (against Duke) and one player indefinitely -- the helmet-swinging Anthony Reddick. Miami's president, Donna Shalala, said in a news conference the punishment was adequate -- and she would not be "throwing any of the school's student-athletes under the bus."
President Shalala's position prompted harsh criticism from several ESPN commentators on a number of shows. But many viewers believed the commentary was not sufficiently balanced, and Miami coach Larry Coker was not given credit for attempting to improve Miami's image.
"It's time for the feeding frenzy to stop," Shalala said in response to the criticism. "These young men made a stupid, terrible, horrible mistake and are being punished."
The incident was heavily covered and commented on, in part, because Miami's football team has a history of ugly incidents, including a fight with LSU at last year's Peach Bowl, and its players stomping on Louisville's logo on the field before this year's game. Another factor was the available video footage, in contrast to a fight among Dartmouth and Holy Cross players the same day that received no national TV coverage.
"The coverage was intense because it was a big story, and we have dozens of shows," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news. "Nor do I think Donna Shalala did herself any favors with the lack of severity of Miami's penalties. FIU was much tougher in its disciplinary actions."
Other factors in the network's coverage and commentary, Doria said, included Miami's position on the national stage, the use of a helmet as a weapon by Reddick and the kicking of an FIU player by Miami's senior co-captain Brandon Meriweather.
"Much of the commentary occurred after Miami imposed its penalties," Doria said.
I have no problem with ESPN's focus, but I wonder how many times you can watch one brawl. And there could have been more balance in the reporting and commentary, particularly on former coach Butch Davis' success in improving the program's image and Coker's similar, but presumed less successful, attempts.
New York Stories
Some viewers were uneasy over the nonstop, daylong intensity ESPN brought to the Oct. 12 coverage of the private airplane crash into a New York apartment building that killed Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor.
"You'd have thought a president had died," one viewer from Ohio complained. Another viewer felt the coverage was "exploitive." And ESPN Radio's Colin Cowherd said on his show the coverage was "too much."
But Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production, said ESPN had an "obligation" to its viewers to go right on the air, and remain, with its on-the-scene coverage.
"It was an easy call for us," he said. "It was a tragic, shocking, developing news story of magnitude involving a New York Yankee pitcher flying into a New York apartment building."
I thought ESPN's response and coverage was appropriate and its reporting team, headed by Jeremy Schaap, professional. Viewers looking for sports had an NBA preseason game from Europe on ESPN2 to watch.
Not so impressive was ESPN's coverage of whether George Steinbrenner would retain Joe Torre as manager after the New York Yankees' elimination from the American League playoffs by the Detroit Tigers.
The day after the Detroit series, the New York Daily News reported that Torre "was expected" to be fired while Newsday reported George Steinbrenner "wanted" to fire Torre. ESPN followed with reporting and commentary also suggesting Torre was out. Three days later, however, Torre was told by Steinbrenner he would return for a 12th season.
Schaap, one of ESPN's best staffers, and Buster Olney, a knowledgeable, smart and experienced baseball commentator, both suggested Torre was close to losing his job.
"I tried to be careful in my reporting," Schaap said. "But it certainly looked that way [Torre's firing]. We reported no decision had been reached and attributed much of our information on Sunday to the Daily News and Newsday."
Olney said, "I tried to make it clear no decision had been made."
Still, over a three-day span, ESPN should have been more careful and cautious in reporting this story, with Schaap likely regretting his very good line, "Not everyone gets to attend his own funeral."
Instead of a public oops from ESPN, Jim Rome seemed to get in the last word, saying on his show Torre "should have been fired." So there.
One of the most controversial positions at ESPN is the sideline reporter -- an assignment that calls for aggressively creative reporting for an audience that often questions the need for the job. The duties include pressing pregame story lines, reacting to news and developments on the field during the game, and interviewing some coaches who would rather not be interviewed. In addition, sideline reporters support and assist announcers in the press box.
"Sideline reporters are a distraction" is a common theme among e-mails sent to ESPN's ombudsman.
"The job has evolved substantially over the years," said Jed Drake, ESPN's senior vice president for remote productions. "Sideline reporters are asked to deliver storytelling reports prior to the game, report between plays, make observations and cover injuries and sideline developments."
Said Williamson, "The sideline reporter is our beat reporter. Sideline reporters are responsible for everything that takes place on the field beyond the telecast of the game."
Holly Rowe, a veteran sideline reporter, said she believes her role is to answer questions and clarify developments during the game, as well as provide the announcers in the booth with news and information.
"One of the things I'm most proud is when my reporting generates conversation from the booth, as well as providing the viewer a front-row seat during the game," she said. "But sometimes you feel like an intruder when you try to balance private exchanges with the public's right to know."
Rowe's reservations notwithstanding, the more information and news delivered by sideline reporters the better. Their job is difficult. What team wants a reporter looking for news during the game when viewers are more interested in the action than the story line? Also, while some announcers seem reluctant to welcome input from their sideline colleagues, those same sideliners often seem to accept their role as journalists more than the guys upstairs.
The ombudsman grew up in a time when boxing was among the major sports in this country, when a big heavyweight title fight froze the nation, when fighters such as Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard dominated the sports headlines.
These days, major fights, when they occur, are shown on pay-per-view, with HBO, Showtime and ESPN picking off the rest.
"There used to be a huge appetite for boxing in the days of the megafight," Williamson said. "When SportsCenter covered those events, our ratings doubled and tripled."
ESPN's coverage of boxing includes a regular "Friday Night Fights" offering, as well as ESPN Original Entertainment's "The Contender" series, run by Leonard, which attempts to "humanize" the fighters, Williamson said.
"On Friday nights, we're putting on fighters in their development stages," said Rob Breiner the producer of ESPN's Friday night show. "We try to show honest competition" even if not in the high economic strata of HBO and Showtime's promotions.
With Joe Tessitore and Teddy Atlas as commentators, Breiner with a budget of between $20,000 to $30,000 per show, hopes to give promising fighters "exposure" and satisfy fans who still appreciate the game.
ESPN has to be pleased with record ratings (for cable television) of "Monday Night Football" and the performance of its announcing team and sideline reporters, as well as the pregame and postgame shows. But some viewers complain the Mike Tirico-Joe Theismann-Tony Kornheiser team still doesn't talk enough about the game, and others have individual gripes. The biggest knocks are the celebrity interviews. From Emmitt Smith talking about his dancing to James Denton of "Desperate Housewives" being asked an off-color question by Kornheiser to filmmaker Spike Lee, many viewers feel the guests are a distraction from the football game. I agree. It's a football game, not a night-time talk show.
Some viewers are still upset the football game between top-ranked Ohio State and Indiana this month was on ESPNU rather than ESPN or ESPN2.
The production/reporting team that worked on the Pat Tillman story that appeared on SportsCenter this month deserves major kudos. That would be Tim Hays, Brian Franey, Willie Weinbaum and Mike Fish. What made the story compelling was the depth of the reporting and interviews.