High marks for ESPN on Sterling, Sam

Last year, they were just a couple of character actors waiting in the wings. But in recent weeks, Donald Sterling and Michael Sam stepped into leading roles on ESPN, and the network’s coverage of them dominated the Ombudsman’s mailbag.

Together they represent a dazzling combination of diversity -- white/black, old/young, straight/gay, billionaire/job seeker. Yet the reporting on each made many in the audience uncomfortable, if not downright angry, while stimulating necessary discussions about homophobia and racism.

There was another incidental and welcome outcome: The chance to measure ESPN journalism in an ongoing story against the so-called mainstream media. Spoiler alert: I’m giving out mostly high marks for jobs well done.

Sam, the openly gay defensive end from Missouri, became one of two main story arcs in ESPN’s recent coverage of the NFL draft. After Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel was drafted 22nd on the first day, the suspense for many viewers shifted to how high Sam would be drafted, if at all. Homophobia and a reluctance to engage a distracting media carnival were cited as reasons for teams to pass on Sam -- not to mention questions about his actual skills, size and willingness to focus totally on the game.

So one might imagine the joy and relief Sam and his boyfriend experienced when the St. Louis Rams selected him in the seventh round on the draft’s third and final day. Their reaction quickly became known as “The Kiss.” It was recorded by an ESPN camera crew and replayed over and over on various shows. The two men hugged, cried, kissed and smeared each other’s faces with cake frosting.

Of the several hundred emails I received, only one considered this a positive event well presented. The rest expressed a spectrum of negativity from disappointment to outrage. Among the typical comments, one correspondent accused ESPN of “social engineering,” another of its being a “pervert enabler.”

Nick Hernandez of Houston wrote: “The media wants us to see Sam as a football player, but all they want to show us is him kissing his boyfriend. How can we think of him as anything but gay if you keep pushing his gayness (in the coverage)?”

A Christian View

A number of viewers contrasted ESPN’s coverage of Christian athletes. Representative was this from Edison Flores of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida: “First, I want to start by saying I'm not prejudiced and strive not to be judgmental, that said, it’s funny how everyone is quick to praise Michael Sam for being gay but everyone mocked Tim Tebow for being a Christian.”

ESPN’s coverage of Tebow over the past few years was criticized by some as being excessive (not then the Ombudsman, I actually enjoyed it), but I don’t recall the young QB’s religious beliefs being attacked, certainly not in the way the sexual orientation of gay athletes has been criticized, even by an ESPN reporter on air.

And for all the conspiracy theorists who have claimed ESPN has been promoting a gay agenda, no one has wondered whether ESPN has been setting up Tebow for his new job as a TV star on the upcoming SEC Network. Many correspondents accuse ESPN of having a liberal, East Coast, even anti-Christian bias, exemplified by a general tone of celebration about Sam’s drafting. Some also say the boyfriend scene was “orchestrated.”

No argument about that.

Filming a situation with no definite start time in a room filled with the two principals, their public relations handlers, and crews from ESPN and Oprah Winfrey’s network, requires a great deal of orchestration -- or at least cooperation. According to Vince Doria, ESPN senior vice president and director of news, the network had agreed not to start shooting the scene with Sam until the draft call came. There would be no pictures of Sam on the couch biting his nails. That said, according to Doria, ESPN refused a later request from “Sam’s people” to cut back the amount of footage being aired.

A primary member of Sam’s camp, respected Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman, was uncharacteristically curt when I asked him about the arrangements with ESPN. He said he would refer the matter to “people who were there,” but those from Sam’s camp in attendance during the draft did not respond for comment.

Seth Markman, senior coordinating producer in charge of NFL studio shows for ESPN, was guiding the network’s draft coverage from a remote truck outside Radio City Music Hall. When asked about the scene with Sam, Markman told me he didn’t preview the video and was “trusting” producer Maura Mandt, who was with Sam to produce a segment for this summer’s ESPYS awards show “and had called and said ‘it's really great and emotional.’ I was really never worried about what was on the video at the time,” he said.

“As far as letting it play out, I felt that was a no-brainer,” Markman said. “Our job is to document the draft and all the emotion that goes with it. We don't make political statements. We captured the scene, which wasn't all that different than the hundreds of kisses we've seen over the years -- except this was a man and a man. If we didn't let it play out, it would be inconsistent with how we have always documented this event.”

That sounds like the right call to me. I think ESPN’s point of view here is nonideological, unless you believe capitalism and proper journalism are ideological. This was a big story -- the first openly gay player in a sport relentlessly marketed as a test of traditional American manhood, one step below military special ops. (Pat Tillman’s stride from Arizona Cardinal to Army Ranger might have been seen as anti-capitalist, but it was certainly logical as an expression of masculinity. And that story, as it continues to unspool, has been splendidly covered by Mike Fish and other ESPN reporters.)

Piercing the Safe Zone

Thus, it’s hard to see ESPN covering Sam’s reaction as anything more than its responsibility to sports fans and to the shareholders of Disney, ESPN’s parent company. And there’s no question that it was a big story to ESPN viewers. According to Mike Reznick, manager of social media research, “the @SportsCenter tweet of the Sam video clip generated five times the amount of retweets that an average @SportsCenter tweet receives."

The Ombuddies who complained that it was not proper news coverage tended to cite addresses from Southern states. Many evoked their Christianity and often described their discomfort at having their living rooms invaded by images of gay public displays of affection while their children were watching.

Barry Blyn, vice president of consumer insights, said ESPN had not done any polling on Sam viewers. But he did have interesting observations that added texture, pointing out that the Southeast is “the strongest area for ESPN” and that feedback for social and mailboxes “is often disproportionally negative.” Added Blyn, “In some ways, fans always have come to expect a ‘politics free’ zone on ESPN. As soon as Obama does his bracket picks or fans see a car race story on Cindy McCain, it pierces that safe zone.”

The tone of the Sam mail also echoed the reaction after Fox News host Bill O’Reilly chastised ESPN for rejecting a religious ad for a Missouri hospital last year. In Sam’s case, O’Reilly described the emotional response to being drafted as “annoying” and “a dog and pony show.”

With the planned OWN documentary on hold and Sam and the Rams focused on football, we can expect that story to recede, although there will be a quick flare if Sam is cut early.

Meanwhile, the more complex tale of Sterling took another turn this week when Shelly Sterling announced that she has signed an agreement to sell the Clippers to former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. Shelly Sterling became the sole trustee of the Sterling family trust, according to reports by ESPN's Ramona Shelburne and Darren Rovell, when husband Donald, the Clippers' controlling owner, was found by experts to be mentally incapacitated.

Doria said he believes ESPN’s ongoing coverage of Sterling and his controversial remarks has been “responsible,” and I agree with him. I also think that some of the most interesting and varied opinions came out of ESPN. One arguable criticism was that ESPN was slow to report the story when it first broke. This is a recurring criticism, sometimes attributed to ESPN “protecting” one of its primary business partners, stereotypically the NFL after a star player is charged with sexual assault. But I believe Doria when he said that it was prudence rather than protectionism that kept ESPN from bursting out of the starting blocks sooner.

Doria explained that “when the story broke on TMZ, we didn’t know where the audio tape of an alleged phone call between Sterling and V. Stiviano had come from and we didn’t want to report it unless we could verify it or actually get the tape to verify that it was credible. We decided to wait until the league acknowledged its existence and started an investigation, or the Clippers or Sterling announced it.”

That explanation satisfied me, but not Jay Rosen, the well-known New York University media critic who had written me on April 26, the day the story broke, that “I think it's a good idea for ESPN to try to minimize the intervals in which all of social media is talking about something and ESPN doesn't seem to know it exists. Bad for a news network.”

Doria bridled at that. “We can’t relax standards,” he told me, “just because everyone on Twitter is a publisher. We do account for ‘buzz factor’ but don’t believe efforts to be fair are no longer relevant. This was our thought process: If true, this story will have legs and be around for a while.

"If not, you contributed to irreparable damage.”

Tentacles and Robots

The story turned out to be true and will be around for a while, but Doria and Rosen made important points (Rosen’s describing ESPN as a “news network” will be revisited in a future column). Rosen later wrote to me that he thinks perhaps all that is needed is for ESPN to find a way “to alert the more tuned-in fans that it is aware of a potentially huge story and working on it.” He also thought that “once it got going, of course, ESPN gave the story everything it was due.”

The Ombudsman concurs with that compliment.

According to Doria, there has been an effort to centralize ESPN’s newsgathering operations, with the TV and digital news desks physically realigned to encourage easier communication. “No one who has as many tentacles as we do is as well organized,” he said. In the Sterling story, this included communication between TV news executive Craig Lazarus and those at ABC involved with Barbara Walters and her interviews with Shelly Sterling and Stiviano.

Beyond the Donald Sterling story, some integration attempts with other properties can result in tentacles getting tangled up with Disney’s entertainment units. Robots appeared on the “SportsCenter” set during a reference to a new Star Wars movie, now a Disney franchise. And Bill Simmons, an executive producer of the Disney movie “Million Dollar Arm,” interviewed the film’s star, Jon Hamm, for a Grantland podcast. Wrote Steve Praven of Geneva, Illinois, “The fact that ESPN continually blurs lines on issues like this makes me think less of the network. It is a real conflict of interest and very disconcerting.”

Doria claims that ESPN newsgathering units always maintain the “church-state” separation when it comes to covering a primary business partner such as the NBA, even to the point of not leveraging business-side contacts to get advance or exclusive information. Doria, a former sports editor of The Boston Globe, will retire next year as one of the most respected of the more traditional breed of ESPN journalists who believe that news and business must remain separate to ensure integrity -- a doctrine unfortunately losing traction throughout the media world.

Although ESPN’s recent Sterling coverage might have started tardily, it really began in 2006 with one of Bomani Jones’ remarkable columns on the late, lamented ESPN.com feature section, Page 2. At the time, the Clippers’ owner was defending his second major housing discrimination lawsuit. In a smart, passionate piece, Jones accused the media of having “dropped the ball” by not exposing Sterling’s “ethical transgressions.”

Now a regular on several ESPN shows, including “Highly Questionable,” which he co-hosts with Dan Le Batard, Jones refined and expanded that accusation with a brilliant riff on ESPN Radio. Citing the recent shooting death of a friend and Chicago civil rights activist, Jones connected Sterling’s “real acts of racism,” discrimination in housing, with the lack of social mobility and educational opportunities that have stunted the lives of millions. He dismissed as fraudulent the easy attacks on Sterling for not wanting his girlfriend to show him up in front of his rich white friends by coming to games with “young black dudes.”

Also resurrected, for good reason, by the ESPN digital team was Peter Keating’s extraordinary 2009 ESPN The Magazine story, probably the most important early alert to Sterling's character. That piece prompted many people to echo Michael Smith, co-host of “Numbers Never Lie,” who asked, “Why didn’t they kick him out for the things he did?” Smith also shrewdly said that he’d “like to hear from [former NBA commissioner David] Stern, who enabled him.”

A number of Ombuddies had similar comments, including Martin Feigen of Buford, Georgia, who wrote: “As a longtime California resident I find most of the coverage of the Donald Sterling tape disingenuous at best, fake at worst. … None of this was new; it was just exposed in a different venue, TMZ, and not controlled by ESPN. This has all the underpinnings of the media’s current ‘outrage’ over PEDs in baseball when all the same baseball media knew but did not report on it when it was happening!”

Going Deeper

There were other highlights.

I liked the column by J.A. Adande, a senior writer and “Around the Horn” panelist, who noted that by taking “the hard line [NBA commissioner Adam] Silver let everyone off the hook,” including the players, fans, other owners and the media. Adande wrote: “Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is absolutely right to express his concern about a slippery slope now that words can be grounds for revocation of a franchise.

“What happens when we're forced to examine our own motives and willingness to sacrifice, when the solution isn't to get rid of someone else but to change our own behavior?”

That turned out to be prescient less than a month later when Cuban talked about his own prejudices -- a fear of black young men in hoodies and of white, tattooed skinheads. (Cuban was ably defended by Stephen A. Smith, co-host of ESPN’s “First Take,” who viewed attacks on Cuban, particularly from the black community, as an unwillingness to confront the often unconscious racism in all of us.)

ESPN.com columnist Jason Whitlock, almost always dependable for a provocative opinion, did not disappoint. He wrote: “A right to privacy is at the very foundation of American freedoms. It's a core value. It's a mistake to undermine a core value because we don't like the way a billionaire exercises it. What happens when a disgruntled lover gives TMZ a tape of a millionaire athlete expressing a homophobic or anti-Semitic or anti-white perspective?

“Warriors coach Mark Jackson, who called for Clippers fans to boycott Game 5, seems quite vulnerable to mob rule. Jackson is super-religious. He's previously been extorted by a stripper he kept as a mistress. And some of the LGBT community views Jackson as homophobic.” (Jackson subsequently rejoined ESPN as an analyst after being fired by Golden State).

Senior writer Alyssa Roenigk found “an outrage missing” in the Sterling conversation. Writing on espnW, Roenigk reminds us of past charges of sexual harassment against Sterling. “But in sports, if there is any ‘-ism’ that consistently fails to move the needle, sexism is it,” she wrote.

Roenigk made a pitch for Oprah owning the Clippers, and added, “Having a woman owner in the NBA might make a few men uncomfortable. But maybe being uncomfortable is exactly what the league needs right now.”

There were many other instances of good writing and relevant talk during what has been a high-water mark of recent ESPN coverage. (Of course, neither the Sam nor the Sterling show is over yet, so stay tuned.)

But to Roenigk’s point, perhaps being uncomfortable in the virtual press box and in the family living room is what media and fans need right now. As John Saunders, moderator of “The Sports Reporters,” pointed out on a recent show, it sometimes takes crises for people to ask the right questions … and address the critical issues.