Content 'crimes' and punishment at ESPN

If you wonder if there’s an invisible foul line running through ESPN over which on-air talent and contributors can stumble out of bounds, and which are allowed more stumbling room, so does the Ombudsman.

A number of recent transgressions by ESPN radio and television personalities, all of which included some public pronouncement by the network, brought that question to the forefront once again.

In the past month, Stephen A. Smith, Max Kellerman and Dan Le Batard were briefly suspended by the network in the wake of on-air comments or, in Le Batard’s case, an unauthorized stunt.

A fourth broadcaster, ESPN football analyst Mike Ditka, was not directly chided when, in a defense of the Washington nickname “Redskins,” he said, “What are you going to call them, Brownskins?” ESPN did subsequently issue a policy on use of the name on its platforms. The Ombudsman received many e-mails, some supporting Ditka and others calling for his dismissal.'

After a fifth broadcaster, NFL reporter Josina Anderson, informed a “SportsCenter” audience that Michael Sam might not be showering with his teammates in the St. Louis Rams’ locker room, ESPN issued an apology.

When I asked John Skipper about the consequences of these missteps, the president of ESPN analogized the company’s guidelines as “an electrical dog fence” that every so often zaps someone who needs to be reminded there are limits to free expression on company air. The problem, of course, is that many of the content “crimes” at ESPN are not specifically codified -- thus the seemingly covert nature of that foul line -- nor is punishment, which often seems inconsistent, even whimsical.

As correspondents to the Ombudsman’s mailbag constantly point out, ESPN personnel seem to be fired, suspended or forgiven for what appear to be similar offenses. This leaves an impression of unfairness or that some greater transgression, the real reason for the punishment, has been hushed up.

Let’s take a trek into this twilight zone with a caveat: I promise some transparency on the ESPN way of dealing with crime and punishment, but no hard-and-fast canon, because there isn’t any. Keep in mind this from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN digital and print media: “We don’t treat everyone the same but we treat everyone fairly.” It’s a recurring mantra in the ESPN belief system.

Provoked By The Word ‘Provoke’

Of the five cases referenced above, the bumbling attempt by Smith, co-host of ESPN2’s “First Take,” to articulate what some correspondents thought might have been a point worth making about the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice and domestic violence, elicited the most flurry in my mailbag. After the NFL suspended Rice for just two games after security videos showed him dragging his then-fiancee and now wife out of a hotel elevator, Smith called the punishment too lenient. But, he also said, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions.”

We’ve been through this case in a previous column.

Smith’s use of the word “provoke” was widely interpreted as a blame-the-victim comment. It might well have been a botched attempt to widen the context of the discussion. It would take a far more subtle hand than Smith’s to do that in this selectively censorious climate, and even then could use help from espnW and outside experts.

In any case, Smith was suspended for a week.

In a typical mailbag response, Dave Gustin of Leesburg, Ohio, wrote: “I have watched as women I care about provoked men until they did something that I would have called out of character. It never made it right to push them or grab them ... but it certainly was provoked. … ESPN needs to get a NON-PC clue about reality. Steven A., who is not one of my favorites, as he can unfairly play the race card sometimes, did not say anything worth suspending him for.”

Added Lee Weiss of Roslyn, New York: “ESPN's sole purpose in employing Stephen A. Smith is so that he can give controversial opinions and spark discussion. Are you really suggesting that his job is to be controversial, without being politically incorrect? And since when did provocation become a taboo topic?”

Skipper’s official statement declared the decision to suspend Smith had been arrived at after a “thoughtful discussion about appropriate next steps [with] a diverse group of women and men in our company.” He also said the “remarks did not reflect our company's point of view or our values. They certainly don't reflect my personal beliefs.”

Marcia Keegan, vice president in ESPN studio production, was one of the “diverse group” involved. She directly supervises “First Take,” among other shows. “I know John Skipper was involved in the discussion,” she told me. “He always plays some role, and the consensus was that Stephen went over the line. The word ‘provoke’ gave the impression it was her fault.”

Because Smith’s remarks were made on a Friday, ESPN executives and producers exchanged e-mails and conference calls rather than calling a meeting over the weekend. Four days later, ESPN announced the suspension, always a complex decision involving, according to Keegan, two main factors: the person involved and the impact on the brand.

“Stephen is a longtime contributor,” Keegan said. “He does an enormous amount of work. He’s professional. In this one case, he was wrong, which is unfortunate. But he was upset afterward and his apology was sincere. So you deal with it and move on.”

As for protecting the brand, that’s one of Skipper’s core jobs. As he told me, “There are really two parts to that: the internal culture -- making sure our people understand that we respect them and the workplace -- and the external PR impact.

“The headline was that Smith says domestic violence can be OK -- actually, it’s not clear what he was saying. But in public PR terms we had to counter that blame-the-victim suggestion, make it clear that this is not how we think. It’s not OK in our workplace or in our support of women’s sports or in our ideas of fairness.

“So, we have to do something to make this go away publicly and to retain our credibility internally -- and at the same time it can’t be too severe to this individual.”

While none of this was bombshell information, it did offer an unusual level of corporate candor. Skipper agreed but added, “There may seem to be a lack of consistency -- we are not a judicial body. I don’t think there is any public right to know about the discipline we hand out.”

I disagree. If ESPN commentators can freely discuss and criticize the range of NFL discipline -- a year’s suspension for marijuana, two games for domestic abuse, nothing for locker-room bullying -- then their own punishments should also be aired out. It ensures accountability, offers credibility to the company and gives the audience a reason for trust.

(Note: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell subsequently apologized for the leniency of Rice’s punishment and announced far more severe penalties for future cases of domestic violence by NFL players and personnel. The Ravens then released Rice and the league suspended him indefinitely this week after the release of video showing Rice knocking out his fiancée in the elevator. It is it still not clear what Goodell knew when he made the earlier decision and when he knew it.)

More Than We Needed to Know?

Several days after Smith’s suspension, Kellerman, co-host of both ESPN’s “SportsNation” and the drive-time radio show “Max and Marcellus,” made controversial comments on an ESPN LA radio show. More than 20 years ago, he recounted, at a party at which both had too much to drink, his then-girlfriend (now-wife) slapped him. Kellerman said he slapped her back.

ESPN never quite came out and stated that Kellerman was being punished for the comments; it announced that "Kellerman will return to ESPN LA Radio and 'SportsNation' on Thursday." It was a kind of stealth suspension. An ESPN spokesman refused to go beyond that statement for me. It is standard policy throughout corporate America to keep personnel matters private, as ESPN executives often remind me. But ESPN is no common corporation; it sells itself as a kind of public utility for all things sports and encourages all manner of customer/fan interaction.

An ESPN executive did tell me, “Max was showboating and the discussion had a sense of locker room banter. And this was after a clear edict that the topic of Smith and domestic violence was off limits. I’m at a loss for words about how dumb it was.”

I agree. But Kellerman, like all on-air talent, is not exactly a solo act. There are producers in the control room talking in his ear. Where were they? Were they punished, too? Mo Davenport, a 29-year ESPN veteran and senior vice president of ESPN Audio, wouldn’t tell me if any members of the production staff were punished, but he did agree that “they act as checks and balances and should be held accountable.

“The challenge of live radio is being on a high wire for three hours, trying to be smart, engaged and provocative, without a net,” he said. “Your best chance is a producer with strong sensibilities and a 9-second delay. Kellerman’s producer could have gotten him off that minefield, hit the button and told him to start talking about Kobe and the Lakers.”

Per standard process, Skipper was informed of the discussions about Kellerman. He says, “I actually don’t remember if I approved the punishment before or after it was meted out because I agreed with it.”

Slapping A Star’s Stunt

Skipper did pull the trigger on Le Batard’s suspension, although he says other senior leaders in the organization could have made the call. Interestingly, LeBatard told me he’s not certain about that, saying via e-mail, “Ultimately, nothing happens to me unless Skipper signs off. This one got to the top. But it's also why Skipper hired me, you know? Love that dude. Love him.”

Le Batard was suspended for two days for funding a billboard in Akron, Ohio, bearing images of the two NBA title rings LeBron James won with the Heat and the line, “You’re Welcome, LeBron. Love, Miami.” It was the denouement of a running joke on his radio show that included an unsuccessful attempt to place a full-page ad in a Cleveland newspaper, and hire a plane to promote it.

ESPN stated: “His recent stunt does not reflect ESPN’s standards and brand. Additionally, we were not made aware of his plans in advance.”

Le Batard admitted that he had been “insubordinate” and wrote in a column on ESPN.com, “This fun and ridiculous stunt all turned out to be accidental performance art that created media buzz and ratings in a benign way while sticking to my irreverent beliefs about not genuflecting in the cathedral we’ve made of fun and games.”

And while we’ve been down the caper trail before with Le Batard, not all Ombudsman feedback was in agreement with the network. A Florida resident, Gavin Avellanet of Davie wrote: “ESPN, Get over your righteous selves. Are you kidding about the Dan Le Batard suspension? I don't particularly care for the man, finding him to be a bit tasteless at times, but your applying your morality in this case is more than a bit irksome. Give me a break. How is this offensive? How were you surprised about an act that was planned for weeks now on air? Get your act together!”

Dennus Sklenar of Youngstown, Ohio, was less forgiving: “Why do you continue to carry Dan Le Batard's show on ESPN Radio? He reminds me of the juvenile FM radio ‘shock jocks’ with his stunts -- Hall of Fame vote, Akron billboards, and idiotic sidekick.”

Ditka On The Washington Nickname

In yet another controversy, Ditka caused a stir in an interview with RedskinsHistorian.com, asking, “What’s all the stink over the Redskin name? It’s so much horses--- it’s incredible. We’re going to let the liberals of the world run this world. It was said out of reverence, out of pride to the American Indian. Even though it was called a Redskin, what are you going to call them, a Brownskin?"

When Ditka’s remarks were replayed on the ESPN radio show “Mike & Mike,” the topic landed in Davenport’s lap.

“He’s entitled to his opinion even if it differs from mine and even if he presents it inarticulately,” Davenport said. “Ditka reflects the feelings of a lot of fans, and perhaps many older people [Ditka is 74]."

The ESPN Editorial Board has been talking about this for a long time. Those board discussions produced a forward step for ESPN. In an increasingly negative climate around use of the nickname, ESPN stated in late August, “Our consistent company policy will continue: using official names and marks as presented by the teams, leagues and conferences we cover. We do, however, recognize the debate over the use of 'Washington Redskins' and have afforded individuals the opportunity to decide how they will use those words when reporting on the team."

Davenport said the timing of the statement, soon after Ditka’s remarks, was coincidental; the policy had been in the works for a while.

Creating A Media Distraction

And, finally, in this version of the police blotter, we have the case of Anderson. In response to a question from “SportsCenter” anchor Jay Crawford (“How is [Michael Sam] fitting in with his Ram teammates so far?”), Anderson quoted by name one player who thought Sam was fitting in fine, as well as an anonymous teammate who said he thought the openly gay rookie was “respecting our space” by “kinda waiting to take a shower so as not to make his teammates feel uncomfortable.”

Anderson then quoted other players who said they weren’t “tracking” Sam’s shower time and that there were “a million reasons” for Sam not to be showering with fellow Rams, including extra rookie workouts.

Rams coach Jeff Fisher criticized ESPN for the “manufactured” controversy and Rams defensive end Chris Long tweeted “Dear ESPN, Everyone but you is over it.” (My view here: It should be embarrassing when our subjects make more journalistic sense than we do.)

The mailbag erupted over the report and ESPN’s lack of coverage of the overwhelmingly negative reaction. Was Anderson reporting from another planet? After all the silly, sometimes anti-gay, discussions about gays and straights showering together, she clumsily offered as journalism an anonymous quote, then knocked it down. Was there a point other than calling attention to herself and becoming the media distraction predicted when Sam was drafted? Could Crawford have called her on it, or the control room walked her back?

The company apologized, saying “ESPN regrets the manner in which we presented our report. Clearly yesterday we collectively failed to meet the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports."

But what exactly are “the standards we have set in reporting on LGBT-related topics in sports"? Where are they codified, and who is aware?

Most organizations that claim serious journalistic credentials have an editor or executive in charge of “standards and practices.” This is an older hand, usually with institutional memory and a background in ethics and newsgathering, who can offer counsel on the coverage of upcoming issues and explain, as needed, how the coverage fell short of standards.

ESPN does not have such a specifically designated person. John Walsh, executive vice president and executive editor, has long run the Editorial Board and serves as a “conscience” for the network’s journalism and policies, but there is no overall decision-maker outside of Skipper.

Stiegman, articulator of the fairness mantra, told me, “No one person on the editorial team manages all the voices and opinions at ESPN. We have guidelines on commentary that apply across the board; transgressions thereof are dealt with by the individual division or show unit, and move up the chain as needed.”

Walsh and Stiegman were among those instrumental in compiling ESPN’s “Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices,” a work in progress begun six years ago after internal discussions and prodding from two previous ombudsmen, Don Ohlmeyer and LeAnne Schrieber. It was last substantially updated in 2012, but is, as Stiegman says, “a living document subject to change.”

It’s a thoughtful and useful set of guidelines. Stiegman sees some values in its leeway for interpretation. ESPN is just too big a tent for hard-and-fast journalistic commandments (and we are talking mostly journalism here without embracing the debate for now on “First Take” as journalism). Consider the difference in purpose, personnel and audience for, say, “SportsCenter,” “College GameDay” and “Outside the Lines,” not to mention hot dog eating contests and 30-for-30 documentaries.

And that’s not even to mention the new SEC network, where potential conflicts of interest are mind boggling. How will Tim Tebow, already a hit as an entertaining broadcaster, cover the first transgression of a conference quarterback? Should he? Should there be a rule for that?

Another issue is the increasingly blurred line between reporting and commenting by reporters, analysts and anchors. My first Ombudsman column dealt with a reporter’s inappropriate opinion (at least for that show, at that moment, on a player’s Christianity and homosexuality).

Ombudsmen Have Weighed In

Eight years ago, ESPN’s first Ombudsman, George Solomon, had this to say about the company’s decision not to renew Jason Whitlock at the time after he made personal attacks on colleagues Mike Lupica and Scoop Jackson (which Solomon decorously did not repeat):

“I don't see enough tough editing and direction from people directly responsible for what gets on the air and on the Web site. …. Commentators, panelists and so-called ‘star talent’ need to be held to the same standards as everyone else at ESPN and other media. ESPN should make certain its guidelines and standards are known and followed by everyone taking its paychecks.”

Three years later, Ohlmeyer commented on an incident involving ESPN commentator Bob Griese. During a college football broadcast, a NASCAR promo appeared, wrote Ohlmeyer, “that included a full-screen graphic of the top five drivers in the Chase for the Cup. Fellow announcer Chris Spielman asked ‘Where's Montoya?’ (referring to Colombian driver Juan Pablo Montoya, who was not listed in the top five.) Griese responded, ‘Out eating a taco.’”

Griese received a one-game suspension.

After discussing the pros and pitfalls of humor, off-the cuff remarks and cultural sensitivity with several ESPN executives, Ohlmeyer wrote: “Will viewers use the Griese suspension as the yardstick for punishing announcers whom they believe have ‘offended’ them with some comment? Does ethnic sensitivity apply to all groups? Had Griese's observation been about an Irishman eating corned beef or a Pole enjoying kielbasa, for example, would the punishment have been the same?

“And then there are the pressure groups. A cottage industry exists made up of small but vocal organizations that further their interests and visibility by latching onto ‘slights and insults,’ real or perceived, and turning them into media events. Could ESPN's legitimate introspection and sensitivity end up unintentionally painting a target on its back?”

That was prescient. Three years later, ESPN fired one employee and suspended another for 30 days over “offensive and inappropriate comments” while reporting on then-New York Knicks sensation Jeremy Lin, who is Chinese-American. "Chink in the armor" was the offending phrase. It was probably used in a more lazy, mindless and insensitive manner rather than a bigoted one. These days, you can find senior ESPN executives who admit that the severity of the punishments was a response to just the kind of pressure Ohlmeyer had warned against.

So what does ESPN need? Mostly a better trained and empowered production staff patrolling that electrical dog fence. Behind them, a senior staff willing to stand up to pressure groups and a standards-and-practices editor, sort of a pre-Ombudsman, alerting, coaching and needling the pack to be smarter, less entitled and more sensitive.

That person’s first job would be to convene a team to consistently monitor and update the guidelines. That’s critical because, as Schrieber wrote six years ago, “ESPN's many layers of editors and producers are not all on the same page, not even about some basic principles that define the nature of a journalistic enterprise. … [L]ike the rest of the country, they lack common perspectives, values, frames of reference, sensibilities and verbal manners.

“That variety of voices is one of ESPN's strengths, but it also requires shepherding by means other than suspension and PR-vetted public apologies that more often than not miss the mark, failing both to appease the offended and to teach the right lessons to potential offenders.”

The good news is that kind of awareness already exists. I was impressed by the glossary distributed by the ESPN news desk ahead of the NFL draft and again just before the Aug. 30 cut-down date at which Sam might have – but did not -- make the Rams’ active roster to become the first openly gay player in the NFL (he later signed with Dallas). The document offered proper usage as well as offensive words to avoid.

That kind of detail combined with some real or hypothetical case histories would go a long way toward buttressing the current guidelines – including some specific directives regarding consequences. Otherwise, it’s going to continue to be seat of the pants, which will be increasingly less effective as ESPN continues to go boldly where no network has gone before.

To be clear, I don’t think the system is broken: How many hours of TV and radio, and thousands of print and digital words are produced every day without incident, often with distinction? But the system certainly could be improved.

And we’ll all know it when that seemingly invisible foul line comes into focus.