ESPN flexes journalistic muscle on Rice

When a major business partner is also a major source of news for a media company, the words “conflict of interest” begin blinking in neon. How will the company cover its partner when the mess hits the fans? Let us not be hypothetical: After years of rumors and speculation about ESPN cosmeticizing its coverage of the NFL, a routinely ugly -- but usually containable -- story recently exploded into the sports equivalent of the BP oil spill.

Running backs such as Baltimore’s Ray Rice have hit their girlfriends before, but never with such clear TMZ video, nor with such an inept and seemingly complicit response from the National Football League’s commissioner, Roger Goodell.

Nor with such strong coverage and commentary from ESPN.

The network’s heavyweights -- Keith Olbermann, Jason Whitlock and Bill Simmons, among others -- delivered their own verbal punches; investigative reporter Don Van Natta Jr. has been driving the national media’s newsgathering; Bob Ley anchored smart and thoughtful discussions; and a roster of stars, including Jane McManus, Dan Le Batard, Hannah Storm, Andrew Brandt, Adam Schefter and Chris Mortensen, offered information and insight.

I’d like to say I wasn’t the least bit surprised … but I was.

This was ESPN’s finest hour during my tenure as Ombudsman, in contrast to its darkest -- the withdrawal of the network’s imprimatur from the 2013 PBS broadcast “League of Denial.” It was widely speculated at that time, although without a smoking video, that the NFL had pushed ESPN to distance itself from the league’s attempt to squelch the scientific evidence that football was causing brain damage. The league had leverage -- ESPN pays the league significant rights fees, but in turn generates substantial revenue against NFL content.

Memories of ‘Denial’

The memory of “League of Denial” seemed to hover over ESPN’s coverage of Goodell, his reactions to Rice’s domestic abuse, and the apparent attempt by the team and the league to downplay it, if not cover it up. After all, it was reporting by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada, Steve Fainaru and Peter Keating that laid the foundation for last year’s prize-winning “Frontline” broadcast. An excellent book by the Fainaru brothers followed, as well as strong ESPN reporting on the topic, making up, in some fashion, for the unfortunate loss of logo on the program.

But there was lingering outrage in the Ombudsman’s mailbag. Could ESPN be trusted with another controversial NFL story?

Early reporting by McManus and Mortensen, noting that the elevator video of Rice’s punch was more widely accessible than Goodell had declared, was far ahead of the newspack. That it was featured on ESPN at all led me to speculate that senior executives -- some of whom had only recently moved into new powers as John Skipper consolidated his presidency -- were aware that the network was as rich and as influential as the league and might not have to defer to it.

Mortensen’s work was particularly important. McManus is a routinely excellent reporter and commentator, but Mortensen’s main job has been to harvest an endless stream of insider info-bits on NFL transactions to feed fan and fantasy frenzy. It’s easy to forget his background as an accomplished investigative reporter -- a Polk Award winner a quarter-century ago for an Atlanta Journal-Constitution series on college sports corruption. An Ombudsman highlight of this sad Rice case is seeing that Mortensen still has his chops, and that ESPN knows how to use them.

There was also, coincidentally, strong coverage of the child abuse case involving Minnesota Vikings superstar Adrian Peterson. The last time Peterson and his progeny were featured on the network, a year ago, he flew to be with a 2-year-old son of whose existence he had only recently learned. The child eventually died, the result of a beating administered by a new boyfriend of his mother's. The thrust of ESPN coverage at the time was how this tragedy would affect the Vikings on the field. This time, the focus was properly on the off-the-field story -- Peterson beating a 4-year-old son with a small tree branch.

The reporting season ahead

Late last week, the focus shifted back to Rice and the Ravens, as Van Natta and Kevin Van Valkenburg outlined the team’s attempt to distance itself from the player after supposedly lobbying the league office for a limited suspension. The Ravens rebutted the ESPN report Monday, and in turn Van Natta defended his sourcing on “Outside the Lines.” It was clear that the story had “legs” and that Goodell and the league would soon be back in the swirl of controversy.

Whether the commissioner ultimately resigns or is fired -- a number of ESPN voices have called for his dismissal -- there are at least two best-case outcomes: (1) expanded education on domestic violence, in the NFL and in society at large; (2) the continuation of ESPN’s current energy in pursuing the ramifications of the story.

Here are two important ones.

McManus, in an almost throwaway remark on “SportsCenter”, suggested that NFL teams start vetting their draft picks more carefully. She mentioned Jameis Winston, the Heisman-winning Florida State quarterback, whose recent backstory includes a charge of sexual assault, petty thievery and public obscenity, among other transgressions.

On “College GameDay”, reporter Samantha Ponder was more focused on the seemingly laissez-faire reaction to Winston. Said Ponder, “I’m not buying that the expectations are too high. Here’s what we’re asking from him: We’re asking that you don’t lie, you don’t cheat, you don’t steal and you don’t disrespect women. And I know people want to say, ‘Oh, he’s naive and there’s some immaturity there.’ I just think we’re not giving him enough credit. He knows right from wrong. He understands that the things he’s done are wrong, but he continues to make those same mistakes.”

Athletes with more substantial character would be nice, but, as Le Batard pointed out in a column on ESPN.com, perhaps the fault is not in our stars but in the universe that lets them shine.

Writes Le Batard, “Football trains and strengthens and emboldens and rewards dangerous and violent men ... and has these dangerous and violent men collide into each other for gladiator glory in a way that alters their brain chemistry and might make them yet more dangerous and violent ... and then doesn't know how to react by matter of policy when all that danger and violence occasionally spill over the sidelines and out of the stadium in ways that leave the bleeding and scars out in public.

“Are any of the criminals also victims here? Is football, the game itself, the violence, the culture, the altered brain chemistry, the drinking and drugging to self-medicate, the depression and darkness that comes with guaranteed pain, in parts creating the very behavior it is trying without success to police and punish?”

That’s as succinct a synopsis as I’ve seen. It also takes us back to that dark ESPN hour when the league was frantically denying any connection between the game and concussions that cause lasting brain trauma. And then it takes us right up to the latest disclosure, somewhat obscured in the Rice coverage, that there is scientific evidence that one in three retired NFL players will develop long-term cognitive problems.

The commissioner knew about this last year -- no wonder he pushed through a settlement that has since been rejected as inadequate. From a player’s point of view -- although probably not an owner’s -- such an inhumane action might be even more of a firing offense than whatever Goodell might have known in the Rice case.

That’s the biggest story in sports, and, based on recent efforts, I look forward to how this muscular, thoughtful and hard-driving generation of ESPN journalists will make it theirs.