Reader questions: Redskins, GameDay, QBR and sensationalism

As I described in my first column, the goal is less to be a daily critic of ESPN's journalism -- there's no shortage of people already doing that -- and more to better connect ESPN with its readers, including connecting the audience to the network's executives. Here are a few questions you’ve recently asked, some of which I've answered and others for which I received answers from ESPN executives. The questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Washington's NFL team uses a racial slur as its team name, and ESPN should discontinue its use of the name, and if possible, put pressure on the team to change it. Racism has no place within ESPN's stated goals of diversity and inclusion. I'm glad to see some ESPN writers already referring to the team simply as "Washington." The slur is not a term of respect, as the team claims, and even if it was, there are other terms far more widely regarded as such. Even better would be for the team to not use an oppressed group of people with minimal representation in the D.C. area as its mascot. – Derek Campbell

What Derek is suggesting here is that ESPN, as an institution, take an activist stance on the issue of the Redskins’ nickname, both by pushing the team to change the name and by refusing to use it on its properties.

To me, the answer to the first question is clearer: No. I believe it is inappropriate for ESPN, as an institution, to put pressure on a team it covers to change its name, the same way it would be inappropriate for the Redskins to pressure ESPN to alter its coverage to suit the team’s desires.

In 2013, then-ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte addressed the issue of the Redskins’ name, and cited three reasons it could be problematic for ESPN to take a more activist stance on the issue:

1) ESPN should be covering the news, not making it. Fair enough. The action [then-VP of the ESPN Stats & Information Group Edmundo] Macedo proposed would be newsworthy enough to make ESPN a player in a controversy. We’ve been through this before in ESPN’s coverage of NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out. In one case, on “Outside the Lines,” instead of an in-depth look at the implications of Collins’ action, we got a debate on the varieties of religious experience.

But the argument to keep using the R-word for journalistic reasons alone runs up against ESPN’s role as a purveyor of commercial entertainment, which is then covered by ESPN’s news side. I have retired the routine use of the phrase “conflict of interest” when it comes to ESPN -- it’s simply inadequate to the nuances of the, um, conflicts of interest. See The New York Times’ recent series on how ESPN creates bowl games it can then air and promotes leagues, teams, athletes for its own commercial purposes.

2) ESPN should consider how the consequences of an "adversarial environment" could limit "access" in covering the team. This is a solid practical point. [team owner Daniel] Snyder would clearly not be happy at such a slap in his face and might make it more difficult for ESPN reporters to cover the team and its star quarterback, whose profile is so high he is known merely by what looks like a model number -- RG3. It could put ESPN at a journalistic disadvantage in the current frenetic competition among newsslingers for shards of information, not to mention interviews and documentaries such as “The Will to Win,” a one-hour film about Griffin that aired on ESPN, co-produced by NFL Films and offered up by Gatorade Productions. ’Nuff said. Refer to my nonuse of “conflict of interest.”

3) A gesture as aggressive as attacking a famous, long-standing team is antithetical to the ESPN business model. Snyder is a business associate (his Washington radio station is an ESPN affiliate), and the NFL is an important partner. ESPN is a major media corporation with a parent company (Disney) and shareholders. I am still in the early process of exploring the depths and facets of ESPN, but one thing is clear -- it is an entertainment company trying to maintain a vigorous journalistic presence. This is no simple matter. This so-called “bifurcation” -- business side and journalism side -- requires respect and mindfulness.

I think all three of these issues remain valid. When looking in from outside, it’s easy to say ESPN should not be influenced by its business arrangements or the state of the relationship with teams it covers, but that’s not reality. ESPN’s raison d'etre is to be a moneymaking business for Disney, its parent company, and picking a fight with its most significant strategic partner -- the NFL -- is something ESPN, as an institution, is highly unlikely to do.

But where ESPN has been quite clever is in understanding that, as an institution, it is made up of hundreds of individual personalities with differing opinions. So it has given its people the freedom to make their own choice on use of the Redskins’ name. “We have allowed individual announcers to just say ‘Washington’ if they prefer,” ESPN’s Patrick Stiegman said in 2013. I checked back this week with Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content, and he said that policy still stands. Rob King, ESPN’s senior vice president of SportsCenter and news, said that policy extends to SportsCenter anchors, as well.

The Undefeated’s Mike Wise does not use the name and, in fact, was one of the first journalists to stop doing so when he was a columnist for The Washington Post. Gregg Easterbrook, who for several years wrote the TMQ column for ESPN.com, was also among the early objectors to the name. Mike Tirico chose not to use the name when he was at ESPN, though he’s since departed for NBC. If you look at the petition on changethemascot.org, ESPN personalities Matthew Berry, Lindsay Czarniak, Lisa Salters and Michael Wilbon have signed on as supporters of changing the name. Berry, a longtime Redskins fan, wrote a column in 2014 describing his internal conflict over the name. Czarniak was quoted by Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch as wishing she’d been more sensitive about use of the name when she was a sports anchor at Washington’s NBC affiliate.

ESPN’s splitting of hairs on this issue keeps the institution from taking a potentially combative stance with an important partner but allows those with strong personal beliefs to choose their own path. The policy also fits into ESPN’s increasing efforts to build popular shows around its unique personalities. The more different and varied the personalities are, the better it is for ESPN. Giving each flexibility around whether to use the Redskins’ name is another way to allow differentiation and generate debate.

I think ESPN’s current strategy is a better one than having it ban use of the name across its properties. Like it or not, Washington’s NFL team is officially called the “Redskins.” If external pressure eventually forces the team to change its name, so be it.

Finally, Derek’s note suggests that there’s no debate to be had about the appropriateness of the name, but that’s not the case. He obviously feels strongly, as is his right. But, just this past May, a Washington Post poll reported that nine of 10 Native Americans weren’t offended by the name. Wise wrote a thoughtful column suggesting the results of the poll should not be translated to mean the name is OK. Fair enough. But the poll certainly suggested that the appropriateness of the name is far from a settled issue. And I don’t think it is ESPN’s institutional role to try to settle it.

A recent article by Richard Lapchick has me a bit upset due not to the content, but the way the article was advertised. The article, entitled "Another racial divide among bowl teams," was headlined by a photo of Clemson's DeShaun Watson celebrating with the ACC Championship Trophy. This is very misleading for several reasons. First of all, if you are trying to highlight a disparity in graduation rates it would be hard to find a worse example than Watson. I mean here is a young African American football player who graduated in 2.5 years, completely contradicting many of the main points in the article. Even in the article, Lapchick mentions that the average Graduation Success Rate among the top 25 teams is 75 percent (68 percent for African American players) while Clemson is at 84 percent (81 percent for African American players). I know that the author, as a contributing writer, probably didn't pick the photo but the photo and caption gives the impression that Clemson focuses on the field at the expense of academics. Yet the data tells a different story. At the least, this just extremely lazy journalism from the self-proclaimed "Worldwide Leader in Sports." – Heath Burgess

I agree with Heath here: Photo selection matters. And I doubt many journalists would disagree with that statement. But, sometimes, we drop the ball. it can happen because of the workload crush of busy news days. It can happen because content management systems sometimes require images, occasionally leaving editors to make the best of poor options. But, whatever the reason, this was a poor photo selection.

First, while there are other players in the photo, quarterback DeShaun Watson is at the center and holding the ACC trophy, which makes him the natural focus. But Watson graduated from Clemson in December with a bachelor's degree in communications -- after just two-and-a-half years in school. Hardly the best example of the point being made by the article.

The caption didn’t help: “Clemson made the college football playoff, but has some work to do with their graduation rates.” Technically, unless you’re at a 100 percent graduation rate, you always have work to do on your graduation rates. But, further down in the article, the numbers show that -- of the four teams that made college football’s national playoff this season -- Clemson has the highest graduation rate among football student-athletes as well as among African-American student-athletes. And, a few weeks ago, New America Foundation ranked Clemson No. 2 academically among the nation’s top 25 college football programs. In fact, Clemson graduated football players at a higher rate that it did its overall male student population.

As a contributing writer, Lapchick didn’t choose the photo. But neither the photo nor the caption reflected the overall narrative of his article. Since this article is an evergreen one, I think it would still behoove ESPN to find a more appropriate photo to reflect the content of the story.

On December 25, ESPN.com ran an article entitled "Westbrook denies yelling 'Thank you, Kyrie.' Clearly, the article was reacting to the social media reaction to a clip of Westbrook's warmup, where he possibly appeared to praise the Cleveland guard who had just dispatched Kevin Durant’s Warriors with a late basket. Possible tension between Durant and Westbrook is a story of interest to ESPN readers. For several paragraphs, the article looks at Westbrook's denials and alternate explanations, as if trying to glean the truth. Yet, the second last paragraph contains a fact that seems to settle the issue -- Westbrook's exclamation occurred 13 minutes before Irving's game-winning shot.

I write and speak to audiences often about political reporting and how bias toward controversy and debate -- and journalistic "neutrality"-- sometimes allow false statements and beliefs to linger. In this story, it seems unfair that the headline is that Westbrook is "denying" something that the story shows is impossible. He has no more onus to "deny" the diss of Durant than he needs to deny being a member of the Boston Celtics, kidnapping the Lindbergh baby, or being an alien. To frame the story as such suggests there are two sides to a story that has only one. -- Kelly Lamrock

I think Kelly makes an excellent point. Look, I think even most news consumers understand that controversy begets clicks; clicks beget revenue. So keeping controversies alive beyond their natural life can benefit news organizations, and it’s a practice that’s likely not going to change until the financial rewards for doing so disappear. ESPN is the most trafficked digital sports site in the world, so it’s not in the clickbait business, but a juicy controversy can be irresistible.

That said, there’s a difference between keeping a controversy alive and burying facts that really should end it. Here’s the first paragraph of the seven-paragraph story about the Westbrook-Irving “controversy.”

Thunder guard Russell Westbrook strongly denied he yelled "Thank you Kyrie!" as he ran off the court following his pregame warm-up routine before Sunday's 112-100 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves.

This is the sixth paragraph:

The timing also doesn't line up. Westbrook concluded his pregame routine with the walk-off shot at roughly 4:02 p.m. local time. Irving didn't hit his game winner until right at 4:15. Westbrook was asked if he watched any of the Cavs-Warriors game, and noted that he was on the court warming up during a large portion of it.

Why begin the story with a denial from Westbrook when simple timing alone seems to suggest that – whatever he said when running off the court – it had nothing to do with Irving’s game-winning shot? I’m also glad to deny that I was involved in the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. But the mere fact I wasn’t born until 1967 makes my denial sort of pointless.

To me, this is a case where the desire to stoke some controversy seems to have trumped the need to present readers with the most relevant information first. There will never be a shortage of pumped-up controversies in sports, but ESPN should prioritize facts over fancy, and, in this case, it did not do it.

Here are some questions you posed where I went to ESPN executives for responses.

I was watching college football with my buddies when we noticed College GameDay was at a Tennessee game for the third week this season. How does ESPN select the location for College GameDay? And how do you ensure there is no obvious bias in that decision? Because I think to the average person, this comes across as a significant bias, toward the SEC first, then toward Tennessee. -- Robert Heyde

Answer from Lee Fitting, senior coordinating producer for college sports: “There are no rules as it relates to GameDay’s site selection. Period. We have no guidelines from our bosses on ‘We have to get to this conference, or that conference, or can’t see X team so many times, or you have to go to a game that is being broadcast on X network.’ There is none of that, and for that, we are very grateful. I like to say we try to go to the best ‘story’ of the week, not necessarily the best ‘game’ of the week. Now, often times the best ‘story’ of the week is the best game of the week.

“As far as seeing Tennessee three times, yes, that’s true, and some years that happens. The Bristol Motor Speedway game in Week 2 (of which Tennessee was a part) was a no-brainer – those are games/experiences in which GameDay thrives – something unique and different for the viewer. And, the other two weeks where Tennessee was involved, one in Knoxville, the other in College Station, it just happened to be part of the best story of the weekend. That’s just how the ball bounces.

“As far as an SEC bias, not once in my tenure of being with GameDay (13 years), has anyone said to me that you have to do this or do that with the SEC. Not once. Now, if all things are equal, we love conference diversity because we think it is good for the show and for the viewer. Last year, for example, GameDay was only at an SEC campus two times during the season. But I always get a kick out of viewers saying we have SEC bias – it’s been the most dominant conference for some time, why wouldn’t we be heavily invested from a content standpoint? This is all part of the fun that makes GameDay GameDay.”

I primarily view ESPN.com on mobile, so I'm not sure if this applies to the regular site also. Sometimes I will see a headline that says something like, "Player X charged with DV." On mobile, I know space is more limited, but I feel like abbreviating "domestic violence" to "DV" makes it sound less criminal, and the "violence" part of it seems trivial. The first time I saw this abbreviation, I had to click and read the story to see what it meant. Is this a commonly understood abbreviation, like DUI? Is there a conscious editorial decision to abbreviate? -- Caroline Kawaguchi

Answer from David Kraft, executive editor of news operations: “It’s not our preferred style, but it is something that’s used with increasing frequently in social media and other places where space is limited. We do have some space limitations with our headlines – the web and mobile sites use the same wording – but, in general, we do what we can to avoid using it and will spell it out for clarity, which is our ultimate goal.”

I could not help but notice that the Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) has all but disappeared in the screen crawl and other places on ESPN. It seems to coincide with [San Francisco QB Colin] Kaepernick's appointment to starter. Coincidence or intentional? Or is ESPN dropping the measure altogether? -- Charles Young

Answer from Jeff Bennett, vice president, sports analytics: “Interestingly, it is just the opposite. Total QBR is being integrated into NFL studio shows and SportsCenter regularly as a natural part of our storytelling about the quarterback position. Notable QBR performances are still featured on The Bottom Line scrolls on Sundays. Digitally, QBR has an increased presence, including some new data added to its web page.

“Prior to the season, the ESPN Stats & Info’s Sports Analytics Team added the new feature of defensive-adjusted ratings, which were the centerpiece of the debut of the Analytics Index page on Sept. 27. This season, QBR-themed articles and infographics appear on ESPN.com every Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and are receiving significant reader engagement.

“So, no, it is not being de-emphasized. Writers and analysts are using it regularly as the industry-standard metric in quarterback evaluation. It is just being done probably in a more natural, less obvious way now that it is in its sixth season. And, of course, off-the-field stories like Colin Kaepernick or Tom Brady have no impact on Total QBR ratings or adoption/usage.”

Keep the questions coming, and, where appropriate, I will try to get you answers.