ESPN’s Conflict of Interest
Can ESPN cover sports while partnering with the sports leagues?
A sidebar discussion generated by my “Bring Back the BCS!” post was ESPN’s inherent conflict of interest in owning the SEC Network and covering the SEC. While there’s an obvious ethical quandary there, I haven’t noticed any difference in ESPN’s coverage of the SEC and that of myriad other sports networks, newspapers, and other outlets. While most ESPN commenters are enthusiasts of SEC football, that’s true of sports commentators, generally. Likewise, there’s plenty of criticism of the SEC on the network.
Slate‘s Chris Laskowski takes us “Inside the ESPN Empire” in an exit interview with Robert Lipsyte, the network’s outgoing ombudsman. Lipsyte is frustrated, arguing that his employer really isn’t interested in traditional sports journalism.
When asked if ESPN’s journalism—which Lipsyte says is the only aspect of ESPN’s operations he felt qualified to criticize—met his standards, he said, “No, absolutely not. I think that ESPN could be better.” But he also acknowledges the difficulty of walking the line between the network’s two jobs as a presenter of live sports entertainment and as a media organization that digs into things that sports leagues might not want us to know.
ESPN’s primary job has always been, as Lipsyte describes it, “putting up those pretty pictures, buying rights, promoting games … selling the spectacular.” ESPN is relatively young and has grown quickly “without any kind of traditional journalism heritage,” Lipsyte says. It has used its considerable piles of money to “buy some really good journalists,” but the network, he believes, “is still trying to figure out how to use them properly.” He calls ESPN a vast empire, and points to the SEC Network as the most mind-blowing part of that empire. “Extensive investigative reporting into the exploitation of college athletes, and the legal battles around that, would seem to conflict with ESPN’s business model,” he writes in his final ombudsman column. “How do you turn over the rocks in the Southeastern Conference, for instance, while owning the SEC Network?”
ESPN is the best in the business, Lipsyte says, at transactional reporting: breaking the news that helps us watch the games it will broadcast later, telling us “who is going to be traded, who’s hurt, who’s going to actually start on Sunday.” But Lipsyte believes that “where they have to go is the transgressions: the evil that the leagues do.”
The tension here isn’t just between ESPN and its business partners in the NFL, NBA, and MLB. It’s between ESPN and its viewers, who mostly don’t seem to care whether the leagues are doing evil.
Lipsyte says he received close to 20,000 emails during his time as ombudsman. Lots of viewers complained about specific on-air issues—why is this person still on the air, or why does ESPN hate my favorite sport, particularly if that favorite sport is hockey. But what really bothered ESPN’s core audience, Lipsyte says, was “the intrusion of what they called societal issues into what was, in a way, kind of a sacred place. People so often come to sports as this sanctuary from the real world, where they can sit in their living room with their family and not be assailed by anything that will upset them.” For some, that upsetting thing was the sight of football player Michael Sam kissing his boyfriend to celebrate being drafted.
Other viewers had a bigger-picture complaint. Lipsyte says that most ESPN watchers don’t want to confront the “reality that the pleasure that you are getting is at the terrific physical and often emotional cost of those commodified ballplayers,” that “we really don’t want to think these people are real people; and then when they do emerge as real people, they hit their girlfriends and we get very exercised and we want them executed.” For Lipsyte, that is where sports journalism must go. He says, “It’s there, in that junction between what sports are supposed to be for some people—Never-Never Land, this Oz—and what it really is, which is a kind of window on reality.”
Responding to Lipsyte’s criticism of how ESPN’s College Gameday handled allegations of sexual assault against Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, ESPN college football broadcaster Chris Fowler had this to say in Rolling Stone: “When you cover this sport, you always have to live in a bit of denial. You check some things at the door. It’s entertainment, it’s a diversion, it’s a distraction from the real world.” In his last ombudsman column, Lipsyte responded, “I appreciate Fowler’s insight and candor, but denial, in all its forms, is at the core of most of sports’ current crises.”
While I agree with Lipsyte about the tension between ESPN’s role as promoter of sports programming and partner with various sports leagues and its role as the premier outlet for American sports journalism, I haven’t detected a difference between ESPN’s coverage and anyone else’s. That’s because, as the teaser headline Slate uses to link to the story suggests, “ESPN Doesn’t Do More Great Journalism Because Its Viewers Don’t Want It To.”
I listen to a lot of sports talk on my daily commute, mostly flipping between ESPN Radio and Sirius-XM’s NFL and College Sports networks to avoid commercials. I also consume a lot of online sports journalism as a mental break from hard news and analysis and watch the occasional sports talk television broadcast. Like many of Lipsyte’s correspondents, I wish the networks would do far, far less coverage of the dark side of sports and more coverage of the games on the field.
Yes, the Michael Sam, Ray Rice, and Adrian Petersen stories were worthy of coverage. But they were frustratingly over-covered to my taste. Last September, I referred to it as “The TMZification of Sports.”
[I]ncreasingly, sports coverage is only tangentially about sports. Years ago, the geniuses at NBC decided that people tuned in to the Olympics not to see the best athletes on the planet compete in a quadrennial sporting event but rather to see a choreographed human drama that just so happened to involve the games themselves. In recent years, even programming obviously of no interest to anyone but hard-core sports fans have more closely resembled Court TV and TMZ than the SportsCenter of yore.
In rare instances, that’s perfectly understandable. It was difficult not to cover the OJ Simpson trial on sports talk shows even twenty years ago. He was a household name before the incident, beloved by many for nearly two decades. Similarly, the implosion of Tiger Woods’ public reputation in the wake of a bizarre confrontation with him on the wrong end of a golf club was news. He was, arguably, the most famous and important active athlete on the planet at that point. And the horrific nature of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes contrasted with the previously saintly esteem in which Joe Paterno and his Penn State program were held demanded attention. But neither merited a solar eclipse of sports coverage for months on end. Donald Sterling’s embarrassing racial rant was hard for the NBA to ignore, much less the media. For that matter, the Ray Rice domestic violence incident naturally merits discussion, even though he was far from a household name beforehand; he was a star, but certainly no OJ Simpson.
In a world of 24/7 sports coverage, the sports media is going to cover stories only tangentially related to the games themselves. None of the episodes above should have been swept under the proverbial rug. But it seems like every incident involving even minor players on college teams, much less pro athletes, dominates the discussion to the exclusion of the thing the fans came to hear or watch.
I’m interested in the Ray Rice story. I’ve even blogged on it. But I don’t want that to be the only thing they talk about on “Mike and Mike” or Sirius NFL Radio on my commute for days on end. I don’t want them to preempt “Pardon the Interruption” to have sports reporters opine on the nature of domestic violence, battered spouse syndrome, and the like. That’s simply not why we tune in to those programs.
Not only did ESPN vastly over-cover the stories, but they were highly critical of the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the issues.