ESPN: THE ARTICLE
This may be a dangerous article to write. I am not a journalist; I am just a guy who has enough of an ego to think that my thoughts on sports and the real world is something other people need to hear. I have just finished reading “Those Guys Have All the Fun” by James Andrew Miller. I did not learn that much. I did learn that ESPN is an entity that has plenty of problems, but we helped create some of them. Societal reactions to ESPN and the subsequent decisions by the company provide a lot of the angst that exists. Because we helped create it, it is important to discuss the issues that ESPN has and how things can be done better by both parties.
The book itself is not so much a new work, but a compilation of all the rumors many of us have heard about the network. There are some bombshells, sure, but it is also possible that ESPN made themselves one hundred percent available to the author so the book could be so big that no one would read it for fear that the revelations from candid speech would be too much PR for the company to endure. Other than the Cliffs Notes version of “War & Peace,” I think the only thing that long that I had read before was from Bill Simmons’ “Book of Basketball.” In that hefty helping of pages, what did it actually say?
Overall, the news in the book is not revolutionary. One exception is a story about some secretaries allegedly garnering extra income from offering their bodies for money at the apartment of a drunkard Getty Oil executive. That guy happened to be Stu Evey, the man who made sure the Getty Corporation kept fueling money into the fledgling business. When ESPN was hemorrhaging money to the tune of $50MM more than expected; Evey was the one in front of the Getty board to get more. Many of the other points are things we may already know. Chris Berman is not technologically savvy and is a very loud talker. He got the job because he had that big voice, lived close and seemed smart. Bob Ley is the most respected journalist around. Like the rest of America in the late 1970s and early 1980s, ESPN personnel liked cocaine. Since baseball had a trial about it, a story about that drug from the early 1980s is not going to be something to go on a front page anywhere. Keith Olbermann is a genius who also takes himself too seriously. Even up to a decade ago, ESPN was a place where sexual harassment was commonplace. Bill Simmons does not like to be edited. Mike Tirico may have liked everything in a dress. Tony Kornheiser is an older guy with older thoughts on things and also may be so respected that he is the only guy who can get away with multiple ESPN-judged sins. ESPN-judged sins seem to only been committed when there is a public outcry of some sort. Mark Shapiro is either an embodiment of pure evil or the guy who made ESPN a cutting-edge network. So is Michael Eisner.
ESPN has become a target for everyone from Sports by Brooks, Deadspin, Sean Salisbury and basically everyone that is not part of the current staff. Maybe the reason is because people have an urge to take down the top dog in town. Maybe it is because ESPN an easy place to point at. ESPN is bulletproof in terms of longevity because a couple of smart salesmen figured out a new revenue stream for cable networks that had never been done before. Since ESPN was the first to do that and created a new genre of programming, the service providers are now the ones that have their unmentionables in a vice.
The size of ESPN makes sure that it is not going anywhere. That massive size and the many arms it has makes it impossible for it to fully edit itself. One example of this is about the comments Tony Kornheiser had about Hannah Storm where he mentioned she should not wear the tighter clothes she liked at her age. Another is the famous Rush Limbaugh situation when he made an insensitive comment about Donovan McNabb and the apparent hope that society has for a black quarterback to succeed. There was no initial fervor to the comment, but the media got the ball rolling the next day. The network had to choose between Tom Jackson, a very established analyst, and Limbaugh, a guy who had been there for only a month. ESPN only acted when society deemed a response to be appropriate. I am not comparing the severity of the comments, but I am saying that ESPN only acted when critics and peers reacted. Our society has turned into one where journalism is not necessarily about accuracy or even integrity, but it is more important for a story to be out quickly and be portrayed in the most eye-grabbing way possible. This has led not only to ridiculous hyperbole in language where we see the overuse of words like “all time,” but one that is overly critical and often wrong. Some blame TMZ for this.
For the “TMZ” aspect of the argument, Dana Jacobsen had an embarrassing situation that none of us should have ever heard about. She got inebriated at an office party and took some college football trash talking to a whole different level. She is a Michigan grad and Mike Golic, Notre Dame Alumni, was there. The embarrassing words got onto the internet. She had to make a public apology as was suspended.
ESPN is just as guilty as us because it has attempted to encourage employees to have Twitter accounts and be involved in the social network and blogging atmosphere that is out there. This creates great risk for ESPN in that it can lead to even more public outcry. This was shown in a recent Alabama football blog when a death of a player led to an immediate post on how it opened a position up for a good prospect. It does things in a backward manner when it comes to discipline. It will sit back and hope for the best, only to react when we react. There is a certain quantity over quality concept that seems to be at work here. ESPN also just does some silly things. According to the book, they banned a certain kind of shorts Cindy Brunson liked to wear because of the Hannah Storm situation.
Finally, it is an entity that has and puts itself to a higher standard. The aura that ESPN gives off from the quotes made is one of self-importance, invincibility and overall superiority. Some parts remind me of the end of movie “Dogma” when one of the demons dies and says, “But, I’m a f------ demon.” It can be petty. This was proven by how ESPN pushed out several prominent and successful members of ABC Sports when it was decided that there could not be two sports departments under one company (Disney). The other sports organizations were not very kind to ESPN when it was the new kid on the block, so ESPN struck back when it was given the chance. It can be loyal, but sometimes that loyalty is not based on how many years one has with the organization. It can be determined by who hired the two individuals up for the same position. Of course, that is common in many large organizations.
Unfortunately, this standard it is supposed to uphold has hurt a key aspect of the company. The name of that is quality journalism. It also depletes the integrity of the journalism. ESPN is supposed to be the “Worldwide Leader” while it admits in the book to increasing soccer programming because number two man John Skipper likes it. It also did not report on a big story about Ben Roethlisberger simply because he was supposed to host something on their network. The book then showed several members of ESPN try to defend that non-report. ESPN is truly kidding itself at times. The book manages to show a celebration of ESPN and writes that it has helped to liberate women. Not a decade earlier, a pretty reporter named Karie Ross was forced to leave the company even after she bravely stood up at the cafeteria to complain about the culture in the office. There are reports in the book about pornographic videos being shown in public areas. Scott Van Pelt was suspended because he said something bad about Bud Selig simply because of the ties to Major League Baseball the network has.
ESPN hurts itself with these obvious partialities. The most galling thing for the rest of us is that ESPN wants to be our source for definitive sports answers; however, it now takes some research for viewers to get the complete story. The second most galling thing is that ESPN can be so brilliant when it actually tries. Any viewings of “30 for 30” or “Outside the Lines” proves this. So why can’t they do it all the time?The rest of us are guilty for making ESPN use its time to have to explain Scott Van Pelt, Dana Jacobsen, Harold Reynolds, Sean Salisbury, Steve Phillips or any of the dozens of other stories when it should not have needed the time to address them. Maybe if we back off a little bit and consciously ignore the things we should not have the time to care about, ESPN could get back to doing better day-to-day reporting. ESPN can do a lot better in being proactive rather than reactive. It can go back to the roots of responsible and accurate journalism. These thoughts could be pipe dreams, but they are worth a shot since no competitor has come along to take down the giant. Fox failed and so have Comcast and everyone else. ESPN is here to stay, so they better figure out how to make it better.