Thursday, July 23, 2009

ESPN and the Handling of Andrews, Roethlisberger Stories; Reactions Prove Power and Influence

Anyone who has known me for more than five minutes knows how I feel about the executives who run ESPN. Although a number of the people I had the misfortune to deal with when I was still doing “Under the Boards,” (a title I invented and they kept after I left) and “The Sports Reporters,” the general ESPN approach hasn’t changed. I guess it was summed up best in an e-mail a guy named Mark Shapiro sent me a few years ago when I refused to let him blackmail me into doing things for the network I didn’t want to do.

“You just blew up your entire career,” Shapiro wrote.

He’s now working for the lovely and talented Dan Snyder running Six Flags—the theme park you may have read about recently while they were preparing to file for bankruptcy.

That said, there is no doubting the power and influence of ESPN. Most athletes would crawl through mud to be on ESPN as proven by the number of them who appear on the ‘Sportscenter,’ commercials and perhaps even more by how many of them show up for the God-awful ESPY’s show. When someone in sports is looking for a soft landing in the midst of a major controversy, they go looking for ESPN—the most recent example being Alex Rodriguez. That’s why Bob Knight was so angry years ago when Jeremy Schaap dared to ask him real questions in the wake of his firing at Indiana.

This past week has been another example, if we’re being honest, of the power that ESPN wields even though the two incidents that made news were embarrassing to the network in entirely different ways.

The first story was the Erin Andrews affair. Clearly, Andrews was a victim of some crazy sleaze-ball who made a video of her while she was in her hotel room in, I believe, Omaha for the College World Series. The video made the rounds for awhile and The New York Post (surprise) made it into front page news.

What’s crazy about this—seriously—is who really cares about Erin Andrews? No offense, but to me she’s just another blonde sideline reporter who asks questions like, “Coach what does your team have to do to come back in the second half?” She’s good-looking, but a lot of them are good-looking. Think about this: Has an Erin Andrews interview ever made news? Not that I can remember.

I’m not saying this to put her down. She’s fine, perfectly competent doing a job I don’t think should exist. But the hysteria over this video is remarkable. You would think it was Princess Diana while she was still alive or Michelle Obama that had been photographed, not a sideline reporter.

Sure, the internet is part of it. Everyone and anyone can be famous now for 15 minutes. For once, I don’t really blame ESPN for its reaction to The Post story, which was to ban guys who work for The New York Post from their airwaves, at least for a while. All the guys involved are solid, legitimate reporters who are completely innocent in all this. But you have to stand up for one of your own and that’s what ESPN is doing. I still work for The Washington Post and if The Post blows a story on The President, I feel embarrassed even if I had nothing to do with it. To this day I feel proud to say Woodward and Bernstein were working for The Post when they broke Watergate. So, you take the good with the bad when you represent a news organization—even one that can, at times, be as sleazy as The New York Post.

The other ESPN controversy surrounded Ben Roethlisberger, who was charged with sexual assault in a civil suit in Nevada. For two days, ESPN didn’t report the story and ordered all its various outlets—other than its station in Pittsburgh—not to report the story.

This reaction proves three things:

--------The one sports entity in this country that still wields more power than ESPN (by far) is the NFL. Given a choice between reporting a story embarrassing an NFL star or not reporting it, ESPN opted (initially) not to report. If it had been a player in ANY other league, the story would have been out there—especially a star player.

--------ESPN’s decision-making is, at times, completely ridiculous. If you allow one of your stations to report the story, how can you ban everyone else from reporting it? It’s like a newspaper saying, “we’ll just run one paragraph,” and hope nobody notices. Either it’s a story or it isn’t a story—period.

--------ESPN’s importance is undeniable. Even The New York Times ran a full blown story this morning on ESPN’s decision to not report the story and then the fact that it reversed itself yesterday.

What is remarkable to me isn’t that ESPN made a questionable decision (at best) on Roethlisberger but that the decision is such big news. Again, part of it is the world we live in, part of it is that ESPN is such an omni-present force in sports. The shame of THAT is they so rarely (The V Foundation being a notable exception) use their power to do anything other than try to make themselves rich and powerful.

There’s so much they could be doing with that power besides telling everyone all the time how powerful they are. But then, what do I know? I blew my career up years ago.

I’ll bet though that I can still get into Six Flags.


Bruce said...


Isn't the better question is why would the New York Times think the ESPN decisionmaking be newsworthy? I can see if Howard Kurtz wrote/blogged about it in the Washington Post. Considering some of the things that the ESPN machine does cover, it is remarkable that they ducked the Big Ben story. I guess it was partly because they couldn't "report" it as an ESPN exclusive.

TJ said...

ESPN not commenting on the Roethlisberger story makes it seem as though they are deciding ahead of time, for their readers/viewers, that they don't think the accusation is factual. The blurry line Sportcenter, and all their other programs, play between journalism and marketing machine is compromised with this. They will run stories all day long on most criminal and civil issues, but not this one? Strange indeed - protecting the Steelers, a top 4 draw for them.

bob in nova said...

But didn't the NFL Network, which is owned by the NFL cover this story? Why then wouldn't ESPN? Strange.

Rico said...

ESPN didn't report on Ben-as-rapist because he is white. The network lives to rake African American athletes over the coals Michael Vick and Allen Iverson allegedly going to a strip club, for example, was worth several hours of ESPN radio bluster despite the fact that it turns out not to be true. And of course there was Kobe Bryant, who was the ESPN poster boy for malfeasance from the second he was accused of rape until the second he was acquitted. ESPN has a double standard based on race. And before you dismiss my comments: I'm a white guy who grew up in Virginia.

Pete said...

Agree with everything you say about ESPN, they are powerful, but have become a caricature of what they were intended to be. And after finally getting Monday Night Football, they will do anything, including not reporting negative NFL stories, to keep the NFL happy.