Thursday, November 06, 2014

It's Not Really About Ethics in Sports Journalism

Robert Lipsyte, ESPN's departing ombudsman takes some "parting shots" (to borrow a term from ESPN's venerable Sports Reporters about ESPN's place in sports journalism.

Lipsyte begins by discussing the coverage (or lack thereof) of the various controversies surrounding Jameis Winston and the Florida State program during College GameDay's recent visit there:

“GameDay” was recently in Tallahassee, Florida,, with the best college quarterback in the country, Florida State’s Jameis Winston, having been accused at various times of sexual assault, robbery, autograph peddling and inappropriate campus conduct. Fowler and Herbstreit smoothly affirmed our right to enjoy the show without the angst of moral judgment on college sports. 
Hey, it’s “GameDay.” Leave the heavy breathing to “Outside the Lines” (if you can find it). 
I suspect most viewers were fine with this.  This is a show whose signature feature is one of the panelists donning an oversize hat or mask for the team he predicts to win that day's game.  It's where Katy Perry says she wants a quarterback to call her.  Not many are tuning in for a grim report on the NCAA, player contact, and ethics,

Lipsyte then oddly pivots from there to a defense of ESPN's suspension of Bill Simmons for calling Roger Goodell a "liar" on his podcast.

To put my cards on the table:

  • I have been a fan of Simmons since his pre-ESPN days.  That doesn't mean I agree with everything he writes, or all of his digressions, but I admire how he has blazed his own path to his current place in the sports commentariat.
  • I found (and continue to find) his focus on the evils of Roger Goodell annoying.  I don't particularly care of the NFL commissioner is a liar, or when he ad the tape, and that in some ways he has become a scapegoat (which is not to say he's innocent, but we seem to think that trashing him is sufficient to demonstrate that one is confronting domestic violence). This doesn't mean I think he should have been suspended for it, just that I would have preferred he write and talk about something else.
  • In short, I think Simmons is probably right that Goodell is lying, but I don't really care.
The utterance occurred during the weekly "guess the lines" podcast with "Cousin" Sal Iacono.  Regular features of this podcast include:

  • Simmons and Sal each guess what the betting line is for each upcoming NFL game. And the one who wins the most weeks wins the year long contest for a consequence that has never been paid off.
  • Sal imitates Simmons in a voice mail where Simmons is typically gushing over whomever his current favorite NFL QB is.
  • They criticize the scheduling and announce paring assignments for the games in the voices of Mike Francesca and Chris (Mad Dog) Russo.
  • Simmons does an imitation of Andrew Luck describing the Colts' most recent performance.
  • Sal promoting that week's Jimmy Kimmel guests.
Expressing surprise that something stated here doesn't meet journalistic standards is in line with being shocked to find gambling is Cassablanca.  Yet Lipsyte seems surprised.

Simmons's second most frequent podcast guest is his college buddy John "Jack-O" O'Connell. Almost every one of their podcasts include baseless speculation about almost every prominent New York and Boston athlete (Simmons started as the "Boston Sports Guy;" Jack-O is a Yankees fan) being a PED user.*

Now, calling someone a liar is not very nice, but does not bring about any real-world consequences. Using PEDs is against the rules of all sports, and many athletes are on the outside of the Hall of Fame because of either confirmed PED use, rumors of PED use, or happening to have their career coincide with suspected widespread PED use.  This is serious stuff.

Yet, ESPN never intervened.  Only when Simmons made unsupported statements about the commissioner one of their business partners (and yes, dared ESPN management to discipline him for it) did they discover their journalistic principles.

This quote from Sandy Padwe that Lipsyte included is revealing in a way that Lipsyte probably did not intend:

“Journalism is important to ESPN when it needs it,” he said, “meaning when critics look at the whole product and wonder why it seems 99 percent of the daily report is devoted to noise and the current name of the moment. Then the network points to 'Outside the Lines' or some of the recent reporting on Roger Goodell. 

In this case, ESPN needed a pretext to keep one of its employees in line, and all of a sudden we're supposed to believe property that features Coors Light Cold Hard Facts (that are really opinions), "C'mon Man!", Frank Caliendo's impressions, Chris Berman's whole schtick, and the rest of Simmons's podcasts is some kind of Serious Journalistic Enterprise.

I don't think ESPN can have it both ways (as I suspect will soon become explicitly apparent).


What I think is really going on, and is also in part what the Goodell controversy is about, is whether we need the middlemen between talented people and their audience.

Lipsyte also wrote:

This is immediately tricky because Simmons sometimes acts like a journalist, or at least seems to want to be taken seriously. If he were starring on or his own version of Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show,” that split personality might work. But the site is owned by ESPN, and house rules always apply. If you call a subject a liar on ESPN, you better have definitive proof. 
The audience loves Simmons just the way he seems to be -- unfettered and willing to speak his version of truth to power. But Simmons is speaking from a somewhat protected place. It’s a little like being at home and shouting out the window. 
As a rising son in ESPN’s booming growth this past decade, Simmons was allowed to find the reach of his talents by testing the boundaries of his gilded cage.  
This elides the fact that Simmons built his audience and craft on his own (and likely could do so again).

Now, I think the ESPN-Simmons partnership has been and continues to be beneficial to Simmons. It's unlikely he would be producing documentaries, sitting in the studio for NBA broadcasts, promoting his favorite directors and writers, or (ahem) hosting podcasts without the support of the ESPN empire.

Likewise, it's obvious the NFL owners (of which Goodell is a figurehead and proxy) provides substantial infrastructure for the athletes to showcase their talents.  But how necessary are they, really?  And is it possible that in some cases (Donald Sterling being an obvious example) they do more harm than good?

Are we moving toward a world where talented people like Simmons and LeBron James can showcase their talents free from these "middle-aged racist white guys in suits?"

What I think we saw is ESPN's last grasp at saying, "No."  We;ll see if they're right.

* Simmons's sanctimony about player safety (another of his anti-Goodell hobbyhorses)  is undermined by his treatment of PED use as a handy weapon in friendly disputes with fans of rival teams (yeah, the Yankees beat the Red Sox, but half of them are cheaters!) rather than a serious issue of player safety.

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