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ESPN's Ombudsman strikes again

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  • ESPN's Ombudsman strikes again

    Network puts sports in perspective after Katrina
    By George Solomon
    ESPN Ombudsman

    ESPN's task was trying to put sports in perspective in a week when Hurricane Katrina and its awful aftermath left New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in desperate chaos -- a human tragedy of a magnitude rarely, if ever, seen in the history of the country. The role of a sports network in such a fluid situation, it seems to me, is to be relevant in its news coverage of this horrendous disaster while trying to connect the terrible events of the day with the athletes and games viewers regularly follow.

    Most important was to avoid trivializing the deaths, relief efforts and suffering of so many people for the sake of putting a sports angle on a story that is so distant from the normal competition, drama and excitement that ESPN -- or any sports media outlet -- thrives on. While few games outside the impacted region were postponed, clearly it was not business as usual these past seven days in the world of sports.

    From the outset, "SportsCenter" anchors and producers were sensitive to the situation, seeking out legitimate stories such as what was happening with the NFL Saints and NBA Hornets, as well as the status of Tulane's football team. The future of the Superdome as a sporting venue was never overemphasized, in consideration of the human disaster that was taking place there.

    Stories about where the Saints and Hornets would play in the coming months were dutifully reported, but the possibility of the Saints never returning to New Orleans is an angle worthy of tougher questions of the NFL. Personality pieces on Green Bay's Brett Favre, Tennessee's Steve McNair and New Orleans' Deuce McAllister -- NFL players from impacted states -- were legitimate. Rachel Nichols' reporting from San Antonio -- where the Saints are setting up headquarters -- was smart and well done. So was Jeremy Schaap's coverage of Peyton and Eli Manning's visit to victims in New Orleans.

    Some viewers felt there was too much attention on Favre, the 15-year veteran quarterback from Kiln, Miss., during the first few days after the hurricane hit. "He was the first big sports hook," said Norby Williamson, "SportsCenter" managing editor, "a major player who held two press conferences."

    Considering Favre was quick to express concern for his family and friends -- and was emotionally moved by what had happened -- I thought his coverage was reasonable. But I wondered -- and so did viewers -- about what might become a bidding contest among athletes seeking to aid victims of the disaster. One viewer said he was disappointed with Baltimore's Deion Sanders trying to get colleagues to contribute "only" $1,000 each, while Atlanta's Warrick Dunn was soliciting players to donate for $5,000 each. Please.

    I also would have liked to have seen more coverage of the fate of high school athletes from New Orleans and other affected areas, as well as a sharper focus on why and how LSU chose to move its football game Saturday night against Arizona State to Tempe, Ariz. Football is king in that devastated part of the country, and further reporting and coverage is needed from the peewees to the pros.

    Owens overload

    Two of the biggest stories in sports during the month of August -- the Terrell Owens business with the Philadelphia Eagles and the French newspaper L'Equipe reporting that urine samples taken in 1999 from seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong had been retested with new technology and were found to contain performance-enhancing drugs (Armstrong has denied these charges) -- generated an enormous number of comments from viewers regarding ESPN's coverage.

    Most of the viewers who shared their comments with me regarding Owens felt ESPN over-covered the story, although most everyone was in agreement that, when Eagles coach Andy Reid asked the contractually unhappy wide receiver to leave camp, it was an important development, as was his verbal jousting with quarterback Donovan McNabb. But what jolted viewers -- and me -- was the extent to which ESPN covered his so-called workout in the driveway of his New Jersey home on August 9, as well as the day-by-day "events" until his return to camp a week later.

    Owens' travails generated as much coverage as any sports story this summer. Too much, I thought, although I didn't agree with some newspaper columnists who suggested the media ought to ignore the story.

    The reporting by Sal Paolantonio was first-rate -- intelligent and dogged -- as was the work by the production team. But someone in Bristol during that week might have said, "Whoa, we're four weeks from the first regular-season game and Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, might be using us and the rest of the media to make their case."

    Vince Doria, an ESPN senior vice president and director of news, concurred with Williamson. "Owens is a big name, outspoken, controversial and available. You throw all that in a mix, you're going to get a lot of coverage. Pictures and availability drive the coverage, as well, with him and his agent coming and going out of camp, ending up in the driveway in front of the cameras. People are most interested in the NFL, and that was a factor as well."

    A month later, you barely hear a peep about Owens -- or from him -- which is refreshing and should be a reminder that hype sells, but rarely endures.

    That brings us to Armstrong, who for years has been a target of a French media obsessed with proving that he has used performance-enhancing drugs. Unlike a number of other star athletes who get put under the umbrella of illegal drug use, Armstrong is a master of going on a media offensive in defending his reputation. His appearances on CNN's "Larry King Show" and "Today" were smart and effective.

    "We felt an obligation to report L'Equipe's story that we believed responsible. But we were concerned that we wanted to be fair to Armstrong and ask the right questions," ESPN's Williamson said.

    But some viewers objected to what they perceived to be a double-standard by the media, ESPN included, in its coverage of athletes "accused" of using performance-enhancing drugs. Armstrong gets a more objective treatment, they say, while others, such as Barry Bonds, are placed in a more defensive position of having to prove innocence.

    On Monday, while reporting the possible activation of Bonds, ESPN's Pedro Gomez -- the network's beat reporter for Bonds -- had a story that the Giants' slugger had been involved in a clubhouse scuffle with a teammate in June. Cynics -- including me -- questioned the pairing of the two stories, particularly when Bonds, under the glare of steroid suspicion for more than a year, was in a rare forthcoming mood. Gomez said he and producer Charles Moynihan had been working the clubhouse story for weeks, but did not want to go with it until they had "multiple sources" and had given Bonds a chance to respond. While Bonds did not go on camera, he told a team spokesman he had no problem with the unidentified player involved. I also wondered why it took two months to confirm the story, but Gomez was unavailable much of the summer because of family obligations, he said. Additionally, I'm surprised and disappointed that ESPN did not pursue the story even while Gomez was unavailable, and that the player involved in the incident with Bonds was not named.

    Still, teasing the clubhouse incident with the possible activation of Bonds adds to the perception by some viewers that ESPN doesn't play fair with everyone. Nor do the network's commentators and talk-show pundits -- many of whom could show more responsibility, fairness and restraint when discussing athletes who have been charged with and rumored to have committed, but not convicted of, illegal actions.

    • Keep hoping ESPN finds a better way to correct mistakes. The Seattle Mariners were an aggrieved party recently when "SportsCenter" showed and reported on a dugout incident that saw Adrian Beltre step between coach Bryan Price and pitcher Ryan Franklin, who had just given up a two-run home run. "SportsCenter" incorrectly reported Beltre and Franklin were involved in the fracas. Mariners spokesman Tim Hevly's attempt to get a correction on the rerun of the next day's "SportsCenter" failed. He's unhappy and who can blame him?

    • Not enough coverage by ESPN, in my view, of Outdoor Life Network and its owner, Comcast, securing the rights to televise the National Hockey League for two years for $135 million -- taking over from ESPN to become the league's national TV outlet.

    Nor was I satisfied with ESPN's coverage of its own Mark Shapiro's decision to leave as executive vice president for programming and production to work for Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder. Snyder is seeking to gain control of the amusement park chain, Six Flags, possibly making that the centerpiece of an entertainment company that Shapiro would run. Many questions about these two important stories were answered in other media, but not by ESPN.

    I also wanted more on Joe Theismann joining Al Michaels in the ESPN Monday night booth, with John Madden off to NBC.

    "We try to report these stories straight and not make a big deal of them," Doria said. "Because we're in the middle of these stories, it's tough to be objective. So we report the news and avoid the commentary."

    All of these stories deserved more coverage from ESPN than they received.

    • The decision by ESPN to prohibit staff members from voting in weekly college football polls that determine which teams get to play for a national championship was smart. ESPN correctly believes its staffers should report the news, not make the news, as pollsters do each week. "We want our people to report the news and give opinions -- not make decisions on the news," Williamson said. Not as smart was the signing of Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight for a six-part "reality" series to air in February, on which Knight will choose a walk-on from among 16 players trying to join his team. Making Knight, one of the most successful and controversial coaches in college basketball, part of the network's programming, sends the wrong message. Knight remains an important newsmaker -- not an entertainer. He needs to be critically covered by ESPN, not featured.

    • Don't understand the fascination of the Little League World Series ... until the kids actually start playing. Good work by Gary Thorne and Harold Reynolds, as well as the kids.

    Not so good was the coverage of the World Track Championships last month, a big-time event dominated by U.S. athletes over the age of 12.

    Nor did ESPN sufficiently cover Tiger Woods leaving the PGA Championship venue for his Orlando home on Sunday, one day before the end of the golf tournament, when he was still in contention.

    • Enjoyed the Sept. 4 coverage of Virginia-Tech-North Carolina State game and appreciated ESPN hitting the angle of older brother Michael Vick cheering on his younger brother, Hokie QB Marcus Vick. But when Michael Vick began getting way more coverage than any of the players on the field, someone in the truck might have said "enough."

    • And what's with hyping Fantasy Football by featuring four scantily clad women engaged in a pillow fight? Aren't we beyond that?

    And while we're at it, let's drop anchors mimicking Latinos when a Latin baseball player gets a big hit. "Scarface" is over -- and so is his "little friend."

    • I'll get to "ESPN Hollywood" next time, if you can wait.

    "Can't buy what I want because it's free...
    Can't buy what I want because it's free..."
    -- Pearl Jam, from the single Corduroy