ESPN skirting the edge of poor ethics [again]


This past week, Texas Tech football head coach Mike Leach was suspended over allegations that he shut a member of his roster, redshirt freshman Adam James, in an electrical shed following James’ complaint of concussion-type symptoms. This morning, before his lawyer could seek an injunction in a Texas court allowing Leach to coach in the Red Raiders’ Alamo Bowl contest against Michigan State, he was fired.

Tomorrow, 31 December, he was to be due an $800,000 bonus per the conditions of a five-year contract between Leach and the university signed this past February. Amongst the details therein, if Leach were to be terminated, he would receive a perennial $400,000 buyout per year remaining on his contract. Tech remains on the hook for what would appear to be $1.6M through 2014.

Adam James is also the son of Craig James: former SMU running back from their glory (read: pre-“death penalty”) years of the early 1980s, New England Patriot and, since 2003, a part of the ABC (then, in a dogfight with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for most awkward name, ESPN on ABC, now just ESPN) sportscasting team.

When the story broke, ESPN eagerly sought James for comment and insight into the story. The interview, and edits thereof, have been broadcast during the myriad editions of SportsCenter as long as the story has had legs (which, at the time this is being written, continues.)

The fact that ESPN would go to Craig James for analysis of the story,  including Leach’s firing, and not run any interviews from the other side is, of course, highly questionable. Further, a cell phone video of Adam James’ predicament has ended up in the hands of ESPN, presumably via Craig. Whether or not Leach did or did not “abuse” a player is irrelevant to the matter at hand; ESPN’s willingness to abandon journalistic ethics in favor of running less-than-fair coverage of matter which directly pertained to a member of ESPN’s on-air staff is nothing short of embarrassing.

ESPN has appeared to go out of its way to throw competition, or those who would either those who would go after personalities, or those who would transgress against the brand in-house, under the bus. When then-FOX baseball analyst Steve Lyons made a series of politically incorrect statements on-air that led to his dismissal from the network, ESPN gladly helped bury Lyons’ career by covering the story with salacious prejudice. When Harold Reynolds was sued over allegations of sexual harassment in 2006, he was efficiently and effectively scrubbed from all ESPN properties on air and anywhere else without much more than a word. Just this year, when more allegations of sexual impropriety arose against another MLB analyst, Steve Phillips, he was swept away with nary a word, until the internet caused a boomerang effect, forcing ESPN to run minimal coverage on the matter. When a stalker published video of a nude Erin Andrews on the internet, not only was Andrews essentially sequestered for months, her public appearances have been greatly curtailed and broadcast presence mutated into a series of extreme close-ups and other awkward moments in live broadcasting. ESPN also was unafraid to go after the story, using the clout of sister outlet ABC News and the full power of a media conglomerate to destroy the defendant.

Add in the past litany of advertising cross-promotion between ESPN and other brands owned by The Walt Disney Co., as well as heresay of ESPN protecting lucrative interests with sports entities such as the NFL, and ESPN’s fiscal prudence and journalistic integrity have appeared to butt heads throughout this past decade (which, as an editorial aside, ends next year, not this.)

And now, ESPN can be easily viewed as being complicit in helping to expedite Mike Leach’s termination, and likely subsequent crucifixion by the viewing public. ESPN is, by its own tagline admission, “the worldwide leader in sports”. And it has recklessly portrayed one of its own analysts, normally in the confines of an ESPN studio or stadium press box, as a somber victim in front of a black backdrop instead of covering a developing story. In its attempt to report the news, the network appears to have indirectly (or perhaps directly) assisted in creating news.

ESPN never acknowledged seeking out out Harold Reynolds or Steve Lyons for a statement or interview, nor did it appear to pursue a statement from Steve Phillips or his ex-lover, former ESPN production assistant Brooke Hundley. The last thing they wanted was to get any word from Andrews’ harasser, but Andrews went on to be interviewed by the friendly-to-ABC Oprah Winfrey. And now, all they seem to want are convoluted statements from Mike Leach’s attorney (the recordings of which broadcast on editions of SportsCenter 29 December, presumably to the confusion of all thanks to its sounding like a rambling, drunk youtube rant), Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance, whose job, like all heads of organizations, is to protect the image of the university as well as administrate, and an indignant father whobythewayalsohappenstoworkforthecompany.

The situationalist ethics of ESPN are maddening: if anything, they should have run the story on Leach, but absolutely refused to publish or broadcast remarks by an employee directly affected by the matter. They could have mentioned Craig James’s connection to the matter and left it at that. By including him, they have tossed any and all presumptions of objectivity out the window. And Mike Leach, regardless of what actually happened and whether or not his actions were inappropriate or illicit, is left with an impugned reputation.

[In the meantime, ESPN has no problem eulogizing the coaching legacy of Florida coach Urban Meyer, who reportedly resigned over concerns for his health and family, while having no second guesses or issues with correcting the story without batting an eye when Meyer allegedly changed his mind and decided to take an extended leave from the school.]

Texas Tech, too, appears to throw the concern of an employee, in a sports environment where whispers of coach-collegian abuse is too close to the public conscience for comfort, under the bus. Granted, Leach’s blood money likely comes from donors and not from the university’s coffers or Texas taxpayers, it remains that due diligence was sacrificed in favor of appeasing a player–one whom some allegedly likened to a malcontent or a primadonna–tied closely to a media entity that happens to be one of the major gatekeepers of public awareness of teams and schools. Some hands in Lubbock are no less clean, and perhaps dirtier, than the medium chiefly reporting the developments in Lubbock. All this after Tech went out of its way to lure and embrace legendary curmudgeon and basketball coach Bob Knight out of Hoosier-induced retirement in 2001 (to think some members of the current football roster claim that Leach didn’t know how to deal with people!), and continues to accept contributions to Knight’s endowed library fund.

Nevertheless, ESPN has committed a grave lapse in judgment by covering the Leach matter the way it has. What’s worse is that this is not the first time it has happened, and a conscious viewing public knows it will likely not be the last. When even sports media shows blatant subjectivity, one can easily see how it is also a microcosm it is of journalism as a whole in America at the figurative and popular end of the decade.

In short, advocacy journalism is not journalism, it is activism–and it is not black and white, but yellow.

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