- Don Ohlmeyer, Ombudsman
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Heard the old adage that there are two sides to every story? It turns out that there are often three -- your side, the other side and the truth. That is the nature of controversy, as recently exhibited in ESPN's coverage of the suspension and eventual firing of Mike Leach as football coach at Texas Tech.
One viewpoint: A talented, quirky coach "punished, humiliated and demeaned a player" for sustaining a concussion by confining him in a dark room near the practice field -- and the coach was, in turn, fired for insubordination.
Another perspective: A player with attitude problems and a meddling parent was disciplined by his coach, who subsequently was fired because a university with buyer's remorse saw an opportunity to extricate itself from an expensive contract.
The first scenario was amply covered during ESPN's broadcast of the Jan. 3 meeting between Texas Tech and Michigan State in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Elements of the second were glossed over. And complicating the entire dust-up for the network was the fact the player happened to be the son of an ESPN analyst.
The controversy surrounding Leach, Texas Tech, ESPN analyst Craig James and his son Adam -- a sophomore wideout for the Red Raiders -- generated more traffic in the ombudsman mailbag than any other issue in the past year.
A sampling: "The commentary regarding the Mike Leach situation is so biased" "We put the broadcast on mute after your announcer said 'Adam James was punished for having a concussion'" "This was not ESPN's journalistic best" "The announcers need to concentrate on broadcasting the game" "The James[es] had a lot more to do with this situation than ESPN is telling us" "Give the Leach situation a rest" "Will ESPN ever acknowledge their conflict of interest?"
According to ESPN, the Leach story overall generated more complaints to the network than any other topic in the past year (nearly 1,700 calls or e-mails, although it's unclear how many of those might have been driven by organized online campaigns). For the ombudsman mailbag, the increase was sixfold over any other previous issue (nearly 3,000). Many of the comments were directed at ESPN's overall coverage of the Leach controversy, not just the telecast, and one network executive noted that the total number of complaints was minor in proportion to an audience of nearly 8 million for the Alamo Bowl broadcast.
Although that's accurate, the number of complaints is immaterial. The ombudsman's task -- and the point ESPN should be concerned about -- is to examine whether the network served its audience with a solid, professional broadcast of the game.
I watched the Alamo Bowl live for pure pleasure, and had my own initial reaction as a viewer. After reading your e-mails, spending hours talking to various ESPN decision-makers, rescreening the game four times, analyzing transcripts, reading court affidavits and newspaper articles from across the country -- then spending countless hours trying to digest it all -- I drew some conclusions.
Some disclosure: I have no dog in this fight. I have no relationship with Leach, the James family or anyone at Texas Tech. I have no relationship with ESPN's Rece Davis, Heather Cox or Bob Davie. I've spoken with network play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick a few times and have always respected his work. I would never condone abusing a player, and offer no opinion as to whether Leach should have been fired. This column is not meant to review the entire body of ESPN's weeklong coverage of the Leach controversy -- there's no way for me to have consumed it all. What's at issue here, simply, is whether ESPN offered a balanced presentation of a complex story in its coverage of the Alamo Bowl.
In September, ESPN assigned Patrick and Craig James to call the Alamo Bowl. The network's first problem arose Dec. 6 when the Michigan State-Texas Tech pairing was announced. This would mean that James would be covering a game involving his son. ESPN decided to let the assignment stand. Citing past games involving analysts such as Jeff Van Gundy, Bill Walton, Bob Griese and Lou Holtz, Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production, said, "It's not uncommon in our business for family members to work games involving a relative."
These decisions have usually been rationalized within the industry as unique opportunities to humanize the game or a chance to look beyond the veil. Might the real reason be self-indulgence? Although it might be heartwarming 20 years later for father and son to reminisce about a shared moment, what's in it for the audience? Would a father really divulge key strategic knowledge gained only by access to his son? Would he point out a strength or weakness in the son's ability only a father would notice? Would he spill the beans about a teammate or coach based on private information? Highly doubtful.
In a work of fiction the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief. In a live sportscast, the audience shouldn't be asked to suspend its expectation of objectivity. Transparent or not, intentional or not, it seems psychologically impossible for a father in that situation to be totally unbiased. It sounds like a clever conceit, but it's not honest to the fans, especially those rooting for the opposing team.
Another rationalization is the potential for a ratings boost. Would a larger audience be attracted because a father was providing analysis of his son's performance? Only if the announcer had a very large family.
After the Leach controversy boiled over with his suspension the last week in December, ESPN took James off the telecast -- but not Patrick. ESPN's rationale was that Patrick is a professional and his season-long work with James did not represent a conflict. Patrick's professionalism notwithstanding, ESPN's decision put him in an untenable position. In media, perception is reality, and it was clear the relationship between the two commentators could -- perhaps should -- raise questions for the audience. Word choices, phrases, even inflections are subjective. Everything Patrick said could be filtered through the subtext of "Would he have said that if he hadn't been James' partner throughout the past season?"
The circumstances surrounding Leach dictated that Patrick would have to discuss a controversy that had sparked heated emotions among many in the audience. And he fueled the flames late in the first quarter when, after ESPN showed graphics with statements from the university on the firing and a snippet of a Leach interview on why he believed he was dismissed, Patrick said of the reserve receiver, "There is Adam James, who is the young man who was actually punished for having a concussion."
That comment articulated ESPN's point of view for the audience: What happened? A player was punished. Who was the victim? Adam James. Who was the perpetrator? Mike Leach. What was the motivation? The player suffered a concussion. That thesis coincided with Texas Tech's position, not to mention that proffered by Craig James. Clearly, there were various versions of what happened between coach and player, but Patrick's statement offered no nuance. Opinion was stated as fact. James was "actually punished for having a concussion."
The central figures
A basic flaw in ESPN's presentation was the premise that Adam James was an innocent bystander. One ESPN decision-maker reflected this point of view when he told me that questioning Adam's actions and character would have been the equivalent of allowing a lawyer to defend a rapist by saying the victim dressed provocatively. Another flaw was the portrayal of Craig James, in the main, as someone who "courageously" reported Leach's misdeeds to school officials.
Were ESPN's choices well-intentioned but naive? Or were they influenced by James' role with the network? It's difficult to ascribe motive; that requires gazing into hearts, minds and souls. Editing and news judgments are always subjective and, in many ways, are art, not science. But it's clear that what's left out of a broadcast is as important as what's included.
Throughout the game, in the booth and from the studio, ESPN referred to affidavits released by Texas Tech on Jan. 2 to seemingly contradict statements Leach had made previously. Quoting other portions of those same documents, however, might have provided the audience with a different interpretation of what precipitated Leach's dispatching of James to that infamous dark place (variously referred to as a shed, an electrical closet and an interview room.)
The choices ESPN made in presenting the story gave the clear implication that Leach had maniacally sequestered James simply for having sustained a head injury. If there were anything in the coach's background alleging abuse of a player (a la Arizona State's Frank Kush or Ohio State's Woody Hayes), ESPN should have reported it. If not, the logical question became why James, and why now? Actions don't happen in a vacuum. There was a backstory, at least according to Leach. The broadcast team was aware of it and basically ignored it. An explanation was available from the same sources that ESPN quoted so liberally elsewhere.
The broadcast's only comment that gave insight into the younger James' actions was an incomplete reference by field reporter Heather Cox that noted "Before Mike Leach was fired, [assistant coach Lincoln] Riley wrote a critical letter to the administration which included negative comments regarding Adam James' character. He told me the letter was intended to simply shed light on the situation."
Riley was James' position coach and knew him well. What were those negative comments Cox was referring to? On Dec. 29, ESPN ran the following on The Bottom Line: "Riley wrote: 'Two practices before Adam James claimed he had a concussion, Coach Leach and I were forced to discipline him for poor effort from the previous practice and poor effort during the early drills of that day He complained to me that we were not doing our jobs as coaches and that his effort was just fine, all of which is very typical of him to say.'"
ESPN.com also reported that Riley had characterized James as "unusually lazy and entitled" and someone who makes "excuses or blames people for things that go wrong in his life." Did this have any possible impact on how Leach treated James? One ESPN official told me he was surprised, at the time, that Cox had not included more detail in her report regarding Riley's letter. That's fine, but the live telecast still had hours to go. Why didn't ESPN have Cox revisit and expand her report?
During the game, ESPN reported what Leach said to Texas Tech trainer Steve Pincock when the coach told the trainer to take James to a dark place. The quotes from Pincock's affidavit seemingly were used to discredit an explanation Leach gave in a 37-minute interview with Rece Davis on New Year's Eve. The network noted in a graphic that Leach had used expletive-laden language when issuing his orders, but failed to offer perspective as to what prompted that explosive reaction.
In Pincock's affidavit, but unused on air, was a description of what allegedly led to Leach's actions: "James arrived for practice wearing street clothes, his cap on backwards, and sunglasses and began walking around the field in a very nonchalant way. He was not wearing the standard jersey and cleats or workout gear expected of all players during practice, including injured players. When head coach Mike Leach saw James on the field, he called me over to him and asked what James was doing I told him that James had suffered a concussion [yesterday] and was walking the field which was standard for players with a concussion. Leach was upset and concerned about James' appearance and attitude. Leach said he did not want him loafing while the players were working. Leach told me to place James in a dark place "
Why did the network opt not to include that background in the broadcast? The motivation for Leach's actions might not matter with respect to his firing, but it does regarding the audience's perception of his actions and his character.
In timing the transcript, it appears that ESPN spent approximately 28 minutes of the broadcast discussing the controversy. How was the time used? Did the network make an effort to offer a balanced telling of the story?
ESPN officials generally indicated they worked diligently and did a good job of detailing the controversy against the backdrop of a live football game. Success in covering controversial issues, particularly those with reputational ramifications, is not judged by time devoted, how hard one tries or how well one performs "under the circumstances." It's determined by judging the finished product.
"When there is a story of this magnitude, we know going in it's always a difficult balance to tell that story while still keeping the focus on the action on the field," Williamson said. "The goal is always to keep a balance between clearly articulating the story and covering the action on the field. Can you imagine the criticism we would've received if we just focused on the game?"
To do the best work requires focus. Sports announcers can't provide targeted commentary while splitting attention between an employment dispute and a football game. Their thoughts on the controversy can become disjointed; there can be confusion about what they have said and haven't said; and important or complex facts can be lost when interrupted by exciting moments in the game.
Even for professionals, rambling extemporaneously presents opportunities for mistakes, poor word choices and misimpressions. Sentence construction and thought dynamics are tough enough without trying to concentrate on two things simultaneously. Which might explain why this telecast was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When the production crew focused on the game, the broadcast was fine -- engaging pictures, excellent graphics, relevant replays, and interesting information and insights rendered by the broadcasters. However, when the telecast was bifurcated with the video from the field and announcers commenting on the dispute and covering the game at the same time, the result was dreadful.
The announcers talked off-game over plays, replays, the referees' penalty calls and even each other. They had to interrupt what amounted to a sports radio talk show about Leach to pick up, in progress, several big plays, including a touchdown. They misidentified players and were late recognizing a fake field goal attempt. At one point, they went nine plays without verbalizing down and distance.
It's infuriating to sports fans when announcers ignore what's happening on the field. It subconsciously says to the viewers "What we're talking about is far more important and interesting that what you tuned in to watch." And more than that, it's unfair to broadcasters to put them in a position where they can't do their jobs well -- whether that's talking about a controversy or covering a football game.
ESPN's handling of Craig James' involvement in the controversy raised the ire of many mailbag contributors. James was a former football star at SMU who went on to play in the USFL and the NFL. He has been an analyst since 1989 for various networks, including ABC and ESPN, in the studio and on remotes.
There were few mentions of the elder James in the telecast, but one of the most prominent was when Davis wrapped up his halftime report by referring to his New Year's Eve interview with Leach: " Also in that interview, [Leach] characterized Craig James' involvement with the program and suggested James would use his position with ESPN as an analyst to leverage playing time for his son James responds to those claims by saying 'it is absurd.'"
In the halftime report, Davis did not detail Leach's characterization of James' involvement. But in the interview, Leach pulled no punches, saying of James, "When you call coaches, when you call me, you call his position coaches, both of them, you call other administrators on campus or you come to practices and want to have constant discussions on your son and their playing time and then you get calls from other people that he's discussed things with outside the program at some point, we said we're not going to return any of the phone calls. Craig James required more time than all of the other parents combined."
Clearly Leach was exasperated with what he alleged to be Craig James' behavior, but those details were left out. That critical context was then lacking when Bob Davie addressed the issue in the fourth quarter of the game.
"Yeah, if you're a parent, if you sign that national letter, you've had the recruiting process, you've met the coach many times -- the James family met Mike Leach many times," Davie said. "Once you send that kid to that school, you've got an obligation to let that coach and those assistant coaches coach him. Now that coach has an obligation to treat him like he's my son, and only do what's in his best interest. But it's all about trust, Mike. Both of us have an obligation, the parent and the coach."
If the audience had been made aware of Leach's allegations that Craig James had meddled, Davie's comment would have been an indictment of both the father and the coach. That would be fair. Instead, all the audience heard was that James was "courageous" and the only indictment was of Leach.
Another faulty impression involved the Texas Tech players. Although ESPN showed some fans holding signs in the stands supportive of Leach and spoke of the passion the controversy had ignited, the broadcast was misleading -- or at least incomplete -- in describing how the team reacted to Leach's firing.
On several occasions, Patrick pointed out that Adam James "enjoyed the support of his teammates." Davie told the audience, "You know I think the motivation for Texas Tech is simple: 'Show we can win a football game without Mike Leach.' He's been the face of this program. Let's face it, he's been the major reason for all this success. But for the coaches and players here tonight, they've got a great opportunity to show, 'Hey, it was us.' And we visited with them yesterday. They didn't have to say a word. You could sense that they're really excited about coming here tonight and getting this job done by themselves."
A viewer could ascertain from those comments that all the Texas Tech players were supportive of Leach's firing -- a strong indictment of the coach. Other news reports made clear that there were divergent opinions among the players. To give any other impression was not journalistically sound.
So, again, the key question: Was the telecast balanced? ESPN thinks it was -- and for me, that is the most troubling aspect of this whole affair. One ESPN decision-maker reviewed the telecast and, admitting his tally was subjective, told me the positive and negative comments about Leach were nearly equal. That may be accurate, at a high level. But the positives revolved around his X's and O's achievements as a coach. The negatives reflected on Leach's character as a man, which is where the balance was required.
That's a critical distinction.
Another recurring thread from ESPN was the assumption the audience had prior knowledge of the controversy. Indeed, some who complained about the coverage seemed to have a better grasp of the nuances of the dispute than those responsible for the broadcast. But it's not the audience's responsibility to come armed with those details. The telecast should have been constructed and executed as if the viewer had no background on or opinion of the Leach affair.
That said, there is a major mitigating factor to be considered. Print and Internet journalists have the ability to cover a story, write about it, edit it and even re-edit before publishing. Live television is just that: live.
That reality requires recognition of what can and can't be accomplished against the limitations of a live sportscast. Cover a news story, or cover a football game? The first answer is that the two don't mix. But if circumstances make it unavoidable -- and I would suggest that was the case for the Alamo Bowl -- a network must proceed with caution, recognize the dangers and take a less-is-more approach. It must remember that one man's opinion is another man's bias. That it is critical to concentrate on presenting all of the relevant facts. That shades of bias will always creep into a telecast and must be accounted for. That announcers are human beings, and that the challenge is to minimize the subjectivity and try to craft a telecast that serves the audience first.
In November, this column addressed the Steve Phillips affair and the fact ESPN was criticized for seeming to ignore, on its air, a messy sex scandal involving employees. Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president and director of news, noted at the time that "stories involving us are angst-ridden, and we recognize that we don't always do our best work on them. Fortunately, they don't come along too often."
Well, two months later, there comes another big story involving an ESPN analyst. Cover those stories too much, and it might appear self-serving. Cover them too little, and it's deemed a cover-up. That's the reality and the curse for ESPN.
Controversies lurk around every corner, and conflicts are troublesome for any company. Of course, they're particularly dangerous if a large part of your business relies on being perceived by an audience as factual, fair and credible.
As ESPN grows, so will the conflicts. All the policies in the world won't cover the potential scenarios. The company needs to develop a hypersensitivity to such developments. News decisions in these cases must not be resolved by asking "What's permissible for the employee?" but rather "What's fair to the audience?"
Knight, the Green Game and bowl talk
Although the Leach controversy warranted an extended examination, there are a few other items that recently registered in the mailbag and deserve mention in what most certainly will be a record for longest ombudsman column. If you can't digest it all in one setting, relax, the link will still be there for you on ESPN.com.
• Bobby Knight: One thing you can say about the former Indiana and Texas Tech coach: He sure knows how to talk basketball and elicit a reaction.
Knight's analysis of collegiate games for ESPN has brought applause and praise from viewers and his comments last month regarding John Calipari generated outrage from them.
No one can deny that Knight is about as knowledgeable about hoops as they come. By the end of a telecast he's working, you feel as if you've attended a world-class coaching clinic. His observations are perceptive, his compliments succinct and his criticisms often withering.
Knight brings a fresh and different approach to basketball commentary. Unlike most color announcers, he focuses almost exclusively on what happens on the floor. He clearly articulates what happened and why it happened and passes judgment on whether it was the right or wrong thing to do. There's a sense that nothing escapes the coach's all-seeing eye. There's little attempt at levity and very few sorties into the typical color information and anecdotes that other analysts rely on to fill time. With Knight, it's all basketball, all the time.
His laser focus on what happens on the court will require his broadcasting partners to prepare harder. Sports are played by very human contestants. A good telecast is not just strategy and execution. It's about living, breathing players with interesting personal stories, winning or losing in a high-stakes game.
This doesn't seem to be part of Knight's broadcasting DNA so far -- and perhaps it should remain that way. Stay with the game and let the play-by-play announcer humanize. Knight knows the coaches well and can naturally bring interesting background information about them that few others can provide.
In a recent Oklahoma-Oklahoma State telecast, Knight and Brent Musberger meshed well. Pairing a new announcer with Musberger is smart. He's one of those "generous" play-by-play announcers who not only calls the game but makes an effort to engage the analyst and probe with questions the viewers themselves might ask. Knight's voice seemed to brighten when Musberger led him into down an interesting path. Musberger also brings lightness to the telecast and even managed to get Knight to crack a smile during halftime.
Knight is off to a good start, but there are some areas where he could improve. He has a tendency toward the monotone, and that can be interpreted as a lack of enthusiasm -- even boredom. This can be overcome by working on voice variety and punctuating moments with different levels of excitement. An old production trick to help pump him up in those moments is to raise the crowd volume in Knight's headset, which will naturally raise his voice level.
Another area of caution is overtalking. Just because the play-by-play announcer stops speaking doesn't mean the analyst has to fill the void. Occasionally just letting the game and the crowd carry the ball offers the audience a welcome respite from nonstop chatter.
Knight also has a tendency to make predictions -- there's probably nobody better equipped -- but he has to modulate that. In the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State game, he offered a number of bold predictions and many turned out to be wrong. Foreshadowing what "could happen" is of real value to the viewer. But every time an announcer makes an outright prediction and is wrong, it subconsciously calls his credibility into question with the audience.
That said, Knight is never shy about voicing a controversial opinion. Viewers respond to candor. Their response is usually positive if they agree and negative if they don't. His Calipari pronouncement prompted many to write the ombudsman, especially those passionate admirers of Kentucky basketball.
At a Dec. 17 fundraiser for the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, Knight -- who was not covering the event for ESPN -- opined: "We've gotten into a situation where integrity is really lacking and that's why I'm glad I'm not coaching. You see we've got a coach at Kentucky who put two schools on probation and he's still coaching. I really don't understand that."
The mailbag exploded: "Incredible, Bob Knight giving lectures on integrity" "Hard to see Knight as an unbiased opinion" "Coach Calipari was not found to be in non-compliance with NCAA rules at Memphis or U of Mass" "His comments were inappropriate and off-base" "Knight makes slanderous statements and evidently ESPN doesn't care."
"We allow and encourage our analysts to state their opinions" Williamson said. "Granted, those won't always be favorable, but if they are informed, factual and balanced, we feel they are serving the viewer. During Knight's first on-air appearance [after the event], he reiterated his comment on Calipari and expanded it, saying that 'Coaches should be held accountable for school violations.'"
Knight is the winningest coach in Division I men's college basketball history. He's been at the center of numerous controversies concerning his attitude and behavior. He's been called a boor, a brute, a martinet, a loose cannon and numerous unprintable expletives. But he was an accomplished championship coach, his record on honest recruiting and athlete graduation rates was exemplary, and he has spoken out for years on protecting the integrity of the sport.
Calipari's two previous schools were indeed punished by the NCAA for infractions that occurred during his watch, yet he's still coaching. It's also true, however, that Calipari was not implicated in those violations or reprimanded by the NCAA -- and Knight offered no new evidence against the Kentucky coach.
Knight is entitled to his opinions, and ESPN viewers are interested in them. And seeking integrity in a sport that sometimes ignores it is laudable. However, tossing a verbal hand grenade without new information doesn't advance that cause.
• The Green Game: Taking advantage of a captive audience is tempting, but it's a really bad habit.
After a cute open with Kermit the Frog and a beautifully edited piece featuring nature and pollution that told us we should "fear for our future," host Dave O'Brien intoned "The Green Game the sports fan's guide to eco-friendly tips for your everyday life to help spread awareness of a green lifestyle and to help make a better place for our future."
An inordinate number of viewers were not impressed. "Stick to sports and stop preaching how we should live our lives" "Spare me the eco-editorializing" "I was so angry I turned off the TV" "I come to ESPN to retreat from the problems of the day" "ESPN is not the place for political commentary."
Regarding the last comment, Williamson responded, "I'm not sure when conserving resources and diminishing pollution became political."
Of course, we live in a world in which nearly everything is perceived as having a political overtone. And to many, environmentalism has become synonymous with the global warming debate, which recent polls show is a deeply divisive issue.
The "green" elements in the telecast largely were limited to vignettes and tips about how to conserve energy and decrease pollution. They were used as elements going into and out of commercials during the game as well as at halftime. The timeouts were expanded to accommodate the pieces, resulting in longer pauses in the action, but they were not intrusive.
In-game action was intruded upon only for an interview and an extended shout-out to a student who was studying environmental science and a warning from O'Brien that "We have to eliminate burning fossil fuels."
The whole presentation was rather innocuous, so why did viewers respond with such passion and anger? As stated previously in this column, viewers won't tolerate perceived political intrusions during the game. When the network violates that principle, the viewers aren't shy about protesting -- and they shouldn't be.
• Bowl talk: For different reasons, viewers offered the Jan. 6 GMAC Bowl between Central Michigan and Troy as another example of ESPN violating its pact with the audience. Some comments: "Would it have been too much for the announcers to at least pretend they were interested in the game on the field?" "The teams on the field became an afterthought to a total onslaught of discussion on the next night's Texas-Alabama game" "If you wanted a BCS preview show you should have scheduled one" "We're disappointed in the lack of coverage of the game going on the field" "Most of the pictures were of the GMAC Bowl but the broadcast crew barely seemed to notice."
Promotion is the lifeblood of television, but overpromotion is lethal. And overpromotion is what reigned during the GMAC Bowl. It's insulting to the audience for announcers to talk incessantly about the upcoming BCS Championship Game -- a game on your network, of course -- in the midst of another bowl game. No viewer was going to make a choice to watch the Texas-Alabama game simply by being bombarded with BCS title talk during the GMAC Bowl. The perception is that the announcers had no interest in the game they were covering.
Viewer reaction to both of these telecasts underscores a point ESPN should never forget: The network might own the rights to the events it is telecasting, but it doesn't own the audience. When ESPN deviates from its standard presentation, it can alienate a good portion of its audience. Do it too often, and there's the risk of fraying the vital bond that exists between loyal viewers and the network.
Proselytizing a political point of view is a third rail for some viewers. Saturating a live event with promotion for an upcoming event is equally dangerous. For "must-see" events, viewers will put up with almost anything. But they won't forget it.
Many of ESPN's programs are enjoyed by viewers that are loyal and make a concerted effort to watch the network. ESPN spends millions of dollars on an imaginative, clever, humorous advertising campaign aimed solely at making viewers feel good about "SportsCenter" and, by transference, ESPN. Taking a captive audience and using it as a prop to further other interests puts that good will at risk -- and ESPN needs to remember there's not an endless supply.
Until next time
ESPN's treatment of the Mike Leach controversy during its Alamo Bowl telecast, writes the ombudsman, was more biased than balanced.