ESPN should put 'Bonds on Bonds' on hold

Originally Published: March 14, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Borrowing the time-honored newspaper axiom, I won't bury the lead: I believe ESPN should put the production and April 4 debut of its scheduled 10-hour series on Barry Bonds on hold.

After reading in Sports Illustrated last week excerpts of the soon-to-be-published book, "Game of Shadows," written by two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, former Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent called for an independent investigation of the San Francisco Giants outfielder. Current Commissioner Bud Selig is considering such a move while absorbing the material in the book and talking to baseball officials, legal counsel and other knowledgeable parties.

The reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, claim that their allegations of Bonds' steroid use were "based on more than a thousand pages of documents and interviews with more than 200 people ... in our reporting on the BALCO story for the San Francisco Chronicle we obtained transcripts of the secret grand jury testimony of Barry Bonds and seven other prominent athletes."

In addition, the reporters conducted "interviews about BALCO from September 2003 until the autumn of '05. The names of many of our sources appear in the text or in the extensive chapter notes. When they raided BALCO in September, federal investigators began to accumulate evidence that Bonds was a steroid user. By the summer of '05, investigators had convincing proof that he had been using performance-enhancing drugs for years."

I am not using this space to judge Bonds, who has hit 708 home runs, with regards to the validity of his attempt to pass Babe Ruth (714) and Henry Aaron's (755) home run records, or to make any recommendations about Bonds' future -- or lack of same -- as a baseball player.

What I'm suggesting is a "time out" for the project -- entitled "Bonds on Bonds" -- by ESPN Original Entertainment, the division that oversees ESPN's production of films and documentary series. The book's allegations about Bonds, 41, should result in ESPN executives taking another look at the entire project, or at least suspending production until Selig and perhaps an independent investigator officially review Bonds' activities -- or non-activities -- regarding anything he did to artificially assist his home run assault.

Recently in this space, I expressed concern over the ethics of ESPN -- with its newsgathering mandate, standards and goals -- entering into a business relationship with Bonds, one of the most important and controversial newsmakers in sports, as well as a similar arrangement with Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight.

Though the production of the 10-hour series about Bonds was contracted out to an independent film company (Tollin/Robbins Productions) by EOE, when most viewers see a film or documentary on ESPN, it's ESPN they are judging -- not Tollin/Robbins, EOE, ESPNEWS or BASS.

One would have assumed that the news division of ESPN would gain access immediately to any newsworthy material gathered by Tollin/Robbins. Vince Doria, ESPN's senior VP and director of news, told me that the decision was made not to accept any such material before it aired. "Tollin/Robbins is in a business relationship with Bonds. If we were to accept material in advance, we would be getting that access through the business relationship, essentially paying Bonds for news."

John Walsh, ESPN's executive vice president and executive editor, told me "Bonds on Bonds" is an entertainment project under control of EOE, "in the hope the production meets our standards and practices." In another interview, Walsh told Richard Sandomir of the New York Times, "We can't care what they do."

The producer of the series, Mike Tollin, told me last week if Bonds makes news during taping at the Giants' Arizona spring training base, "It stays with us until after April 4. We can't violate the separation of church and state. We can't share our news."

Tollin's view is echoed by John Skipper, ESPN's executive vice president for content, who told Sandomir, "The question came up: 'What if he says something newsworthy on camera and we know about it?' And the answer was, we can't know about it" until after it has been televised.

Tollin correctly agrees the ground rules regarding the documentary "have changed" since the publication of the book excerpt in SI, saying, "The challenge has grown as the landscape changed. It would be irresponsible not to address the sweep of the allegations, as well as the aspects of his personality reported in the book. So we'll address these questions."

Tollin and his staff asking pointed, tough questions to Bonds leads to the possibility of Bonds' response becoming the lead story of the day. That raises the "news" bar from where it was a week ago -- or months ago when the project was launched.

Tollin is right: The landscape has changed.

One arm of ESPN possibly withholding major news from another, coupled with the possibility of Major League Baseball launching its own investigation of Bonds, is reason enough for ESPN to say, "Hold on for now and let's see where this leads."

Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.