Viewers baffled by Reynolds, World Cup decisions

Originally Published: August 1, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

ESPN's viewers know a lot about sports, teams, players, games and strategy. Test them on such matters and you'd likely be impressed by their knowledge, expertise, passion and curiosity.

But what baffles many ESPN viewers is ESPN itself.

The network, with its many arms and affiliations, including ESPNEWS, ESPN Outdoors, ESPN Original Entertainment, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine, BASS, ESPN Radio, ESPN International, ESPNU and a chain of restaurants, is a mega-media company that sometimes operates out of view in a way that confuses and puzzles the public it serves.

Many viewers do not understand much of ESPN's decision making -- whether it's the choice of lead story on "SportsCenter," what games are chosen to be put on the air or who announces those games. Nor do many viewers understand the relationship between ESPN and ABC Sports -- under the umbrella of the parent Disney Co. -- or the growing impact of the business side (such as mobile phones and publicizing upcoming Disney movies) on the network.

July might not have been a typical month in the life of ESPN. But two controversies -- the firing of baseball analyst Harold Reynolds and response to ESPN and ABC's coverage of the World Cup -- left a number of viewers looking for answers.

The termination of Reynolds from his ESPN duties, including his role on the popular "Baseball Tonight" show, came to light July 25 and sparked hundreds of e-mails from disappointed viewers, stories from newspaper and wire service reporters, and blog supposition as to why he was fired. The news of the dismissal was reported by Mike Greenberg on the 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" that day, as well as on ESPN.com, but ESPN would make no additional comment other than spokesman Josh Krulewitz's statement that Reynolds "no longer works here."

However, Newsday and the New York Post reported that Reynolds had been fired after being accused by a female co-worker of sexual harassment. Reynolds, who had been with ESPN for 11 years, told the New York Post's Andrew Marchand, "This was a total misunderstanding. My goal is to sit down and get back [to work at ESPN]. To be honest with you, I gave a woman a hug and I felt like it was misinterpreted."

The next day, Reynolds told USA Today's Bob Nightengale that he met with ESPN executives but that his status did not change.

"I don't understand all the factors that went into ESPN's decision," he told USA Today. "But management has always had the power to terminate, and they decided to exercise it. I respectfully disagree with their decision, but I'm not going to sacrifice my relationship with ESPN just to make a media point."

ESPN's policy -- as is the case with many other companies -- is not to comment on confidential personnel matters. My call to Reynolds was not returned.

E-mails from viewers expressed unhappiness with ESPN for not being more specific regarding the action it took against a popular commentator. Some noted that ESPN would be more aggressive in its reporting if ESPN weren't "involved" in the story. But ESPN's news reporters did seek additional comment from ESPN executives, with no success. Other viewers pointed to current ESPN employees who have had previous legal problems but kept their jobs.

I understand viewer frustration at not getting more information from ESPN about Reynolds, whose popularity and competence have increased steadily, the result of which was a recently signed six-year contract. I also agree that ESPN has a responsibility to the complaining party and the dismissed employee to maintain confidentiality.

That shouldn't -- and hasn't -- stopped the rest of the media from trying to report a story that has no winner.

The second-most controversial issue of the month involved FIFA's World Cup, a monthlong soccer event covered by ABC Sports and ESPN that captivated much of the world and generated the type of passion from viewers I've rarely seen in my 13 months of doing this job.

Although ratings for the event soared to record highs for soccer in this country, many viewers expressed disappointment and anger over the coverage. At the center of the storm was lead play-by-play announcer Dave O'Brien, whose soccer background coming into the tournament was minimal (his experience was primarily in baseball).

Jed Drake, senior vice president for remote production, was one of several ESPN executives who selected O'Brien for the job.

"We felt the need to create a non-soccer-centric audience, which is why we chose Dave over a conventional soccer announcer," Drake explained. "We wanted someone to tell a story and to create a broader picture than a soccer aficionado might expect."

Drake added: "Our criteria for choosing the announcer was we wanted a great broadcaster who would work hard to learn the game and grasp the scope of the event. In my view, we made the right choice. Soccer viewers are very critical and expect a clipped style. But Dave did everything we asked, and while he made some mistakes, he grew with each game."

I agree with Drake; O'Brien improved with every game. But I also agree with many viewers who felt the selection of someone with so little soccer experience to cover the world's biggest soccer event was a mistake.

"Would you have someone who had never seen an NFL game be assigned a Super Bowl?" one viewer asked.

The answer, of course, is no.

The joke is on whom?
The 14th annual ESPY Awards show, which aired July 16 and was hosted by retired cycling champion Lance Armstrong, generally went off well, at least until Armstrong's ill-fated anal-sex remark to "Brokeback Mountain" star Jake Gyllenhaal. Armstrong, who won the Tour de France seven times, was glib and mostly funny in his monologues -- until his attempt to tweak his friend.

What surprised me is that ESPN had a chance to edit Armstrong's inappropriate line out of the show, because the taping in Hollywood occurred several days before the show aired, yet failed to do so.

I asked John Walsh, ESPN's executive vice president and executive editor, how Armstrong's line survived.

"We asked ourselves would this be offensive to gay people, and the answer was no," Walsh said. "No one felt strongly enough to take out a line that was a joke between two good friends."

I received a number of e-mails from viewers who disagreed with Walsh, including some from parents uncomfortable that their children heard the joke and several other off-color remarks by Armstrong.

The show had some bright moments, though, including the award for best moment given to Jason McElwain, the autistic high school basketball manager who scored 20 points when he finally got a chance to play in a game. That was special.

Surfing

  • I still would like to see a decrease in the volume of commercial/news tie-ins on ESPN, including the Mobile ESPN Rumor Line and the hyping of Disney's latest "Pirates of the Caribbean" film under the flimsiest of excuses (such as a mention of the Pittsburgh Pirates.) To me, "rumors" are stories not nailed down by reporting. Who needs a "Rumor Line"?

  • On a positive note, moving Bob Ley's "Outside the Lines: First Report" to 3:30 p.m. from the after-midnight position is encouraging to fans of good broadcast journalism.

  • Not so positive: After all the attention paid in February to the New Jersey gambling scandal that involves Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, and assistant coach Rick Tocchet, not much in the way of follow-up reporting by ESPN has occurred. Fairness demands more.

  • The staff of Stephen A. Smith's "Quite Frankly" should have known better than to e-mail potential members of the studio audience and tell them it would be acceptable to boo Cubs manager Dusty Baker, a scheduled guest on the show. Baker withdrew from the show when he heard about the e-mail. Also, Smith complaining to the media that the show isn't getting sufficient support from ESPN sounds a little whiny to me.

  • Some viewers wondered whether ESPN might be exploiting those children appearing on Chris Connelly's 10-part "My Wish" series in conjunction with the "Make-A-Wish Foundation." I don't agree. The series was tasteful and moving.

  • Talented Dan Le Batard, in a replacement role on "Pardon the Interruption," makes a legitimate point when he says too much of the media coverage about steroids is focused on Barry Bonds. But he was unfair in comparing Detroit Tigers catcher Ivan Rodriguez to Bonds. Those closely following the story know Rodriguez in no way compares to Bonds in the scope of what investigators are seeking and what they know.

  • Coverage of the "Home Run Derby" on ESPN this year was more restrained and improved compared with last year. Can't say the same about eating champion Takeru Kobayashi cleaning his plate in the annual July Fourth hot dog eating contest.

  • Was that unpleasant exchange between Dan Patrick and NBA commissioner David Stern at the NBA draft necessary? Shouldn't a commissioner of a major sport be treated with more respect?

  • I like ESPN's coverage of Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro's fight to survive. ... But wonder whether putting six athletes together in a reality series called "Summer House" elevates the television business. ... Nor do I find much sense in ESPN.com's Scoop Jackson writing that it's easier for young black men to make the NBA than to become sports writers. Scoop is wrong.

    Next time: We get into ESPN's selection of games.

    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.