Irvin's racial remarks about Romo crossed the line

Originally Published: November 30, 2006
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Michael Irvin's comments about the ancestry of Dallas quarterback Tony Romo, made during an interview on Dan Patrick's ESPN radio show Nov. 20, carried the same racial overtones that ended the television career of the late Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder nearly 20 years ago.

In a discussion of Romo's athletic ability, Irvin, a former Cowboys wide receiver and a regular on ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, said the quarterback's skills would have had to come from African-American heritage. Romo is white.

Irvin told Michael McCarthy of USA Today he was "joking" when suggesting that Romo's distant grandmother "must have pulled a brother out the barn and got down to business" to produce an athlete of Romo's ability.

Irvin reflecting -- even in jest -- on Romo's family history was reminiscent of Snyder pontificating to a Washington TV news reporter about the inherited physical advantages of African-American professional football players. Minutes after that interview, Snyder was told by colleagues and friends he'd crossed the line.

He was fired by CBS the following day.

I'm not recommending a specific penalty for Irvin. That's not my role. What I would like to see, however, is ESPN take some action publicly as a result of remarks made by one of its most visible commentators. Irvin's apology on the Patrick show Monday, and ESPN's responses, don't seem sufficient.

"Anytime you generalize on racial matters, it can be damaging, dangerous and inappropriate," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "You learn from such mistakes and move on."

Williamson said the network tried to cover the Irvin situation as a news story "as we would with any other public figure."

But the network walks a fine line regarding what it can and can't tell the public regarding internal personnel matters. In this case, however, Irvin, by his own words, has surrendered whatever confidentiality normally accorded his colleagues.

Knight games

ESPN went over the top covering Texas Tech coach Bob Knight's tweaking the chin of 6-foot-7 sophomore forward Michael Prince, Nov. 13, in Lubbock, Texas. Given Knight's history, the incident -- in which Knight's hand abruptly lifted the player's chin during a timeout in the coach's effort to gain Prince's attention -- deserved coverage, but not the volume and play of the incident shown by ESPN on its many shows.

It was, in my view, not worthy of the lead on SportsCenter, or deserving of the barrage of follow-up stories, commentary and panels over the ensuing days.

"I don't believe it was overplayed," said Vince Doria, ESPN's senior vice president for news. "Because of the number of shows we have, and the frequency that viewers tune in and tune out of these shows, we have to report the story and show the tape repeatedly to best inform those audiences. A guy with a track record such as Knight, striking a kid in the face is a big story."

Prince, meanwhile, told The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal that the exchange with Knight was "nothing," adding, "he was trying to teach me and I had my head down, so he raised my chin up." Nor did Prince's mother or Tech's athletic director, Gerald Myers, have a problem with how Knight dealt with Prince.

Pro-Knight and anti-Knight forces (former coaches, players and sportswriters) were quickly assembled by ESPN to provide additional coverage and balance to the story over the next several days.

"In retrospect, the focus on the debate should have been made clearer by us," Doria added. "The question should have centered on whether or not Knight should issue an apology and be reprimanded."

The contention by some viewers that ESPN overplayed and over-covered the story has merit. But in this world of instant news, the idea of playing down such a story until more reporting could be completed rarely carries the day. At least ESPN.com reported Knight's explanation on Tuesday: "I was trying to help a kid, and I think I did."

This is one story that ESPN's news executives must continue to discuss and ask themselves, "How well did we serve our viewers?"

Surfing

  • College football commentator Craig James' crass comment about Penn State football coach Joe Paterno this month slipped below the standards of the network.

  • Treating Nike's "Four LeBron James" advertising campaign as a feature on SportsCenter was a mistake. It's an advertisement, not a story.

  • Kirk Herbstreit's reputation continues to grow with his smart, insightful analysis of the college football scene. But with increased popularity comes increased scrutiny, such as a number of unhappy listeners who believe Herbstreit puts down Michigan and some Wolverine players on his Columbus radio show. Also, considering the former Ohio State quarterback's role with ESPN, perhaps Herbstreit should consider abstaining from voting in the Associated Press college football poll. He did not return a phone call for comment.

  • Should ESPN have done more coverage and reporting on the four-game suspension of San Diego Chargers star linebacker Shawne Merriman for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy? I think so.

  • In last month's column, I should have been more exact in pointing out Newsday reported in October that George Steinbrenner "wanted" to fire (not "expected" to fire, as I previously wrote) Joe Torre after the New York Yankees were eliminated in the American League playoffs by the Detroit Tigers.

    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.