Acknowledging ESPN’s flaws necessary

Former ombudsman critiqued sports network for conflicts of interest
Saturday, April 28, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

There’s one thing that every bar in the United States has in common.

It’s ESPN.

With televisions mounted to every wall at countless angles, bars aren’t really American without the worldwide leader in sports dominating every screen.

And when it comes to sports on television, ESPN is Mount Everest, and its competitors are just a bunch of anthills.

But even Mount Everest has its share of storms. It’s practically blasphemous for a sports fan to say it, but ESPN isn’t perfect.

That’s how George Solomon earned his keep.

Until about a month ago, Solomon was the ombudsman for ESPN, meaning he heard complaints from the network’s audience and expressed his own concerns to the management of ESPN.

For about an hour Monday night, in the concrete confines of the MU School of Journalism, Solomon lectured and fielded questions like a college professor. As he spoke, his hands grasped the sides of the lectern, his gestures were emphatic but crisp, and his beige checked shirt and maroon tie evoked an image of pipe-smoking academians of decades ago.

The pace of the hour was quickened by the ever-changing topic of conversation.

Solomon ripped ESPN and especially — gasp — SportsCenter for overplaying stories, creating conflicts of interest and stroking its own ego.

When Dallas Cowboys receiver (and all-around lovable fellow) Terrell Owens allegedly attempted to kill himself, ESPN was there. The network pre-empted its entire schedule that afternoon to bring this “breaking news” to the world.

This didn’t make Solomon happy. He called this story “the ultimate overkill.”

“When he allegedly took pills and supposedly committed suicide, you would think the president had died,” Solomon said.

It makes sense that a news story with a sports angle would receive a proportionately larger presence on ESPN, but Solomon said that overreacting to news isn’t what viewers want.

And he should know. He received about 1,000 e-mails per month from the worldwide audience of ESPN. Some complimented the network, but most complained about its practices

or policies, Solomon said.

Many complained about ESPN being self-serving in its coverage. When ESPN dropped professional hockey from its coverage after the NHL lost its season to a lockout, viewers complained that the NHL received a smaller presence on SportsCenter.

Solomon admitted that ESPN’s coverage of hockey has basically degenerated to a solitary man with a mullet: Barry Melrose.

One of the sports that has taken its place is arena football. This caricature of real football is actually owned by the network, a fact that makes Solomon scratch his head.

“Since their ownership of the Arena Football League, their coverage of the Arena Football League ... has gone up considerably,” Solomon said. “I don’t know of any other news organization that actually owns things they cover.”

But the conflicts of interest don’t stop there.

He mentioned the “This is SportsCenter” commercials in which ESPN anchors are shown coexisting in their offices with popular professional athletes.

A recent one showed studio anchor Scott Van Pelt returning a headband he had borrowed from Denver’s Carmelo Anthony. The 30-second ads are always clever and sharply written, but Solomon said they violate a key tenant of journalism: objectivity.

He sarcastically compared the practice of using athletes for ESPN promotions to a news station using a politician to endorse its programming.

“Would NBC have Dick Cheney on one of its commercials promoting NBC?” Solomon asked. “One, why would you want Dick Cheney promoting anything? Two, why would you want Dick Cheney on NBC if you’re covering the vice president on a regular basis?”

The reason this bothers Solomon represents a contentious perspective on how people interpret ESPN’s role. Solomon said he views ESPN as a news organization and not an entertainment outlet.

Others see it differently.

But no matter how astute and accurate Solomon’s observations were, ESPN didn’t have to listen. He was always an outside adviser — never in the position to approve or reject a decision before it was made.

This represented a fascinating change for him in his career.

Before joining ESPN, he spent nearly 30 years as a sports editor at the Washington Post.

As sports editor, if he wanted change, people listened. As ombudsman, if he wanted change he would often be ignored.

That meant that when he called Jay Bilas because the basketball analyst equated a team’s soft play with the film “Brokeback Mountain,” his message wasn’t given as much credence.

“The ESPN talent for the most part had a difficult time accepting the position,” Solomon said.

But Solomon wasn’t as pessimistic about ESPN as it might seem. He said the network’s treatment of women’s sports, for example, stands out in the field.

Other sports media — talk radio stations particularly — denigrate women’s sports on a regular basis. But ESPN doesn’t do that, Solomon said.

It’s easy for a sports fan to be ignorant to the perils of the Mount Everest of the sports world. But it’s important for the townspeople to see what really happens above the clouds of perceived perfection.

Even if it hurts just a little bit.

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