The Sellout of ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports and Bias

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The Sellout of ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports and Bias
Here's a reporter with a sneaker on her arm

Watching those stupid new Kenny Mayne/Erin Andrews Diet Mountain Dew commercials rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't know why, but they bugged me.

When I tried to find it on YouTube this morning to watch it again, I found, like, a jillion Kenny Mayne commercials—not only for Mountain Dew (which I haven't had since I was eight), but for Progressive insurance, Gillette Fusion ProGlide razors and the kicker, Top-Flite D2 golf balls.

It's bad enough when supposed impartial journalists go on TV to show their preference for Applebee's or Southwest Airlines or Audi, but when they start to hawk things that they would actually cover, then it goes too far.

ESPN covers golf, so why should its employees promote one golf ball over another? It's bias. And when Erin Andrews hawks Reebok, doesn't that imply that SportsCenter's coverage involving Nike would be biased?

Which is exactly what happened. In a recent ombudsman report on ESPN, Kelly McBride and Regina McCombs write this:

ESPN's approach toward endorsements came under intense scrutiny earlier this year when Reebok rolled out its Andrews campaign two weeks after she reported on traction issues with Nike cleats during the Rose Bowl.

Jeez. Isn't that a coincidence? Andrews reports that Nike cleats weren't working well at a game, and two weeks later she's appearing in ads for Reebok. Wow.

Yeah, ESPN has no interest in promoting LeBron.

McBride and McCombs then quote the irascible New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick to show why mixing sports reporters with product endorsement is a bad idea. As usual, he puts it in his understated way.

"Nike, as if they and ESPN didn't know, is the largest steamroller among the sneaker cartel that has infiltrated, penetrated, dominated and eviscerated U.S. high school and college sports," Mushnick wrote. "But it's not as if [Lee] Corso, [Kirk] Herbstreit and [Chris] Fowler would have any reason to report on any of that, ya know? And it's not as if Nike would have any reason to pay them off, ya know?"

Which is exactly what happened with Andrews and her Reebok endorsement. Even if Andrews is innocent and it was all a coincidence, it doesn't matter. The appearance of impropriety taints any journalistic integrity ESPN has left. (Which, after their attempt at a Barry Bonds reality show, is at an all-time low.)

McBride and McCombs continue:

For example, why can't anyone at ESPN, even an analyst, take a contract from a college or professional team? Because ESPN likely covers that team. It's challenging enough to create a perception of fairness during a game broadcast (That's probably the chief complaint in the mailbag: "ESPN folks hate Team X or Team Y, my team.") But it would be even harder to maintain credibility in the face of a perceived conflict of interest when the stakes get higher.

What if a player dies because an unreasonable coach bullied him into running too far in the August heat? Or an athletic program covers up the criminal activity of its star athletes? ESPN puts such restrictions into the endorsement guidelines because it recognizes that it would strain trust among the audience if even one person were perceived to be "on a team's payroll."

This is not the first issue facing ESPN about favoritism. ESPN corporate sent a "Do Not Report" memo regarding the Ben Roethlisberger rape case. Reasons abound for their decision not to report it—their excuse was ridiculous and not even worthy to reprint—but it's been speculated that if they ran with the story, they would be penalized financially. And who might be in a position to do that? Somebody who might be heavily financially involved with ESPN. The NFL perhaps?

Or as Mike Francesa said:

“Bottom line is ESPN is extremely protective of athletes, especially the ones that do commercials with them. ... ESPN, when they are in bed with athletes, they just protect them. We know that. That’s nothing new.”

Naturally, when brought the fact that sports reporters selling shoes or golf balls is inappropriate—or that ESPN reports its news with favoritism towards certain parties and shows favoritism—the reporters got indignant.

"My loyalties are always to ESPN and the job and to basketball," said Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player and coach and a longtime network analyst. "I do this because I love basketball. When someone asks me a question, my job is to provide a factual basis for my opinion."

Right. So how about this? ESPN decides to quash a story that looked bad to the King of its ratings? Loyalties indeed.

Maybe this isn't big news. And maybe most fans don't care. But if ESPN wants people to take them seriously—Sports Reporters, Outside the Lines, etc.—it needs to project at least a muon of impartiality in its sports reporting. And their reporters shouldn't have a whiff of favoritism—to Reebok, Nike or whomever.

You're the worldwide leader in sports. And your sports news show is your flagship. Keep it clean.

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