Today on ESPN.com appears the first article from their new ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer. His predecessor, Le Anne Schreiber, left about six months ago.
We all know the presence ESPN has in sports. I can be very critical of the network, which is why I really look forward to seeing what their ombudsman has to say. I don't know if other people follow this as closely as I do, but here is an open letter to the new ESPN ombudsman on the day of the release of his first column.
Dear Mr. Ohlmeyer:
First, let me say I enjoyed reading you first ombudsman column. I love sports. I tune in to ESPN and log on to ESPN.com not because I love the network, but because of how I feel about sports, and you can't love sports and not connect yourself with ESPN.
I can be very critical of the network—I want ESPN to be perfect. But I also acknowledge that my view of perfect likely is very different than the next person's. And even in my nitpicking at ESPN, I must also say ESPN does a lot of things that are great, and many such things get taken for granted by me and likely many others.
But ESPN does not do everything great, or even well, and often times as a lifelong diehard sports fan, I find many things ESPN does to be insulting to fans like myself, as more and more the network appeares geared to the non-fan. And I can't help but wonder: Does ESPN even care that it angers passionate sports fans with some of the things it does?
A few months back, Bill Simmons conducted an incredibly insightful podcast with his boss, John Walsh. They joked a few times about who would listen to the 70-minute plus podcast. Well, I did, several times.
I came away from the podcast with an appreciation for some of those things ESPN does that I take for granted, and some of the challenges the network faces that I don't even think about.
But also, I couldn't help but think from listening to Walsh that ESPN confuses attention with quality. Everyone I know pays attention to ESPN—you can't help it. That attention, however, does not necessarily have any correlation with quality. That is important to remember.
Conflict of interest is at the heart of many of my complaints about the network. Sometimes the conflict is obvious, while other times it might be more attenuated. The conflict can be simply that the network isn't going to shine a bright light on a problem because the network also has a large contract with that particular sport. This type of problem only gets worse as ESPN makes deals with more and more leagues.
Also, on a small scale, there are the recent stories where ESPN refused to report for days until it could get the athletes' story out front, such as Brett Favre telling secrets to the Lions and the Ben Roethlisberger civil suit.
Showing restraint isn't always a bad thing, but the problem is: What was the real reason for the restraint in these two instances?
Favre is an ESPN favorite, and there's no doubt the network wants him on their shows when he (eventually) retires, and Big Ben was appearing on an ABC show. ESPN said in both situations they had policies, but that excuse really did not hold water.
Does anyone think that had either of those stories been about someone like Terrell Owens that the network would have showed the same restraint?
Just yesterday, Marc Schlereth adamantly defended Raiders coach Tom Cable without he or the network ever pointing out that they were college teammates. It isn't that Schlereth should have to keep silent, but their connection is important for the viewer to know.
These things matter.
Maybe the largest question for ESPN is: Does the network want to be about the news or the entertainment? You can try to do both, but these two worlds often collide, and decisions need to be made about what is more important.
The answer to this question, unfortunately, was revealed in the Simmons podcast with Walsh, when Simmons asks Walsh about the tension between being a news network and an entertainment network. Walsh responds: "Let's invent a 24-hour sports network that buys rights from leagues and teams and then does news coverage half the day that covers those leagues and teams critically and has a lot of commentators who give their opinions that the leagues and teams and players are not going to like. What a terrible business that would be. That just sounds like an awful prescription for inventing a business."
Sure, Walsh has a point—but what is the balance being struck, and with all the money ESPN makes, can't they afford to err on the side of the news more often?
ESPN, with its resources, can really hire all the top reporters from each sport, and get them all under the ESPN umbrella. Certainly, ESPN can compensate a reporter at a higher rate than a city newspaper.
But if entertainment trumps news, what are these talented reporters reporting on? What then happens to the coverage of sports in this country when the largest outlet for sports news places higher priority on the bottom line than it does on reporting? Everything ESPN does impacts the world of sports.
Personally, I'd like to see ESPN be more proactive in how it covers the world of sports.
Why not use your resources to investigate the history of steroids in baseball, how it became so widespread, the who knew what when. Instead of just always reacting to a single player being outed. Yes, that is news, but there is so much more to the story.
Similarly, how about the impact of money on college sports? I have seen the reactive stories on OJ Mayo or Reggie Bush getting paid—these are interesting and are news. But they aren't new, so let's dig deep.
Those are just two examples. Maybe I am alone, but that is what I think ESPN could be doing—using its clout, its talents, and its resources to not only report on the world of sports, but I think ultimately improve sports. That should be in ESPN's best interest as well.
Others may like ESPN how it is and just want to watch games and everything else that comes with watching ESPN these days. Others might not necessarily care for in-depth reporting, or aren't as bothered when a story gets buried, or another story gets overexposed, or celebrities appear on Sportscenter offering their opinions.
But I expect more from ESPN—I want better. Possibly I shouldn't criticize ESPN so much, and others shouldn't as well. Yes, ESPN, at times, is deserving of praise for what it does well.
Although, you have to admit the network does not really need praise from others, as it has no problem promoting itself. You can't call yourself the Worldwide Leader in Sports and then be bothered that you don't get enough respect. It isn't my job as a viewer to heap praise. The point of criticism is to hopefully improve the product.
I particularly enjoyed reading your predecessor, but I always wondered how seriously anyone who mattered cared about her critiques. I hope I was wrong about that, and I look forward to reading your columns in the future.