Billions + Journalism: ESPN Can’t Have Both

NFL_Roger_Goodell_2013The explosion was inevitable. What, ESPN thought it could walk this megaprofits-and-journalism balance beam forever, signing long-term, multi-billion-dollar rights deals with the very sports leagues it is supposed to be covering independently and incisively as a serious newsgathering organization? You can’t sleep with a partner for years, then inform her one night that you’re exposing her ugliest warts for public examination and expect her to understand.

There’s no way anymore to whisper the most absurdly cloaked reality in the sports and entertainment industry: ESPN is incompatibly ensconced in a king-size bed with the NFL, just as it is ensconced in a king-size bed with the NBA, Major League Baseball, college football, college basketball, golf, tennis and many other sports organizations. But of all those entities, the NFL by far is most responsible for ESPN’s massive 34-year growth boom from a mom-and-pop shop in a Connecticut cow pasture into an unprecedented media-and-sports behemoth. It wasn’t until the NFL agreed to let ESPN televise its annual college draft, in 1980, that a fledgling cable network found space on a national canvas. And it wasn’t until the NFL decided to do significant business with ESPN — awarding rights to regular-season games starting in 1987, then the prestigious “Monday Night Football” franchise in 2006 — that ESPN established fertile ground as a major player in the powerful and monstrously lucrative sports racket.

Yes, I said racket, the operative word for a conflict-of-interest-filled sludge pit that allows ESPN to accrue enough live events through league partnerships to charge a $5.54 affiliate fee to cable/satellite subscribers — consumers who may or may not even watch the network. According to research by The Atlantic, that computes to an annual intake of $6.5 billion, or two-thirds of the network’s $10 billion yearly revenue. The Walt Disney Company, which owns ESPN, loves and loves those profits. The NFL knows that.

So when the NFL also realizes here in 2013 — two years after extending its “Monday Night Football” contract and elaborate association with ESPN through 2021 — that the network’s investigative unit has been collaborating with PBS on an anti-NFL documentary called “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth,” well, commissioner Roger Goodell wants to know what the hell is going on. After all, no subject is more damaging to the league’s $9.5 billion annual bonanza (in 2012) than the ongoing dialogue/commentary about head injuries, their debilitating and suicidal effects on players, a lawsuit involving more than 4,000 retired players who say the league didn’t responsibly warn players of concussion aftereffects, and the legitimate concern that parents will prohibit talented sons from playing football, which eventually could lead to the end of a violent sport as we know it, as I’ve written elsewhere on this site.

The concussion crisis, even more than the endless trail of performance-enhancing-drugs news, represents the biggest story any legitimate sports journalist can cover right now. Which explains why the journalism-minded professionals inside ESPN’s house want to beat the competition on the story — and why two of the network’s best investigative journalists, brothers Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, co-authored an upcoming book on the concussion issue that led to the joint documentary venture with PBS. Yet the fact ESPN ever signed off on the project with PBS, instead of airing the work of its own employees on its own exclusive air, should have raised immediate red flags. Having worked as a daily panelist on an ESPN television show for eight years and knowing how the network thinks, I’d say it was an attempt to finesse a sensitive subject past Goodell and create a perception that “League of Denial” is a PBS-dominant production for its respected “Frontline” series. That way, ESPN could claim it was contributing to an exceptional journalism project while not actually airing the damaging material to which the NFL would object.

Goodell is way smarter than that. In a New York Times story that rocked the evolving sports media world to its core, the commissioner made it known in a Manhattan meeting with ESPN executives that he didn’t appreciate the network’s association with “League of Denial,” due to premiere in two-hour form in October. According to the Times, Goodell shared an uneasy table at Patroon, a midtown restaurant, with ESPN president John Skipper, fellow ESPN executive John Wildhack and NFL Network president/CEO Steve Bornstein. Talk about your conflicts of interest: Bornstein, once the chairman of ESPN and president of ABC, is now a direct bedfellow with the NFL as leader of its TV arm. Why would Skipper allow Bornstein to sit at a table at which journalism ethics are discussed with a powerful sports commissioner? Not that Skipper makes such landmark decisions by himself. The almighty figure here is Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of Disney Co., who doesn’t care one whit about ESPN’s journalistic reputation if it jeopardizes corporate profits in the slightest.

It should shock no one, then, that ESPN ended all ties to the PBS production, sending a sobering message through its investigative ranks. Despite an internal effort to serve the public trust, the famous Disney Mouse — Mickey, as in profits — is far more important to the corporate agenda. Shame is, ESPN is capable of the very best journalism because it employs many of the very best sports journalists. None of that matters, unfortunately, when the big bosses employ selectivity in what those journalists can and can’t cover, dependent on the demands of a sports commissioner.

When we recently launched the site, I wrote these words:
“At a time when corporate interests have swallowed much of sports journalism and left too much cooperative residue between leagues and mammoth media companies, it’s vital to have independent voices who aren’t stifled by institutional filters. … In my days away, sports has taken complex and unprecedented turns, and the need for robust, serious commentary and investigative reporting is stronger than ever.”

And these words:
“Sports is a multi-billion-dollar business — should we be saying multi-trillion now? — and it should be covered as such by commentators who are editorially and financially detached from the mechanism. The sports fan, remember, also is a consumer who invests his passions, his mind, his time — and his wallet.”

And these words:
“Sports commentators face a new quandary: whether to work for corporate monoliths that have jumped head-first into lucrative beds with the very industry they’re supposed to be intensely covering. Inevitably, it seems, every well-intentioned journalist in those newsrooms will have to compromise principles and look the other way on certain stories for the company good (meaning: don’t criticize powers-that-be and big-money people in sports). I know and respect many solid pros who work for those editorial operations, and they’re resigned to a chilling reality that functional journalism, at some point, cedes to those financial relationships. … Point being, I can’t be The Man if I’m working for The Man and The Man has a close business arrangement with the subjects of my commentaries.”

And these words:
“Having been painted by previous bosses into conflict-of-interest-driven editorial corners, I’ve opted at this point to be the independent who controls content within a franchise.”

I had no idea ESPN would leave itself naked just days later, quickly proving my point. Naturally, the network denies its decision was influenced by the NFL, just as the NFL denies it tried to bully ESPN. That’s b.s. The NFL balked, and ESPN — specifically, Disney and Iger — abruptly severed the network’s connection to the PBS project. This way, ESPN preserves its relationship with the NFL and the riches that come with it; for all its current public-relations problems with concussions and murders, the league still projects revenues of $25 billion in 2025. Part of that relationship involves a wink-wink that ESPN is fed news stories by the league and its 32 teams, important not only to ESPN and’s reputation as a newsbreaking force but to what the network calls its “NFL-branded studio programming,” which increased by 500 hours with the extended contract. Said Goodell when announcing that deal: “We are proud to extend our three-decade partnership with ESPN. We have come a long way together since ESPN first televised the NFL draft in 1980. With this new agreement, we are excited about the opportunity to take the NFL-ESPN partnership to innovative new heights in serving the most passionate fans in sports.”

And, in the end, making sure an obedient partner removes its name from detrimental stories that serve the public trust. That’s what Goodell didn’t say — but what now is evident.

Not that ESPN will stop trying to prove it can be the industry leader in investigative reporting. In a statement, Skipper said of the concussion crisis, “We will continue to report this story.” But now, it’s obvious the network will do so only within parameters approved by the leagues and conferences — its partners. If American journalism once was defined by a Watergate era that never has seemed more distant, ESPN’s approach is akin to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein asking the White House for permission to report that Nixon and his men were historic liars.

The network just lost credibility. And anyone who says ESPN has done a bang-up job on the Biogenesis scandal should know this, too: MLB leaked much of that information to ESPN because Bud Selig, the commissioner, wanted the information spread into the public domain. Basically, MLB used ESPN to help create leverage to nail the PED users. Any journalist will take solid information any way he/she can get it, of course, but, again, this could be viewed as one partner feeding another partner. That isn’t journalism. Journalism would have constituted ESPN ignoring Goodell and maintaining its direct affiliation with “League of Denial.”

ESPN needs the NFL, you see, more than the NFL needs ESPN. Or, for that matter, any other network. Why do you think Fox has gone silly/goofy with its content for the new Fox Sports 1 network? One reason: The upper-ups don’t want to do a thing that would upset the network’s deals with the NFL, MLB and college sports — and Fox’s hopes of engaging the NBA and others in future deals. The networks smell the billions and prefer to be business whores than journalists. Whenever those sweet financial deals are at risk, they’ll always bend to pressure from the leagues. And this hardly is new territory. Remember when a brash executive named Mark Shapiro kickstarted ESPN to higher ratings ground in the early 2000s, launching such shows as “Pardon The Interruption” and “Around The Horn” but also trying a fictional series called “Playmakers” — drugs, gambling, affairs, injuries — that angered the league? Guess what happened when the NFL objected?

Shapiro was run out by Disney. He went on to work for Dan Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, as chief of his Six Flags amusement parks division, then headed up Dick Clark Productions until Guggenheim Partners — which owns the Los Angeles Dodgers and wants to own all of L.A., including the Lakers, the Times and an inevitable NFL franchise and stadium — bought the company. Chances are, you’ll never again see Shapiro anywhere near sports TV, and if you wonder why commentator Jim Rome left ESPN for CBS/Showtime, it’s because he and Shapiro have been business partners since Shapiro produced Rome’s radio show in the ’90s. Starting with George Bodenheimer and now Skipper, ESPN has distanced itself from all things Shapiro.

This is how it all works, folks.

And you thought your workplace was crazy/political.

Sure, the NFL looks bad for bullying a media partner when it has only itself to blame for the concussion crisis. But Goodell simply is protecting his business. By caving in, ESPN didn’t protect its newsgathering business, and now knows it can’t have its journalism and eat it, too. The cable customer should consider that when the $5.54 charge shows up on the bill.

If you’ve followed my career, you know I’ve been fenced into ethical corners by ESPN Radio and a once-great, now-dying newspaper called the Chicago Sun-Times. While hosting a ratings-successful show on ESPN 1000 in Chicago, I was asked by the station to sign my name to a document that assured I wouldn’t criticize aspects of the White Sox and Bulls — teams owned by my nemesis, Jerry Reinsdorf, a man who liked trying to control the media and often contacted my publishers, editors and station bosses in lame attempts to get me in trouble. The reason: The station was trying to renew its rights deals with Reinsdorf’s teams. When I refused to sign the document, I was fired the day after Christmas by station general manager Jim Pastor, who since has risen through the ranks of ESPN leadership.

Sound familiar? Profits over journalism.

The Sun-Times had similarly conflicted publishers and editors, some of whom ended up in prison and few of whom remain in the news business. After the paper was caught in a scandal — lying about circulation figures — I was asked by an editor not to write about White Sox management and restrict my column commentary to players on the field. The reason: Reinsdorf, as a bilked advertiser, was making those demands of me as part of his make-do with the paper. Again, I refused to obey. During the 2005 World Series, when White Sox fans were abusing family members of the visiting Astros, manager Ozzie Guillen issued an off-day apology that became the lead news story in Houston. I wrote a column about it — I’m still waiting for it to be published. Why? The paper was in bed with the White Sox, the very claim we’d made about the rival Tribune for years when it owned the Cubs.

I chuckle when I read that commentator Jason Whitlock, more fiercely protective of journalism and speaking his mind than I am, thinks his career has been saved by signing with ESPN. Whitlock has made great impact attacking, among other subjects, college football. Does he now realize that ESPN literally owns the sport with its 12-year, $6-billion purchase of the new four-team playoff tournament, not to mention its ownership of the SEC Network, the Longhorn Network, all sorts of bowl games and who knows what else in the future? Think Whitlock has any better chance than the Fainaru brothers if he uncovers something that rankles, say, SEC leadership? Chances are, he’ll be reduced to a puppet like so many others in Bristol.

ESPN is hypocritical in more areas than journalism. Three years ago, the network instituted a zero-tolerance behavioral policy, which is fine — as long as the very executives who write the policy also abide by it. Imagine my shock last year when I observed a top ESPN executive stumbling through a Beverly Hills bar like Foster Brooks on his worst bender — hugging female strangers, giving out his room number to anyone who would listen, drawing the attention of phone-cam-armed customers — while I was meeting in the adjacent restaurant with an independent TV producer. Beside me were a fellow ex-ESPN broadcaster and our agents, and when the executive stumbled past our table and we tried to say hello, he didn’t recognize us — though we’d combined for at least 4,000 appearances on his network. Dude, read the policy.

The beauty of not working at ESPN is being able to tell the world how ESPN and network sports TV works. As one who has fought journalism-vs.-profits corporate battles, I’m uniquely qualified to comment as these stories emerge.

Who knew one would detonate so soon?

More explosions await, I’m sure.