Good Sports, Bad Sports is a regular feature from League of Fans highlighting recent, often underreported, news stories that positively or negatively impact sports & society.
By Shawn McCarthy
Just a Good Sport in this edition: author/sportswriter Robert Lipsyte for serving an 18-month term as ESPN ombudsman and telling it like it is.
Good Sports – Robert Lipsyte as ESPN Ombudsman
Robert Lipsyte is an award-winning former New York Times sportswriter and author of SportsWorld: An American Dreamland and his recent memoir, An Accidental Sportswriter. “Lipsyte has always approached sports as an anthropologist would,” wrote Sports Illustrated’s Alexander Wolff in his nomination of Lipsyte for 2011’s Sportsman of the Year. Now serving an 18-month term as ESPN ombudsman, Lipsyte brings his approach to sports, which does not “god up” the athletes or view games as sacramental events, to a sports media behemoth that seems far less committed to journalism.
In a Q & A last year, Lipsyte spoke with Ken Reed, League of Fans sports policy director, about why there aren’t more sportswriters and broadcasters who approach sports the way he does. “Well, increasingly broadcasters have become essentially partners with the sports organizations they’re covering because the companies these broadcasters work for are also presenting the games,” said Lipsyte. Asked about what makes him feel negative about sports today, Lipsyte continued along those lines:
“In the sense of the conglomeratization of sports, the perceived agents of journalism — ESPN, Fox, NBC — have become so involved with the leagues that it’s hard to believe you can get honest journalism from them. The systemic criticism needed in sports is not going to happen as long as the same people that broadcast the games also report on the games.”
Now in a role, as ombudsman, which asks him to “offer independent examination and analysis of ESPN’s television, radio, print and digital offerings,” Lipsyte is following the story of, as his colleague called it, ESPN’s “dueling journalism and profit motives.”
ESPN had been collaborating for over a year with PBS’s excellent Frontline series on an episode investigating the NFL’s response to head injuries among football players, called “League of Denial.” From Frontline, about the episode (watch the trailer, episode airs Oct. 8, 2013):
“The National Football League, a multibillion-dollar commercial juggernaut, presides over America’s indisputable national pastime. But the NFL is under assault as thousands of former players and a host of scientists claim the league has covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players. FRONTLINE investigates: What did the NFL know, and when did it know it?”
Recently, ESPN abruptly ended its collaboration with Frontline on the project. Questions of the NFL pressuring ESPN surfaced after The New York Times reported that ESPN officials met with NFL administrators, including commissioner Roger Goodell, and shortly thereafter pulled the plug on their involvement in “League of Denial.”
Last year when Reed asked Lipsyte, “What’s the biggest problem in American sports today?” He answered, “One, the most identifiable, is concussions and brain trauma in sports.”
So ombudsman Lipsyte is examining the “perceived agents of journalism” ESPN and the sports media “conglomeratization” he feels is the biggest negative in sports, on a story related to its biggest problem: concussions.
On his Ombudsman Blog post titled “Was ESPN sloppy, naive or compromised?” Lipsyte asks:
“Was ESPN naïve about the relationship with a hard-driving documentary unit whose viewership, not to mention its bottom line, was not invested in football? Was it also naïve to fail to anticipate the inevitable reaction from the NFL, which from the beginning had pointedly refused to cooperate with Frontline? . . . Or did ESPN cave in to pressure from the NFL or [parent company] Disney or both?”
Lipsyte promised readers he’d stay with the story as circumstances warrant. But here is his current conclusion regarding ESPN’s disassociation from the Frontline project:
“At best we’ve seen some clumsy shuffling to cover a lack of due diligence. At worst, a promising relationship between two journalism powerhouses that could have done more good together has been sacrificed to mollify a league under siege. The best isn’t very good, but if the worst turns out to be true, it’s a chilling reminder how often the profit motive wins the duel.”
As bad as this appears for journalism at ESPN, Lipsyte feels that an even stronger message of profit motive was the network’s recent decision to demote the Sunday morning Outside the Lines to make way for more football talk (which we previously covered in this space). Said Lipsyte, “This is a dicey time for the journalism side of the ESPN bifurcation.”
“Dicey” to say the least. Cheers to Robert Lipsyte.
Shawn McCarthy is a librarian & archivist in Washington DC. He is editor of leagueoffans.org, and was formerly project director of League of Fans, which he started in 2001 with founder Ralph Nader.
Sports Forum Podcast
Episode #30 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The State of College Athletics with Dr. David Ridpath: Problems and Potential Solutions – Ridpath is a sports administration professor at Ohio University and a long-time member of The Drake Group, a college sports reform think tank.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #29 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: The Honorable Tom McMillen Visits League of Fans’ Sports Forum – McMillen is a former All-American basketball player, Olympian, Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Congressman. We discuss the state of college athletics today.
Episode #28 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Chat With Mano Watsa, a Leading Basketball and Life Educator – Watsa is President of PGC Basketball, the largest education basketball camp in the world. We discuss problems in youth sports today.
Episode #27 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Kids’ Sports: How We Can Take Back the Game and Restore Quality Family Time In the Process – Linda Flanagan is author of “Take Back the Game: How Money and Mania Are Ruining Kids’ Sports and Why It Matters.” We discuss how commercialized and professionalized youth sports are hurting kids and their families.
Episode #26 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: How Can We Fix Youth Sports? – John O’Sullivan is Founder and CEO of Changing the Game Project and author of “Changing the Game: The Parents Guide to Raising Happy, High Performing Athletes and Giving Youth Sports Back to Our Kids.”
Episode #25 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Physical Education Should Be a Critical Component of K-12 School Design – Michael Horn is co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation.
Media"How We Can Save Sports" author Ken Reed appears on Fox & Friends to explain how there's "too much adult in youth sports."
Ken Reed appears on Mornings with Gail from KFKA Radio in Colorado to discuss bad parenting in youth athletics.
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Ken Reed appears on the Ralph Nader Radio Hour (at 38:35) to discuss his book The Sports Reformers: Working to Make the World of Sports a Better Place, and to talk about some current sports issues.
- Reed Appears on Ralph Nader Radio Hour League of Fans’ sports policy director, Ken Reed, Ralph Nader and the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner discussed a variety of sports issues on Nader’s radio show as well as Reed’s updated book, How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan. Reed's book was released in paperback in February, and has a new introduction and several updated sections.
League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
Vanderbilt Sport & Society - On The Ball with Andrew Maraniss with guest Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director for League of Fans and author of How We Can Save Sports: A Game Plan
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon