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, and was formerly project director of League of Fans, which he started in 2001 with founder Ralph Nader.


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