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 #17 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports With Legendary New York Times Sports Columnist Robert Lipsyte – We chat about Lipsyte’s amazing career and some of the athletes he covered and got to know well, like Muhammad Ali, as well as his relationships with fellow sports journalists like Bob Costas and Howard Cosell.
Follow on Facebook: @SportsForumPodcast
Episode #16 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Andrew Maraniss: Outstanding Author of Books That Focus On the Intersection of Sports, History and Social Justice.
Episode #15 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Talking Sports Psychology with Dr. Tim Rice. We discuss the growth of sports psychology at all levels, the positive impact that a number of high profile athletes have had by opening up, and the importance of everyone involved in sports caring for the whole athlete, mind and body.
Episode #14 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: Making Sense of the Injury Pandemic in Major League Baseball – Gary McCoy is a strength, conditioning and high performance coach who has worked with several Major League Baseball organizations.
Episode #13 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Conversation With Long-Time MLB Exec Dan Evans About What’s Right With Baseball and What Could Be Better – Evans is a former general manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers and is currently a consultant for Go the Distance Baseball, which owns the Field of Dreams movie site.
Episode #12 – League of Fans’ Sports Forum podcast: A Fun Chat With Dan Gutman, Author of the Baseball Card Adventure Series for Kids
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.
“Should College Athletes Be Paid?” Ken Reed on The Morning Show from Wisconsin Public Radio
Ken Reed appears on KGNU Community Radio in Colorado (at 02:30) to discuss equality in sports and Title IX.
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.
Sports & Torts – Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans – at the American Museum of Tort Law
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.
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Ken Reed’s Author Page on Amazon