Opinion: ESPN explanation on Roethlisberger coverage not good enough.

Posted by | July 23, 2009 at 4:52 PM

ESPN’s hesitation to cover the Ben Roethlisberger story seemed out of character at best.

After all, this is ESPN we’re talking about; an organization that made Terrell Owensskipping of voluntary workouts big news, that devoted resources to investigating Owens’ relationship with his teammates — to the point where SportsCenter aired a ‘special report’ based on locker room rumors. This is an organization that has had no problem reporting allegations against athletes ranging from the serious to the absurd — from Larry Johnson allegedly spitting a drink in a woman’s face to Kwame Brown not being prosecuted for allegedly stealing a man’s cake.

Yet, with the recent sexual assault suit against Roethlisberger, ESPN shied away from the story. ESPN initially issued a “do not report” memo on Roethlisberger, before finally giving the story token coverage almost 48 hours later.

The reason? ESPN avoids reporting on civil suits involving athletes.

When ESPN finally saw fit to report the story, it first garnered a mere mention at the end of ESPNews, after coverage of the LeBron James dunk tape video. On ESPN.com there was an Associated Press article without the usual names of Ed Werder, Chris Mortensen, or any of the ESPN writers whose names are usually stamped all over major NFL stories.

The headline of that ESPN.com article was, “Authorities won’t look at Roethlisberger.” Not ‘Roethlisberger sued by Nevada woman,’ or ‘Roethlisberger accused of sexual assault in lawsuit.’ This headline makes sure that the reader knows from the outset that Roethlisberger is innocent.

Contrast this to ESPN’s report — not from the Associated Press, but an actual ESPN report using information from Shelley Smith — on the intention of a woman to sue the Lakers’ Shannon Brown. The headline then? “Woman intends to sue Brown.” Not, “D.A. declined to pursue Brown matter further,” or “Brown’s agent: ‘absolutely nothing to’ civil suit.”

ESPN notes that Brown “was playing significant minutes for the Lakers in the middle of their championship run in the NBA Playoffs; there was also a police report filed in that case.” Even if one wants to make the argument that Brown is newsworthy because he played “significant minutes” for the Lakers, how does that excuse not reporting on Roethlisberger, one of the biggest stars in the most popular sports league in the United States?

And while there was a police report filed in the Brown case, the third paragraph of the ESPN.com article in question notes that “within 24-48 hours after the woman filed a police report, Denver police fully investigated her claims. A Denver police spokesman told ESPN.com on Monday that the police sent their findings to the district attorney, who declined to pursue the matter further.”

Consider this as well: ESPN says one of the criteria for reporting on these types of allegations is “how such an allegation might impact upon the professional performance of the subject/his team.” In other words, if the lawsuit may have a major impact on the games being played, it is more likely to be reported. Brown averaged 13 minutes and 4.9 points per game in the ’09 playoffs. In the NBA Finals, he played 16 total minutes and scored 0 points. Even during the offseason, legal trouble involving Roethlisberger would have a much bigger impact on the Steelers as a team than any situation involving Brown would have on the Lakers.

Similarly to the Roethlisberger situation, ESPN waited a week before reporting on the civil suit against baseball player Brian Giles by his ex-girlfriend. The only ESPN.com article on the issue had the headline: “Giles says lawsuit ‘all about money’.” Additionally, NBA star Dwyane Wade has been involved in three lawsuits since July ’08. The two suits in which he was the plaintiff were reported by ESPN.com, and the one in which he was the defendant was not.

What goes into ESPN’s decision to cover one story over the other? ESPN told Newsday’s Neil Best that it is careful with suits that may “impugn a persona’s reputation or character.” When reporting on such stories, ESPN makes sure to note “the subject’s track record/previous history with similar allegations.”

Did Shannon Brown have a track record? Was his reputation and character irrelevant?

There are other, less notable examples where stories involving certain athletes have been ignored by ESPN, while similar situations involving other athletes have received coverage. For example, Sports on My Mind noted that ESPN.com did not devote an actual news article to Fran Tarkenton‘s recent criticism of Brett Favre. By contrast, “Aikman OK with Owens getting cut,” and “McCarver: Ramirez Lack of Commitment with Red Sox ‘despicable’,” were both considered sufficiently newsworthy.

This is not about whether Ben Roethlisberger is innocent or guilty. This is about ESPN picking and choosing what to report, based on criteria that are wholly subjective. This is about ESPN making the decision not to report a fact — Roethlisberger was sued — based on how the story would affect the reputation of the athlete. If they care about maintaining Roethlisberger’s reputation, does that mean they want to tear down the reputations of the many athletes that have had negative news reported about them?

It’s easy to assume that ESPN plays favorites. Such accusations are always levied at the powerful — whether its the NBA, accused of playing favorites with certain teams, or the mainstream media, accused of playing favorites with certain political figures. It’s tempting to give ESPN the benefit of the doubt and call the accusers conspiracy theorists. But to see ESPN blatantly protecting an athlete only gives credence to any accusations of bias.

  • Anonymous

    Where’s ESPN’s new ombudsman in this discussion?

  • Anonymous

    Where’s ESPN’s ombudsman in all this?

  • Anonymous

    Contrast this with the Spygate treatment of Belichick and its very obvious that ESPN revels in the role of deciding who the heroes and villains are. The Patriots are bad b/c they limit ESPN’s access and therefore ESPN will pile on them whenever they get a chance.
    On the other hand, the network needs another dominant franchise to offset what they lose in Patriots coverage and their hope is for the Steelers to be that franchise. As such, they’ll do whatever they can to protect this “asset” of theirs. It’s all about heroes and villains. The problem is that they chose the wrong side and in doing so became tainted. Now they’re little more than a tabloid network.