What happens when the number one sports network in the country with a multi-billion-dollar contract with the NFL has to cover an embarrassing sex scandal? What happens when a baseball writer has to vote for the Hall of Fame or off-season awards but the players on the ballot are those he’s covered for years or maybe even decades?
These both are questions that sportswriters and sports news organizations such as ESPN have to face these days, and in the post-Jayson Blair era, their response or lack thereof speak volumes about the current state of journalistic ethics in sports coverage.
The Strange Case of Ron Mexico, Star Quarterback
Today, at the popular sports commentary site Deadspin, Will Leitch took a jab at himself and ESPN. In reviewing his year-end, month-by-month recaps, he noticed he had left out a sex scandal in April that most sports fans have seemingly forgotten. This scandal focused around Falcons quarterback Michael Vick.
In April, a woman sued Vick, claiming the football player knew he had herpes and knowingly gave her the disease without telling her. The twist to this story, though, was that Vick, to hide from his disease public, used the psuedonym Ron Mexico during his treatment. In fact, Ron Mexico is Vick’s alias on the lawsuit at The Smoking Gun. In writing about the Ron Mexico escapades, Leitch had this to say:
It was the perfect example of how sports media was hiding the best stories from us. ESPN, because of its contract with the NFL (Vick was/is one of the league’s most marketable players), completely buried the Ron Mexico story (the only place you can find a reference to Ron Mexico on the site is on the message boards), and just a month after the story broke, Sports Illustrated did a cover story on Vick without a single mention of the lawsuit, or Ron Mexico, or anything. It was the single most entertaining story of the first six months of the sports year, and the major sports media outlets just weren’t covering it.
While Leitch’s comments carry the tone of witty introspection, the facts tell a more serious story for those of us interested in ethics in journalism. As Leitch writes, Sports Illustrated and ESPN did not cover the story. To rub it in, ESPN.com’s Page 2 year-end look at sex and sports did not give a single mention to the Ron Mexico/Michael Vick sex story. In fact, the only reason this story ever garnered a mention in most news outlets was because the NFL had to crack down on fans who were trying to buy customized Ron Mexico jerseys as a joke.
So why didn’t ESPN cover the story? Was it because a hard-hitting news piece on this story would damage the reputation of one of the NFL’s most marketable players? Would it impact the current $4.8 billion deal ESPN has in place with the NFL? Personally, I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. But how can an organization that purports to be the leading sports news media outlet both online and on television adequately cover an organization to which it has such close financial ties?
In an era in which The New York Times has opened up the newsroom to a public editor, it’s time for ESPN to do some journalistic soul searching. Their ombudsman, who most people probably do not even realize exists, is George Solomon. He’s written a grand total of six columns for worldwide leader in sports since July. Either ESPN is the paragon of sports journalism, or Solomon isn’t being encouraged to dig too deeply.
The problem here is also matter of antipathy. Do sports fan care that much or do they just want sports without the news? In a bitterly-divided nation with Republicans and Democrats at each other throats and political blogging showing the potential to force major media changes, it makes sense that so many major newspapers are opening up their Section A news gathering protocols and political coverage to public editors tasked with critiquing the system and liaisoning with the readership. But sports critiques have been strangely missing from the mouths of these editors. I wonder if sports fans just don’t care. We should.
Abstaining from Awards Voting
While ESPN, an entertainment and sports network, tries to straddle the divide between news, sports, and entertainment, on the other side of this ethics debate are many print outlets who are barring their writers from voting in the annual baseball awards and Hall of Fame elections. But are they going far enough?
On Friday, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Tim Sullivan announced his intention to abstain from further voting as it represented to him a clear conflict of interest. Here’s a lengthy excerpt of Sullivan’s piece:
I’ve concluded that it’s time to get back to being a detached observer and away from being an involved insider…Voting on awards or rankings is a privilege and, to some extent, a power base, but it also involves inherent conflicts of interest and, in the steroids era, an uncomfortable reliance on circumstantial evidence…I shouldn’t be casting ballots that can trigger contractual bonuses or endorsement opportunities for athletes I might have occasion to interview. Neither should I accept the responsibility of deciding whether Mark McGwire is still entitled to the presumption of innocence following his clumsy evasions before Congress…Better to recuse oneself than to render a judgment based on unsubstantiated suspicion. Better to stick to the sidelines than to get in a game in which you never really belonged.
Sullivan’s piece provides a rare glimpse into the world of sportswriting. Are these beat writers who are around the players from the start of Spring Training through the end of October the most objective arbiters? Can they put aside the mantle of involved insider while casting an MVP vote for someone they may spend more time around then their families? To me, it seems that the institution of baseball writers so prevalent in this nation is pushing up against that boundary line, and I applaud Sullivan for coming public with his misgivings about voting.
Sullivan is hardly a leader in this regard. In fact, many institutions ban their writers from voting for certain awards. Already, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Washington Post, and the Associated Press do not allow non-critics to vote for awards, whether these awards be film polls or MVP ballots. While these prestigious institutions may lead the way, having six papers and a columnist on board hardly counts as a revolution in ethics.
Nowhere better will this ethics drama play itself out than in the upcoming Hall of Fame voting. Hardly the darling of the media, Albert Belle is up for Hall of Fame election. By most accounts, he should be a first ballot Hall of Famer. While a corked bat incident is a black mark on his reputation, Belle was downright dominant throughout the 1990s. His 50-50 season came during the strike-shortened year of 1995. He had nine straight 100+ RBI seasons and would probably still be playing today had a degenerative hip condition not ended his career at age 33. Furthermore, Belle had an arguably better career than Kirby Puckett, a Hall of Famer whose career was also cut short due to an injury.
But Belle might not make it to the Hall because he didn’t have a rosy relationship with the reporters voting for him. He threw bats; he punched photographers. He was mean. Puckett, on the other hand, despite marital troubles off the field, was always viewed as the nice guy on the Twins. While Belle couldn’t leave his intensity between the foul lines, Puckett won over the guys who would eventually vote him into Cooperstown. So now the conflict of interest becomes apparent: How can you objectively vote for a player who hated the media and whom the media loved to hate?
As political coverage in the media has to contend with intense scrutiny from the Internet, sportswriters will eventually have to face their ethical demons. For now, sports fans are left with the Ron Mexico name-generator (I’m Xavier Botswana) and an upcoming Hall of Fame election sure to be one of the more controversial. It’s time for sports news outlets to take that ethical leap forward. Hopefully, public editors can give sports news operations the proper examination. Maybe we will find out why no news organization broke a steroid story that could not have been a secret to reporters with nearly limitless access to locker rooms, and maybe we will see a better framework for awards voting. These steps forward would be most welcome by this sports fan.