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Considering what Shaquille O’Neal might have to teach the world of new sports media

Ask Shaquille O’Neal whether he can see a media future for himself like Charles Barkley, dissecting the game for fans from the sidelines, and he laughs with a little pity in his voice.

Don’t you know little man, his tone seems to say, my reach is so much farther than that?

“I would like to do something more like David Chappelle did – my own comedy skit show,” he said Monday, striding through a cocktail party for ABC-TV talent the network convened to bring journalists together with their stars in Los Angeles. “I’m going to be looking at doing movies, be looking at doing comedy specials, writing books. The sky’s always been the limit for me.”

Critics might say that lack of interest in the game outside of his court time might be Shaq’s biggest weakness. But maybe he’s also giving us a look at how small a world sports media has become in the 21st Century.

It’s a sad truth I’m reminded of every time a new ESPN scandal comes to light – this time, regarding the revelatory story about a hard-partying night with LeBron James the sports channel’s Los Angeles web site had to pull because the reporter didn’t identify himself as a journalist to the subject when the party moved to private areas – one of the most basic rules of journalism.

Of course, if ESPN hadn’t already damaged its credibility by letting James control their airwaves for a day to announce what team was lucky enough to buy his services for the next few seasons, the buzz around this mistake might not have been so deafening.

Which is why I was also intrigued by a suggestion from Sports Illustrated writer Richard Dietsch that ESPN should allow ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer to post quicker analyses of the company’s issues on the front page of its website.

A legendary figure in sports TV with tenures at ABC and NBC, Ohlmeyer’s long essays often are published well after controversial issues are past, keeping his experienced voice from affecting much of ESPN’s decision-making in the moment.

But it seems to me that if a media company demonstrates it is willing to let other, commercial concerns corrode its journalism judgment, it doesn’t much matter where that column runs or who sees it. It’s mostly just a cover for an organization that won’t place highest priority on the values which created the ombudsman’s job in the first place.
It made me wonder; when a star like O’Neal looks at the sports media, glancing down from on high literally and figuratively, what does he see? A collection of corrupted interests indistinguishable from a comedy network or movie studio?

If so, shame on us, just a little bit.

This is, perhaps, just another way of lamenting the ever-shrinking divide between entertainment and journalism everywhere – but particularly in the sports world.

Without criticizing James, O’Neal said he wouldn’t have created his own ESPN-enabled Decision, even if the world was as interested in where he will land as they were in the Miami Heat’s newest star. Which they probably aren’t.

Now saying he just hopes to land “on a team that already has all the best pieces in place” and openly declaring he’s got two years, or 730 days left in his playing life, he ticks off the list of teams he’s hoping to choose from next week – Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte and New Orleans – with practiced ease.

But even as he talks basketball, O’Neal already seems to have one eye on the holy grail of entertainment, talking up his new season of the ABC series Shaq Vs, featuring the basketball star taking on other sports stars in their elements, racing with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., and tackling a spell-off with a 15-year-old National Spelling Bee champion.

Maybe the sports giant knows something the rest of us have yet to learn. When the divide between real sports coverage and frothy entertainment is so thin, perhaps there’s less shame than ever in just kicking back and playing the jester – for some of us, anyway.

Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
 
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