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The ESPN Standard

ESPN was back in the sports-media news last week . . .

That’s how I originally began this column, only to stop short. Because when is ESPN not in the sports-media news? The Worldwide Leader — as it’s often referred to in half-joking, half-irritated shorthand — is everywhere, covering sports stories and sometimes becoming the story itself. It’s the sports network and website against which all other sports networks and websites compete – while wondering if such competition is possible. It’s the good and the bad of sports media, seemingly inextricably intertwined.

Last week’s news was about ESPN’s new guidelines for what its commentators can and cannot endorse – restrictions that came about after a January controversy in which Erin Andrews endorsed Reebok shortly after reporting on issues with Nike cleats. The Andrews-Reebok deal will be ended at the earliest opportunity, as will Jamie Little’s Oakley endorsement and Scott Van Pelt’s deal with Titleist; future deals struck by those who do journalistic work for ESPN must not create a conflict of interest or even the appearance of one.

But as Poynter’s Kelly McBride and Regina McCombs point out, the ESPN guidelines are very different for analysts – typically retired jocks who account for more than half of the ESPN talent. Most of the analysts’ endorsement deals are fine. ESPN doesn’t necessarily want it that way, but seems to feel it has no choice; as Executive Vice-President for Production Norby Williamson told McBride and McCombs, such relationships are “standard operating procedure” in the industry. “It’s clearly beyond our control,” he said, adding that “we believe we’d put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage” by forbidding such deals.

McBride and McCombs acknowledge that dilemma and praise the new guidelines as representing many steps forward, but argue that the guidelines need further work, with “too much wiggle room carved out to accommodate big stars.” Their suggestions: ESPN should disclose all of its talent’s endorsements, instead of just ones seen as potentially posing a conflict; and should force analysts to forego endorsements after a certain period of time working for ESPN.

There’s plenty of food for thought there, but what interested me most was where that criticism appeared: ESPN. McBride and McCombs are part of the Poynter Review Project, a partnership with ESPN to examine and analyze its media outlets. ESPN’s previous ombudsmen have seemed well-meaning but toothless; so far, the Poynter project feels like it has more heft. (A disclosure of my own: I grew up as a Poynter faculty brat, have worked with and written for the Institute, and know both McBride and McCombs.)

So ESPN establishes guidelines for its talent and discloses many of their endorsement deals — steps many of its competitors don’t take — and provides a forum for independent criticism of itself by a well-respected journalistic watchdog. In a vacuum, that’s a pretty high standard that ESPN has set for itself, and is trying to live up to. But ESPN doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and because of this, that higher standard feels absolutely appropriate. ESPN is such a colossus that its coverage can turn a minor story into a huge event, and its lack of coverage can make a medium-sized or big story much smaller. The Worldwide Leader is like the scientist whose observation of an experiment inevitably changes the outcome.

Except ESPN isn’t just an observer of anything – it’s a player in its own right, one whose business interests and business relationships naturally affect its coverage of sports news, and are themselves sports news – news that ESPN then covers, or doesn’t. (ESPN’s struggles covering itself and issues core to its interests played a big role in the creation of Deadspin, now its chief antagonist.) ESPN’s relationship with sports is like Google’s with search, or Microsoft’s with operating-system software a generation ago – the company will always be held to an impossible standard, yet is so important to its industry that doesn’t feel unfair.

Is sportswriting a part of that? You better believe it. Here too you have Bad ESPN and Good ESPN on display, and tangled together.

ESPN is the company that aided and abetted the inane, monstrous circus that was LeBron James’s “The Decision,” probably the network’s low point as a sports-media entity. It’s the creator of the unfortunate “Around the Horn,” which tempts talented sportswriters to decay into barroom parodies of themselves. Each of its new ESPN Local franchises puts pressure on already-declining local newspapers.

And yet ESPN also is a nature reserve for endangered long-form journalism, from the lyrical writing and meticulous reporting of Wright Thompson to the passionate and personal musings of Bill Simmons. The ESPN Locals may threaten newspapers, but they also provide jobs for beat writers and columnists who otherwise might have none. (ESPN New York, for instance, snapped up Johnette Howard and Shaun Powell after Newsday unaccountably let them go, and its local coverage is consistently terrific.) Heck, one of the reasons “The Decision” was so inane was that James’s destination was already well-known, thanks in part to solid reporting by ESPN’s own Chris Broussard. What company has the deepest roster of superb sportswriters in the world? ESPN. What media outlet does more to nurture and display sportswriting talent than any other? ESPN.

All of these things, one imagines, will continue to be true – we will rant and rave about one thing ESPN does while being captivated by other things it’s produced. As sports nuts, we’ll bemoan the excesses of the 24-7 sports world ESPN helped create, while taking for granted that we get to luxuriate in that world. Bad ESPN and Good ESPN will always be with us — and perhaps ESPN is so complex and so bound up with sports that it’s impossible it would be otherwise.

Jason Fry is a freelance writer and media consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y. He spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing, and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom. Write to him at jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter  
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