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Transparent endorsement policy a welcome change at ESPN

It feels as if, somehow, I’ve been heard.

When ESPN rolled out its comprehensive guidelines for product endorsements covering about 1,000 editorial staffers across print, TV radio and online, the most interesting element involved a web page listing every personality’s official, approved endorsement deals.

Due to debut Monday, this web page may be the first of its kind in sports journalism – an instant resource for viewers and snarky critics to see who is paid by whom, and how it may affect their performance.

And it was something I suggested weeks ago. On Feb. 17, to be exact, I wrote a column for this very space suggesting a webpage for endorsements; a permutation of a similar idea New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen had suggested for listing political donations by commentators such as Keith Olbermann and Joe Scarborough.

Coincidence? Yeah, probably. But also a welcome change from the previous environment at the Worldwide Leader in Sports, where the standard seemed to be that apologizing for ethical lapses which somehow became public was easier than applying a single standard to cover all employees.

No more. Now, ESPN’s editorial employees are covered by a single set of policies, developed in the weeks after star Erin Andrews’ endorsement deal with Reebok raised eyebrows among critics, who wondered why a woman still classified as a journalist was allowed to take money for endorsing anything at all.

(Click here to see sports blog Deadspin’s sidesplitting montage of TV commercials featuring ESPN talent, from Andrews’ Reebok commercial to Chris Berman touting Nutrisystem, Keith Olbermann shilling for Boston Market and Dan Patrick hyping TGI Fridays. Yes, it’s been going on for that long.)

At a page and half in length, ESPN’s new guidelines are barely longer than the statement executive vice president Norby Williamson released announcing them.

But they make an important admission — separating the players, coaches and league administrators who may work as analysts from the announcers, reporters and anchors who act as ESPN’s journalistic voice.

Banned outright: endorsements involving the ESPN logo or invoking the staffer’s status as an ESPN employee; products and events which compete with ESPN or owner The Disney Company; speaking engagements paid for by leagues, owners, media outlets or other organizations connected to the sports industry.

Defined as “strict review categories” which have “a strong presumption that they will not be approved”: any endorsement of footwear or apparel which might be used in a sport ESPN covers; gambling or lotteries; firearms and ammunition (they actually have to state that?); political candidates and advocacy.

Of course, change comes slowly. So even though the new guidelines would pretty much ban Andrews’ deal with Reebok, the company will let the star finish out her contract with the shoe company, with a spokesman saying she will not renew the agreement at the end of this year.

"Given that sponsors have expended resources and there are campaigns in place already, we decided this was the fairest way to handle it," said ESPN spokesman Bill Hofheimer, noting that Andrews got permission from ESPN before she signed the deal, announced earlier this year.

Another set of endorsements revealed by the New York Times, in which Andrews’ college Game Day colleagues Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso were paid by Nike to make personal appearances, is likewise scotched under the new guidelines.

But what may be more interesting is what ESPN finds permissible under its new system, which actually bans very little outright and often focuses on corporate priorities of competition and brand protection.

Indeed, in the copy I have of ESPN’s guidelines, the word “journalism” doesn’t appear once, even though the company’s responsibility to avoid conflicts of interest in its game reporting is what kickstarted this conversation in the first place.

Looks like that endorsement page might tell us more about ESPN’s view of its own journalism ethics than the guidelines that created it in the first place.

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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