View Full Version : Maybe there's hope for ESPN after all...

04-12-2007, 08:34 PM
Too much shouting obscures the message

By Le Anne Schreiber
ESPN Ombudsman

I am going to use this column to do something I will never be able to do again -- convey my first impressions of intensive ESPN-watching. Until I was asked to consider taking on this job, I had been only a casual viewer, tuning in mostly for event coverage. Since that day, I have watched more ESPN than is typical of any but the sports-minded unemployed and bedridden.

Before this binge, for instance, I almost never turned on the television during daytime except in times of national crisis. As it happened, on the day I first received a call about this job, it was about 4 p.m. when I put down the phone, turned on the television and tuned in to ESPN. I was not yet equipped with a DVR, so for the next several hours I either watched or listened from another room while I went about other business. My strongest reaction that first afternoon was, "Who are these people and why are they shouting at me?"

It was mid-January, a few days before the NFL conference championships. The first shouting I heard came from a football analyst who had no doubt that the Saints were going to crush the Bears on Sunday. He was so emphatic that the guy he was foretelling the future with said, "Well, I guess there's no need to play the game, Sean. Let's just declare the Saints the winner." This is analysis, I thought, and remembered a favorite saying of the day that had once been posted on the farm stand where I buy tomatoes: "Certainty is the place you stop when you are tired of thinking."

Next up was "Jim Rome is Burning." Jim Rome wasn't exactly yelling at me, but the farm stand quote came to mind again. My viewing was interrupted by a phone call, and when I returned to the living room, two more heads were hollering. It was Jay Mariotti and Woody Paige mixing it up on "Around the Horn" about whether Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was going "to get the monkey off his back." I would be hearing that phrase a lot over the next 2 weeks, until the Super Bowl was over, and everybody finally agreed that the monkey was indeed off Peyton's back. But on that first day, after watching Mariotti and Paige have a go at the monkey, I got to hear Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon take on the monkey on "Pardon the Interruption." Oh no, not you too, I thought. But Kornheiser and Wilbon calmed down, read some news in a normal tone of voice, discussed the news at varying volume levels, laughed at themselves and each other, and made me laugh as well. It seemed the sports equivalent of getting your news of the world from Jon Stewart on "The Daily Show." I felt better.

Then, whooooosh, up came the roaring red powerball. It was time for the real sports news on "SportsCenter." Who would the anchors be? Before I could figure that out, I heard yelling again. Highlights were being shown, and at first I presumed the audio was from the original announcer getting carried away in the thrill of the moment. But no, it was the as-yet-unidentified anchor, doing some rehearsed yelling. I thought the point of voiceovers was to help you see and appreciate the action, especially if you hadn't seen the game and had no context for the highlight. The yelling, especially during rapid-fire basketball highlights, felt like the aural equivalent of a tall guy jumping up out of his seat and blocking my view of the action at a crucial moment. I imagined viewers in living rooms all over the world shouting, "Sit down and be quiet. We want to see." I felt robbed. One of the great pleasures of watching sports is the communal jaw-dropped moment of quiet that follows a display of spectacular athleticism -- the silent WOW that precedes the roar. These highlights were all roar.

I was close to concluding that my sensibility was too far removed from that of ESPN for me to represent its audience, but I hung in there, as I had been asked to do, and kept watching. I saw "Outside the Lines," developing new information on the long-term effects of multiple concussions on NFL players, and I wished heartily for Bob Ley and his staff to have more airtime. I learned more than a thing or two from analysts and reporters like John Clayton, Chris Mortensen and Mark Schlereth. I got several good laughs a day, most days, out of PTI, along with the news. When I wanted my sports news straight up, I could go, most days, to ESPN.com for ESPNEWS Headlines or watch the non-highlight segments of "SportsCenter."

Still, that first impression has remained. In the past two months, I have heard a lot of yelling, from some but not all of the anchors, from some but not all of the commentators who rotate through "Around the Horn," from Skip Bayless on "Cold Pizza," and from some but not all of the guests who sit across from Skip and allow themselves to get bent out of shape by his absolutism. The yelling anchors sound manic. The yelling commentators sound angry. None of the yellers sounds to me as if he is reacting authentically to something he cares about.

Maybe the vast majority of ESPN's viewers enjoy this ramped-up, in-your-face, I'm-the-show approach to sports talk. Maybe it is not my business as an ombudsman to object to the hollering just because it doesn't suit me. I hope your responses to this column will let me know how far off or close to the mark I am about this, and I will take note, especially about hollered highlights, because after all, it does no serious harm. Neither does hollering about "who do you like."

There is harm, though, when the loud, cocksure approach is applied to certain off-the-field issues. Take Michael Vick's water bottle. In mid-January, when the Falcons quarterback surrendered a water bottle with a secret compartment to security officials at Miami International Airport, a police report said that the bottle's compartment contained residue of something that smelled like marijuana. Lab tests would be conducted within a few days' time, but suspending judgment till the evidence is in does not suit the formats of ESPN's afternoon opinion shows, which require judgment to be passed on 10 or more topics a day. The talkers need material, so Vick's water bottle was rushed straight to judgment within hours of the first sketchy wire service report. He was not only presumed guilty but stridently pronounced "stupid" for trying to sneak anything past airport security by nine different commentators on four different shows within the two-hour period from Jim Rome to the end of PTI. A few commentators like Michael Wilbon hedged their bets with an "if" clause, as in "If Michael Vick did this, then ...," but I suspect most viewers quickly forget the "if."

When lab tests exonerated Vick of any wrongdoing within a week, I did not hear any apologies. In late March, when Vick addressed the topic publicly for the first time since the airport incident, he said he used the bottle's secret compartment to stash jewelry when he traveled. That also went straight from the wires to the afternoon opinion shows for another round of loud hooting derision. What I would like to have known all along was where one gets such a water bottle -- in a head shop or on hideyourjewels.com?

It is, in my opinion, Vick's misfortune to have become a running ESPN story line, which too often means a designated caricature who -- like Terrell Owens or Pete Rose or the Bengal of the day -- is considered open game for character assassination. I am as skeptical as anyone about what Rose has to say about his gambling, but I still cringed when Bayless pronounced him "corrupt to the core" on "1st and 10."

Other cringe moments: The day news broke that a team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers was among those who made purchases of testosterone and human growth hormone from an online pharmaceutical firm whose owners had been indicted by a grand jury for illegal distribution of prescription drugs. Again, within hours of the breaking news, Mariotti, on "Around the Horn," shouted: "What kind of doctor buys drugs on the black market?" Not Dr. Richard Ryzde, whose purchase of drugs, which he claims were for geriatric patients in his private practice, were entirely legal, not black market, however much they may raise suspicions about steroid use in the NFL. I hope ESPN's reporters are trying to find out what Dr. Ryzde did with the $150,000 worth of hormones he purchased online with his credit card. Fans need suspicions about steroid use in the NFL confirmed or allayed by investigation, not opinion.

On "1st and 10," on March 1, Bayless' assertion that 50-75 percent of NFL players use human growth hormone made his guest, former Giants (now Dolphins) kicker Jay Feely, so mad that he fired back, "That's ridiculous. It's dangerous for you to make that claim." If one is going to speculate on limited evidence about athletes' steroid use, better to do it as Chuck Klosterman did in his thoughtful, provocative opinion piece, "Why We Look The Other Way," published in the March 26 issue of ESPN The Magazine and posted on ESPN.com's Page 2. Klosterman lays down his evidence, his lack of it, his premises and judgments, and also his open questions about steroid use in the NFL, concluding, "It may be time to rethink some of this stuff." Maybe he wrote that farm stand saying of the day.

It's nor fair or realistic to ask on-air opinionators to be as informed or measured in their off-the-cuff responses to breaking news, often indistinguishable from breaking rumor, as a magazine writer can be on his longer leash. But I think it is fair to ask a greater degree of humility and suspended judgment than is often heard on air. And I think it is fair to ask producers to encourage less ill-informed vehemence. On the day news broke of a domestic violence claim against the Sacramento Kings' Ron Artest, the incident was placed before the "Around the Horn" jury. In a moderate tone of voice, Mariotti called it "a sad story." Michael Smith, not uncharacteristically, said, "We don't have enough evidence to pass judgment." The usually voluble Paige said quietly, "Artest will always test you. It's time for him to get his life in gear." I was stunned by the across-the-board reasonableness. Tony Reali, the above-the-fray moderator and scorekeeper for "the sport of competitive banter," leaned back and awarded no points. The message seemed clear. Too much sweet reason does not suit the format.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point. Besides, my subjective impression is that the over-the-top shouted certainty of opinion has toned down a bit since I began my binge viewing in mid-January. Maybe the lead-up to the Super Bowl is the peak of the yelling season. Or maybe I have just gotten used to it. I hope not.

One reassuring sign: On "Around the Horn" Wednesday, the format yielded to the seriousness of the topic -- the dismissal of all charges against the three Duke lacrosse players on the grounds of no credible evidence. The point-giving and horn-sounding gimmicks were suspended for the first five minutes of the show while Tony Reali listened to four sportswriters -- Bill Plaschke, Mariotti, Paige and Jackie MacMullan -- discuss the irreparable harm done to three innocent young men by both an over-zealous prosecutor and a media rush to judgment. They seemed genuinely sobered by an awareness of the damage that can follow when opinion runs too far ahead of fact.

As I gather first impressions, I needed that lesson, too.


04-12-2007, 09:17 PM
The rest of the world has finally infected sports. People have been shouting for years on shows like Meet the Press, Nightline, and Hardball. It was bound to happen sometime as the business part of sports grew and the qualifications for reporting it grew. Back in the old days it was all ex-jocks or stat fiends doing analysis. Now the journalists have taken over and it's becoming more and more about me first. The internet and boards like this have infused more and more opinion than fact into our lives. It's a sign of the times.

04-12-2007, 11:34 PM
I am one who will hardly ever listen to or watch that stuff either. Every single time I have, I have felt either dumber for it or totally ticked off at the guy who was spouting off. I do tend to hear more than I really should from our local sports radio stattion when they play the ESPN snational stuff. But I much prefer our local "hacks" who basically just talk about stuff, often thee same stuff, but in a much more palatable manner to me.

04-12-2007, 11:47 PM
Yea..Stephen A Smith is probably the most annoying person on ESPN. Dude cant control himself, always yelling

04-12-2007, 11:50 PM
Yea..Stephen A Smith is probably the most annoying person on ESPN. Dude cant control himself, always yelling

Dick Vitale says "Hi"

04-12-2007, 11:52 PM
The only time Stephen A Smith is not yelling is when he is serious.

04-13-2007, 01:31 AM
Someone else previously posted a much better reply here about this topic - but I'll do my best to summarize.

I do find it irritating that I - a late 20's male sports fan, seemingly am not the target audience of ESPN anymore. Perhaps because I don't like things dumbed down, my sports digested in bite size nuggets or talked down to about sports like I'm an idiot. (ESPN isn't alone in this - remember the Fox Sports Whiz Ball) Its the same reason I can't stand sitcoms - Guys are always the dopey beer drinking idiot who needs a savvy wife or girlfriend to help him make it thru the day. Add to that the massive growth of things like blogs, RSS feeds and micro coverage of the sports accesible via the net about topics I enjoy, I no longer need a one stop shop for my sports information needs. I can get richer, more detailed coverage elsewhere at my convenience and I don't feel less intelligent in the process.

That's a lose/lose situation for ESPN - Seriously - I have Google Reader as my Homepage and in my PDA. What am I going to choose - incessant coverage of basketball & hockey (two sports I don't watch) or pop on and check up on one of the many well written baseball blogs I read every day. No brainier choice there. Plus the major sports packages mean I don't have to wait until 10pm to see what happened in the Reds game, I can watch it myself.

And these outlets are way down the line in technology and advanced understanding of the game of baseball than ESPN. Do you know that the Diamondbacks home games now regularly feature Win Probabity Analysis as the game goes on? What Sabermetrically leaning individual ever dreamed that something like that would pop up on a telecast. Yet when someone like Peter Gammons mentions OPS on ESPN, you get idiots like Steve Phillips & John Kruk deriding it as non sequential. My father in law - about as un-stats savvy a person as you can get, but a huge baseball fan regardless, wondered aloud what the WPA percentage graphic that kept popping up on the bottom during the game on Easter. I took a moment, explained it to him, and he said "hmm...cool" and that was that. When we watched a game the other night he mentioned how he watches for that now during the games. And just like that - another smart baseball fan was introduced to different way of looking at the game.

Sad part is - I can remember when Sportscenter was required watching. My roommates and I would set a schedule and watch Patrick & Olbermann every night - several times some nights. Now it takes more than one hand to count the years since I've sat and watched an entire hour of Sportscenter from beginning to end. I'm not really upset about it to be honest - things change and I'm a happier sports fan for it.

Chip R
04-13-2007, 09:26 AM
You have to remember that the producers and anchors and talking heads at ESPN have no obligation to go along with what she suggests. They are after ratings and if they feel shouting will get them the ratings they want, you better believe they are going to do that.

04-13-2007, 09:38 AM
That's what I'm curious about....what power does she have?

Is she just a rational opinion that doesn't get heard by producers and higher-ups? If so, that's unfortunate.

Chip R
04-13-2007, 11:20 AM
That's what I'm curious about....what power does she have?

Is she just a rational opinion that doesn't get heard by producers and higher-ups? If so, that's unfortunate.

I don't think she has a bit of power. She's window dressing. She's their alter ego. She's there to be righteously indignant when they get criticized for doing too much stuff on Bonds or when they are criticized for something else. She's someone people can complain to for whatever reason. She can't do a bloody thing but it makes people feel better and it looks like ESPN is responding to the complaints.

Roy Tucker
04-13-2007, 11:35 AM
I don't think she has a bit of power. She's window dressing. She's their alter ego. She's there to be righteously indignant when they get criticized for doing too much stuff on Bonds or when they are criticized for something else. She's someone people can complain to for whatever reason. She can't do a bloody thing but it makes people feel better and it looks like ESPN is responding to the complaints.

Spot on, Chip.

The previous ombudsman was very low key in his criticism. This new one seems a bit more forthcoming with criticism. It will be interesting to see if she stays on board. ESPN would look like hypocrites if they canned her but I don't think that matters much to them. They have the moral fiber of a planarian worm.

Scrap Irony
04-13-2007, 11:49 AM
Keith Olbermann, where are ye?

04-13-2007, 12:23 PM
He is in the witness protection program called MSNBC.

04-13-2007, 12:29 PM
Yes, an ombudsman's job is to represent the reader/viewer, sit in on various meetings and discussions, and offer a reality check when the head honchos get disconnected from the audience.

But an ombudsman doesn't get to call the shots. He or she only has power to the extent that others within the company listen.

04-13-2007, 07:39 PM
Dick Vitale says "Hi"

Meh, Dick Vitale doesnt really annoy me...you can tell he yells because hes just truly enthusiastic about what he does. Stephen A will yell just to yell so he can be overheard from everyone else. That and to just start arguments. Though he did pretty well in his interviews on Quite Frankly, he'd ask a lot of good questions imo. Though the rest of the show was him yelling.

04-13-2007, 08:06 PM
Someone else previously posted a much better reply here about this topic - but I'll do my best to summarize.

From Crash Davis a couple of years ago:

"This is a new age in sports and sports marketing. This is the 21st century in sports business where ESPN branches out from scores and highlights to bigger (though not better) ventures including making movies. One of the consequences, I believe, is a major step backwards in target audience.

This isn't the ESPN of 20 years ago or even 5 years ago. Now we have Sean Salisbury and John Clayton playing "fact or fiction", Rob Dibble saying outrageous things just to be controversial, we have segments called "buying or selling", we even had a segment with Steven A. Smith as the hard core, militant (and black) new guard versus Skip Bayless as the conservative "things were so much better when..." voice. ESPN's segments have been watered down to the point where not much is left beyond product placements and silly self-aggrandizing interviews sponsored by beer companies. At ESPN, shades of grey are for yesterday's sports fan. Following the example of Fox TV in the early 90s, ESPN now plays exclusively to the lowest common denominator -- the cheap seats.

There are plenty of intelligent sports fans out there. Many are well rounded, diverse and come from a cross section of America. But I don't think they're the ones who are glued to ESPN eagerly awaiting "the truth" from Sean Salisbury or John Kruk in between watching two hot chicks peel each others clothes off in a fight over beers. It's easy to sit through ESPN's programs and commercials as they put your brain to sleep, unburdened by anything resembling a thought.

I don't know about you, but that's not me...as much as ESPN may want it to me to be. I'm no longer ESPN's target audience. I used to be 5-10 years ago. In all of their programming ESPN is after a newer and easier target now…. The target audience is "the hard-core sports fan who obesses over ESPN." I'd say there is a significant difference between that species and the sports fan who is savvy enough to embrace subtlety.

I have little use for ESPN anymore. I do appreciate subtlety in my sports and certainly in my movies. And for the life of me, I can't see how anybody would watch a movie made by ESPN unless it was because they've been hammered by commercials convincing them they need to see the slop.

I don’t want it to come across that I think I’m above sports these days, or that ESPN doesn’t offer anything I want to watch. I still watch baseball and football games when they’re on, and once in awhile I’ll catch Baseball Tonight.

I’m from the Westside of Cincinnati. I still play softball two or three nights a week. I’m still known to put down a few tubs of beer and close the park on a regular basis. I’m in three fantasy football leagues and two fantasy baseball leagues. I probably buy 10-12 sports books per year. I guess my point is, I should be a sure thing as a target for ESPN and beer commercials. They should have no problem selling their products to me. The products already sell themselves as far as I’m concerned.

But I realized awhile back that, as much as sports are a part of my life, I’m no longer the target audience for ESPN …. They’re aiming beneath me. Why do all beer commercials make me feel like a blabbering Neanderthal just for being a guy? I realize I probably take the issue a bit more seriously than intended, but I don’t think most guys realize the undercurrent running through sports/beer/advertising that encourages men to act like the Neanderthals they aren’t.

Honestly, I have a blast when I drink, and I do drink a lot (probably too much). In addition, I love playing and watching sports. But that doesn’t mean I have to go to my favorite sports bar to watch the Big Game and even bigger commercials while ogling women who are nothing more than phony definitions of beauty. Surely this is the coveted American woman, right?

When I watch ESPN’s commercials and the programming sandwiched between, I really do feel insulted that this is how they see sports fans. There are times when I sleep walk through the programming, but when I do wake up and realize the idea being hammered into my head, I feel like my IQ drops 50 points just for being a beer guzzling, sportsfan of a guy. And here’s the part that gets me: I know that’s not me, but they insist on making it me. I don’t despise my oddness or my deviation from the ESPN obsessed fan or those things that make me, after all, me. I want to preserve those things.

Right now I’m trying to picture what I don’t like about ESPN, and the picture in my head goes something like this: Stuart Scott is doing his best “Mark Jones in 1997” impression, rapid firing inner city slang even though we all know he’s never been within a mile of a playground in his life. Next to Boo-ya! is some overly ambitious, starved for face time, cliché spouting recent college grad whose job it is to introduce football “expert” Sean Salisbury. Salisbury is already doing a 180 from the truth he laid on us last week. John Clayton, who would make Classy Freddy Blassie proud, is brought in to argue for five minutes with Salisbury. Isn’t it fun to watch the 6’5’’ ex-jock who’s never had an original thought cross his mind in all of his 35+ years argue non-stop with the pencil neck geek? Here’s how it goes:

“I’m right, you’re wrong. No, I’m right and you’re wrong. Well, you’re a geek and what do you know about girls? Well you’re an idiot ex-football player (this one couldn’t be any closer to the truth).”

They’re still bickering about whether Donovan McNabb is a black guy or not as we go to commercial. The commercial is for more ESPN programming later that night or that week. Then a beer commercial with two hot chicks and two guys doing something really stupid to get their attention. Then three straight commercials for Hu$tle. Then a couple more commercials starring the overexposed "high-upside" athlete du jour.

We’re back. And now we have the Budweiser hotseat with Clinton Portis…otherwise known as another commercial. Dan Patrick soft tosses a few questions to Clinton about his “ride” and his “crib” just so we know we’re getting an exclusive. If there’s a difference between the segment I just watched and the “Leon” commercial I saw two minutes ago, it’s beyond my ken. I’m not supposed to notice that Budweiser and ESPN just mocked the type of me-first, smack talking, scandal ridden self-promoter that they always turn to for opinions on the contrived controversy of the week.

Coincidentally, here comes Stuart Scott’s interview with Warren Sapp, Deion Sanders, and Keyshawn Johnson. Afterwards, we’ll turn to Michael Irvin and Mike Ditka for black and white analysis of the smack-talk. Irvin and Ditka take turns spitting at each other for five minutes. Ditka said something about not letting the players get away with it, and I couldn’t understand a word of Irvin’s diatribe.

More commercials…and finally a Top 10 plays segment with a lame headline attached to each one, such as “Bonds Away” or “Freel-ing Good” or “Roger That.”

There's your Sports Center, sportsfans. Boo-ya!"

04-15-2007, 08:28 PM
Lets not be too critical now.....ESPN still delivers a lot to the average sports fan...Sunday Nite Baseball, Big Monday, Monday Nite Football, Baseball Tonite, etc...I will admit though, I too have a hard time getting thru Sportscenter as well---I much more partial to watching a half hour of ESPNews (another item I will give props to ESPN too) in the morning or FSN's "Final Score"---all highlights; no fluff...