ESPN's coverage of Jason Collins news and ethics of sports journalism
Prologue: Once in a while I choose to divert from Celtics related content and focus on other important developments in NBA or thought-provoking remarks by basketball figures. Previously that subject was Mark Cuban and professionalism, and I was glad to see it generated some meaningful debate. As we all witnessed a milestone event in male US sports history yesterday, I think it is the appropriate time to ask another "bigger question".
When someone becomes the first active male athlete in a major US team sport to come out of the closet, it is only natural to expect that it is treated as major news. Needless to say it is an event of historic proportions not just for sports world but for politics and society as well, yet the sports media today is also known for chasing any type of potential record breaking event and shoving stats down their audience so they would not miss the -sometimes artificial- hype. If the Heat's winning streak occupies the headlines for as long as it lasts, if Dwight Howard's trite antics can get the "breaking news" treatment every now and then, if Brett Favre can retire every two years and still get all the attention, I would have thought that Collins' coming out would be the subject of great media interest and encouragement for other players who have to live double lives. Well, apparently I was wrong. ESPN, "The Worldwide Leader In Sports," have failed to cover the news at a satisfactory level in terms of both quantity and quality.
This is what the ESPN homepage looked like yesterday, two hoursafter the Jason Collins news came out. As you can see, Tim Tebow, a mediocre backup QB who had his 15 minutes of fame 2 years ago and did absolutely nothing this past season was released, and that news item got its fancy flash box along with an additional link in that segment, and, because it apparently doesn't draw enough attraction, was the #1 item in the news rankings although it was earlier news. Imagine the POTUS signing an historic bill and the CNN going with any senator's re-election campaign as top news. ESPN's attitude made sense as much as that would have made sense.
The reason ESPN chose to put more focus on Tim Tebow's release is because he is a product they created. Tebowmania, Linsanity etc. are undeniably great stories because when an underdog athlete achieves something extraordinary, it is a great moral uplift for the audience as well as being a great opportunity for branding. That makes perfect sense. What doesn't, though, is that it is exactly what Jason Collins did yesterday morning. He got the praise and respect of both current and former presidents in a short period of time. He has managed to make his name known to an otherwise uninterested crowd in a positive light. He has made a positive impact on societal norms. He will have his name next to Martina Navratilova, Magic Johnson, Jackie Robinson etc. when people talk about influential sports figures. This is big news. That's why I didn't get how ESPN could sleep on this news for an hour or so, and then only rank it below Tebow's release in terms of importance. Apparently their TV coverage was not much different either.
What bothers me is this blatant disregard for media ethics and effort to capitalize on an historic moment. ESPN's playbook yesterday involved sleeping on a major news item, playing it down, trying to put its product in focus instead and, after all that, own the story by creating controversy over it. I don't think what ESPN did yesterday was "an unfortunate mistake." I think it was a deliberate effort to spin this touching milestone into their story. ESPN chose to take sides: not necessarily against LGBT athletes, but against the basic notion of journalism ethics. Oh, and it definitely didn't help that they tried to make a controversial figure like Tebow bigger news than Collins. It's wrong and also, I can't believe I'm saying this, unfair to direct all criticism towards Broussard. There is a bigger failure, or dirty success depending on the angle you look at it, at stake here.
I want to naively believe that sports is still all about human achievement, hard work, success stories, emotions, challenging accepted norms, uplifting morale, helping those in need etc. That a defining moment in US sports history can be the subject of "ratings games" is beyond my comprehension. That major networks can resort to such measures in covering such a historic story makes me feel disappointed as I think about what they probably do for the sake of ratings in stories of smaller proportions.
ESPN failed media ethics yesterday, and I hope they somehow pay for it.
Follow semioticus on Twitter:-@semioticusCL
------- *By the way, while we are at it, let me clarify something about "freedom of speech." First of all, freedom of speech means that no one can be prosecuted for what they say unless their words are a call to violence, attempt at defamation etc. If you say "we should kill every X," that is not freedom of speech any more. You are thinking of committing a violent crime and taking away someone else's freedom. Second, freedom of speech works both ways. You have the right to say anti-gay stuff. I have the right to call you a homophobic person because of what you say, because it is what it is. For example religion, by its nature, bashes all non-believers, calls them sinners, burns them in hell, insults them in every imaginable way. When a non-believer, on the other hand, criticizes religion, the story suddenly becomes "My religion is under attack! I can't say that I'm a religious person anymore in this country! I thought you enjoyed freedom of speech!" I do enjoy freedom of speech, and I do enjoy people saying stupid stuff because then I can exercise my freedom of speech to make fun of them. Please stop thinking freedom of speech is a one-way street. It is not an entitlement of a certain group, it is a consensus, an equilibrium point for the society's optimal utility.