With season openers less than two weeks away at most college football programs, there are some teams that still need practice.
Also, some networks.
ESPN has fumbled twice this week, both connected with college football. If they’ve had blunders in other areas, I probably missed them because it is August and — well, college football.
This isn’t going to be some fire-and-brimstone excoriation of ESPN, although you can readily find that elsewhere if you want it. In both instances — when reporter Mike West went on Twitter and posted “quotes” from Nick Saban that weren’t Saban quotes at all, and again when they shuffled announcer Robert Lee off an assignment in Charlottesville, Va., because his name is the same as a Confederate general who died more than 125 years ago — I don’t know that some nefarious agenda was at work. I do know the execution was sloppy, and that was compounded in both cases by the actions being utterly unnecessary.
ESPN has taken tremendous criticism for what conservatives, in particular, seem to be “bias” toward a liberal agenda. Whether it is Caitlyn Jenner or Colin Kaepernick, Michael Sam or Serena Williams, the emphasis of the network’s coverage has been questioned. Without delving into extremely complicated social issues here, I will say that ESPN — like any vast media company — has many employees, representing many viewpoints. Also, many of the people who watch ESPN do so for one reason: live sports. In this area, that’s live college football above all other fare, not that there aren’t fans of the NBA, the NFL and many other sports. Regardless, there are a great many viewers — or, in the case of their website and social media presence, a great many readers that like to take their sports straight, without politics (or fashion or pop culture.) Can I fairly condemn anyone else for straying from a “stick to sports” approach? No. I’m a wanderer myself, as anyone with Twitter knows. Your employment doesn’t take away your citizenship, or your interests.
But the two incidents this week went beyond that. They weren’t opinions. In the first case, the Saban tweets attributing quotes about race relations to Saban when he never said the words, was an attempt at satire by the reporter, Mike Wise. The quotes were easily misconstrued and not just by sensitive Alabama fans or “dumb” readers. Several of Wise’s ESPN colleagues passed them along, often with scathing takes of their own.
Wise has apologized and was “disciplined” and, again, it’s not like I’ve never made an ill-considered Tweet (although I’ve never gone the “false quote” route, and wouldn’t.) Here is the problem. You can throw a rock in the water, then change your mind and dive in after the rock. But you can’t fix all the ripples.
The Robert Lee move, on the other hand, was — according to ESPN executives — designed to stop “jokes” (of the “ha ha, General Lee” variety) about the harmless coincidence before they happened. But by sending Lee to another site, ESPN generated far more attention (and a thousand more jokes) than it would have by leaving well enough alone. No sane person would have been offended by Lee calling the game. Now, people are offended — because ESPN assumed that they would be offended. These are sensitive times in America but one way to defuse the worst outcomes is to assume that a person can disagree with you and still have some intelligence. That’s called “respect.” And respect for your audience matters. The media — from all sides of the spectrum, and starting right here with me personally — should always keep that in mind.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.