Wednesday, May 2, 2007

I feel dirty

Okay, I’m a little slow up on the uptake, but suddenly it occurs to me that the SportsGal, who is getting more and more prominently featured on with her Bachelor updates, is pushing a show that is aired by ABC, which is owned by Disney, which also owns ESPN. I feel dirty now.

It’s not that I mind a little cross-promotion, and I understand the importance to media companies to enhance the brand. But I think what we’re seeing is a serious ethics problem at this network. Don’t believe me? I present the following evidence:

1 - ESPN enters into a reality-show agreement with Barry Bonds at the same time it reports on him as he pursues the home run record.
2 - Commentators simply disappear, with no word at all, whether for reason of harassment (Harold Reynolds) or criticism (Jason Whitlock).
3 - Suddenly there’s an upsurge in coverage of the AFL, conveniently timed with the purchase by ESPN of a share in the league. Also, ESPN’s exact share of the AFL has never been divulged, that I know of. Is it 49%, 25%, what? If you don't think this is a problem, think back how ESPN gleefully smothered the XFL in its infancy.
4 - Suddenly there’s a downsurge of interest in Hockey, conveniently timed with the expiration of their coverage. Okay, Hockey has also smothered itself with a strike, so maybe this isn't a big deal.
5 - Wall-to-wall NASCAR coverage, conveniently timed with a new deal with the racing league.
6 - A popular radio host (Colin Cowherd) plagiarizes material from one website and maliciously shuts down another with nary a hint of punishment, excepting an admonishment from a powerless ombudsman.
7 - Sportsgal gets prominently featured in their most popular columnists’ most popular columns about their most popular subject, then gets her own column to gush about sister network ABC’s show, with nary a disclaimer in sight!

This isn’t stuff that’s happened over the last ten years. This stuff all happened recently. That’s a semi-serious ethics problem or ethical headscratcher occurring about once every two months.

If ESPN were operated by truly ethical people, they would have taken each of these situations a little differently. Maybe it’s not a good idea for ESPN commentators to own parts of teams they report on, and maybe it’s not a good idea for ESPN to own parts of the leagues. Maybe ESPN owes fans of departed commentators some kind of signal about what happened. Maybe they should stick a disclaimer on the SportsGal Bachelor updates that they’re part of the same company. Maybe Cowherd deserves serious discipline for his antisocial behavior, not just a public scolding from the ombudsman. Maybe entering into partnership with one of the most reviled athletes in sports while trying to cover him objectively during a steroids scandal is not a good idea.

Each situation alone is pretty minor, but added up they look pretty damning. To me it appears that ESPN’s moral compass is currently stuck on “Corrupt”, and nobody there seems to care.