On Jan. 7, Pete Carroll was ESPN’s guest analyst at the BCS national championship game, on the company payroll, chumming around with the College Gameday crew and helping to break down No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 2 Texas. The very next day, he was The Worldwide Leader in Sports’ top story, rumored to be leaving Southern Cal and returning to the NFL as head coach and president of the Seattle Seahawks.
A rather uncomfortable conflict of interest for the folks in Bristol, no?
Well, as a matter of fact, no. At least not according to the pliable ethical standards to which we hold sports journalism. On the contrary, ESPN’s relationship with Carroll seemed an advantage.
In one of the network’s first reports about Seattle’s firing of former head coach Jim Mora, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter could be seen on camera—I kid you not—checking his cell phone for a text message. Now, I have no way of knowing whether that text was from Carroll (though Schefter’s accomplice, Chris Mortensen, quoted a Carroll text message in one of his early reports on ESPN.com), but my point is this: This smudging (erasing?) of the line between person-I-cover-as-a-reporter and person-with-whom-I-work-and-exchange-texts-like-seventh-grade-girls violates the basic principle of journalistic detachment.
Then again, detachment doesn’t attract viewers.
“What a lot of fans simply want is access,” says Andy Schotz, who chairs the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee. “They want those tidbits, those trade rumors.”
The fans Schotz describes would likely argue 1) Sports reporters aren’t affected by friendships with players and coaches and 2) Even if they are, what’s the big deal? We’re talking about sports, not a presidential election.
To the first claim, I say compare ESPN’s recent coverage of Carroll to that of his successor at USC, Lane Kiffin, who bolted from Tennessee. Both ditched enviable jobs in favor ones they believe to be better, both abandoned their teams and recruiting classes with little-to-no notice, and both left as questions about possible NCAA violations started swirling. Only one, however, has been portrayed as the ugliest two-faced jerk since Harvey Dent.
To the second, I say we’re not talking about sports alone. We’re talking about education (lest we forget the college in college football). We’re talking about multi-billion-dollar businesses. And we’re talking about fairness, which, given their penchant for decrying everything from Spygate to steroids, is a concept about which fans are extremely passionate.
So, sorry, the sports-aren’t-that-serious case is impossible to make.
In sports reporters’ defense, it is increasingly difficult to maintain true independence. How objective can a journalist working for YES (owned by the Yankees) or NESN (co-owned by the Red Sox and Bruins) be, when her boss is actually the team she covers? Broadcast journalists, in general, face unsavory predicaments because their networks must pay for the rights to air athletic events. When I was writing for the North American Sports Network’s online newsletter in London in 2007, my supervisor refused to run a baseball article I had written about Barry Bonds alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. The network was in the midst of negotiating a TV deal with Major League Baseball, she told me, and didn’t want to risk losing it because of a negative story.
On a personal level, it’s hard for sports reporters to overcome the undeniable allure of traveling all over the country or even the world, interviewing professional athletes. It’s every fan’s dream—except journalists should stuff their fan sides in the closet while on the job.
“You lose that in about the second day,” Boston Globe Red Sox beat writer Amelie Benjamin told the Associated Press Sports Editors, shortly after earning her self-described dream job, in September 2008. “I still consider myself a baseball fan in general, but not really a Red Sox fan. You can’t do that and do the proper job covering the team.”
So while inside information is a great hook and friendly relationships can be profitable, sports reporters should take great care to ensure they follow the same ethical principles practiced by their brethren in the news department.
“Sports shouldn’t feel immune to the rules of journalism,” Schotz says.