March 18, 2011

Fab Five "documentary" slides down ESPN's slippery slope

With Japan in a full-blown nuclear crisis and the world anxiously watching events unfold, the No. 1 story on the New York Times’ most-emailed list Thursday was Grant Hill’s response to Jalen Rose and “The Fab Five” film by ESPN.

If you haven’t seen the film, or read the news, Hill, a former star basketball player at Duke in the early ‘90s, was responding to Rose’s statements in the film that Duke recruited only black players that Rose considered to be “Uncle Toms.” Rose, who is also black, was a star player for Michigan during the same era.

Hill’s response in the Times was everything we’ve come to expect from him through the years. It was smart, well written, passionate and unassailable. But my issue isn’t about Hill’s response or Rose’s original statement. It’s not even about race relations, still an uncomfortable topic in America more than two years after we elected our first black president.

No, my issue is with ESPN, and what passes today for its journalism. Eight months after giving us LeBron James’ “The Decision,” -- a made-for-TV spectacle bought and paid for by LeBron himself -- the “Fab Five” similarly blurs the line between real and imagined. 

ESPN spent a month hyping its “documentary” on the Fab Five. But when ESPN made Rose an executive producer for that “documentary,” it sacrificed its soul and the credibility of the film.

Few have called out ESPN for again bending the rules on the athletes and sports it purports to cover objectively. Jason Whitlock, a columnist for FOX Sports, was one of the few to do so.

“Give Rose credit. He talked a major television network and an alleged news organization into allowing him to write his own 90-minute history. We should all be so lucky,” said Whitlock in what was arguably the best column in a sea of columns on the rift.

ESPN has long been on a slippery slope between covering sports and shilling for those sports. “The Decision” and this week’s Fab Five “documentary” simply hasten that decline.

Unfortunately, the Nielsen ratings for the show were released Thursday and ESPN quickly announced the 2.1 rating made it the highest-rated “documentary” in ESPN’s history. To ESPN, that will be all the justification it needs for ditching its objectivity. But the viewing pubic is the poorer for it.

Grant Hill’s response to Jalen Rose {New York Times}
Fab Five film fantasy, not documentary {Jason Whitlock, FOX Sports}

September 15, 2010

Jets, Sainz situation represents progress, however unsatisfying

It’s not exactly news when some NFL players act like lowlifes. It’s certainly not news to any woman who works as a sports reporter, which includes my wife. Most are perfectly prepared to deal with frat boy behavior on the job. So when members of the New York Jets made inappropriate comments to Ines Sainz, a reporter for TV Azteca in Mexico, it became a news story largely because pictures of Sainz play well in today’s media environment. It’s no secret many foreign television networks hire women as eye candy, expect them to do less-than-serious stories while dressed, by professional journalism standards, provocatively. 

So the Jets situation made for an unsatisfying ethical tale.

On one level, it represented progress. The official response from the Jets and the NFL was swift and unequivocal: women reporters are to be treated professionally. The juvenile behavior is no longer winked at or embraced, as it was in 1990 when a group of New England Patriots harassed Boston Herald reporter Lisa Olson. Patriots owner Victor Kiam led the charge, blaming her for his players’ actions while calling her a "classic bitch." The atmosphere was so toxic for Olson, she left to work in Australia for several years.

That stuff is pretty rare these days, especially in New York, which leads the universe in women reporters — including Olson, who lives in New York and writes for Both NFL teams here have had multiple women beat writers and women are a daily presence covering games and practices. Those women, including my wife, Lynn Zinser, a reporter for the New York Times who covered the Giants for several seasons, do not get treated to catcalls and degrading behavior. Why? Because they act like professional journalists and players respond in kind.

August 5, 2010

USA Bid Committee having a ball keeping its fans engaged

The World Cup ended nearly a month ago. And FIFA won’t award the 2018 and 2022 World Cup host cities until December.

So if you’re the USA Bid Committee, hoping for one of those two coveted selections, how do you keep the casual and hard-core soccer fan excited and engaged in the interim?

Keeping fans involved is a big issue for a lot of sports that have gaps between big events or rallying points. Most Olympic sports fall in this category. The key is creating compelling content and a reason for people to engage on an ongoing basis. has faced this challenge since the site was launched, and it has more than met the challenge every step of the way.

An opportunity to win an autographed soccer ball, signed by the U.S. men’s national team, is the latest lure. That’s what the folks at are offering for the low, low price of inviting five friends to sign up and support the bid. Its goal is to get a million fans to back the effort. The autographed ball is the perfect short-term vehicle to help reach its goal, add to its database and extend the scope of its viral campaign.

It’s another smart effort by the committee, which is working on the behalf of the U.S. Soccer Federation in its effort to bring the World Cup back to the U.S. With more than 917,000 people having already signed the petition, breaking the million mark is a sure bet.

July 19, 2010

Is lack of a salary cap undermining interest in MLB?

There was an eye-opening Harris Poll released last week that said interest in Major League Baseball has slipped to 35 percent among adults who say they follow the game, down from last year’s 41 percent.

While it’s tempting to say it’s only one poll, or it’s only a one-year anomaly – because we’re in an era of short-attention-span theater, a recession or have so much fighting for our entertainment dollar – but what if it isn’t?

Is it possible that the lack of a salary cap is finally catching up to baseball? Many fans have long decried the lack of a cap, the disparity it engenders between big-market and small-market teams. The behemoths of the game, led by the Yankees, Red Sox, Philles and Mets, can hoard the best players because they can afford them.

It leaves large swaths of the league competitively irrelevant (did you know the Pirates have had 17 straight losing seasons?) and while some of those teams are simply poorly run, baseball’s lack of institutionalized parity plays a big role. The NFL is the best example of how the salary cap improves the health of a league overall. Small-market teams like Green Bay can be perennial contenders, something MLB's Pirates or Royals can never aspire to.