Monday, September 8, 2014

4 comments ESPN's Ombudsman Pokes His Head Out of The Ground to Remind The World He Exists

ESPN has an Ombudsman. Actually, they have had a series of Ombudsmen for quite a few years now. It's hard to really know about the Ombudsman since ESPN has the Ombudsman only post something once or twice a month. The current ESPN Ombudsman is Robert Lipsyte. I'm sure he's a nice guy. He posted his first column on June 28, 2013 and has written a grand total of 20 columns since then. He's written four columns since April 28, 2014. I don't know what to expect from the ESPN Ombudsman, but I expect more than this. Since ESPN is a 24 hour sports network I figure the Ombudsman could have more to discuss than writing a column twice in a month. Maybe I should give him credit for doing three chats over the last year too. I'm sure that took a toll and was a heavy workload. I still feel like ESPN has an Ombudsman only to claim they do care about their image and want to be held accountable. Perhaps I'm jaded, but it seems like the hiring of an Ombudsman is an obligatory measure by ESPN. They care! Look at the Ombudsman they hired!

So Robert Lipsyte has written about ESPN embracing debate and where this embrace of debate goes wrong. While I don't necessarily expect Lipsyte to lay into ESPN on a weekly basis, it would be nice if he didn't pretend Stephen A. Smith's comments about the Ray Rice situation were out of the ordinary for Smith and out of the ordinary for the inflammatory comments that are encouraged on "First Take." I would appreciate it more if the ESPN Ombudsman would treat "First Take" and other "embrace debate" shows for what they are, which is two ill-informed talking heads yelling opinions at each other in an effort to troll viewers into paying attention. But, that's not going to happen, so Lipsyte acts like "First Take" went a little wrong while embracing debate. He will ignore that the show is a breeding ground for outrageous comments, racism, and statements being made purely for shock value.

I don't believe the Ombudsman is properly doing his job if he doesn't acknowledge that "First Take" has been a breeding ground for outrageous behavior that at times has created an environment for ugly comments. Also, in this column the Ombudsman not once mentions that ESPN should have initially had female point of view on the Ray Rice suspension represented on "First Take." Apparently it didn't merit a mention that when discussing the issue of a female being abused by her fiance it might be good to get a woman's point of view on "First Take" prior to Stephen A. Smith's comments. 

As covered in this space before, ESPN has championed an “embrace debate” mantra for a number of its programs, including the popular morning show on ESPN2 called “First Take.” 

I would argue it's popular only in that people hate-watch it. That's good enough for ESPN though.

This has at times served the network well, growing audience and offering sometimes thought-provoking, entertaining television.

The emphasis here being on "entertaining" television, much in the same way "The Jerry Springer Show" was entertaining television. At very few points have I ever heard anything approaching thought-provoking when Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless have been at the table yelling at each other regarding a sports topic.

Of course, that also means ESPN has to live with -- or at least take more responsibility -- when that particular septic tank overflows. 

By stating "take more responsibility" I have no idea what the Ombudsman means. Does "taking more responsibility" mean punishing those who appear on the show for acting in the manner that the environment ESPN has created? Or does "taking more responsibility" mean recognizing "First Take" is a breeding ground for comments like Smith to use the n-word, Rob Parker to accuse Robert Griffin of not being black enough or for Skip Bayless to blatantly lie about his sports past while on the air, and then remove the show from the air? I would argue the latter. I have an issue with what Smith said, but "First Take's" environment breeds idiotic comments like this. It's not expected, but bold comments like the ones Smith made about provocation and the abuse of women aren't exactly shied away from either on "First Take."

The latest example came on Friday, when the Ombudsman mailbag justifiably exploded after ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith seemed to cast blame on victims of domestic violence in his “First Take” commentary about the NFL’s punishment of the Baltimore Ravens’ Ray Rice.

He didn't "seem to" cast blame on victims. He DID cast blame on victims and it's well-documented at other sites on the Interwebs that this isn't the first time Smith has made comments such as this. When being an Ombudsman and claiming to be a neutral observer I think it would be important to take the time to do research to see if Smith's comments are a one-time thing or he has a history of such comments. A simple search of the Internet can find that Smith has made comments similar to these he made regarding the Rice incident about another situation involving Chad Johnson (and Floyd Mayweather). Apparently that's too much work for ESPN's Ombudsman to put in to research this and ask the question of whether Smith really feels the way he expressed on "First Take" about provocation.

Smith repeatedly said that he thought the NFL’s punishment of Rice was too light, but created a storm of criticism when he added, “Let’s make sure we don’t do anything to provoke wrong actions. If we come after somebody has put their hands on you, it doesn’t negate the fact that they already put their hands on you. So let’s try to make sure that we can do our part in making sure that that doesn’t happen.” 

I like how the Ombudsman adds that Smith thought the NFL's punishment of Rice was too light and "repeatedly" stated this. As if these words override the other words Smith later used about the victim provoking his/her attacker. I don't expect much from an ESPN Ombudsman. Just a simple analysis of a situation, a look into the history of that situation with the parties involved and that Ombudsman's take on the situation and how it was handled by ESPN. The fact Lipsyte glosses over "First Take" as a breeding ground for idiocy and Smith's history of similar comments makes me believe Lipsyte didn't do his job fully in this situation.

The attention shifted from Rice and the role of the NFL in the off-field transgressions of its players to Smith and ESPN when Michelle Beadle, co-host of the network’s “SportsNation” show, quickly posted a series of tweets challenging Smith’s remarks.

Here is another related issue I have with the Ombudsman's analysis in this column. He acts like attention being shifted from the sports story the ESPN talking head is commenting on to that ESPN talking head him/herself is a new thing. As if the "embrace debate" mantra isn't entirely built around shifting attention from the story being reported on to the reporter doing the reporting/opining. ESPN has a roster full of analysts that have hot sports takes (Merril Hoge, Ron Jaworski, etc.) who can then have their hot sports take discussed on "First Take" and other ESPN shows. It's all part of ESPN's echo chamber.

So I find it interesting that Robert Lipsyte writes about the attention shifting to Smith and Beadle as if this is out of the ordinary for ESPN overall, when in fact the reason the attention shifted in this situation is unusual. Usually, the ESPN echo chamber is shifting attention internally to things Skip Bayless has said on "First Take" or a remark that was made by an ESPN analyst. In this situation, the attention shifted externally to comments made by ESPN employees. I really wish Lipsyte had mentioned this attention shift isn't rare, but the attention shift coming externally to affect ESPN internally is rare. Again, that would require some sense of awareness about the role ESPN plays in the sports world, which apparently even the most neutral observers who are employed by ESPN simply don't have.

My point is this. The situation around Smith's comments is being treated by Lipsyte as a situation where Smith doesn't have a history of similar comments, Smith doesn't appear on a "debate" show where crazy and controversial comments are encouraged, and the attention shifting from the story to the hot sports take the ESPN employee has is an abnormal set of circumstances. That's simply not the case. ESPN just didn't like the attention shift this time, but they love to shift attention away from a story to their employees' take on that story. Lipsyte has talked about the comments Smith made on "First Take," but refuses to discuss at any length the underlying issues that create an environment where Smith can make these comments freely.

Her first tweet that Friday afternoon, was: “So I was just forced to watch this morning's First Take. A) I'll never feel clean again B) I'm now aware that I can provoke my own beating.” 

That became a media story because of ESPN’s stance against its personnel engaging in internecine sniping.

I find this to be a very tone-deaf statement. No, this became a media story because Michelle Beadle is a prominent female sports journalist who spoke out against the statements that Stephen A. Smith made. It was a bigger media story because it was ESPN on ESPN crime, but Beadle's tweets were a reflection of a point of view "First Take" didn't give a shit about representing in their eagerness to "embrace debate." That point of view was that of a female sports journalist. Again, at no point during this article does Lipsyte mention that ESPN could have been well-served to go to their roster of female sports journalists to get a female take on the Ray Rice suspension during "First Take." Isn't this the job of the Ombudsman? To help determine how ESPN can better fairly serve their viewers? Apparently embracing debate is the goal, just as long as that debate doesn't come from a female.

But really, how could ESPN have seen that a female perspective in this situation would have been helpful to the viewer? What point of view could a female provide that Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless can't provide? It's not like ESPN is a massive organization with the opportunity to "embrace debate" on a larger scale with espnW writers and other male ESPN employees rather than have two middle-aged men yell at each other on camera about Ray Rice's suspension.

Stars such as Bill Simmons have been disciplined in the past for criticizing colleagues.

It appears those blinders Lipsyte is wearing fit well. What show was Simmons suspended for criticizing again? Oh yeah! "First Take." Interesting how the Ombudsman, a man who is supposed to be a neutral commenter and observer, leaves out the little tidbit that "First Take" has taken criticism from ESPN employees in the past. Why would the history of "First Take" and ESPN employees being critical of the show in the past have anything to do with Stephen A. Smith's comments and how the environment around "First Take" played a role in his comments? It would be nice if ESPN would hire an Ombudsman that looks beneath the surface on issues as opposed to simply commenting on ESPN and whatever issue is on his brain at that time in a manner that scratches the surface of the issue.

The Ombudsman mailbag was firmly behind Beadle as a champion of victims’ rights, and indications are that ESPN will not take action against her. I think Beadle’s tweets were appropriate, even if she did violate ESPN’s social media policies.

I do think Michelle Beadle needs a stern talking to for violating ESPN's social media policies. Not criticizing ESPN means not criticizing ESPN, even if someone at ESPN stays something incomprehensibly stupid. Women have no place debating domestic violence or criticizing someone else's debate points regarding domestic violence. Beadle needs to know her place and her place isn't on "First Take" debating Ray Rice's suspension. Her debate points will NOT be embraced.

ESPN initially issued a remarkably noncommittal statement, noting that “Stephen's comments last Friday do not reflect our company's point of view.” The network showed more teeth Tuesday, announcing that Smith will not appear on “First Take” or ESPN Radio for the next week. He will return to ESPN next Wednesday. 

But this won't take care of part of the problem. Part of the problem is "First Take." It breeds shit like this. It breeds and encourages through the "embrace debate" philosophy one of the ESPN talking heads saying some stupid shit on the air. Get to that. Point this out. This is something the Ombudsman is failing miserably to do. The "embrace debate" mantra went wrong, but is this "embrace debate" mantra part of the problem? There is a history that shows this could very well be the case.

Smith’s attempts to clarify his remarks on Twitter later on Friday -- and then to apologize Monday in a taped statement before “First Take” -- did not satisfy his critics. Said Smith, “I made what can only amount to the most egregious error of my career. I ventured beyond the scope of our discussion by alluding to a woman’s role in such heinous matters, going so far as to use the word ‘provoke’ in my diatribe. My words came across that it is somehow a woman’s fault. This was not my intent. It was not what I was trying to say.” 

This is the point where a different Ombudsman might point out that if Stephen A. Smith wasn't trying to say it was a woman's fault, then his history of comments like this one says something completely different. Failing to do an examination of Smith's history of comments on provocation in this Ombudsman piece is an egregious error in my opinion. It frames this as a solitary issue and not one event out of three that could lead a person to believe Stephen A. Smith didn't just slip up once.

"Stephen has called what took place 'the most egregious mistake' of his career," said ESPN president John Skipper in a memo to staff. "I believe his apology was sincere and that he and we have learned from what we've collectively experienced. I'm confident we will all move forward with a greater sense of enlightenment and perspective as the lasting impact of these last few days." 

Well, until the next hot sports take gets out of hand on "First Take" and another of the panelists is forced to apologize for something he didn't mean to say. Though as we learned regarding Skip Bayless outright lying about his basketball career, as long as someone isn't offended, then there are no repercussions for bad behavior on the show. "Embrace debate" may become "Embrace fiction" at times, but it's all for entertainment's sake.

I think Smith’s problems have always been more mechanical than moral. His mouth runs faster than his mind,

Apparently his fingers move faster than his mind on Twitter too. Let's keep making excuses and not get to the underlying issue here and why "First Take" exists, which is to take advantage of the fact Smith's mouth moves faster than his brain. 

His cadences can mesmerize, whether he’s convoluting an already complicated trade or, as he did in 2012 talking about a football player head-butting his then-wife: “There are plenty of instances where provocation comes into consideration, instigation comes into consideration, and I will be on the record right here on national television and say that I am sick and tired of men constantly being vilified and accused of things and we stop there. I'm saying, ‘Can we go a step further?’ Since we want to dig all deeper into Chad Johnson, can we dig in deep to her?’” 

Oh good, we are going to talk about this! The Ombudsman will discuss how Smith's apology rings false because he has been down this road before regarding women being physically assaulted by their husband. Right? Isn't a long discussion on how Smith has a pattern of such comments relevant?

Smith clearly has been down this low road before.

I'm just kidding with you guys. This is the only other comment Lipsyte makes regarding Smith's prior comments about violence against women. Smith has been down this low road before ON "FIRST TAKE," but how in the hell could that be relevant to a discussion about comments Smith made about violence against women on "First Take"? It's certainly not troubling and doesn't indicate anything negative about "First Take." Inconceivable.

I think he was doing what he is paid to do -- pontification on the fly aimed to attract an audience and provoke it into coming back. 

Oh, well it's all good then. As long as it's in the name of trying to attract an audience and provoking them into coming back. The fact Lipsyte just matter of factly states this, without actually wondering if this is the right way to achieve these goals, tells me most of what I need to know about his role as the Ombudsman. He's not interested in actually creating change or calling attention from within the ESPN organization. He wants to discuss topics every other week or so (you know, if he has time), not delve too deeply, treat every incident as an isolated one, and not bother with actual criticism of ESPN for the programming that encourages bad behavior.

In harness with Skip Bayless, he has made “First Take” an extremely popular show. But that again left the network to clean up a mess of his making.

Well, the popularity is a great excuse for creating such a mess. It's all worth it.

And it should not be lost that ESPN actually had several very good responses to the Rice situation. On Thursday night, on his ESPN2 show, Keith Olbermann had harsh words for the light punishment, and on Monday’s night’s show even harsher words for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

But Olbermann didn't have harsh words for Stephen A. Smith, ESPN or "First Take." That's the Ombudsman's job. That is the topic at hand. No one cares in the Ombudsman's space if Keith Olbermann had harsh words for Roger Goodell and the light punishment when discussing Stephen A. Smith's comments about provocation and women. What forum were the women of ESPN given to present their point of view on Rice's suspension? These comments were buried on espnW.

On espnW.com, there were two excellent columns, one by Jane McManus and the other by Mina Kimes

So in summary, men like Keith Olbermann, Skip Bayless, and Stephen A. Smith got television spots to discuss Rice's suspension (though Cari Champion did get the honor of "moderating"), while the female ESPN employees got to write columns about the situation. I guess it was too much to ask that McManus or Kimes could be on-camera discussing the suspension during "First Take." That wouldn't be enough "embracing debate" for ESPN. Again, this is a very basic and logical criticism the Ombudsman fails to make. Why didn't ESPN at any point have a female point of view on the Ray Rice suspension on "First Take" alongside the take of Smith and Bayless? It was a suspension derided for how the NFL was treating women, what better than the point of view of a woman on this topic? Why were Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith responsible for representing the male and female point of view on Rice's two-game suspension, which eventually led to Smith's comments about provocation?

And this topic led to some unexpected twists in the Ombudsman mailbag. One reader called out a recent column by Bill Simmons. In a typically breezy Grantland story on sports movies as romantic comedies, Simmons described the Susan Sarandon character in “Bull Durham,” who takes on as lover and project a fresh new minor league player each season, as a “tramp.” 

Anyone who has read "The Book of Basketball" knows that Bill comes off as a misogynist, so this comment in his column isn't entirely out of character for him. Bill likes to portray women as nagging hags who get in the way of a man's success and constantly try to drag him down. It's nothing new.

Wrote Dan Lee of Pickerington, Ohio, “Would Simmons refer similarly to a male who has had a number of girlfriends? Is Derek Jeter a tramp? He has had a number of high-profile romantic interests. Does Simmons hold it against him? The column appears to have been published on the same day that Stephen A. Smith made his much-publicized comments regarding the responsibility of women to make sure they don't provoke their boyfriends into beating them unconscious. Is this how women are viewed at ESPN?”

Boy, wouldn't this be a great topic for the Ombudsman to cover? How does ESPN seem to view women, from an outsider's point of view? But that's a topic the ESPN Ombudsman finds too lengthy or difficult to tackle, despite the fact it's a relevant discussion that has been covered in several books and the question should be asked yet again after Smith's comments about women and provocation. Mike Freeman's book about ESPN brought these questions to light, yet 13 years later some of the questions posed in that book still remain. It sounds like something the Ombudsman might tackle when the chance is given. Apparently not.

Some would say that criticism is a stretch, that it pokes too far into the Jock Culture boys club that marks much of ESPN coverage and commentary. Others would say it’s time for ESPN to address what seems to be an underlying attitude toward women as not quite the audience it needs. What’s the right answer?

Don't expect Robert Lipsyte to look into the right answer or take his job as Ombudsman seriously enough to determine if the criticism is a stretch. He wants YOU to give HIM the answer. Then he can briefly discuss your emails a month from now and his job will be complete. 

If you have specific comments and questions, let’s hear them. We will be revisiting that topic, among others, in far greater detail in upcoming columns. 

I hope so, because a more serious conversation about "First Take" and attitudes towards women at ESPN (whether they be good or bad) was sorely missed in this Ombudsman column. I guess as soon as the ESPN readers do the research for Lipsyte he'll take the time to consider the issue. It's out of line, I guess, to consider "First Take" as a breeding ground for comments such as Stephen A. Smith's comments regarding provocation.

Then Lipsyte writes a little more and mentions Jason Whitlock's so-called "Black Grantland" that is becoming the Dr. Dre's "Detox" of ESPN. I keep hearing about how it will happen, but there's no release date yet, which makes me wonder if it will ever happen.

4 comments:

Chris said...

I would also argue that Smith's general the bitch had it coming attitude in his comments looks particularly worse with the release of the elevator video where it would seem that Janay only put her hands on Rice after he had already hit her.

Chris said...

I would also argue that even the very existence of espnW continues to perpetuate the narrative ESPN wants of Embrace debate unless your a woman. Maybe I am just looking too much into it but I've always felt that in actuality it implies that women talking sports is fine just do it on your own special website for lady stuff and don't put it on regular ESPN.com because that's a boys only club.

Bengoodfella said...

Chris, it was complete coincidence I posted this today by the way. Smith looks worse given the video. I agree and I also agree with espnW being on their own site. I've always understood why women have their own site in terms of a special place for women-folk, but it does reek of "You women talk over there about cooking and let the men talk business."

There are some good writers at espnW that don't get the publicity they deserve because they have been pushed to a niche site.

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