Back in December, 2011, The New York Times ran a story about the risk of brain damage for soccer players who frequently head the ball. At the time, I was a contributing writer for espnW.com -- the female-focused ESPN Web site. So I pitched a story, suggesting we ask Abby Wambach and others about the danger.
After all, there had been so much discussion of concussions among football players. Here was an important news story about brain trauma that could impact female athletes as well. Wasn't that exactly what this fledgling sports site would want? I was certain the story would be approved.
But later that very same day, espnW.com featured
a pictorial glorifying the art of women heading the ball. Look at how athletic they were! And that was the message espnW wanted to project.
My story pitch was declined.
It was a telling moment about ESPN's commitment to critical analysis of the sports it both covers and broadcasts. There were other head-scratching events in my brief tenure at ESPN that ended in early 2012. Among them was a column critical of Nascar that somehow magically disappeared --not only off the page, but even from the archives.
So I have to admit I was a bit surprised when ESPN's journalistic integrity was questioned last week after it pulled out of a collaboration with PBS's "Frontline" on a critical look at the NFL's handling of concussions. Why was there even a question? I thought most people understood that ESPN's financial connection to sports leagues and dual role of promotion inevitably affected coverage decisions by the network. I even had a conversation about that with an ESPN.com writer. We both agreed that writing for ESPN was not like writing for a newspaper. It was an unspoken truth.
That's not meant as a criticism of the network, merely an observation. And it's one I've made before about all media outlets that have a financial connection to the sports leagues and athletes they cover. It's inevitable that the connection will alter the tone of coverage.
Which is why I was also surprised by ESPN president John Skipper's comment to ombudsman Robert Lipsyte, "I am the only one at ESPN who has to balance the conflict between journalism and programming." It was my sense in my time with ESPN that everyone there balances that conflict daily and that all editorial decisions were routinely made with an understanding of the business implications.
Look, it was business that trumped journalism when it came to the "Frontline" documentary. And there should be no shame in that. After all, ESPN is a business and its success is inextricably tied to the NFL.
The shame is in misleading the public by trying to maintain a pretense of unfettered journalistic integrity that simply cannot exist.