Tuesday, January 21, 2014

ESPN, suicide and a story I've never told before

I was once assigned to write a feature story on a high profile, nationally known professional athlete who kept getting into trouble. What was wrong with this guy? I talked to former coaches and anyone in his hometown who knew him back when the athlete was in high school.

Through that reporting, I learned a shocking family secret.

The athlete's mother had attempted suicide back around the time he was becoming a local star with a big future. Not only that, but it was the athlete who had actually found his mother following the attempt.

The information may have shed some light on why this athlete had been so troubled. It also turned what was going to be a good feature into a great story.

But before I published it I wanted to find out something about this woman who was not a public figure and was about to have her personal agony exposed. That was a problem because I was not able to interview her. The athlete was refusing all media requests at the time, too.

So I tracked down the brother of the athlete and I asked him the one question I needed an answer to before writing this story:

Would revealing his mother's secret cause so much anguish that she might consider suicide again?

Maybe, he said. And he implored me not to write it.

I thought about what greater public good would come from revealing the truth. Would it help others? Would it prevent a crime? Would it save lives? Was there any redeeming Fourth Estate journalistic purpose at all? We're not talking Pentagon Papers here.

No. It would only make me look good for scooping the competition and drawing readers. And it would have been a hell of an ego boost.

I never wrote it. I have kept that secret to this day -- without any thanks from the athlete, by the way. In my dealings with him following the publication of the article he continued to be the same standoffish jerk to me that he always was.

I have never second-guessed that decision. But I've always thought a little less of myself as a reporter because of it. Until now.

I thought about that athlete's mother again when I read the Grantland.com story on Essay Anne Vanderbilt. She had invented a so-called magic putter that even professional golfers were touting. In the process of reporting the story, the writer discovered the inventor was a transgender woman. Although Dr. Vanderbilt made clear she did not want her personal life explored and the writer claims he never threatened to reveal it, he nevertheless outed her to an investor in the putter. Who knows, that could have led her to believe he would publish her secret as well.

The inventor committed suicide before the story ran.

That turned out to be a wonderful break for the writer. Now that she was dead, he no longer had to keep his word, right? So he didn't. He outed her against her wishes because, hey, it's not like she could protest anymore.

Boy, it sure made for great copy.

So now the editor of Grantland.com, Bill Simmons, is apologizing for the lack of judgment displayed not only by the writer, but by every high level editor at ESPN who approved of the story before it ran including himself. And apparently, that approval went right up to the top of the chain of command. No one at any level even thought to consider asking an expert on transgender issues before running the story.

It says a lot about the ethics and lack of empathy and diversity that must exist on many levels at ESPN for no one to have flagged this along the way. But consider this odd, off-topic but telling comment offered by Simmons in the middle of his little mea culpa on ESPN's tragic mishandling of a sensitive LGBT issue: He actually boasted that he practices age discrimination when hiring writers for Grantland.com (it's illegal, you know). That should tell you something about the mindset that exists there.

When I think about the decision I made years ago, it occurs to me that I'm probably not the kind of journalist who could ever work for ESPN.

Maybe that's not such a bad thing, after all.

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