ESPN unwilling to tackle Newton's flaws

ESPN unwilling to tackle Newton's flaws

Published Dec. 13, 2010 12:00 a.m. ET

Stretching a five-minute presentation to an hour, ESPN’s Heisman Trophy coronation of Cam Newton was predictably boring. The only suspense was whether the network would weakly whiff at the Auburn quarterback the way so many would-be tacklers have this season.

Despite the lingering aroma of “The Decision,” when ESPN symbolically sat in LeBron James’ lap, the verdict was mostly yes. The cable giant came up short again from a journalistic standpoint, renewing questions regarding exactly what kind of organization ESPN ultimately wishes to be.

Led by a gushy Chris Fowler, the ESPN gang didn’t wholly ignore the controversy, which hinges on reports Newton’s father sought more than $100,000 from Mississippi State during his son’s recruitment. Unlike many NCAA rules violations that can sound nitpicky and arbitrary, demanding six-figure payments to sign with a school doesn’t fall into the “close call” category, the main defense being the quarterback claims to have been oblivious to what his dad was doing.

Newton was cleared with unusual alacrity given how NCAA investigations tend to drag on, though few in the sports world think the matter is completely settled. As The Associated Press noted after Newton’s Heisman win, “Whether he gets to keep it is still to be determined.”


Facing this uncomfortable situation, ESPN sought to split the difference: The channel insisted Newton sit for a pre-taped interview a few days before to the ceremony, providing cover so it could only obliquely reference his eligibility cloud during the actual event.

Instead, we got vague euphemisms making Newton sound like a victim, with ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit mentioning how well he performed on the field despite all the “scrutiny,” “distractions” and having “to deal with a lot,” as if Newton’s flaw — or at least his family — played no role in complicating his storybook season.

Basically, ESPN wanted to host its splashy celebration without sacrificing the “journalistic obligation that we have to viewers,” as senior vice president/director of news Vince Doria told The New York Times, hoping the advance interview would accomplish that dual mission.

This would all be moot, perhaps, if ESPN didn’t aspire to being taken seriously as a news organization. But the fact the network regularly promotes its “enterprise journalism” and officials offer quotes like the one above suggests network brass truly believe they’re in the news business as well as sports and entertainment.

Admittedly, it’s doubtful many viewers expect “SportsCenter” to maintain the same standards as ABC’s “World News.” The problem lies in pretending to be something you’re not.

ESPN can’t have it both ways — just as it tried to when the channel let James’ NBA free-agency announcement, clearly a major news story, become an embarrassing prime-time infomercial. Even its ombudsman, legendary TV exec and sports producer Don Ohlmeyer, blasted the channel over that one.

“If the network wants to be considered the true worldwide leader in sports, it must accept the responsibility that comes with it,” Ohlmeyer wrote. “As the biggest player in the space, ESPN can establish and give credibility to a story. With that clout, of course, comes the obligation to cover each story not just with journalistic integrity but with appropriate weight — or risk that very same credibility.”

Bingo. And don’t forget, ESPN begins televising the big-money Bowl Championship Series starting in 2011. While the zesty swirl of a little scandal is potentially helpful to heighten interest, having a featured star in the national title game ruled ineligible would be very, very bad for every ingredient in the alphabet soup — ESPN, the NCAA, you name it.

Nobody likes the killjoy who gets all serious at a cocktail party, and Newton earned his moment in the spotlight. Yet Reggie Bush, the former USC tailback who wound up returning his trophy because of NCAA violations, cast a giant shadow over this year’s Heisman, no matter how much ESPN soft-pedaled that awkward prospect.

Under those circumstances, being a bit of a spoilsport seemed unavoidable — unless you’re intermittently content, as ESPN apparently is, to be not just the biggest player in the space but also the biggest shill as well.