Friday, January 22, 2010

Leach, the James gang, and ESPN

No doubt by now you've heard of the controversy surrounding former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach and Tech football player Adam James, whose father Craig (a former college star himself) works as an analyst for ESPN. We don't necessarily have to rehash the entire episode, but if you need to fill in the details ESPN ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer (yes, that Don Ohlmeyer, the former sports leader at NBC) provides a detailed recap.

The main question Ohlmeyer addresses is whether ESPN's handling of the issue, and its broadcast of the game, was fair and balanced. The network apparently got thousands of complaints that it went overboard to protect Craig James and portray Leach in a negative light. Ohlmeyer concluded that such conflict of interest cases are extremely difficult to handle, especially on a live television broadcast. But he adds that, "News decisions in these cases must not be resolved by asking "What's permissible for the employee?" but rather "What's fair to the audience?", implying that ESPN may have gone too far in siding with James. (ESPN also came in for criticism of its soft handling of the Steve Phillips story last fall. The network fired Phillips after he admitted an affair with a co-worker).

ESPN has become so large and ubiquitous that these problems are bound to crop up from time to time. And Ohlmeyer correctly notes there are no winners in a conflict of interest situation: "Cover those stories too much, and it might appear self-serving. Cover them too little, and it's deemed a cover-up. That's the reality and the curse for ESPN."

But actually there is a winner here ... ESPN. The network's almost non-stop coverage of the controversy in the weeks leading up to the game made for terrific ratings. The low-level bowl had 8 million viewers for the game between Texas Tech and Michigan State, an increase of 23% over the previous year. It was also the highest-rated game on ESPN, the 2nd-most-watched non-BCS game, and the 7th-most-watched game of all 34 bowls.

With those kinds of numbers I'm sure ESPN feels it handled the situation just right.


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