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ESPN Ombudsman Slams Network Over Adam James/Mike Leach Coverage

Thursday, January 21, 2010 , Posted by Christopher Byrne at 7:45 PM, under , , ,

ESPN college football analyst Craig James should get a thank you card from me. The controversy involving his son Adam and ex-Texas Tech Coach Mike Leach has generated so much traffic to this site that all of our previous single-month visit and page read records have been blown away. But the amount of noise generated by email and telephone calls to ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer was not what he wanted to see or hear.



Too Close for Comfort?: ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer says ESPN should have pulled both Craig James (left) and Mike Patrick off of the 2009 Alamo Bowl involving Texas Tech University.

Photograph Copyright 2009 by Eye on Sports Media/The Cayuga Group, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

In fact, in his latest column he not only takes ESPN to task over the coverage of the controversy, but rips into everybody from the network that had any involvement in the any part of any decisions and on-air coverage of the Alamo Bowl. The language used can be best described as a cleaned up version of what Ohlmeyer may have told them all if he was boss of the network and called them all in for a "Come to Jesus" meeting.

See Poll Results on what our readers thought about the the ESPN/Craig James situation.

Here are some of the gems in his column:

...one network executive noted that the total number of complaints was minor in proportion to an audience of nearly 8 million for the Alamo Bowl broadcast.

Although that's accurate, the number of complaints is immaterial. The ombudsman's task -- and the point ESPN should be concerned about -- is to examine whether the network served its audience with a solid, professional broadcast of the game.

Citing past games involving analysts such as Jeff Van Gundy, Bill Walton, Bob Griese and Lou Holtz, Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for studio and remote production, said, "It's not uncommon in our business for family members to work games involving a relative."


These decisions have usually been rationalized within the industry as unique opportunities to humanize the game or a chance to look beyond the veil. Might the real reason be self-indulgence? Although it might be heartwarming 20 years later for father and son to reminisce about a shared moment, what's in it for the audience? Would a father really divulge key strategic knowledge gained only by access to his son? Would he point out a strength or weakness in the son's ability only a father would notice? Would he spill the beans about a teammate or coach based on private information? Highly doubtful.

In a work of fiction the audience is asked to suspend its disbelief. In a live sportscast, the audience shouldn't be asked to suspend its expectation of objectivity. Transparent or not, intentional or not, it seems psychologically impossible for a father in that situation to be totally unbiased. It sounds like a clever conceit, but it's not honest to the fans, especially those rooting for the opposing team.

A basic flaw in ESPN's presentation was the premise that Adam James was an innocent bystander. One ESPN decision-maker reflected this point of view when he told me that questioning Adam's actions and character would have been the equivalent of allowing a lawyer to defend a rapist by saying the victim dressed provocatively. Another flaw was the portrayal of Craig James, in the main, as someone who "courageously" reported Leach's misdeeds to school officials.


Were ESPN's choices well-intentioned but naive? Or were they influenced by James' role with the network? It's difficult to ascribe motive; that requires gazing into hearts, minds and souls. Editing and news judgments are always subjective and, in many ways, are art, not science. But it's clear that what's left out of a broadcast is as important as what's included.
As Dan Levy says on The Sporting Blog, the main cast of characters pilloried in the column by Ohlmeyer will not like it. But they don't have to. The real question is if ESPN puts this type of self-criticism online as window dressing, or will the network take proactive steps to address the issues raised. Some people have told me that is is as Don Ohlmeyer says about a father offering deep insights from his relationship to a team: Highly doubtful.

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