With Handling of LeBron James, Brett Favre Situations and Salacious New Book, is ESPN Still Relevant?

Perceived Coddling of Stars and Alleged Sexually Charged and Circus like Off Camera Atmosphere, the Self Proclaimed Worldwide Leader in Sports Facing Scrutiny

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LeBron James' Difficult Week
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LeBron James' Difficult Week

Is ESPN, the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports", jumping the shark right before our eyes? Many might argue that ESPN has long since done so, with its obvious self promotion and manufactured shtick, but in recent days and weeks it seems that ESPN has truly brought it down another level, perhaps a victim of its own success and hubris.

ESPN, of course, covers the world of sports. And sports, of course, are about entertainment and fun. Still, ESPN, from its early days, has positioned itself as trusted sports news source. It was a cable channel that could be counted on to provide the best and most accurate information; albeit in an entertaining and sometimes light format.

Somewhere along the way, however, ESPN began to lose some of its cache and, some would say, trustworthiness. Rightly or wrongly, a number of steps in weeks and months have further eroded its standing. Its journalistic integrity, the conduct of its personalities and its outright judgment about what really matters to sports fans seem headed in the wrong direction as a series of stories and whispers surface.

ESPN seems to be 'in the pocket' of a number of athletes. Whether it is or is not is almost beside the point; for its longstanding health and popularity its perception will be its reality.

Take the LeBron James story. While James himself is clearly in the crosshairs of many fans and media critics for the way in which he handled his decision, ESPN was there every step of the way, seemingly at the beck and call of The King. ESPN, after all, hosted the one hour show, and promoted it as 'The Decision', which featured Jim Gray "interviewing" LeBron James. The show was done on conditions set entirely by LeBron James; the setting, the interviewer and the financial arrangements (all proceeds going to charity), were all specified by James.

While ESPN did forgo direct financial reward for doing the show, it provided a platform to further promote itself.

During that time, one of ESPN's own radio hosts, Colin Cowherd, said on his radio show that he was forbidden by his network to discuss in specifics a rumor about James' family that had grown into a significant story.

It seemed obvious that Cowherd was referring to a rumor that had spread across the Internet that LeBron James' mother, Gloria James, had been having a sexual affair with James' now former teammate Delonte West. Cowherd said only that the New York Post was planning on running a story that would be extremely embarrassing for James and his family, and that fact made James realize that life in the New York fishbowl would not be for him. While the Post ultimately did not publish the story, many, including Cowherd, claimed that this was one of the key reasons that James did not seriously consider playing in New York.

Last week, another ESPN commentator, in this case Bill Simmons, cut his guest off from discussing the same rumor, saying he wasn't sure that ESPN wanted them to discuss it.

While an argument could be made that ESPN did not think the story had been validated enough to report it as news, the fact that two of its most notable talk show hosts both said they were forbidden to discuss it is a clear conflict. Talk show hosts are free to discuss rumors; it is, in fact, what they do. While they hold a personal right to not discuss something they feel is untoward or unfair, to be told not to discuss something by the network, which had recently secured the exclusive interview with James, creates a poor perception at least of what the network stands for and what its practices really are.

Equally as questionable is the story that ESPN ran on James and his conduct during a recent night in Las Vegas. One of its writers, Arash Markazi, joined James and his entourage for a night in Vegas. The night featured many scantily clad women, alcohol and plenty of suggestive discussion and innuendo. Nothing criminal, however, and really not all that atypical from what one might expect from a twenty five year old professional athlete rich beyond almost everybody's dreams. The story, however, would not be particularly good for James' public appeal and ultimate commercial potential. The story stayed for less than a day on the ESPN website before it was taken off of the website.

ESPN management said, in part, "ESPN.com will not be posting the story in any form. We looked into the situation thoroughly and found that Arash did not properly identify himself as a reporter or clearly state his intentions to write a story. As a result, we are not comfortable with the content, even in an edited version, because of the manner in which the story was reported".

While technically, ESPN has the right to use that as its reason, the fact that Arash's article was published, at the very least, reflects poorly on ESPN that something would get past its editors that violated company policy. It seems to be a very long coincidence that this story that slipped through the net, so to speak, and would be taken down just so happens to involve the man that the network has a very cozy relationship with, LeBron James.

This is about more than just LeBron James, however. With baseball in its dog days, too far from the closing act of the pennant races and playoffs, and with the first NFL games still a month away, ESPN jumped on the Brett Favre story. It reported that Favre had begun sending texts to his teammates that he was planning to retire. The story ultimately was said to be false, despite the fact that ESPN 'broke' it. While every news organization is entitled to make a mistake, this Favre incident can't help but lend further credence to the belief that ESPN is manufacturing stories as much as it is reporting on them.

Then last week, a story broke that Favre was being accused of sending lewd pictures of himself to minor sports celebrity Jenn Sterger. While several mainstream news organizations reported on it, ESPN was silent.

In fairness, the credibility of the story could be called into question as no hard evidence has yet been presented. But for a network that seems to cover Brett Favre's every move and report stories as fact even when there has been little direct evidence, it seems, again, odd that this is the one they would choose to ignore.

Of course, it could be that ESPN itself has some things to hide. A new book by authors Jim Miller and Tom Shales is expected in 2011 that threatens to blow the lid off of all sorts of off camera shenanigans going on in at its headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut.

While sexual adventurous journalists and television personalities is nothing new, if the book is as salacious as many are suggesting, it could add to the perception that ESPN has fostered an 'anything goes' type of culture in which serious reporting and unbiased performance have become secondary.

If ESPN is now an infomercial company as much as it is a hard hitting sports news organization, then that's its right. But long term, it will be interesting to see how much it can seem to pull punches on athletes such as Brett Favre and LeBron James and still remain relevant to most sports fans.

Source: Richard Sandomir, "James Is the Story, Even When ESPN Doesn't Want It", nytimes.com

Source: Staff, "Clarification of ESPNLosAngeles.com LeBron James story" espn.com

Source: Staff, "Brett Favre says he will play if healthy", espn.com

Source: Staff, "'Those Guys Have All The Fun' Will Make Many 'Fun' ESPN Employees Crap Their Pants", deadspin.com

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