An Interview With Robert Lipsyte, Outgoing ESPN Ombudsman


Robert Lipsyte spent the last 18 months as ESPN’s Ombudsman. His final column, entitled “Serving Sports Fans Through Journalism,” ran on Wednesday. Prior to his role as the Ombudsman, he spent over two decades at the New York Times as a copyboy, reporter, and columnist and separately authored both non-fiction books and Young Adult novels.

Ryan GlasspiegelWith the Ray Rice scandal, we saw ESPN NFL reporters hold the league accountable in a manner that I’m not sure we’ve ever seen from the network in the past. It wasn’t so long ago that they pulled out of League of Denial. (You referred to the variances as ESPN’s “finest hour” versus its “darkest.”) Do you think this extra scrutiny on NFL administration will become the new norm, or was this was a conspicuous bump — but not necessarily an inflection point?

Robert Lipsyte: We’ll see. What started out as the Ray Rice case took a while to become an NFL scandal. On the other hand, concussions were always a league scandal. I was glad to see that reporters hung with the Rice story even as Goodell got dragged into it, and I hope that experience will raise their expectations of themselves. In moral courage, sportswriters have rarely matched the physical courage of the subjects they fawn over.

RG: In response to your criticism of Gameday’s coverage of Jameis Winston (and ESPN’s, which you wrote had done “flabby reporting”), Chris Fowler told Rolling Stone:

I didn’t read Bob’s column. But when news starts to encroach, and when players get in trouble with the law, you report it because it’s important to do it. We’re not really built to be the best place to break news. But when the off-field stuff impacts the most famous names in the sport, of course. We were on the scene when Winston got suspended for the half, and then for the entire game. That story pretty much checks every box. I think it’s rather unfair to look at a snapshot and say we didn’t report the story vigorously.

When you cover this sport, you always have to live in a bit of denial. You check some things at the door. It’s entertainment, it’s a diversion, it’s a distraction from the real world. I think in 2014, anybody that still looks at athletes as anyone to pattern yourself after is really missing the point.

Broadly, ESPN is a commercial broadcast partner with all of the major collegiate and professional sports in this country (except hockey, which we’ll get to later). It is also the most influential entity covering those sports. Is this healthy for this industry as a whole? How do you think the network should address what you referred to as “[its] ambivalence toward its role as the putative leader of sports journalism in that gray area”?

RL: Most of my final column is about how to deal with Chris’s point that “We’re not really built to be the best place to break news.” It’s true, and by setting up a self-contained news unit that isn’t dependent on its cozy relationship with business partner/news sources, ESPN could fulfill its promise of being the World Wide Leader in news as well as sports entertainment. I also deal with Chris’s candid admission of “denial.” Da Nile, as we say, is the river that runs through all this.

RG: Your feelings on Bill Simmons are well-documented (hereherehere, and here), so we don’t necessarily have to rehash those. If he does wind up leaving ESPN, what do you think will happen to the franchises he spearheaded like 30 for 30 and Grantland?

RL: I think of the first line of a Philip Larkin poem, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963.” It’s as if sports documentaries and literary sportswriting were Sports Guy inventions. HBO, anyone? Sports Illustrated at its prime? Point is, these are the current extensions of celebrated genres. Should Simmons ankle off, so long as ESPN keeps nurturing them and writers like Bryan Curtis and Wesley Morris stay at Grantland, and producers such as Connor Schell and Libby Geist keep running 30 for 30, all will be well.

RG: The NHL reportedly averaged sellouts in nearly twice as many cities as the NBA last season. That’s obviously a different metric than television ratings, where basketball still dominates, but even so it seems like the coverage disparity on ESPN exceeds that of public interest. Clearly the network will cover sports more when it has television rights, but it almost feels like there’s a deliberate agenda against the NHL sometimes. Do you think that’s the case?

RL: Twenty years ago, at the Times, which was being beaten up for its lack of NHL coverage, I embedded my column with the Rangers. It happened to be the year they won the Cup. I came away with two thoughts – One, hockey was the most exciting sport in the world, and Two, all the hockey fans in New York were at Madison Square Garden for every home game. I still feel that way. So when I got tons of mail at ESPN complaining about hockey coverage, I kept thinking, Yes, you’re right, but it’s only you. As for an agenda, there is no ideology at ESPN beyond the bottom line, which is good and bad. If hockey and ESPN cooked up some rights deal that would truly benefit both, there would be pucks galore on SportsCenter.

RG: On or off screen, which ESPN employees would you say are the most indispensable? Which ones under age 40 would you recommend buying proverbial stock in?

RL: One thing I learned from getting behind the curtain was this: I don’t know all their names, but the men and women who snag the rights and put up the pictures and find and nurture the talent are the only indispensable ones and they are replaceable, too. ESPN is a factory and the people who supervise the machines like Anderson, Wildhack, King, Kosner, Doria, Stiegman, Walsh, Skipper, are the ones who count. The faces in the window are mostly passing through. Will there ever be another Olbermann? No. But there will be Othermann.

RG: Though I’m not one who ordinarily advocates “sticking to sports,” there are some people — Stephen A. Smith (“[his] attempts at coherency are often as exciting as Tim Tebow’s scrambling,” you wrote), Skip Bayless, Ray Lewis, and Chris Broussard, for example — where the upside/downside tradeoff in discussing social issues would not seem, from the outside, to be advantageous to ESPN. If you were running the network, would you do anything differently to mitigate risk in this area?

RL: For starters, I wouldn’t group those four together except in their ability to stir the pot, which is almost always good in the long run. In my mailbag, Ray Lewis led the list of on-air talent the Ombudsman was ordered to fire; people still can’t get over a 14-year-old double murder charge he plea’d out of, paying a $250,000 NFL fine, and settling civil suits with the victims’ survivors. Chris Broussard, who I knew at the Times, is committed to his religious beliefs (as is a large portion of the audience). He was led into his comments about Jason Collins, Christianity, and homosexuality last year. And they were no secret; he had written a column about his beliefs on ESPN.COM a few years earlier. As far as Smith and Bayless, as the analysts enjoyed saying last year, “It is what it is.” They are entertaining when you are in the mood and I have a soft spot for Skip because I remember him as a crackerjack newspaperman. If you want those drumbeaters in your band, you just have to be ready, when they follow their own beat, to take away their sticks for a set or two.

RG: Based on my instincts, it felt like ESPN went out of their way to promote your Ombudsman column when you offered praise, and almost avoided linking to it entirely when you were critical. It’s not something one could especially blame them for, but was that something you noticed?

RL: No. I thought they never went out of their way to promote the column.

RG: Other than ESPN, what publications and writers do you read (print and online) and how do you seek them out? How much of what you read do you find on Twitter?

RL: I’m an over-reader, from Chicks and Ammo Magazine to the New York Review of Books. Every on-line sports site. My favorite sportswriter is Dave Zirin. I read a lot of fiction. Currently, after Sam Lipsyte, my favorite novelist is Jim Crace.

Twitter was not much help to someone writing once a month. Also it wastes your time thinking that Keith Law should have known better – rules are rules about dissing fellow employees. And Curt Schilling, well, he just should know better. A fast ball, cancer and a bloody sock are not excuses for ignorance.

RG: Mickey Mantle is deified by the generation that grew up watching him. You wrote in your memoir about a time that he was pretty rude to you as a young reporter, and that this was essentially standard practice with how he treated journalists. If he played in today’s hypersocial, up-to-the-second media landscape, fans would be more privy to his temperament and some of his off-field indulgences inevitably would’ve wound up places like TMZ, Deadspin, and our site. This might be an impossible question to answer, but if you could transport him to today, how differently do you think he’d be perceived by fans and the media?

RL: It’s a great question, Ryan, because by thinking about it, you start to think about how we are treating this generation of big, rich, handsome hormone-driven child men. Mickey was 19 when he hit New York in 1951, suddenly free of the Oklahoma mines. He stuffed his insecurity by screwing and drinking. His story – father issues, early marriage and kids, wild companions, no real guidance from the club – gets repeated every season, every sport. Most of the current Mickey Mantles are separated from media and fans by economic and racial divides – which he was not. There are always a few superstars that are so important to their sports that they are protected – Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, most obviously – until they can’t be. It’s open media season on most of the rest. I’m torn. Is it the Faustian bargain of celebrity? Don’t they deserve privacy? Is there such a thing anymore? And do we keep exposing their lives to prop up the myth that they are somehow socially important?

RG: You got your start as a sportswriter on a pretty unconventional path that could not especially be replicated today. What advice would you give a college student looking to break into sports media?

RL: Same old. Work your ass off until you’re noticed. Gather clips and credits. Be persistent (most people quit). Learn something – a sport, a language, a technology – that will make you useful. To be real, family support, a mentor, enough money to let you take chances, are the reasons many get over. That’s why I feel very passionate about my final suggestion to ESPN, a program I call ESPN-J that the company would sponsor in high schools across the country to make sports journalism accessible and dreamable for kids without connections.

As for my path: I was an overnight sensation after seven years as copyboy, stats clerk, night rewrite reporter, utility feature writer. If the boxing reporter had been interested in covering Clay-Liston I, you wouldn’t be interviewing me. I wasn’t even smart enough to be the Queens Sports Guy.

Disclosure: This interview was conducted via email; Mr. Lipsyte requested and received no filter.

Related: A Conversation With Erik Rydholm, Executive Producer of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption

Related: A Long Conversation With Bob Ryan

Related: Chatting With Sports Pickle Founder DJ Gallo About Satire and Moving on From ESPN

Correction: A previous version of this interview contained slightly different wording of Philip Larkin’s poetry.