Robert Lipsyte wrote his last ESPN Ombdusman column on Dec. 3, 2014. An interview with him for this site ran Dec. 4. It has been more than 10 months since that departure, a peculiarly tumultuous 10 months in ESPN history. ESPN has still not announced a replacement.
Lipsyte was ESPN’s fifth ombudsman. He was preceded by George Solomon, Le Anne Schreiber, Don Ohlmeyer, and the Poynter Institute. There have been gaps between previous appointments, though 10 months is by far the longest.
Solomon wrote his last column in March 2007. Schreiber replaced him in April. Her last column ran in March 2009. ESPN waited four months before hiring Don Ohlmeyer in July 2009. His last column ran in January 2011. ESPN announced the Poynter Institute appointment in February 2011. Kelly McBride and Jason Fry wrote the last column in November 2012. Lipsyte was hired in April 2013.
ESPN PR addressed the Ombudsman vacancy in a statement to The Big Lead: “We are in the final stages of hiring a new ombudsman and expect to have an announcement in the coming weeks.”
ESPN has no obligation to hire an ombudsman. Some may argue the position has little value. There are no shortage of ESPN watchdogs and critics in the media. Why provide yet one more forum?
However, we believe the ombudsman serves a vital function for ESPN. The position’s presence promotes a climate of openness and transparency. It provides a forum for actual viewers and readers to have their concern addressed (not just those of particular sports bloggers). It also provides a forum for the human beings behind the gaffes and decisions to explain their actions.
The ombudsman’s absence has been notable (and arguably convenient) amidst a myriad of controversies, departures, and behind the scenes politicking at ESPN over the past 10 months.
The ESPN/NFL Partnership: ESPN is sports journalism’s greatest mouthpiece. ESPN, in the same breath, has rights deals worth billions with the leagues it covers. It’s a major conflict of interest. The NFL’s influence over ESPN has come under particular scrutiny.
While ESPN has produced quality reporting on Deflategate, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen was used as a conduit for inaccurate information. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith was leaked misleading information. Kelly Naqi’s reporting, slanting the Patriots in an unrelated, negative light, also drew criticism.
Notable, explicit critics of Roger Goodell are no longer with the company. Keith Olbermann was not renewed, with reports ESPN wanted him to dial back his commentary. Bill Simmons was summarily dismissed, one day after criticizing Roger Goodell on the Dan Patrick Show. Jason Whitlock, who compared the NFL to the rigged criminal justice system, has also departed.
Jason Whitlock and the Undefeated: ESPN hired Jason Whitlock from Fox Sports in 2013. He was promised his own website. The website was delayed. Deadspin reported on troubles with the site’s development. Whitlock was taken off the project in June. The website is currently a set of links to articles published on ESPN.com.
Curt Schilling: The potential Hall of Fame pitcher had an eventful year. He converted his social media presence into a bully pulpit after vile tweets about his daughter. He tweeted and deleted a meme conflating Muslims with Nazis. That and the fallout earned him a suspension for the remainder of the MLB season. Just last night he weighed in on the Democratic debate. He’s an interesting case study for whether sports media members should “stick to sports” and how companies regulate social media.
Chad Ford: Someone was editing Chad Ford’s draft boards retroactively to make them appear more prescient. Per a Deadspin report, ESPN purportedly had no way to track who made the changes, beneficial solely to Chad Ford. Ford remains an NBA Insider.
Chris Broussard: ESPN’s NBA reporter parroted gossip about Mark Cuban relayed to him from “sources.” Cuban disputed Broussard’s report and offered to donate $100,000 to the charity of his choice if Broussard could prove it. Broussard eventually apologized, for not bothering to contact Mark Cuban before reporting.
College Football and Gambling: College Football season began. ESPN went all-in with gambling coverage. Point spreads were mentioned on air. “Cover Alerts” appeared at the bottom of the screen. Such coverage has been dialed back since Week 1, after criticism from college football officials. Independent discussion about the reasoning behind it and what, precisely, fans want would have been helpful.
Colin Cowherd: Cowherd makes a living treading the line with his commentary. He crossed it, with an offensive comment about Dominicans in MLB. MLB demanded an apology. ESPN cut ties with Cowherd a week before he was scheduled to go anyway. Though one wonders how that would have played out had ESPN just signed him to a new deal.