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ESPN execs explain decision to give Caitlyn Jenner an ESPY
Sunday July 12th, 2015

Maura Mandt has been associated with the The ESPYs nearly as long as the show itself. She started with the program as a production assistant in 1996—Year 4 of the annual sports accolades show—and is now the program’s co-executive producer. While Mandt is not a full- time employee of ESPN, her production company, MaggieVision Productions, has produced the show since 2006. When decisions are made about The ESPYs, including the special awards handed out during the presentation, Mandt is the person at the center of those decisions.

For those who haven’t watched The ESPYs over the years, the program combines athletic achievement, self-congratulations for ESPN, star-bleeping, and of notable importance, the presentation of three awards (Arthur Ashe Courage Award, the Pat Tillman Award For Service and the Jimmy V Perseverance Award) that traditionally produce the night’s best moments. On Wednesday night at 8 p.m. on ABC, as many people reading this already know, Caitlyn Jenner will be presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award during the ceremony at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles. (Prior to the show, ESPN will air a special SportsCenter at 6 p.m. and a red carpet preshow at 7 p.m.)

More Sports
Billie Jean King: It's appropriate Caitlyn Jenner won Courage Award

The selection of Jenner for the award, and the unknown about the Ashe selection process, has not surprisingly set off debates throughout social media and opinion pages, a barrage of positive and negative press for ESPN, the latter reaching its apex when NBC Sports commentator Bob Costas told The Dan Patrick Show last month that  “it strikes me that awarding the Arthur Ashe  to Caitlyn Jenner is just a crass exploitation play, a tabloid play. In the broad world of sports—and this is not anything against Caitlyn Jenner—I am pretty sure they could have found someone who was much closer to actively [being] involved in sports who would have been deserving of what that award represents.”

It should be noted Costas wished Jenner “all the happiness and peace of mind in the world” but reiterated the selection was a “play to pump up audience, the way lots of things are on television.”

This column first requested Mandt and Connor Schell, a senior vice president at ESPN and the show’s co-executive producer, five weeks ago to talk about the process of the Ashe selection. ESPN PR said then both executives wanted the selection to speak for itself. Last week they agreed to talk about the process for the first time via phone. On a conference call with them was an ESPN PR representative and Ken Sunshine, a well-known celebrity public relations specialist who is a friend of Mandt’s. Both PR people listened in; they were not active during the interview. One bit of context: Mandt and Schell have always answered questions for this column before and with what I viewed as honesty.

On the subject of why Jenner was selected for the Ashe Award, Mandt said, “I think Caitlyn’s decision to publicly come out as a transgender woman and live as Caitlyn Jenner displayed enormous courage and self-acceptance. Bruce Jenner could have easily gone off into the sunset as this American hero and never have dealt with this publicly. Doing so took enormous courage. He was one of the greatest athletes of our time. That is what the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is about, somebody from the athletic community who has done something that transcends sport. One of the biggest platforms the Arthur Ashe Foundation has is educational, and I think in this choice we have the opportunity to educate people about this issue and hopefully change and possibly save some lives.  I think that is why it was the right choice.”

MORE: Caitlyn Jenner to receive Arthur Ashe Courage Award

Mandt said the process of Jenner being selected was the same as it had been in previous years. She and Schell said there are no finalists or runner-ups for Ashe Award. The final decision on the award was made shortly after Mandt met Jenner, which she said did not happen until early May. Mandt said that the process for vetting the Ashe winner includes meeting with the potential recipient and those close to him or her, as well as consulting with people within the community of the winner, and people from the Ashe Foundation.

“There are no finalists or people that vote on it. That has never been the case.” Mandt said. “That was something that was completely not true, which I know was out in the media.”

Mandt said usually around December or January of each year, she and her staff start narrowing the stories that have stood above the rest for The ESPYs' special awards. She said there are usually a handful of subjects that dictate further exploration at that stage. “As it goes for the Ashe or Tillman or Jimmy V awards, anyone can submit ideas within and outside the company,” Mandt said. “We get a lot of suggestions and a lot of stories and there are so many stories of courage and inspiration.”

Mandt said that while Jenner was kept around as a possible candidate if there was some sort of announcement, the research continued on other stories last winter. She said that the ESPY staff found about Jenner’s decision when everyone else did – the Diane Sawyer interview in April. Mandt said that’s when additional vetting started for a potential award to Jenner.

“My company is small and everyone in it has worked on this show for years,” Mandt said.  “While it is not their decision, their input and opinions are all valuable. It was important to me that we all felt as strongly about this selection as we have in past, and my group was unanimous. But this decision to present this as our choice to ESPN was mine.”

The key ESPN figures in the process are Schell, ESPN president John Skipper and Marie Donoghue, the ESPN executive vice president, global strategy and original content and the lead executive for Grantland and FiveThirtyEight.com. Skipper, as ESPN’s top exec, ultimately has to sign off on all.

“It’s something that we take very seriously and put a lot of thought into,” Schell said.

Asked specifically if there were other candidates meriting serious consideration for the Ashe Award prior to Jenner’s announcement, Mandt said, “I think that once Caitlin’s decision became public it really was something very unique,” she said. “I don’t think it is fair to mention [other names] names.”

Added Schell: “It is fair to say that at all times there are many, many worthy candidates for this award. I don’t think there were a specific number we were considering at any moment.”

Asked directly, as suggested by Costas, if the show being on ABC for the first time played a role in choosing someone as high-profile Jenner for the Ashe honor, Mandt and Schell said “zero.” Mandt said the decision to move the show to ABC was a separate conversation that was in motion prior to any decision about the Ashe winner. Mandt repeatedly denied that the selection was some sort of publicity stunt for the show.

“I have spent 20 years working on this show and I take it very seriously,” Mandt said. “It is very rare you get to tell a story that hopefully affects people and moves people and has meaning and makes a difference. At the same time if it attracts people from seeing it? We are not going to run away from that. Every person who has a cause needs a platform.”

Mandt said that ESPN expected criticism and backlash with the selection, though she was surprised by how aggressive the online vitriol was her way. But the criticism that personally affected her most, she said, was from Costas, someone she has long admired.

“I have watched Bob Costas my whole life, have great respect for Bob Costas,” Mandt said. “He has brought to us as fans and viewers some of the most memorable moments. He is a gifted broadcaster and writer, and perhaps of all of the things that have been said negatively, that disappointed me so greatly. Not because of his opinion. This whole story is all about that we get to choose who we are, what we say. That was what Arthur Ashe was about. So for Bob Costas who is greatly respected to make that statement with authority about this being a crass publicity play, people take that with authority, and that is dangerous.

“This is a subject matter where there are kids in the middle of the country killing themselves [over gender identity questions] and the whole courage of Caitlyn coming out is we all know now someone who is transgender. I would have expected Bob to not go to that place.. That interview (Costas) to me came off as exploitation because it got repeated and it got headlines. The [Jenner] piece is going to speak for itself. We are not going to change people who are set in their ways but I fear that Bob saying that may have taken some of those people who would have been a little bit open to the story and pushed them in a direction that it didn’t need to be pushed. I have great respect for him but it was disappointing.”

Last year’s ESPY Awards drew 2.2 million on ESPN and this year’s show will top that given the move to ABC. After speaking with the executives last week, I believe Mandt and Schell selected Jenner on what they believe are her journey’s merits. Personally, I think Jenner made a brave decision and the publicity of The ESPYs honor will help trans kids who will watch the feature on her. Hers is an important American story. But I also think there’s no doubt that even subconsciously, the ESPY producers knew that having Caitlyn Jenner’s story on the show would draw significant attention as for The ESPYs ABC debut. There’s also the synergy of ABC having done the interview with Jenner last April.

The ESPYs was designed many years ago by ESPN execs as a way to pucker up to athletes, Hollywood (e.g. a $25,000 gift bag for presenters and nominees), and, most of all, to market ESPN. It’s a bloated enterprise, a show John Koblin (now of The New York Times) once noted highlights “ESPN's ability to celebrate celebrities.” My favorite moment came in 2011 when Colin Cowherd sized up Justin Bieber as "centered" and "so real" after a five-minute red carpet interview. The show’s saving grace is that every year it produces some beautiful television with the Jimmy V, Pat Tillman and Ashe awards and it raises money for the V Foundation. Jenner being on stage Wednesday night will start some important conversations, and that’s ultimately a good thing.   

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THE NOISE REPORT

SI.com examines some of the week's top media stories.

1. ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter found himself in an unlikely position last week: the subject of controversy.

Last Wednesday Schefter tweeted out medical charts (he said they were obtained by ESPN) that showed Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul having his right index finger amputated. The medical records detailed the exact time of the procedure, the result of a fireworks incident on July 4 in Miami. Did ESPN and Schefter, in revealing medical records, violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), a 1996 law that protects medical records? No. As SI’s Michael McCann explains here, HIPAA doesn't apply to media who obtain medical records of others. Invasion of privacy does, but 1st Amendment offers a good legal defense.

CNN and the Washington Post offered solid primers on the topic, and while I saw a torrent of criticism for Schefter from plenty of corners, I hadn’t seen anyone ask the reporter for an accounting of why he did what he did. So over the weekend I emailed him a series of questions. Below, is our Q&A verbatim.

NFL
Report: Jason Pierre-Paul has right index finger amputated

SI.com: Why did you decide to post images of what you reported were Jason Pierre-Paul's medical charts?

Schefter: This was a public figure and franchise player involved in a widely speculated accident with potential criminal behavior in which there was a cone of secrecy that surrounded him for five days that not even his own team could crack. This wasn’t as if some player were admitted to the hospital with a secret illness or disease—we’ve seen those cases over the years, as recently as this past year even. This one was different and unique for a variety of reasons. The extent of his injuries were going to come to light, maybe that day or later that week, but soon. They’re horrific injuries, incredibly unfortunate for the player. But in a day and age in which pictures and videos tell stories and confirm facts, in which sources and their motives are routinely questioned, and in which reporters strive to be as accurate as possible, this was the ultimate supporting proof.

Do you wish to make public how you obtained those images?

All I will say is I never once requested a single image from anyone at any time; the images came to me.

Prior to tweeting, how much contact did you have with ESPN editors and lawyers about whether the tweet was a HIPAA violation?

I know news organizations are not governed by HIPAA laws, but in hindsight I could and should have done even more here due to the sensitivity of the situation. We’ve got a great group of editors and production staff, and I could have leaned on them even more. ESPN has trusted me on any number of stories over the years, and granted me great latitude, fortunately. Sometimes in the fast-paced news world we live in, it’s easy to forget you should lean on the knowledge and experience of the people surrounding you. They’re always there for everything, but especially stories like this. On this one, there should have been even more discussion than there was due to the sensitivity of the story; that’s on me.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and a former ESPN ombudsman, told CNN.com it wasn’t a problem that ESPN reported on Pierre-Paul’s amputation, which was newsworthy. She said issue was that ESPN published the photo of his medical record. “The harm of transmitting or broadcasting someone’s medical documents is you really don’t know what medical information is in there that’s coded in some way,” McBride said. What is your response to this?

All I saw in that record was the name, the age, the gender, and the patient’s finger amputated. It didn’t look to me as if there was anything else in there that could be considered sensitive. NFL reporters report on all kinds of medical information on a daily basis. That’s part of the job. The only difference here was that there was a photo. It came to me unexpectedly, and it was used as part of the reporting, same as OTL, 20/20, Dateline NBC or 48 Hours would do.

MORE: Report: Giants withdraw long-term offer to Pierre-Paul

There were many people on social media who even if they understood this was not a HIPAA violation, they were upset with what they consider a breach of ethics by publishing the medical chart. Why was it not a breach of journalism ethics for you?

This is the part that I’ve struggled with because I’ve heard that questions raised and I’ve heard the criticisms. There’s no way not to consider the other point of view. But what I will say is this: My ethics, integrity and reputation are something I’ve worked as hard as possible to build and guard. In my 25-plus years of covering the league, I’ve consistently tried to act as responsibly and carefully as I can, and to not have anyone question my ethics. My job is to be as thorough and accurate as possible. In this case, as tough as the injury is for the player, I didn’t believe conveying the information about the unfortunate injury in words or a report caused additional harm. The information was going to come out soon. This was a very unique case, unlike many others. In trying to be thorough and accurate, we delivered that news as soon as possible with the supporting proof if it happened. To me, that’s just doing my job. But I am aware of the thoughtful discussion it generated. You think about it, you learn from it, and it becomes a part of your experience and thought process for if and when a similar difficult situation and decision should happen to arise again.

1a. To me, these were well-thought and expansive answers from a reporter who I believe cares about journalism ethics. Like Schefter, I would have encouraged SI to run the information if we procured it. One after-the-fact thought is ESPN would have been aided by an editor’s note on the ESPN.com piece on Pierre-Paul to explain its thought process in running the piece and the image of the records. There’s also a fair argument to make that had Schefter kicked around the implications of tweeting out the medical report with more ESPN editors, they might have made a consensus decision to merely run the information without the image. But this is all Monday morning quarterbacking. Reporters report, and that’s what Schefter did.

2. The marriage of ESPN and Keith Olbermann—the couple’s second—has once again ended in divorce. My SI.com piece on what went wrong.

2a. Chris Broussard vs. Mark Cuban.

2b. Cuban, to the Dallas-based The Ben and Skin Show on 105.3 The Fan [KRLD-FM] on Broussard’s apology of sorts: “I’m talking with Chris directly and I’ll deal with him directly. I Cyber Dust blasted out exactly what happened. I gave everybody the facts so anybody who wanted them that was interested, I told the story. When the time is right I’ll continue on, chronologically past where I left things off. I was in a hotel right by his house all day long. I’m not stupid. I’m not going to drive around all day and etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Obviously he was wrong, obviously we’re talking about it and we’ll go from there. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and figure it out from there.”

2c. Fox Sports has suspended Fox Sports Live and NFL analyst Donovan McNabb following his arrest for DUI in Gilbert, Ariz., on June 28. “Donovan McNabb has been suspended indefinitely," a Fox Sports spokesperson told SI.com. "It is important that Donovan use this time as best he can to resolve his personal situation.”

3. The 10th episode of the SI Media Podcast features Fox Sports host and reporter Charissa Thompson (Thompson is also a co-host for the syndicated entertainment news show Extra.) In the podcast, Thompson discusses the cultural differences between working for ESPN and Fox Sports, how she prepares for her jobs, the social media vitriol she experienced while she was dating ESPN’s Jay Williams, the success of Katie Nolan, why she felt compelled to find détente with ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, and her decision to be open with her Instagram account. You can subscribe or listen to the podcast on iTunes here.

[pagebreak]

4. Non-sports pieces of note:

• After a hospital error, two pairs of Colombian identical twins were raised as two pairs of fraternal twins. This Susan Dominus piece explains how they found one another — and of what happened next.

• Race and the death penalty in a Louisiana parish. I urge you to read this New Yorker piece, which is about an absolute miscarriage of justice.

The New Yorker’s David Remnick on the unapologetic vulgarity of Donald Trump.

• Remarkable story on the 1970 band “The Runaways” by Jason Cherkis.

• Via The Guardian and for photo lovers everywhere: New York City from the air.

• Sam Dean on why the internal web metrics for fivethirtyeight.com and other sites do not match the external numbers.

• Via Inc.’s Jeff Bercovici: Trying to find the lesson in an entrepreneur's suicide.

Life in Cuba today, as told through Michael Hennniger images and Brady McCollugh’s words.

Sports pieces of note:

• Via The Huffington Post’s Duncan Murrell: Amaris Tyynismaa is a 14-year-old runner with Tourette Syndrome a potential Olympian whose brain is at war with her body.

• From Flinder Boyd: The chaotic life of Lennox Lewis' former manager who returned to boxing as a transgender woman in May.

What It’s Like to Face a 150 MPH Tennis Serve

•This is great work by SI’s Mark Beech: Catching up with the stray dogs of the Sochi Olympics.

• Yahoo’s Eoin O'Callaghan on whether women's domestic soccer leagues will get a WWC bump.

• Via Fusion: A gallery of girls losing their minds at the Women’s World Cup ticker tape parade.

• A crazy story from Bob Padecky involving the late Ken Stabler.

5. On the latest episode of the “It's Sports Stupid” podcast with Maggie Gray and me, we talk all things Women's World Cup, including Carli Lloyd's historic performance and England’s Laura Bassett’s own goal against Japan. Maggie talks to former WWE star Chris Jericho, who is the host of the new TV show 'Tough Enough.' We (including producer Bette Marston) share our experiences at summer camp.

5a. ESPN NFL analyst Tom Jackson will be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. Established in 1989, the award recognizes “longtime exceptional contributions to radio and television in professional football.”

5b. A telling tweet from the Associated Press’s Tim Reynolds: “Two perspectives, one network, 11 seconds apart.”

5c. In an article focusing on the challenging climate for ESPN due to rising costs in programming, The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran and Joe Flint reported that ESPN had suffered declines in subscribers, with cord-cutting significantly impacting the network. The WSJ reported since July '11, ESPN’s reach into American homes "has dropped 7.2%, from more than 100 million households—roughly the size of the total U.S. pay-TV market—to 92.9 million households." Said ESPN Executive Vice President of Administration Ed Durso to The WSJ: “We are constantly looking at the cost side of our business and calibrating that against our expectations for the future. Regardless of what the future holds, we’re incredibly well-positioned to adapt.”

5d. Longtime national host Tony Bruno ‏on his decision to leave WIP and radio.

5e. Though ESPN’s Outside the Lines will move from ESPN to ESPN2 starting July 13 (airing at 5:30 p.m.), the show did receive some long-deserved and very good news. The network’s programming department has decided to keep the show on ESPN for much of the fall. Starting Oct.6, OTL will air daily on ESPN at 1:30 p.m. Here’s hoping this finally ends the ESPN-to-ESPN2-to-ESPN merry-go-around for a brand that represents the best of ESPN.

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