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Can sports broadcasters come back after making racist comments?
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Can sports broadcasters come back after making racist comments?
Sunday June 12th, 2016

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(Writers note: A sports media column feels utterly insignificant following the most deadly shooting in American history. My thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of those lost to us.)

Emily Austen’s sports broadcasting career is over for now. Whether it’s over for good remains an unanswered question.

If the name is not familiar, some background: Appearing as a guest last week on a Facebook Live chat hosted by Barstool Sports, Austen, a 27-year-old sideline reporter for Fox Sports Florida and Fox Sports Sun who worked on the television broadcasts of the Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Rays, disparaged people of Asian, Jewish and Mexican heritage during a 35-minute roundtable chat. She also called Cavaliers forward Kevin Love a “little b----” multiple times for good measure.

That type of racial animus naturally didn’t sit well with her employers. In a statement to various outlets, Fox Sports Florida called the comments “insensitive” and “derogatory,” and that Austen was no longer scheduled to appear on its airwaves. The Tampa Bay Times reported she was a contract employee for those outlets, making it very easy for them to cut bait as compared to a higher-profile name with a long-term contract or bigger standing in the market.

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Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy said his site attempted to save Austen from herself by not posting the video to his site. (He explained the site’s rationale here.) But because it’s the Internet, nothing is erased. Deadspin’s Kevin Draper reported a link to the interview eventually ended up on Reddit and here we are. It is very possible Austen will never work again for a major sports broadcaster because of the digital trail.

There’s been a lot of interesting journalism on how a single social media disaster can blow up someone’s life, and I highly recommend this New York Times Magazine piece on Justine Sacco. On this note, I was interested in exploring whether Austen’s career could theoretically be saved and how respected people in the sports media field would advise someone in her self-inflicted position. Whether Austen even deserves such counsel after racist remarks is a subjective and different discussion.

Over the weekend I contacted the following people: a prominent sports TV executive who works for a network, an agent who represents well known people in the sports media, a public relations person who works with prominent people in the sports media, a prominent sports TV executive who works for a cable sports network, a prominent sports broadcaster for a major sports television network, a prominent sports host for a cable sports network, and a prominent sports radio executive. They were all given anonymity to speak freely. The group was a mix of men and women and I think you’ll find their thoughts interesting.

A prominent sports TV executive who works for a network:

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“I can't imagine anyone who would give her a chance unless the earth was suddenly void of female 'commentators.' No way I can call her a reporter. If I was her I would admit to a lapse of judgment and state my stupid comments don't represent who I am. 'I got caught up in idiotic talk and made awful and invalid statements. I apologize profusely for those inaccurate and hurtful statements.' If I'm her network boss, she's gone for good. That behavior can't be tolerated. If I'm advising her, I'd say disappear for awhile and figure out how you become a serious practicing journalist. If that's beyond your capabilities or desires, then choose a new career because no self respecting network needs the crap they will receive for employing your services.

“One other thing: no person wants to be defined by their worst moment on their worst day. We all make mistakes. Her mistake is now on a perpetual loop and that's unfortunate for her. That's why she needs to take a hiatus and think about coming as a different type of person and a serious journalist. I would also send Kevin Love an apology.”

An agent who represents well-known people in the sports media:

“This is an exercise in best positioning herself for the next job opportunity to come as opposed to trying to salvage her current employment, which obviously is an entirely different set of circumstances. As such, my advice would be for her to address this head-on sooner rather than later by eating crow, and lots of it, and to maintain consistency in her messaging from here on out.  She needs to understand and accept the reality that moving forward, she has forfeited the right to be given the benefit of the doubt.  If, at any point, she comes across as disingenuous with regards to taking complete ownership of her actions, then she might as well choose a new career altogether.”

A public relations person who works with prominent people in the sports media:

“Emily needs to provide an apology that puts blame and acceptance of it squarely on her shoulders: no finger-pointing, no lessening it, no half excuses that it’s 'not what I really think.' She should outline her regret and shame over what she said, her poor judgment and immaturity, and her genuine commitment to doing better. She should reach out to the Anti-Defamation League or a similar organization and actually ‘do the work’ to understand why what she said was so offensive and so destructive. It could be life changing for her. If we’ve learned anything in modern times, it’s that anyone can recover from almost anything. But humility and full acceptance of being in the wrong is the necessary first step. Still, it will be a good while before she’s able to return to on-camera work. And I’d advise her to develop her other skill sets and interests.

A prominent sports broadcaster for a sports network:

“You have to own it and wear it, as painful as that may be. We have seen how the cycle moves quickly and it’s on to the next. Sunday’s news also puts in perspective how small, in the grand scheme, foolish comments are. Having said that, what she said is going to be difficult to walk back. I like the Barstool guys, and what Pardon My Take does, largely, is satire. She showed up and tried to fit in, I guess. But it was so obviously mean spirited and inappropriate to so many people people that I was amazed. I’m beyond being shocked by things that are said. But I was amazed at how many people she managed to offend. I kept thinking, “What are you doing?” The only real positive spin I could come up with is that people have short memories. There are prominent folks on the air that have made big mistakes. But they were more established. I’m not sure she shakes this one off.”

A prominent executive who works for a cable sports network:

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“This is a really tough one to overcome. Ordinarily when a TV personality makes this kind of mistake, I would advise them to own the comments, make a heartfelt apology, and hopefully in time, the news cycle moves on and you can get a second chance. This business is full of examples of people getting second chances. However, these comments are so insensitive that this just may not be possible. Also, she's just not talented enough to warrant a guaranteed second chance. I would likely advise her to still apologize and seek counseling for a better understanding of people of different backgrounds. But I would honestly also advise her to prepare to move into another career as well.”

A prominent sports host for a cable sports network:

“As I sit here and think about this, the first and only thing that comes to mind is a sincere apology and taking responsibility for her words and actions. I think true accountability could go a long way. No excuses. No finger pointing. No 'ifs, ands, or buts.' I honestly believe the only chance she has to move forward and rebound is by showing genuine remorse for what she said, not just for getting caught.”

A prominent sports radio executive:

"Obviously an apology, one is which she takes full responsibility and offers no excuses, is her next step. In radio, we have seen many sports show hosts get fired over comments similar to those made here.  Whether or not a host gets a second chance elsewhere is based on two things: ratings and revenue. If the talent has a track record of one or both he/she will likely get another opportunity. I assume that Emily has not impacted ratings or revenue in a positive way. If this is the case, I hope that she remembers her Boca waitressing skills cause she's gonna need them.”

On Sunday morning, Austen released the following apology on her social media feeds

Upon the release of Austen’s apology, I re-contacted some of the group above to get initial thoughts:

The agent with clients in the sports media:

"Not bad. It's a start. The key for her is to stay consistent and not - at any point - come across as overly defensive.  She had a choice to not be 'goaded' and frankly, she was the one who set the tone. The Kevin Love “is a b**ch” thing came out of left field and caught them by surprise so that argument won't hold any weight."

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The sports television host:

"I mean, I suppose she does take responsibility for her actions. I read it however and think, 'Why would you believe those comments would be viewed as funny?' This apology has the feel of regret over getting caught rather than an understanding of why her words were hurtful to others."

The cable sports TV network executive:

"I am no PR expert but how can she say 'trying to be funny and make a joke.' Racist jokes?"

The sports TV network executive:

"I think it's a good first step: sincere regret without qualification and admitting she has growing to do. Now go grow by being about serious work."

The public relations staffer:

"The 'that's not what I really think"'route is no bueno. Character is who you are when no ones watching. Or you think few will see."

THE NOISE REPORT

(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)

1. For Michael Fountain, a senior coordinating producer for ESPN’s SportsCenter and the network’s point person in Louisville for Friday’s sensational coverage of the Muhammad Ali funeral procession and memorial service, ESPN’s coverage of the iconic boxer was personal.

In the late 90's, upon Fountain arriving at Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. to meet his parents who were returning from a visit to his brother, Ali happened to be changing flights at the airport, just as Fountain’s parents arrived. At the time, Fountain’s mother was battling ALS and restricted to a wheelchair. So when Fountain saw Ali, whom he had met and traveled with as a network news producer, he asked the former heavyweight champion if he might say something encouraging to his mother. Ali leaned over to Fountain’s mother and whispered, "Don't worry beautiful, it's going to be alright."

“When I think of Mom today,” Fountain said on Saturday, “I think of the light in her eyes and the smile on her face at that moment.”

Fountain was on the ground in Louisville from last Monday to Thursday, overseeing the location for the network’s main desk and camera positions around the city, as well as the placement of ESPN’s reporters. During ESPN’s coverage on Friday, he headed up the production team in Louisville while advising producers in Bristol on the best storylines playing out during the funeral procession. ESPN’s Friday coverage started at 7 a.m. ET with live shots from each of their four reporter positions around Louisville and continued into the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. There was a total of 12 hours of television, showcasing ESPN at its news-gathering best. The network’s coverage of Ali’s passing has been a reminder of just how good ESPN can be when it gets away from its Baylessian and hubristic nonsense.

So much of successful news execution is pre-planning and Fountain said he, directors Jim Reed and Charlie Reynolds and operations producers Rand Joseph, DJ Driscoll and Bob Braunlich drove the procession route in Louisville several times to identify multiple locations best to capture the emotion of the day. The group decided to position a Jib camera at the intersection of 9th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard, the first stop off the highway and what Fountain described as the first entryway back into Ali's youth.

“We positioned three cameras and two reporters on Grand Avenue to capture the throngs of people we believed would come out to greet the family in front of Ali's boyhood home,” Fountain said. “Understanding Ali's connection to Broadway via Central High School and the now closed gym where he first learned to box, we added extra cameras along the street thinking it would be a focal point for residents coming out to bid the Champ goodbye. We also worked closely with the organizing committee and our media colleagues to organize a pool feed from a camera in the car in front of the hearse that provided live pictures throughout the procession.”

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Fountain said ESPN did not produce the Ali memorial ceremony. It carried a pool feed provided by the organizing committee. That’s why you saw political statements in some of the speeches that would unlikely have made ESPN’s air otherwise.  “We were not in control of the content and viewers hopefully recognized they were tuned into a different kind of telecast from a typical ESPN event,” Fountain said.

Fountain credited a multi-department buy-in at ESPN that made the coverage successful, from the network’s news desk to the operations department to the features team.

Said Fountain: “As an African American male who grew up in the Ali age, it was humbling to play a role in helping our viewers say goodbye to the Champ.” Nice work.

1b. Mike Carey was long the favorite referee of CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus. Here is what he told me in 2014: “I’ve been a fan of Mike’s for years and during games I would often turn to [CBS Sports executive producer and senior vice president of production] Harold Bryant in the studio and say, 'Boy, if he ever retires, he would be a great in-studio analyst.' So at the Masters I said to Mike: 'You have no idea how many times I’ve watched you in our production studio during our NFL coverage and turned to someone and said, 'I love that guy.' He’s my favorite referee.'”

During his 24 seasons in the league, according to the Football Zebras website, Carey worked 17 postseason assignments including nine wild card playoffs, five divisional playoffs, two conference championships and Super Bowl XLII (famous for the David Tyree catch), where he became the first African American referee for a Super Bowl. He appeared to be a fantastic choice to join Mike Pereira as a rules analyst who could transform a broadcast.

We now know that was not the case.

Though he received undue criticism when his judgment did not match with the judgment of the officials on the field, Carey never appeared comfortable as an on-air communicator. On Saturday CBS Sports confirmed to SI.com the New York Daily News report that Carey would not be retained for the 2016 NFL season. “We have mutually parted ways with Mike,” said a CBS Sports spokesperson. A TV industry source said CBS has no immediate plans to replace Carey’s position this season.

1c. Here was The MMQB’s Jenny Vrentas on Carey last February

1d. On Friday Gawker Media said it had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and would conduct a sale through an auction as a result of the financial pressure from a $140 million legal judgment in an invasion-of-privacy lawsuit by the former wrestler Hulk Hogan. (The New York Times story is here. For the purposes of this column, the question that arises is what will happen to Deadspin, which frequently covers sports media, in the event of a possible sale. The digital media company Ziff Davis has submitted an opening bid, according to the Times.

As far staffers are concerned, it will be business as usual heading forward. “I fully expect operations to continue as usual, both under our current ownership and any future owner,” said Deadspin video director Tim Burke, in an email.

It would be very surprising, at least in the near-term, for a new owner to limit the methods and content that has made Deadspin a big part of the sports media conversation. As for the long-term viability of Deadspin, few sports media brands are guaranteed eternal life (maybe ESPN). None of us know our future.

2. Through four games, the 2016 NBA Finals is averaging 17,367,000 viewers. Last year's finals averaged 19,939,000 viewers over six games. Given the possibilities heading in (the series look like a near bet to top 20 million) ESPN/ABC execs have to be dissapointed with the viewership. But if this series gets length (six or seven games), the numbers will go up dramatically.

2a. ESPN’s ambitious and exhaustive upcoming documentary on O.J. Simpson—O.J.: Made In America—is the best 30 for 30 documentary the company has ever produced. It is thrilling and uncompromising filmmaking—clocking in at seven hours and 43 minutes—and it will make you look at the most famous murder case in United States history with fresh eyes and under a larger prism. Here’s my piece on how it was put together.

2b. Via Sports TV Ratings.com: The preliminary figures for Part 1 of “O.J.: Made in America” are in. The doc averaged 3.4 million viewers on ABC.

2c. On the subject of Simpson: ESPN Radio’s Jorge Sedano, Israel Gutierrez and Amin Elhassan interviewed Marcia Clark, Gil Garcetti and Courtney B. Vance.

2d. Fox said the U.S’s 1–0 win over Paraguay on Saturday night in the Copa America Centenario drew 2.061 million viewers on FS1, making it the most-watched men’s soccer match in the network’s three-year history.

2e. Univision drew 2.4 million viewers for the U.S.-Paraguay game.

3. Episode No. 61 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features the acclaimed sports and news photographer Neil Leifer.

On this episode, Leifer discusses his many memorable photographs of Muhammad Ali including his personal favorite — the aerial photograph of Ali knocking out Cleveland Williams at the Houston Astrodome in Nov. 1966. He also discusses the famed shot of then-Cassius Clay standing over Sonny Liston after retaining the heavyweight championship in May 1965 in Lewiston, Maine; why Ali was such a perfect photo subject; his first posed photo shoot with Ali when Leifer was 22 years old; how he and Ali became close friends in the last 25 years of his life; how he approached shooting photos of Ali; shooting Ali for his 70th birthday; the last time he interacted with Lonnie Ali, the wife of Muhammad; and much more. Leifer’s images are currently on display at Los Angeles’s Peter Fetterman Gallery and you can also see them on Leifer's website.

A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.

4. Sports pieces of note:

The Economist obit on Muhammad Ali

• SI’s Michael Farber on the life and times of Gordie Howe

Houston Chronicle columnist John McClain on Howe’s Houston years 

The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur on the passing of Gordie Howe 

• SI’s Charlie Pierce traveled to Louisville to cover the Muhammad Ali memorial service and processional. 

• Marshawn Lynch opened up to SI’s Jon Wertheim in a long, sit-down interview

The New York Times hub on Muhammad Ali 

• Asks Outside Magazine, “Can Surfing Reprogram the Veteran’s Brain?” 

Non-sports pieces of note:

• Via Indianapolis Monthly: Blindsided: A Dream Engagement Turned Nightmare 

• Via Stratechery: The Future Of Podcasting 

• From The New York Times Magazine: Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City 

• Via The Intercept: Tased in the chest, dead for eight minutes, facing a lifetime of recovery.

• Via The Washington Post: The Swedish Stanford students who rescued an unconscious sexual assault victim speak out 

• From Frontline: 70% of Americans think they're middle class, but not that many of us are 

• Via The New Yorker: How Silicon Valley Nails Silicon Valley 

• From Anne Hull of The Washington Post: The lonely road of staying clean

• Via Slate: ABC featured a devastating interview with Christine Leinonen, the mother of a young man who had been at Pulse during the attack

5. No doubt it was a curious transaction for casual sports media readers: Earlier this month Jon Heyman, who counts Sports Illustrated, MLB Network, CBSSports.com, and Newsday on his resume, joined the FanRag Sports Network. How did this come about and what exactly is the FanRag Sports Network? Well, first, the Heyman part. FanRag Sports Network director of content Tommy Stokke said he first reached out to Heyman in March (after he left CBSSports.com) offering him a place to house his spring training work. Heyman declined at that time, but said he’d keep in touch. After Heyman wrote a piece on Tim Lincecum on his Facebook page, Stokke reached out again. “I was confident that if he, or anyone for that matter, gave us a chance and got to know us and our direction, that he'd at least be interested,” Stokke said.

Heyman agreed to meet with FanRag Network execs at the company’s Phoenix offices and eventually the two parties came to an agreement. His stuff will mostly be housed at a baseball vertical called “Today’s Knuckleball”

“It seems so simple, but basically he picked up the phone,” Stokke said. “That doesn't always happen when I reach out, but it just goes to show that you never know what can happen. He gave us a chance, and I think the same thing will happen as more and more people find us.”

The FanRag Sports Network started as FanRag.com in early 2012 before rebranding in January of 2015 as FanRagSports.com and the FanRag Sports Network. Stokke said the network is attempting to build itself on quality content, a place where experienced journalists who have been let go by former employers can find a second life for their work. Stokke said every writer who works for the site is paid and there are currently 200 active writers at the network. According to Stokke, the network eclipsed six million page views last month, its highest ever total. Something that struck me was the impact of having the word "Rag" in the title, which some readers might connote negatively.

“It certainly has an impact, at least initially,” Stokke said. “FanRag was originally created to be something of an online newspaper that catered to the voice of a fan, which explains the name. But there are so many of those kinds of sites out there that we wanted to do something different, which is why we re-branded to FanRag Sports. If people remember 'FanRag' and can appreciate our quality, then it doesn't matter what the site is called.”

5a. The Jalen Rose Leadership Academy (JRLA) celebrated its second class of graduates. According to the school, 100% of the Class of 2015 and 2016 graduates gained college, trade/technical school or military acceptance.

5b. Jim Lampley will host “The Fight Game With Jim Lampley: A Tribute to Muhammad Ali” on Tuesday at 11 p.m. ET/PT. Among the guests: sitdowns with George Foreman and Jack Nicholson on Ali.

5c. If you love tennis, check out this Kickstarter project from Racquet Magazine 

5d. If you love basketball, check out this Kickstarter project, “Game Point - A Quarterly Basketball Magazine.” 

5e. Something every sports broadcaster wants desperately: Nielsen to count out-of-home viewing 

5f. ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg, nailing the sports punditry game

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