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How ESPN erred in its report on Michael Sam's showering habits

Photo: Jaime Squire/Getty Images

After viewing and re-viewing Josina Anderson’s report last Tuesday about Michael Sam’s showering habits -- a report that produced apologies from multiple ESPN staffers including a non-apology apology from Anderson and a flood of bad press for the network -- I kept thinking about the following question:

What impact does Sam’s sexuality -- if any -- have on an NFL locker room dynamic?

That’s a compelling avenue to pursue for a reporter, but the question is how to report it thoughtfully for readers and viewers. Furthermore, is there relevance to a gay man showering in the same place as a straight man in professional sports?

“In the right hands and with the right reporting, it can be a story,” said Jim Buzinski, the co-founder of Outsports.com, the country’s leading gay sports publication. “If one were to determine that Sam was in fact not showering with his teammates and that his behavior is different from the showering habits of the other Rams, that could be a legit story. But it has to be seriously reported and sourced. What Josina Anderson did was throw out one anonymous player who said Sam ‘seemed’ to be holding back showering, then quoted another saying there could be a million reasons why this is.

"It was junk-food reporting, devoid of journalistically nutritional value. When Jon Stewart makes you a punchline, you know you have swung and missed. It [the report] had zero news value and 1,000 percent titillation value. It implied that Sam was not showering with his teammates out of deference, but the reporting never established that. It touched on a hot-button issue -- showers and sexuality -- in a haphazard way that shed a ton of heat but no light.”

Other gay men and women in sports media who reached out to me echoed Buzinski’s perspective. They were, to be blunt, ticked off. Anderson drew criticism from Rams coach Jeff Fisher, and her report prompted a barrage of criticism for ESPN on social media. If one can be bothered by how the report was handled and feel that Anderson is taking too much heat, I fall into that camp.

I thought it would be valuable to get details from Anderson on the reporting process and how the report eventually made ESPN’s air. But ESPN declined SI’s request to interview Anderson and referred to her statement on its PR website. Unfortunately, her statement (no doubt vetted by many hands) failed to offer any details about the reporting process and came off as confusing corporate-speak more than anything else. It was also issued at 5:08 p.m. ET on a Friday, a classic news-dump that ESPN, which employs hundreds of journalists and cares about sports journalism, should be above.

After ESPN declined to make Anderson available, I contacted her given that I have a good relationship with her from previous stories. She declined to speak to me.

I’ve since spoken with multiple people inside and outside ESPN to piece some things together about her report. First, ESPN management has a transcript of all of the Rams’ players Anderson interviewed. Three people who saw the transcript confirmed that the question that elicited the answer on Sam’s showering was not a question on showering. It was akin to “How would you say Michael is fitting in or interacting in the locker room?” The defensive player she quoted anonymously spoke about the room being comfortable with Sam and brought up the showering subject in an extended answer. The reporter then followed up on the player’s response. That would contradict any notion that Anderson went to St. Louis to do a splashy, manufactured piece on Sam’s showering habits.

Also, Anderson was not solely responsible for the piece making air. If she followed protocol, which it appears she did, she would have been in contact with multiple producers in Bristol, Conn., as well as ESPN’s news desk for a review of whatever content she had. Because this was sensitive information, multiple people had to green-light the report. Also, two sources said Anderson conducted the interviews with Rams players before she arrived in St. Louis, which would directly contradict Fisher’s claim that Anderson was manufacturing news onsite to time it with a roster cut-down.  

Where Anderson deserves blame is for offering zero preamble or exposition acknowledging that some viewers would find reporting on Sam's showering habits questionable. That self-awareness would have mitigated some of the outrage. She also should have been clearer that a teammate offered the information in relation to Sam interacting with the team.

Anderson didn’t name the defensive player who told her Sam waited to take showers at private times, and did not explain why she kept him anonymous. She did not tell viewers the exact question she asked, and she should have explained that somewhere. An ESPN source said the network approved the decision to keep the player anonymous so Anderson and other NFL reporters could return to that player again on future stories.

Furthermore, Anderson was hurt by the decision by SportsCenter producers to run the piece live instead of taped, especially given the nature of the reporting. One ESPN source said someone in production should have saved the reporter from a difficult live segment that needed more than 120 seconds. ESPN’s first response and subsequent backtracking didn’t help Anderson either. The network initially justified the report by saying it was in response to recent questions about Sam fitting in with the Rams, but no players, coaches or league officials publicly were asking about the impact of Sam’s showering habits on the team. The intro to her report starts with Sam’s chances of making the team before transitioning into an ESPN-driven question on how he was fitting in. Once St. Louis defensive lineman Chris Long called out ESPN on Twitter and the heat started coming, the network switched course and apologized.

Some within ESPN management and its rank-and-file believe there was nothing wrong with Anderson’s questions, a sentiment shared by respected veteran sports writer Viv Bernstein. If Anderson believed that, her statement should have been clearer. One assumes she intentionally did not use the word apology. Here, ESPN did Anderson no favors by declining to make her available. An explanation of the reporting process would have, if nothing else, helped her with reasonable people interested in how something like this makes air. It might have also reduced some of the social media vitriol she’s had to deal with over the last week. It was a missed opportunity for clarity in exchange for attempting to jettison the story.

Anderson has never attempted to make herself the story during her career at ESPN or elsewhere, nor has she attempted to morph into a personality at the network. Co-workers said she was empathetic to how her piece was received by Sam and others and regretful regarding the unintended aftermath. They said Anderson believed she was news-gathering, remained neutral throughout the reporting process, and was merely relaying accurate and factual information and perspective from the players she interviewed. She received no discipline from ESPN management, nor was there ever any discussion that she would for the report.

While I understand why Fisher was upset that Anderson reached out to players outside of designated interview times, she doesn’t work for him or the Rams. You’ll note that Anderson, like ESPN's Don Van Natta on his recent profile of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, went around PR to do her job.

In the end, I get back to this question: How can reporters cover Sam, now a free agent, and Jason Collins and other gay athletes in a thoughtful manner?

“Don’t rush to judgment and assumptions,” Buzinski said. “Ask direct and detailed questions and listen for nuance. Avoid looking for an angle and instead report the facts. This is tough in our Internet-driven, click-bait, talking-head world, but it is the only way to deal with this issue fairly and professionally.  For gay athletes, coming out publicly is fraught with anxiety, so be sensitive to that, but at the same time don't be afraid to inquire as to learn.”

The Noise Report

SI.com examines the most notable sports media stories of the week

1. ESPN’s Lindsay Czarniak is getting two high-profile NFL gigs this fall: First, ESPN has assigned her as the sideline reporter for the Chargers-Cardinals game on Sept. 8 (That game is part of the late Monday Night Football opening week doubleheader.) Czarniak will also be working as a reporter this season for Sunday NFL Countdown, teaming with either Ron Jaworski or Merrill Hoge from the site of a major 1 p.m. ET game.

“One of the roles I love besides hosting is reporting,” said Czarniak, who hosts SportsCenter with John Anderson. “I truly believe being able to do both [reporting and anchoring] makes you better at both and when the opportunity to report from the sidelines for our second Monday Night game was presented, I immediately knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. The chance to tell the stories as they unfold and be the eyes and ears for our viewers is amazing. I’m going to be reporting for NFL Countdown from a handful of games this season, sharing the stories and insight I learn about the teams involved.”

Czarniak grew up in Northern Virginia and said she learned to play “Hail to the Redskins” on the recorder while in the fourth grade. Before coming to ESPN, she worked for the NBC affiliate in Washington D.C. and covered the Redskins during the second Joe Gibbs era. Washington City Paper was often critical of the relationship of sports staffers such as Czarniak covering the team for NBC while also working for the Redskins Broadcasting Network, which is owned by owner Daniel Snyder. 

How does she feel about broadcasters using the word “Redskins?”

“Covering the team and cultivating the relationships with the owner, Coach Gibbs, the coaching staff and the players will always be a highlight of my career but I do regret that I wasn't more sensitive to this topic at the time,” Czarniak said. “A big part of that is because of nostalgia. Even today, one of my six-month old son’s first baby gifts was a Redskins Onesie. I prefer not to use the name. If it is offensive to someone and if we know that, that’s all we need to know.”

Washington's next step after U.S. Patent Office canceled its trademark

1a. On the topic of NFL sideline reporters, I received a couple of inquires asking how NBC Sports management felt about Sunday Night Football sideline reporter Michele Tafoya using her Twitter feed to publicly support Mike McFadden, the Republican candidate for the Minnesota U.S. Senate seat. "The occurrences are infrequent, and are handled on a case-by-case basis,” said an NBC Sports spokesperson.

"We’re aware of the tweets and discuss social media issues with our talent on an ongoing basis. This particular case requires no action."

2. Awful Announcing’s Douglas Pucci analyzes the ratings of sports networks on a weekly basis and his latest report on Fox Sports 1 revealed a scary and continuing trend for that network. For the week of August 18-24, the average of each night’s most-watched Fox Sports Live was 64,000 viewers. If you want a comparison, "The Paul Finebaum Show” on ESPN2 that week averaged 66,000 viewers.

FSL so far has gotten little traction among sports viewers outside of those episodes that air with live event lead-ins. Given how much money management spent on talent and promotion, the numbers have to be concerning. The bros-will-be-bros-fun approach has not caught on, the panel concept has been a bust, and bringing in sports web personalities has yet to add viewers. As I’ve said many times, Fox Sports Live getting traction (and FS1 succeeding as a whole) is good for the entire sports media industry (you never want monopolies), so I hope they ultimately find avenues to attract more viewers. They did make some quality college football hires this offseason, which will help FSL on a night-to-night basis when those staffers are included.

2a. HBO says Hard Knocks with the Falcons has averaged 667,000 viewers per episode, up six percent over last year with the Bengals as the main subject.

3. Really liked what I saw from "SEC Nation" last Thursday afternoon before Texas A&M’s crushing of South Carolina, especially the pacing and images headed up by producer Joe Disney and the chemistry between host Joe Tessitore and panelists Paul Finebaum, Marcus Spears and Tim Tebow.

“The chemistry has been great, not good, great,” Tessitiore, said in an email. “I’ve been around TV long enough to know when that’s faked. Everybody on SEC Nation really enjoys being together. I’ll admit that I’ve found myself laughing just looking around the room and watching this group interact. Sometimes this combination of characters feels like it's a really odd Saturday Night Live skit.  Have you seen Marcus Spears and Paul Finebaum stand next to each other?  That’s the ultimate odd couple. They’ve already have declared themselves best buds.

"Plus, traveling the country and eating at restaurants with Tebow creates all kinds of unintended comedy. We’ve almost had too much fun since they assembled this crew … As for, 'what is there is to improve on?' -- everything. I should say everything except effort and passion. This crew puts in the work and cares.  The amount of texts, calls, emails, sharing of info on coaches, players, recruiting -- going back to February signing day, through spring ball and now fall camp -- is awesome.

​​​He continued. “Most of my favorite moments so far have been off-the-air building this thing from the ground up. I’ve loved all the times everyone has come to my house. My kids thought getting Tim (Zero Percent Body Fat) Tebow to eat fresh mozzarella and prosciutto in our kitchen while debating which SEC coach you’d chose if you only had one game to win was fun.  Still if I had to pick one moment, it was this July in the midst of a very long commercial shoot day. All of us -- producers, on-air crew, executives -- were holed up in a trailer for hours. The laughs, debates and the various topics covered had us rolling on the ground.  You know the conversation was wild when Finebaum was the least outrageous and outspoken.”

Tebow still committed to SEC Network despite potential for NFL comeback 

3a. Fox Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt offered some interesting analysis on the college football playoff selection process.

“I know there’s a lengthy refusal policy, but what it doesn’t apply to is the sitting athletic directors and teams in their own conferences,” Klatt said. “The level of money that we’re talking about -- $18 million for a semifinal, $22 million for a potential national championship game -- if a team from your conference that’s not your team goes to the Playoff, rather than one of the other marquee bowls, then they have a chance at that extra $22 million.

"That extra $22 million would be roughly about $1 million -- depending on how many schools are in your conference. It would mean that amount of money [given] to you as an athletic director due to conference revenue-sharing. That’s a really clear bias that could be entered into the equation, and I’m really interested to see how it all comes out. They’ve protected themselves by keeping the final vote private, which I don’t agree with. If you’re going to have transparency in part of the process, it should be in all of the process.”

4. Sports pieces of note:

•SB Nation’s Michael Kruse (also of The Tampa Bay Times) on the death of Devaughn Darling ranks near top of sports journalism I've read in 2014. 

•Terrific piece by CBSSports.com’s Gregg Doyel on the intersection of sports and organ donation.

• "Most notable amid this sanctimonious din was a talented bloviator named Colin Cowherd." 

• Wall Street Journal sports writer Jason Gay has a beautiful ode to his father.

•ESPN’s Don Van Natta Jr. has a great profile of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, a mega-mix of ego, insecurity and genius.

•SI’s Tim Layden examined whether Louisville football coach Bobby Petrino is a changed man.

•Newsweek's John Walters had some great details about how Josh Shaw fooled USC football officials.

Non-sports pieces of note:

•Sensational, inspirational New York Times story by N.R. Kleinfeld about a 33-year-old man learning to swim.

• The last sentence will gut you. From The Boston Globe: A young life cut short too soon.

•Should companies ban email after 7:00 p.m.?

•Pro Publica on how Louisiana loses a football field of land every 48 minutes.

•Via Grantland’s Wesley Morris: The Problem of the Black Cast Member on Saturday Night Live.

•Via Texas Monthly: The Life of a Full-Time Barbecue Editor.

The Boston Globe’s Billy Baker profiled a a 35-year-old man going blind. Inspiration from an unexpected source. 

5. A group of my Sports Illustrated colleagues worked on a coffee table book that comes out Sept. 9. The full title of the book is NFLQB: The Greatest Position in Sports and part of the book will be excerpted in the Sept. 8 issue of Sports Illustrated. I conducted a roundtable with some Hall of Fame quarterbacks for the book including Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, Dan Fouts, Jim Kelly and Fran Tarkenton. Here's the link if interested.

5a. Outside The Lines will air a special report on the Redskins’ nickname on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN2. The show will re-air at 11 p.m. on ESPN News.

5b. The Tennis Channel will re-air a documentary on Arthur Ashe on Friday at 11 am and Sunday at 7 pm. It’s worth your time.

5c.The third season of Showtime’s "60 Minutes Sports" premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. following "Inside The NFL." Among the opening show features: Jack Ford's profiles of Peyton and Eli Manning on Duke coach David Cutcliffe's impact on them and Armen Keteyian on the secret world of bare-knuckle boxing.

 

 

 

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