Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott was unfairly criticized by the sports media for doing exactly what reporters should want: Answering questions honestly.
Ezekiel Elliott apologized. This was the least surprising part of the story. Opinions in college football are best left to coaches, the men charged with building character before they jet out of town for a better and richer gig.
So of course Elliott apologized. The Ohio State junior running back sent out a thoughtful note on Twitter explaining why he made his disappointment public following the Buckeyes’ loss to Michigan State, a game in which Elliott finished with 12 carries (two in the second half). He explained how much he loved his team, he apologized for creating any controversy and he promised to be focused for the big game against Michigan on Saturday. His coach, Urban Meyer, diffused the situation masterfully. Elliott apologized to his coaching staff over the weekend but Meyer made it clear he understood Elliott’s comments. He just didn’t like the forum in which they made. “We don’t condone that,” Meyer said. “We squashed it as a team.”
Meyer is a football coach and, despite taking ESPN’s money for a couple of years, he is not a journalist, nor he is an advocate for transparency at all costs. You can respect how he handled it. He did what was best for his program.
No, what frustrated me this weekend was seeing how many members of the sports media called out Elliott for what we ask of athletes and coaches every day. He was asked questions; he answered them honestly. The answers did not fit the coach-athlete narrative that’s been built up by so many in the press, the thesis of God-as-coach preached for decades by the Dick Vitales of the world, fueled by tributes on ESPN and FS1 by ex-coaches-turned talking heads, and abetted by management and p.r. who stoke the egos of such men long after they walk a sideline.
I started thinking about Elliott a lot on Saturday after I saw my longtime colleague Seth Davis—someone I respect and like—tweet out, “Sounds like Ezekiel Elliott is burying his coaches in postgame comments. That’s a bad, bad look. Victory has fathers, defeat has orphans. I don’t care if you think he’s right. You don’t crush your coaches to the media after a loss. Full stop.”
I responded: “We ask athletes to be honest and we should celebrate those who are. Gotta disagree here, my man.”
Seth and I went back and forth after that, mostly about the subjectiveness of the word “class,” which was debated by people who have never met or covered Elliott. Predictably, the media narrative soon shifted to how Elliott’s comments would impact his draft status and how NFL GMs viewed him. (Keep in mind the league currently employs Greg Hardy.) When I watched SportsCenter on Monday, one analyst proclaimed that Elliott had let his team down while a reporter mentioned how his phone had been blowing up on Elliott. “Coaches were blowing up my phone, telling me they would bench him,” the reporter said.
We want athletes to be honest and colorful and transparent. When they are, especially student-athletes, they have to face not only public criticism, but also an institution designed to keep information inward. If history serves as a guide, Elliott will morph toward more vanilla responses if only to avoid being the center of a nonense storm.
But here’s the thing, and SI’s Pete Thamel had it right in his piece: Elliott’s comments on Ohio State’s play-calling were both matter-of-fact and correct.
“He said,” OSU junior Joey Bosa said of Elliott, “what a lot of people were scared to say.”
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable stories)
1. As I noted Sunday, I thought NBC made an excellent decision to stick with the Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway despite the race running into the start time of Football Night in America. First, the race determined the Sprint Cup Championship. And second, NASCAR fans had significantly invested in the network prior to this race, and they were owed not to have the season-finale moved to NBCSN at its finish. It’s important to note NBC lost viewership with its decision; FNIA would surely have rated higher for the hour. The network eventually ran abbreviated NFL pregame show from 7:45 to 8:25 p.m.
On Monday, I spoke with NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus to get a sense of how the decision-making came together. NBC was put in the situation because of a weather delay. The network had hoped the race would re-start at 4:30 p.m. ET but it started around 4:50. Lazarus was on site for the NASCAR race.
“We figured we would end in the 7:15–7:30 ET p.m. range but there were a few more cautions [flags] than we counted on,” Lazarus said. “It was a fluid process. From our team there was myself, [NBC Sports executive producer] Sam Flood and [president of programming] Jon Miller, discussing the pros and cons and the constituencies involved. First, there is the viewers and the fans of both sports. Then there are both leagues, NASACAR and the NFL. Then there is the advertising community. Then there are our broadcast affiliates who sell football inventory and NASCAR inventory.
“So there is a lot of input you are trying to balance to think through. As it appeared that the race would end in the 7:45 p.m. range, we worked quickly and were on the phone with our advertising sales people, the people who work with our broadcast affiliates to let them know our plans. I also spoke with the NFL and NASCAR officials to let them know.”
Lazarus said NBC ultimately decided to stay with race because “we did what we should do for the NASCAR fans who have invested in the back half of the season with us and invested in this race and the chase for the championship. Staying with live racing as opposed to going to the highest-rated pregame show on sports TV wasn’t an enviable decision, but we think we made the best decision under the circumstances.”
Lazarus said NBC did not have the contractual right to move Football Night In America to another network such as NBCSN unless that had been previously discussed with the NFL. “Our rights are for the NBC broadcast,” Lazarus said. “It’s not like anyone said no to us but its not part of what we do. “
Lazarus said that if somehow the conclusion of the race had extended past 8:10 p.m., they would have moved to football on NBC (and the race toNBCSN) so as not to jeopardize the kickoff of the Bengals-Cardinals. “That was our obligation to football fans, the NFL and our advertisers,” he said.
2. This week’s SI Media Podcast guest is ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who has been with the network since 1995. Bilas is now featured on ESPN’s game and studio coverage, including ESPN’s Saturday primetime game-of-the-week telecasts in 2015.
In this episode, Bilas discusses how he prepares for a broadcast, how he sees the role of analytics in basketball broadcasting, how he navigates being an advocate for his sport but not being a cheerleader, his Twitter philosophy, how he approaches commentary on Mike Krzyzewski and Duke (his alma mater), how often he hears from NCAA officials, whether NCAA athletes will receive a wage within the next 10 years, appearing on the White Shadow as a high schooler, spending time with the rapper Jeezy and more.
3. On Sunday I examined why the Dallas Cowboys are the most powerful television team in football, even in a losing season.
3a. Sports Business Daily writer John Ourand examines what will happen with the upcoming Big Ten Conference’s media rights race.
4. John O’Brien of Syracuse.com has an update on Laurie Fine’s suit against ESPN for libel, claiming the network falsely reported she knew her husband, Bernie, a former assistant basketball coach at Syracuse University, was molesting children and that she did nothing to stop him. Laurie Fine’s lawyer, Lawrence Fisher, has accused ESPN of acting with “reportorial greed” in publishing a story that he says was false. Syracuse.com reported last week that in internal network documents obtained by Fine’s legal team, two ESPN executives criticized the network’s reporting on the story and said it went against ESPN’s internal guidelines.
Nathan Siegel, who has successfully defended ESPN in previous defamation vases, declined to comment to SI.com when reached last week.
Last month O’Brien reported on Laurie Fine’s explanation for what she said in a secretly recorded phone call with a man who accused her husband of molestation. According to court documents, Siegel wrote that Laurie Fine’s new explanation for what she said in the phone call “absurd on its face.” For those not familiar with the case, here is a chronology of the events on Bernie and Laurie Fine and ESPN. Note: Bernie Fine dropped a defamation lawsuit against ESPN in July 2013.
In Dec. 2011, SI.com conducted a long interview with Outside The Lines reporter Mark Schwarz on the reporting of this story—one of the few (if only) interviews with Schwarz on this topic from a non-ESPN source. You can read that interview here.
Some things Fine’s lawyers are likely to inquire about: Who decides what the bar should be for publishing a story at ESPN? How does ESPN’s legal staff ensure that ESPN reporters satisfied industry standards? And were all of those steps implemented in the reporting of Laurie Fine?
Outside The Lines, which aired the Fine report, has won multiple Emmys, a Murrow Award and a DuPont award for its journalism.
5. Gelf Magazine held an appreciation night for Grantland on Monday night in New York City, and it was endearing to see former Grantland staffers (more than a dozen appeared) speak with warmth and love about the culture of the site.
“For us, Grantland was a website but so much more,” said Juliet Littman, who now works for the Channel 33 podcast network set up by Bill Simmons.
Said Amos Barshad, who wrote on topics from Wu Tang to soccer in Israel. “Thanks to ESPN because when you kill someone young, you make them more legendary.”
5a. Bilas also did a podcast last week with Ryan Hawk, who hosts The Learning Leader show podcast. Hawk and Bilas discussed Mike Krzyzewski’s leadership and fixing the NCAA.
5b. Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz on very wealthy sports commentators yelling at sports bloggers.
5c. NBC will air the Packers’ halftime ceremony for Brett Favre during its telecast of the Bears at Packers on Thanksgiving night.
5d. From Kansas City star columnist Sam Mellinger: Michael Keck died at 25, and was sure football was killing him.
5e. Loved this Players’ Tribune piece by NHL Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier, who writes a letter to his younger self.
5f. Hall of Famer Rod Carew talked to SI’s Steve Rushin about his life and near-death experience. Beautiful piece.
5g. After five continents, 15 Olympics, 31 years and 6,200 stories, Phillip Hersh says goodbye to the Chicago Tribune.