By Richard Deitsch
September 21, 2011

Last month, ESPN golf analyst Paul Azinger offered a 140-character analysis of President Barack Obama's job creation record, a zinger from Azinger that reverberated around the web. Tweeted the analyst:"Facts: Potus has played more golf this month than I have; I have created more jobs this month than he has: #Marthasvineyard

The network, when prompted for a response to the tweet by USA Today, reprimanded Azinger for his comments. Said an ESPN spokesman: "Paul's tweet was not consistent with our social media policy, and he has been reminded that political commentary is best left to those in that field."

But Obama wasn't the only politician to be criticized by an ESPN personality. In June, Kenny Mayne channeled his inner-Olbermann when he tweeted that he "almost rammed a car with Palin bumper sticker. with intent." Though not made public, ESPN executives spoke with Mayne about the tweet.

With the 2012 Presidential election season heating up, and more media members taking to Twitter and other social media outlets, Azinger and Mayne are unlikely to represent the last public intersection of sports television and politics. And with more than 1,000 front-facing commentators, ESPN has the trickiest terrain ahead.

For example, New York Daily News sports columnist Mike Lupica has written a left-leaning political column for his newspaper for years. But Lupica also hosts a daily radio show on ESPN Radio in New York City and appears on ESPN2's The Sports Reporters. writer LZ Granderson is a frequent contributor to CNN and writes often on gay and lesbian issues relating to politics. Then there's ESPN talk-show host Stephen A. Smith, who has never been shy about jumping on political shows, once referring to GOP presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani as "a dictator as far as I am concerned."

As for more direct political advocacy, college football analyst Lou Holtz is an GOP fundraiser who has worked on behalf of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Fellow college football analyst Craig James has long expressed interest in Republican Party politics. James also released this piece of political advocacy last year, featuring the handful of people not turned off by his broadcasting. Even as far back as 2004, former ESPN contributor Peter Gammons was tossing politics into his online column. Gammons, now with MLB Network, has a Twitter feed featuring political opinions.

To its credit, ESPN has issued a section on political advocacy in its overall editorial policy book. It reads:• "We should avoid active involvement or membership in any cause that could compromise our ability to report and edit fairly. ESPN discourages public participation in matters of political advocacy or controversy among editorial employees, contributors and public-facing talent. There should be no endorsed support of a candidate or political position by any individual on any of our platforms, or in any other forum in which an editorial or public-facing staff or contract employee is acting as a representative of ESPN.

• Correspondents, producers, editors, writers, public-facing talent and those involved in news assignments and coverage must avoid being publicly identified with various sides of political issues.

• Staff or contract employees who nonetheless involve themselves in political advocacy may be reassigned to avoid their handling of news, coverage or other topics related to that issue or other coverage that could be impacted by such advocacy. Common sense should be applied. For example, the limitation on political activity."

What of other major media outlets airing sports? When asked by if it had a similar policy for its talent or bylined contributors, Fox Sports spokesperson Dan Bell said, "We do not have an official written policy, however, [Fox Sports Chairman] David Hill has his own unwritten policy that he makes clear to all of our broadcasters each year, dating back to 1994. As a FOX Sports employee, you do not discuss race, religion or politics on our air or any other outlet."

CBS declined to comment on the issue through a spokesperson.

NBC has no formal policy on political advocacy but said via a spokesperson: "However, we regularly communicate with our talent about the evolving world of social media in a variety of ways, including in production seminars and meetings."

(The Time Warner (Turner Sports/SI) policy states in part, "In general. employees are free to engage in personal volunteer political activity and contribute personal resources to candidates and parties in any manner consistent with federal, state and local laws, as long as these activities do not occur during business hours or present a conflict of interest... If you have a personal blog, you should make it clear that your opinions do not necessarily represent the views of your magazine... Keep business and personal posts separate")

Former ESPN ombudsman Lee Ann Schreiber wrote an interesting piece on ESPN's coverage of the 2008 election, a year which famously saw the nixing of a Senator Obama-Bill Simmons podcast. The modern-day landscape is littered with sports broadcasters getting into hot water when offering political commentary. Asked about the gray areas of contractors such as Lupica and Granderson, ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said, "The policy is aspirational and each one is on a case on case basis."

Historically, at least with print journalists and broadcasters who cover politics, public neutrality is a job requirement. This space offers no perfect solution for sports media outlets heading forward, though we side on trusting its employees to be smart about how politically active they are in the social media space. Independent contractors such as Lupica and Granderson present challenges for all networks because those contractors might have primary employers who have zero problem with political advocacy. (That could be an issue for NBC come the London Games, when they bring on an army of freelance broadcasters.

For Holtz, James and others who become a direct part of the political apparatus, the line seems cut and dry. If you wish to be active in a campaign, you should take a leave of absence or jump into your new profession.

It's why, selfishly, I advocate James running for office immediately.

Of the many terrific sports-related features that aired surrounding the tenth anniversary of 9/11, ESPN's 13-minute piece on Welles Crowther, a former Boston College lacrosse player who was killed in the South Tower of the World Trade Center after leading people to safety, stayed with me the most. If you have not yet seen The Man in the Red Bandana,it represents the best of ESPN's storytelling capabilities.

(Crowther worked as an equities trader at Sandler O'Neill & Partners on the 104th floor of the south tower, and his heroic actions on that fateful morning can be read about here and here.)

ESPN feature producer Drew Gallagher called Bandana the most important piece of work he had done at the network. He first learned of Crowther's story shortly after 9/11 and filed it away as a story he wanted to tell. Gallagher said the group that worked on the story -- editor Tim Horgan, reporter and writer Tom Rinaldi, and camera persons Gregg Hoerdemann, Mike Bollacke, Aaron Frutman, Samson Chan -- did not approach it like another piece. "I think everyone put a little bit of themselves in it," Gallagher said.

Gallagher said he was hesitant to speak about the Crowther piece because "it's weird to accept accolades for a piece where someone sacrificed his life." He and Crowther attended Boston College and the two lived in the same dorm when Crowther was a freshman. Often for pieces such as these, producers care most about the reaction of family and friends. ESPN interviewed Crowther's parents, Alison and Jeff, at their home in late July, and Gallagher said he heard from them immediately after the ESPN piece first aired on Outside The Lines on Sept. 4. "They were so happy with how it turned out and that meant everything to me," Gallagher said. "As long as they were happy with how their son's story was portrayed, that was really all I cared about."

(I don't often do mailbags, but I thought it might be fun for all to see a sampling of reader email.)

How can I email NFL Network to express how much Michael Irvin makes me not want to turn the channel, but TURN THEM COMPLETELY OFF!!!!?--Melvin, Detroit

Melvin, I think you just told them.

I'll tell ya, having just finished the recent tome on the happenings at ESPN, I can easily believe Bruce Feldman's story. ESPN has gotten way too big for it's britches the past 5-8 years, and I've grown tired of their shtick. I do appreciate their coverage of so many sports, but as an entity, I'm sick of them in general. Their best show is still College Football Live and College Football Final because of the professionalism of Chris Fowler and Rece Davis. Good for Feldman for hooking up with CBS Sports, a win for all concerned.--Jeff Johnson, Fort Worth.

Agreed. Feldman is a terrific hire for CBS Sports.

Can you explain to me why ESPN is so in love with Craig James? He's just another ex-jock doing analyst work. These guys are a dime a dozen. What exactly does Craig James bring to the table as a college football analyst? If he didn't work for ESPN anymore would anyone even notice? -- Scott, Charlotte.

Great work on the Bruce Feldman story and really all of your work. On the football roundtable it was shown that Craig James is the most despised man in college football. How or why is he still an employee of ESPN is a question I would really love to know.-- Scott Jackson, Manhattan, Kan.

Great story! ESPN sends Feldman packing and keeps Lou Holtz and Craig James. Somebody figure. -- Gus Gertsch, Palisades, Idaho

This was the best article I have read all year in any news subject. Honesty is so refreshing. Not prepackaged homogenized honesty with the interesting tidbits pulled out, but pure honesty. Great job by all. Oh, and you have convinced me to buy a subscription to SI. --Chad, Arlington, Va.

The four emails were among the hundreds my colleagues Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples, George Schroeder and I received for the College Football Roundtable. As I've written before: James is unpopular by any fan metric you choose, including performance and likability. He provides little more than backslapping and coach-protecting commentary, and ESPN deserves to get crushed for keeping him on the air.

I agree Mike Mayock is an excellent analyst, but I suggest a new drinking game be named for him along with Brent Mumbleberger. Throw one back every time Mayock says football. "This Notre Dame football team will need to run the football up and down the football field to win this football game.... That football should've been caught.... He's an outstanding football coach who calls some great football plays." In fairness, dozens of others are eligible. (Listen to Kirk Herbstreit). Guys,we get it, we know we're watching football! -- Vince LaMarca, Oviedo, Fla.

I'll be watching out for this, Vince. Enjoy the football.

How could you not say that Frank Caliendo on Fox is the most unfunny guy ever?!! He has never been funny past the first couple of times he did Madden. His TV show even bombed almost instantly, and rightfully so. Are the FOX execs really that stupid? How did you give him a complete pass in your article???--Terry Doyle, Barrington, Ill. Terry, here's what I can tell you: Caliendo is Chris Rock compared to Tony Siragusa and some other staffers Fox Sports execs think are funny.

I am curious as to how you can say Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts are a good broadcasting team. More often than not, Titans fans get stuck having to listen to the love fest between these two on air. The love fest could be bearable if they could call an unbiased game. It is apparent if you listen to ANY broadcast of a Titans game including Eagle, that he is adamantly against the team from Tennessee, and would love to see them get beat every single week. Fouts goes right along with Eagle's assessments almost every single time. I'd almost rather be stuck having to listen to Chris Berman for 12 hours straight than have to listen to another Eagle broadcast. That bum needs to go! --DC Roberts, Henderson, Tenn.

Good to see Gus Johnson buried in the Fox NFL broadcasting lineup. I can't stand him. By his voice inflections, you can tell that he has picked a team to root for during his game broadcasts. That said, I'm not looking forward to hearing him during Fox's college football broadcasts. Someday, maybe Johnson will be relegated to a local team's broadcast. I'll never understand why Gus Johnson is so popular. On the other hand, I'm glad to see Ian Eagle move up the CBS ladder. Eagle brings a fantastic balance of enthusiasm, impartiality, and knowledge to the broadcast, whether it's football or basketball. --Randall Allen, Fruita, Colo.

Who knew Ian Eagle drew so much passion?

Since you are the voice of the people, maybe you can call out the hypocrisy of College GameDay the last few weeks. Last week, they went on the offensive regarding Brian Kelly's sideline demeanor. Desmond Howard basically acted as if Bo [Schembechler] was a saint and never acted like that. Urban [Meyer] said it had no place in the game, yet didn't he dress down a student reporter at a practice? This week they talked about dirty recruiting. Again they threw to Meyer, who said he would never engage in that type of behavior. Urban once had his assistant coach lie to recruits that the coach wasn't leaving when in reality the coach left the day after signing day for the pros. -- Joey, Oakland, Calif.

Do analysts occasionally whitewash past infractions when they join the TV side? They do, and Meyer's words certainly bear watching, given some of his past actions with reporters. That said, I've been impressed with Meyer so far, and he hasn't come off like a card-carrying member (Holtz, James, Dick Vitale) of the protect-coaches-at-all-costs club.

Do you think Ron Franklin will ever call a college football game again for a network like FX or CBS College Sports?-- John, Mantua

I could see Franklin getting a job with some regional network, or working for a school, but I'd be surprised if he got another national gig.

I'm in favor of a constitutional amendment banning sideline reporters in all sports coverage. The fact that the only example all your writers came up with for the value of sideline reporting was the same single Erin Andrews report shows that 99.999% of sideline reporting is worthless. Actually, my ideal TV sports coverage would be point a camera at the field and say nothing at all unless it isn't obvious what is going on (fortunately I can simulate this with the mute button, but the mute button doesn't help when the camera is pointed at the sideline reporter instead of the field). --Tom Horsley, Delray Beach, Fla.

Sideline reporting is like any other reporting.The best of the lot ask pointed questions of coaches, and provide viewers with things they can't see. The worst are part of the school's PR apparatus and value relationships with the coaches and players more than informing the viewers.

A couple of years or so ago, I emailed [ESPN Radio's] Mike Greenberg about his penchant for calling every guest he interviewed (and 90 percent of them were ESPN people, of course) "great," as in "the great Marcellus Wiley." I told him to reserve the compliment for people who really deserve it, like Hall of Famers, because he cheapened the praise and sounded cheesy by using it so often. Needless to say I did not get a response back. Take care!-- Mark L. Passaro, Saratoga Springs.

Great stuff, Mark. Thanks.

Plenty of new sports shows have made their debuts over the past two weeks (I'll review a couple in the upcoming weeks) and thanks to the great Austin Karp, the assistant managing editor at SportsBusiness Daily, we have some initial viewing numbers on some of interest:

• ESPN2's Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable averaged 149,000 viewers and ESPN2's Numbers Never Lie averaged 140,000 viewers in its first week of airing. Regarding a comparison with last month's ratings in the same time slot on the same network, an English Premier League match between Man City-Swansea City drew 276,000 combined viewers while coverage of the U.S. Open tennis series from Cincinnati drew between 208,000 and 364,000 viewers, depending on the day.

For a comparison for the same time slot in Sept. 2010, a Monday airing of College Football Live drew 240,000 viewers while SportsNation drew 341,000 viewers. A Tuesday airing of the Scott Van Pelt show drew 145,000 viewers while SportsNation drew 260,000 viewers.

• CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell's SportsBiz: Game On averaged 32,000 viewers on VERSUS last week in a brutal Friday night time slot, down from 36,000 viewers its debut week, according to Karp and the tvsportsratings Twitter feed.

• Finally, NBC Sports Talk, airing weekdays on VERSUS, averaged 20,000 viewers last week.

During a long conversation last month with Seth Markman, ESPN senior coordinating producer for the NFL, I asked him what new NFL addition would surprise viewers. His response? Jerry Rice. Which was surprising.

"After talking to him all summer, I'm shocked that nobody gave him a real consistent job in this business," Markman said. "I know part of it was he was not ready to do this. The other times we had spoken with him, he had some other things and did not want to be a consistent contributor.

"I'm not quite sure what the knocks have been on him because I've met with him several times and have been on the phone with him, and the guy knows the league really well. He's also really opinionated, which I think will shock people. I've heard from people who said he would be measured and doesn't want to anger the current players, but if he gives me on TV what he has given me on the phone, I think he will shock people. This league has become so big on receiver issues and to have Jerry Rice to be able to talk about these guys, I think viewers are going to be in for a nice surprise."

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