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ESPN Whiffs on Roethlisberger Coverage

Jul 23, 2009 – 1:55 AM
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Kevin Blackistone

Kevin Blackistone %BloggerTitle%

Upon the announcement early last May that Vince Doria had been singled out by his sports editor colleagues with their highest honor, the Red Smith Award, a former writer for Doria, Leigh Montville, penned a poignant piece about his old boss in Sports Illustrated. Montville wrote in part of the man he worked for at The Boston Globe, and who now oversees ESPN's news operation: "He ... had an ear and appreciation for good writing and a wonderful sense of what was news and what wasn't."

I trust that Montville, who I came to know as a cub reporter for the Globe's city desk in the early '80s, wrote about Doria's nose for news in the past tense only because he was recalling their times together. But in the wake of what transpired -- or didn't -- at ESPN the past few days, I wondered for at least a moment.

For the E this week in ESPN -- a hand that feeds me, too -- came to stand for error. The biggest purveyor of sports news and entertainment in the world erred in not deciding to report until Wednesday night what had been news -- big news -- since it started leaking out of Nevada last weekend: A female employee at Harrah's Lake Tahoe casino last Friday filed a lawsuit against Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Harrah's management, charging that Roethlisberger raped her in 2008 and casino executives covered it up.

That was news. Still is. There have been developments from it almost every day since then. The latest twist was that police would not open a criminal investigation into the accuser's story.

This site has reported the developments as has every other sports Web site worth its scoreboard, including the Associated Press, whose sports association, the Associated Press Sports Editors, honored Doria in person at its luncheon last month in Pittsburgh.

Like a number of reporters stupefied by the conspicuous absence of the Roethlisberger bombshell on the preeminent sports news site, I queried Doria about his decision. It was explained to me Wednesday evening by a spokesman for Doria, Mac Nwulu, with whom I've broken bread, that the network was concerned about impugning someone's character by reporting on a civil lawsuit that made such a heinous charge despite not being tied to a criminal complaint. He told me the network also considered the accused's otherwise spotless history and the fact that the accused hadn't yet spoken publicly about the allegation.

That was noble but it should not have added up to what was nothing less than censorship. A better answer would have been that ESPN was attempting to verify the veracity of charge but hadn't yet done so. But even then that would not be reason to ignore reporting on a legal filing, civil or otherwise. I recall my days on the cop beat combing through the night's final police reports looking for the names of the rich and famous, or public figures. That's Roethlisberger.

Nwulu explained that ESPN from time to time has treated Roethlisberger-like situations differently. He pointed out that the network did not originally report a civil suit several years ago against Michael Vick alleging that he'd spread a sexual disease and sought treatment under the alias Ron Mexico. On the other hand, the network did report an alleged groping incident against Mike Tyson because of Tyson's prior conviction as a sex offender.

[The] E this week in ESPN -- a hand that feeds me, too -- came to stand for error. That doesn't wash. Such decision making raises more questions and the network unnecessarily puts itself in a questionable light by doing so. Did ESPN hold off on Roethlisberger because he was scheduled to appear Friday for a shooting of Shaquille O'Neal's new reality TV series on ESPN's parent, ABC? Did it cut Big Ben a break because he hired one-time ESPN legal analyst David Cornwell, a friend of mine, to represent him? Did it ease up on the Super Bowl hero to keep in his good favor for some exclusive access during the season? Does this prove that the network cuts white athletes some slack while dragging black athletes who sustain similar charges through the mud?

There was a time when those of us in the news business were both judge and jury of what the public would come to know. We decided on our own what you needed to know. I wish those times still existed because I believe we possess the best tools, especially intellectually, to determine as much.

But the internet has changed much of that. We watch the gate rather than keep it and sometimes, like with Roethlisberger, we have to report when something goes through it. ESPN realized as much way too late.

"Based on the sensitive nature of the story and other factors we mentioned, we initially exercised caution and did not report it," ESPN said in statement. "Since then, we've been observing how the story has progressed, monitoring other news outlets, and doing our own reporting. We decided to report the story tonight [Wednesday]."

Nwulu told me later: "We made this decision because we feel it is the right thing to do. We know not everybody will agree with the decision, just like not everyone agreed with our decision not to report it in the first place."

ESPN shouldn't stop there. Starting Thursday morning it needs to toss out its case-by-case system for reporting such news, no matter how sensitive the news may seem. Just like some ESPN commentators suggested earlier this week of baseball's instant replay rules after the crazy ending to the Twins-A's game Monday night, ESPN's reporting standards need to be amended. I bet the old Vince Doria would see that.

Follow me on Twitter: @ProfBlackistone
Filed under: Sports