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ESPN Botches Taylor Coverage

By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 27, 2007 2:35 PM

The initial coverage of the Sean Taylor shooting Monday by ESPN, the so-called worldwide leader in sports news and information, was absolutely pathetic.

Let's see, an All-Pro player is gravely wounded -- murdered, as it sadly turned out Tuesday morning -- during an apparent burglary attempt. On Monday, he was reportedly in critical condition, and all they could do for most of the day on ESPNews was devote about 45 seconds to the story every 30 minutes or so? The rest of the hour was mostly spent on highlights rehashing weekend NFL and college football action.

Regular ESPN led with the Taylor story on SportsCenter Monday night at 6 p.m., but the information came mostly from a constantly updated story being posted on The Washington Post web site. ESPN filled out its meager report with file footage of Taylor in action and lifted videotape of Joe Gibbs and several players reacting to the shooting from Comcast SportsNet and WRC-TV. Chris Mortensen came on the air live from Atlanta, where he's based, but offered little fresh information, and then it was back to the highlights, always the highlights, and promoting the network's upcoming Monday night football game.

News of the Taylor shooting first broke in Monday morning drive time. How could ESPN not have rushed a reporter or two to Miami for constant live updates, either from the hospital or outside of Taylor's home? Surely they must have stringers on call. And Hank Goldberg, ESPN's frequent on-air NFL analyst and a longtime and well-connected South Florida daily sports talk show host, lives in Miami. Why wasn't he pressed into immediate service?

This was a huge NFL news story, and we're not taking a provincial approach on this, either, just because it happens to involve a Washington athlete. If it had been a Hollywood celebrity shooting, don't you think that CNN and its Headline News service would have interrupted regular programming and offered blanket, minute-by-minute coverage?

ESPN would like the world to think it owns the sports news business. Not this time. The boys up in Bristol badly botched this story and did a serious disservice to viewers looking for up-to-the-minute information on a mega sports-news event.

In fact, the model for how a cable news operation should handle such coverage actually was provided locally by Comcast SportsNet.

I tuned in several times Monday evening and was gratified to see that the Bethesda-based network had quickly dispatched Redskins reporter Kelli Johnson to Miami to jump on the story. Johnson, stationed outside Jackson Memorial Hospital, provided breaking information as well as interviews with several key principals on the scene, including Taylor's father and Redskins' personnel director Vinny Cerrato.

On Tuesday morning, several hours after Taylor's death was announced, CBS, NBC and ABC stayed with their regular national morning shows and ran brief stories on the shooting along with a mix of politics, the Mideast peace talks in Annapolis, Dick Cheney's heart procedure and reports on missing women in Aruba and the Chicago suburbs.

But when I turned in to Channel 5 shortly after 8 a.m., the local Fox affiliate, to its great credit, was live from Miami with reporter Maureen Omeh on the scene. The station also brought in a medical expert to explain why Taylor's injury ultimately proved to be fatal, and kept updating the story as the morning went on.

In the same 8 a.m. hour, Comcast SportsNet was airing a taped repeat of a weekend college football game between Washington and Washington State, showing a crawl at the bottom of the screen reporting Taylor's death. They would have been wiser to stay with the Taylor coverage.

In the same 8 a.m. hour, ESPN, on tape, and ESPNews live were still in full highlight mode. Pathetic. Just pathetic.

Cliché Corner

Every time I hear a broadcaster yap about a football team not executing properly, I can't help but recall the response from the late John McKay, the head coach of the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers back in the mid-1970s, when he was asked in a postgame press conference what he thought about the execution of his team's offensive line that day.

Without a moment's hesitation, McKay, who coached the NFL's last winless team in 1976, smiled, shook his head yes and said, "I'm all for it."

After a four-day turkey weekend binge of watching college and pro football seemingly morning, noon and night, "execution" seems a tad over the top for so many broadcasters who keep mangling the language and falling back on cliché after cliché in their commentary. Time to threaten fifty lashes with a wet noodle for anyone caught using the following expressions -- all of them uttered live to a national audience this past week, and most other weeks -- the next time they're behind a football microphone.

  1. "Are You Kidding Me?" I must have heard this at least four different times in four different games following a nice catch, a critical fumble, a botched call by a referee. I mean who's kidding who here? No one's kidding anyone. Just call the play, give me a "wow," a "holy cow" or even a Dick Enberg "oh my!" But enough with the "are you kidding me" response. I'm sick of it, and I kid you not.
  2. "What appears to be a first down." The NFL Network's Bryant Gumbel constantly hedged his calls on first downs last Thursday night, even though that computerized yellow first down marker -- arguably the greatest technological innovation for televised football this century -- left no doubt that it really was a first down. One could argue that the play might be called back because of a penalty, but Gumbel doesn't need to say "appears to be" every single time, often using it on touchdown calls, completed passes and even penalties. If he simply says "first down," honestly we'll forgive him if it gets called back, or is reversed later on by replay.
  3. "Warrior." No, they're not warriors, and they're not heroes. They're football players, or athletes, behemoths, hosses, stars, studs or even stiffs. But "warrior" and "hero" are sacred words reserved at the moment for the men and women in combat boots, flak jackets and helmets fighting real wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And while we're at it, at the moment, it's inappropriate to be talking about football in terms of war, battles, courage, passes thrown like guided missiles or even deep bombs. (And by the way, did anyone hear Alabama Coach Nick Saban equate his struggling team's recent losing streak to cataclysmic events in world history like Pearl Harbor and 9/11? Are you kidding me? Oops.)
  4. "Young rookie." Well of course he's young. He's a rookie. Rookies are young, that's why they're rookies. Duh.
  5. "He's gonna play on Sunday next year." This is most often used by Brent "You're looking live at Soldier Field" Musburger, who nevertheless will always remain on my short list of all-time great sports broadcasters. But why not just say a talented college football player has a good chance to play in the NFL next year, or when his eligibility runs out. And by the way, the league also has games on Thursday, Saturday and Monday.
  6. "He's a future Hall of Famer." How many times was that expression used when Art Monk was in the prime of his career? He still may be a future Hall of Famer (I'm actually hoping this is finally the year), but he's not there yet and there's no guarantee he ever will be. I kept hearing during Giants' games last year that Tiki Barber was a "future Hall of Famer." I don't think so. Big difference between Hall of Fame and Hall of Great.
  7. "That pass was thrown like" a, a rope; b, a clothesline; c, a laser; or d, a rocket. Can't we come up with e, none of the above, and just say the ball was thrown with extreme velocity? However, I still love the expression and the image of a wobbly "wounded duck" pass, sort of like the one Billy Kilmer once tried to throw at my head during a Redskins practice back in the 1970s. I wrote in the paper the next day that it was a typical Kilmer throw -- high, wobbly and badly off target. But we digress.
  8. "He needs to get more air under the ball." Not really. A quarterback really just needs to throw the ball a little higher, or with a bit more touch, or more loft. No more air balls, please.
  9. "He's a gunslinger." Again with the war and gun image in a term most often associated these days in the NFL with Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre. But he's just a player (and yes, he really is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer) who happens to take more chances and throw into more double coverage than most of his playing peers. Last time we looked, he's never had a pair of Colt 45s strapped to his belt when he takes the field, and the end zone is not exactly the OK Corral.
  10. "That quarterback is just not in rhythm." Usually this is applied when a quarterback misses a few passes or is directing an offense that has a few three-and-out series in a row. Heaven forbid that the offensive line isn't blocking properly, that his receivers are running lousy routes, that his safety valve running back can't even catch a cold. So the quarterback is out of rhythm, as if Duke Ellington might be a better choice to stick his hands under center and try to do better.

I'm certain I missed other examples of mangling of the language over the last few days. Maybe you've got a few pet peeves of your own that you'd love to see eliminated from college and NFL broadcasts. Send them in and we'll try to, pardon the expression, "air it out" in a future column. Give us your best/worst shots.

Email of the Week

I too miss Tony Kornheiser's articles and the almost-daily writings of Michael Wilbon. The Post has had any number of excellent columnists and writers that have gone on to other pursuits.

My problem is while there may not be an endless supply of writers and columnists that can attract readers, there are certainly some left. Rather than trying to hang on to writers and columnists who obviously have other interests, The Post should be trying to cultivate the next Kornheiser and Wilbon. Wilbon started with the paper and developed into the writer he is. The Post has stopped looking and keeps hanging on to columnists rather than breaking the ties and developing new and better writers.

It is almost the same as the Redskins, rather than having the patience to develop new talent, they keep looking for old talent that is not interested in the Post. Monday, whether the Redskins won or lost, I would love reading about it in The Post and following the various columnists' thoughts and insights. Now, while I read the paper, the insights are limited to Monday and almost nonexistent the rest of the week. It is easy to begrudge that other media have more money and benefits, but The Post found new talent in the past and can find or develop it in the future, if they want to maintain the quality of the paper.

Philip Katz

Clarksville

Leonard Shapiro can be reached at badgerlen@hotmail.com or badgerlen@aol.com.

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