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Coverage of LeBron James's decision brings ESPN's integrity into question yet again

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; 8:40 PM

On assignment covering the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament, I must admit I didn't make it back to a television set in time to watch "The Decision" brought to you by LeBron James and ESPN last Thursday night. Still, the more you read and hear about the one-hour not-so-special last Thursday night, the more you have to wonder if the entire fiasco wasn't really the brainchild of the Three Stooges' favorite firm, as in "Dewey, Cheatem and Howe."

The most troubling aspect of the whole ill-conceived mess was ESPN's willingness to hand over an hour of prime-time television to an egomaniacal athlete the network should be covering as a news story. After all, James's final choice of teams already had previously been reported and confirmed by several other news outlets, including ESPN's own man, Chris Broussard. Wasn't that enough?

If James wanted to hold a news conference and invite the whole world in, that's fine and dandy, the right way to do it. That's how these affairs are usually handled, and properly so. Where one of the best players in the game winds up in free agency is a news story, plain and simple. And since when does this not-so-subtle form of checkbook journalism pass the smell test anywhere else but in the Bristol, Conn., offices of the so-called worldwide leader?

It doesn't, and ESPN's so-called journalistic integrity once again is being called into question, with very good reason.

Here's the rationale Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president, used to justify the show according to sportsjournalism.org, a Web site produced by Indiana University's National Sports Journalism Center.

"This event could have ended up on the Internet," Williamson said last week. "It could have ended up on another network. This event was going to end up somewhere, so we had a decision to make as a corporation and a news entity."

It was the wrong decision, and you'd also like to think the tsunami of criticism in its wake at least might make the ESPN people at least think twice about allowing it to happen ever again.

Over the last few days, I've spoken to several sports television executives, and virtually to a man they were highly critical of ESPN's decision, as well as its production. Particularly irksome was host Jim Gray's maddening questioning of James -- 16 in all -- before he asked the only one that mattered deep into the broadcast.

"It felt a little bit cheesy," one network sports vice president said. "It just felt like they were in bed with him, and that's something you never want to have happen. If you are going to tell us where he's going, get right to it. Ask the question. Where are you playing next year? It was a joke."

In an e-mail, another long time sports television veteran wrote: "Let's take this to its natural evolution: ESPN has just sent a message . . . that they are open for business for "news" announcements. So, when Carmelo Anthony becomes a free-agent, does he get a show?

How about (agent) Scott Boras? I can see him doing deals with ESPN that announces who his free agents sign with. How long is Kobe's contract? If Peyton Manning becomes a free agent, does he get a "news" show? If I'm an agent, I would be studying this like mad and I would be calling ESPN saying "give me the same or else I'll tell my client not to talk to ESPN folks."

The bottom line: Next time, ESPN would be wise to report the hell out of the story, then just say "No, we'll cover the news conference" the next time any representative for a star athlete demands the same treatment accorded LeBron James. He's really not a king.

Off the air

The third round of the U.S. Women's Open was scheduled to be aired by NBC this past Saturday from 3 to 6 p.m. Because second-round play was postponed Friday afternoon in the wake of a major storm in the Pittsburgh area, the second-round leaders did not tee off to start their third round until late Saturday afternoon, meaning they would play until dark, and the third round would not have been completed.

NBC signed off on its golf coverage at the appointed 6 p.m. hour Saturday, and no other broadcasting entity carried the remaining action that day, meaning that viewers missed about 2 1/2 hours of major championship golf. As it turned out, none of the leaders finished their rounds that evening before play was postponed at about 8:30 p.m. and resumed Sunday morning.

To its credit, the U.S. Golf Association did make arrangements to have the conclusion of the third round televised on ESPN2 starting at 8 a.m. Sunday. And it did have a contingency plan to move coverage to another network, ESPN2, but only if the entire third round could have been completed Saturday night, according to Mark Carlson, the USGA's director of broadcasting.

"When you can't get a decisive conclusion to a round, when you know the round would not be finished, it's just bad television," Carlson said. "Our sole thought was, let's get the conclusion of the round on the air the next morning. It's really that simple. We did the same thing the last time the situation occurred in the same tournament in 2007 at Pine Needles. It's just better television."

Still, ask yourself this question. If it had been the men's U.S. Open, and Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson was in contention, don't you think the rest of the round would have been carried live either by the Peacock Network, its sister networks like CNBC or MSNB, by ESPN or even the Golf Channel?

The answer, of course, is a resounding yes. But women's golf is not exactly a ratings or a revenue leader. In fact, the tournament in recent years has been about $5 million in the red. And as usual, this was a business decision based purely on economics, even if its does have clear gender-bias implications. Just for example, a 30-second ad for the men's U.S. Open goes for $150,000. For the women's Open, the rate is $30,000.

As for NBC's role, a network spokesman said in an e-mail response: "We were contractually obligated to cover the event until 6 p.m. ET [Saturday], which we did. Hours of rain delays unfortunately prevented showing the conclusion of the third round, which was finished on Sunday morning. Had it been necessary, we would have covered the final round on Sunday until its conclusion, as we have done multiple times in the past."

How nice.

Sad note

Jack Craig, the long-time and pioneering sports television critic for the Boston Globe, died last Friday at the age of 81 from complications arising from an accidental fall at his Dedham, Mass., home on July 6.

Craig was the first of his kind when the Globe assigned him to write a review of the television coverage of the 1967 NFL title game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, known as the "Ice Bowl" because it was played in sub-zero temperatures at Lambeau Field.

It was not long before Craig was writing regularly about sports on television, locally and nationally, in his SporTView column in the Globe, which became a popular feature in the paper. Other daily newspapers around the country soon followed the Globe's lead, instituting similar columns in their own sports sections, or picking up Craig's work from the Globe.

Craig was not always popular with some of the subjects he criticized, and he said in a 1976 interview with Boston Magazine: "I'm dealing with people who have enlarged egos simply because they're on television. These people are less able to handle criticism than others. They're fearful that the audience is looking at them in a different light because the audience reads my column. I think it's fair to say there are a few people who loathe me."

He definitely was not alone.

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