An Open Letter to ESPN's new "Public Editor"
Jim Brady, a former sports and executive editor at WashingtonPost.com and currently the CEO of Spirited Media, is the new public editor at ESPN. In late November he published an article on ESPN.com titled "Public Editor: ESPN not 'monolithic' but still deserving of scrutiny." Nowhere in the piece did he truly mention why ESPN should receive such "scrutiny," yet he did write the following:
"With this vast range of properties and platforms, it’s obvious that there’s one thing ESPN cannot be: monolithic. Those who don’t like ESPN seem to believe there’s a white-cat-stroking James Bond villain in a secret lair somewhere in Connecticut handing down dictates to the staff and expecting them to be hammered home consistently across all ESPN products. This is, of course, impossible, as anyone who’s ever worked at a large media company knows. ESPN is made up of more than 7,000 human beings with different strengths, weaknesses, personalities and responsibilities."
I took offense at this paragraph. I have personally been subject to dictates from the monolithic ESPN. For Brady to write that this cannot and does not occur irked me to say the least. So, since he offered an email and was willing to accept letters from the public, below is the exact letter I sent to him on December 1, 2015. You can either agree with me, agree with him, or pick and choose a little of both, but I doubt you can stay neutral.
And just as a side note, I have yet to receive any sort of reply despite his open-door policy. If I ever do, I shall post it here.
Dear Mr. Brady:
Allow me to congratulate you on your new post as ESPN’s “public editor.” I wish you all the best in this role as I’m certain many years of hard work and determination led to your success.
That being said, I have to agree with your family and colleagues who wondered if you were crazy for taking this position. While no offense is intended, I feel that there is little possibility of you doing justice to your new job title while maintaining any sort of journalistic integrity. The realms of ESPN and actual journalism do not coincide.
Allow me to present you with two incidents I personally experienced that led to this conclusion.
In 2013, my book Larceny Games: Sports Gambling, Game Fixing and FBI was published by Feral House. ESPN as well as a host of other outlets (Sports Illustrated, HBO Sports, 60 Minutes, etc.) requested copies of the book prior to its release. Why? Because I had done something no other sports writer had: through FOIA, I obtained every file the FBI possessed related to game fixing in American sports. This revealed that numerous Hall of Fame athletes as well as many well-known names in the NBA, NFL, MLB, and boxing had likely gambled on the sports in which they participated if not outright fixed games.
A writer at the New York Post quickly honed in on a story in Larceny Games about the FBI’s investigation in the early 1980’s of three members of the New York Knicks who allegedly shaved points as a favor to their cocaine dealer. The Post made the piece the front page of its Sunday sports section. Within 30 minutes of the story hitting the Post’s website, Sports Illustrated picked up on it. CNN called my house. The story even wound up on a local NY nightly newscast as it went viral and appeared on Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and a host of other outlets.
Where didn’t it appear? On ESPN. I found this odd until I remembered that ESPN pays the NBA over $1 billion a season to broadcast the league’s games.
In fact, while none of the revelations or allegations made in Larceny Games has been refuted, not a single ESPN outlet has ever covered any aspect of my book. And though I’ve appeared on numerous local and nationally syndicated radio programs including the Dan Patrick Show to discuss both Larceny Games and the ever-growing scourge of game fixing in sports, none of ESPN’s national radio programs or its major affiliates (Chicago, New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, Boston) have responded to an interview request or invited me on the air.
That’s an interesting outcome if you’re correct in writing that ESPN is not, in fact, “monolithic.”
A short time after Larceny Games was completed, I found myself investigating a lead which perhaps would reveal the first fixed MLB game since the 1919 World Series. Teamed with Lance Williams (co-author of Game of Shadows, the book about Barry Bonds and BALCO) and the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), we worked on this investigation for nearly a year. Ultimately we discovered that the game was likely not fixed, but a more shocking revelation was the behavior of MLB and its Department of Investigation in the pursuit of this case (which raised questions that still have not been adequately answered in my opinion).
Twice the CIR offered this article to ESPN. The first time, ESPN’s editor let the piece languish until the CIR assumed ESPN wasn’t interested. After a period of time, the CIR approached a different ESPN editor who was excited to run the piece in ESPN the Magazine as well as online—until ESPN’s legal team stepped into the picture. In the wake of the NFL nudging Disney into removing ESPN’s name from the PBS/Frontline investigative documentary on concussions and brain trauma in football, ESPN’s legal team came to the conclusion that the company would no longer work with outside contributors (or so we were informed). Of course, at this time, ESPN was also a business partner with MLB. Sports Illustrated eventually published the piece both online and in the magazine to great fanfare, and yet again, no ESPN outlet—radio, TV, internet, print—touched the story.
So, twice I have seen ESPN present a united front that contradicts your belief that this “white-cat-stroking” behavior doesn’t/can’t/wouldn’t occur.
Admittedly this was all in the past, prior to your advancement to your current position. So let me pose a question or two to you concerning the immediate future of ESPN and its properties. Mainly: are you going to allow ESPN to continue promoting illegal sports gambling in the United States?
Talk to any FBI agent knowledgeable about the subject, and he/she will tell you that sports gambling is in fact the number one money-maker for organized crime today. No one knows how much is wagered illegally on sports in the US—estimates range from $80 to $500 billion annually—but it is certain that the mafia controls the vast majority of this money. Far from being a “victimless crime,” illegal sports gambling not only ruins lives, but funds other illegal activities including money laundering, prostitution, and loan sharking.
ESPN currently (and willingly) acts as a cog in this machine. With the launch of the gambling-related sub-site “Chalk,” ESPN is not just promoting wagering to the inhabitants of the 49 states where single-game sports betting is illegal, the website is outright offering betting advice. Seriously, ESPN.com featured a story just this past week titled “How to bet the Ravens-Browns [Monday Night Football game]” which was credited as written by “Vegas insiders.” The site behaves no better than the hustlers who serve as gambling touts, selling their “five-star locks” to ignorant and desperate people. In fact, ESPN Chalk is effectively a tout service since some of this betting information (including the article mentioned above) is only available to ESPN Insiders who have to pay a fee to access this content.
These gambling stories and coverage are not confined just to Chalk, they spread throughout ESPN’s broadcast affiliates which often allow known touts on-air to discuss this information. A casual fan cannot avoid hearing about betting lines, which team to take, and later, which teams covered the spread if they tune into an ESPN station. I’ve even witnessed ESPN’s television coverage of college football games graphically announce when a team has covered the spread. I’m sure this would happen on ESPN’s Monday Night Football, too, if the NFL would allow it.
I am well aware that nothing prevents ESPN from broadcasting/publishing this information. I also firmly grasp why ESPN does so: sports fans are gambling on these games despite the illegal nature of the activity. Though each league insists it does not want sports gambling legalized, they are not so naïve as to believe that fans aren’t already waist-deep betting on these games. ESPN is taking advantage of this, because as you pointed out, this is still a business and Chalk is going to get plenty of clicks which will raise the site’s revenue and ESPN’s profit.
Yet if I ran a website dedicated to bomb-making which detailed not just how to build these devices, but where best to detonate them in order to inflict the most damage, I’m sure I would be castigated for my actions. It wouldn’t matter if I hid behind a “this is for informational purposes only” disclaimer. The site would be viewed as a danger to the public. I would be “helping the terrorists.” However, ESPN (and other sites as well) is given a free pass for all of its gambling information despite the reality that it’s aiding and abetting a nationwide criminal syndicate worth perhaps $100 billion or more.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against sports gambling per se. I favor its legalization. I even recently published a book which detailed my descent into the sports gambling world to uncover both its good and bad incarnations. Yet in your new position, you could take a stand—despite being non-monolithic—and prevent such information and talk from being published or broadcast throughout ESPN. You could call for a cease-and-desist order until at such time the nation comes to its senses and legalizes sports gambling, no matter what the leagues demand. But will you? Would you dare risk profit over integrity?
In many circles, ESPN’s integrity is already lacking, if not considered nonexistent. The fact that ESPN didn’t fire Stephen A. Smith for uttering the “n-word” on-air not once, but twice speaks volumes. This as well as continuing to hire and employ former athletes with highly questionable histories—I’m sure you know the names I’m referring to—as commentators is remarkable. The network has made Howard Cosell’s fear of a “jockocracy” come to life, and it’s worse than he imagined.
I know the network has a big hole from which to dig out as the broadcast rights ESPN paid to the NFL, NBA, NCAA and others are a serious burden. Talent has had to be cut. Other difficult decisions will have to be made to continue to make ESPN profitable, especially as the network loses subscribers.
But you are in a position to right this ship, especially given your background. My hope would be that you take a step back from the “E” in ESPN (the entertainment, “my opinion is better than your opinion because I’m speaking louder” aspect), and instead focus on solid sports reporting. Perhaps actual investigative reporting, even if it flies in the face of those leagues that the network is directly funding. Kickstart that aspect of ESPN, and you might just see all these so-called conspiracy theories about the network fade as viewers, listeners, and readers return.
It’s up to you. I wish you luck.