ESPN got it wrong. Three things to take away from their failed reportage.
If you follow sports or the news in any way, you are aware of protests over systemic racism on campus. These protests gained national attention as the football team suspended operations in solidarity with a graduate student hunger striking with the goal of replacing the President of the university. Wolfe, the President of Mizzou, had done a particularly poor job of managing escalating racism on campus. Perhaps, corporate mergers managers aren’t suited to educational environments. News of the strike broke over the weekend on various sports websites, spreading to the mainstream media Sunday.
How did ESPN react? Not well.
Although the story was beginning to gain traction on Saturday afternoon, the network was behind in reporting it. After featuring an article early Sunday covering the solidarity of the team, EPSN ran this as their only above the fold/featured link at Missouri overnight Sunday-Monday. For those of you not into clicking links, the story alleged that the team was not behind the decision to stop practicing, and further that the crisis would blow over. The story itself is strange, the first several paragraphs seem to be intended to cast doubt on the success of the movement. The last several paragraphs reiterate the support of the football coaches for suspending operations. It is unclear why this was the last story on ESPN heading into a week with impending protests and a faculty walkout. Reporting wavering support seems to be a timid attempt at defusing the protests.
The morning of the resignation was worse. ESPN did not break the story of Wolfe’s resignation, instead of interrupting the droning rerun of material from that morning, ESPN held fast. The ticker noted the resignation and the side bar in the upper left noted that there was breaking news. The tapes ran an old episode of His/Hers on ESPN2 and an old Sportscenter on ESPN. CNN was stronger in covering the resignation. The Sportscenter rerun included updates on the Cam Newton banner story and plenty of bloopers. The next Sportscenter would include an update on the “Missouri situation.’ ESPN was clearly on tape (likely a computer file) at this point, so their choice of a euphemism speaks to the editorial mood going into the event. Mistakes were made is a lawyer’s favorite. It was not until 1 pm eastern standard time, when the next Sportscenter was scheduled that EPSN switched from minimizing the strength and importance of the student movement to actively covering the story of the Wolfe’s resignation.
At best, ESPN was flat-footed. They misunderstood the national relevance of the story and underestimated the support for the students campus wide. Writing that the students has limited support would be an accurate representation of what ESPN editorial thought the facts would have been. At worst, ESPN was actively attempting to undermine the students by downplaying the importance of the story on their webpage and claiming that support was weaker than previously thought. The lack of coverage on Monday morning would be an attempt to reduce pressure on the Curators meeting at Mizzou. Even if you accept the version of events where ESPN was unprepared and surprised, there is reason for concern
First, ESPN has a conflict of interest. Mizzou is a part of the Southeastern Conference and ESPN is their primary cable television partner. Much like concerns with ESPN and sports gambling, they are both the owners of the organization and the journalists covering it. This is fairly straight-forward. It is very difficult for ESPN to remain neutral when their primary business is no longer sports reportage but sports carriage.
Existentially, the crisis cuts to the heart of ESPN. Stories of athlete activism break the aesthetic pallor that has become sports coverage today. Compulsory piety, raising awareness, fake debate, cornball antics. Always up, never down. College football in particular is the opiate of cultural conservatives. The students broke the fourth wall. It was not that the students made football political, but they reminded the public that it already was. ESPN has a vested interest in the affective modulation of their content. Removing content that causes emotions to modulate is a key business practice. After all, why would it ever be in ESPN’s interest for people to articulate any feeling except those approved: happy, thankful, aggressive qua docile, playful. Humans are not covered by ESPN. Frankly, the Care Bears (and cousins) aren’t even right for what ESPN needs these days. Expect this to continue, less feeling, more uniformity. When combined with cost cutting, expect to see a string of faces fresh out of college broadcasting programs laughing buoyantly until their replacement. No sports analysis needed.
ConcernedStudent1950 was targeted activism by students confronting indifference to violence. The fact that justice is not compatible with the emotional palate of ESPN is troubling.
Second, Disney has made critical errors in managing ESPN. These errors are not special, Amanda Lotz has documented the ways in which vertical integration makes large media companies conservative. ESPN has been laying off expensive staff, decreasing overhead, and closing key properties. Grantland may have had a limited impact on the macro-level of sports journalism, but it had an agenda setting impact on sports journalism. Disney closed Grantland to take control of the emotional life of sports. For a time, Disney had many of the finest sports and culture writers today under contract. Grantland was a threat as it could introduce issues to the main conversation that ESPN did not want addressed. Bill Simmons was fired as editor of Grantland for using the wrong tone to address the prevarications of ESPN and the National Football League, a key partner/subject of coverage. Oh, conflicts of interest again.
Additional carriage of sporting events will increase the carriage fee for ESPN, currently nearly seven dollars per subscriber per month. These high revenues make the business bigger. These increased risk levels distort decision making even more. When you put all your eggs in one basket, you should watch the basket. Disney is watching the basket so hard it will spontaneously combust.
It could be argued that ESPN has reached a point in cost cutting where they might not have had a crew ready or talent on hand to cover events over the noon-hour eastern. If that is true, they are below the skeleton crew threshold. Folks at 538 should keep this morning’s coverage in mind when evaluating their job security. When staff is so short that live coverage of the biggest sports story of late 2015 is not possible, luxury items like a statistics staff for non-sports news reporting seem like easy cuts.
Third, ESPN is no longer the leader. Disney either mis-read the situation in Missouri fundamentally or attempted to defuse the protests. Either way, organizations like Deadspin effectively took the story national without ESPN as a backstop. If the future business model of ESPN is to file DMCA notices against third parities sharing sports gifs in their coverage (they already are sending these letters) the situation is bleak. Instead of being a go-to place for meaningful sports coverage, ESPN will become less relevant, until it is only an afterthought with related franchises. The public will turn away from ESPN for anything other than games.
ESPN doesn’t want outside emotion to intrude into the circle of victory and piety. Sports are important because of their role in social change and their unpredictable nature. If ESPN intends to avoid the fate of every other Disney property, they need to learn the lesson from their failure this last weekend: even ESPN can’t tell the public how to feel.