ESPN, which bills itself as the worldwide leader in sports, has been leading in another category lately: apologies.
First this week came video of NFL analyst Cris Carter, a Hall of Fame receiver, instructing young players during a rookie symposium to “get a fall guy” for their off-field indiscretions.
Then it was ESPN baseball analyst and Red Sox great Curt Schilling comparing Muslims with Nazis in a tweet.
The network’s well-practiced response was that Schilling’s and Carter’s remarks do not reflect ESPN’s values. Carter issued his own mea culpa on camera, while Schilling apologized on Twitter and was also suspended.
Since April, ESPN has dealt similarly with controversial statements by NFL reporter Britt McHenry, business reporter Darren Rovell, and radio host Colin Cowherd.
Each case may involve individual failings but, taken together, they represent a bigger challenge that is hardly unique to ESPN. In a time when media professionals are encouraged to show some charisma, to build a personal brand that is funny or snarky or provocative — particularly on social media — they are also more likely than their strait-laced predecessors to stumble into offensive territory.
“Call me old school, but the whole notion makes me a little queasy,” said Robert Drechsel, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “There is increasing pressure to develop your own brand, but I’m uncomfortable putting such an emphasis on the journalist. You don’t want to become the story.”
For news outlets, there is no easy way to ensure that staffers are simultaneously colorful and tasteful at all times. That can be especially true of ESPN personalities because fact-based reporting and opinionated analysis are so intertwined in sports coverage.
ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz described the network’s approach in an e-mail:
“We have more than 1,000 commentators with varying responsibilities and diverse viewpoints,” he said. “We encourage them to serve sports fans with authority and personality, and we provide them ongoing guidance and resources to do just that . . . If mistakes are made within our extremely high volume of content, we respond appropriately and always look to learn and improve.”
Common advice from media bosses is to always write and speak — even off the clock — as if your words were being printed or broadcast. Some of the country’s most respected news organizations use some variation of that guidepost.
NPR spokeswoman Isabel Lara said senior editors offer this advice: “If you wouldn’t say it on air, don’t share it on social media.”
New York Times spokesman Jordan Cohen added that “we expect Times journalists to behave as thoughtfully on social media as they do in other aspects of their jobs.”
Yet when reporters or analysts take to Twitter, or in their personal lives, a poorly worded argument or ill-conceived joke that might have been nixed by a judicious editor can instantly be made public with no check on its sensibility.
That appears to be what happened with Schilling on Tuesday, when he tweeted an image of Adolf Hitler bearing a caption that read, “It’s said only 5-10% of Muslims are extremists. In 1940, only 7% of Germans were Nazis. How’d that go?”
Schilling’s willingness to speak his mind — on baseball matters, anyway — is one reason why he has become a regular on ESPN telecasts. But a network that pays Schilling to share his views didn’t appreciate this one. ESPN originally said it would remove him from Little League World Series coverage “pending further consideration,” then pulled him from this week’s “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast of a major league game.
Schilling tweeted an apology: “I understand and accept my suspension. 100% my fault. Bad choices have bad consequences and this was a bad decision in every way on my part.”
Cowherd, a former small-market radio host who achieved stardom at ESPN Radio by tackling sensitive issues like race and politics, ran into trouble last month when he said during his midday show that “the Dominican Republic has not been known, in my lifetime, as having, you know, world-class academic abilities.”
On air the next day, Cowherd alluded to the pitfalls of his edgy persona.
“Sometimes I bring up stuff — the show before me doesn’t; the show after me maybe doesn’t; I do — that makes people cringe,” he said.
Cowherd had already accepted a position at Fox Sports when he made the Dominican comment. ESPN issued a familiar statement about not reflecting the company’s values and said “Colin will no longer appear on ESPN.”
McHenry’s misstep seemed to stem from an inflated sense of her own fame. Security footage, which went viral after being posted online in April, captured her berating a woman who worked at a tow lot where McHenry’s vehicle had been impounded. Though she had been at ESPN for barely a year and was not a household name, McHenry went on about being “in the news” and “on television” during a profanity-laced rant.
Rovell, describing the glamorous crowd at the May 2 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao, referred to one fan as a “loan shark” on the air and in a blog post. ESPN issued a correction, and Rovell apologized on air for what he called a “serious error of judgment.”
When journalists are thinking about their own celebrity, instead of their next story, their judgment can be compromised, said Drechsel, the ethics center director.
Al Tompkins, who has coauthored four editions of an ethics handbook for the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, acknowledged that contemporary reporters — and the analysts who serve alongside — must perform a difficult balancing act. Still, Tompkins has little sympathy for those whose efforts to stand out land them on the apology list.
“There are all kinds of ways to build a brand,” he said. “You can do it by being thoughtful, accurate, connected, introspective. If you want to say whatever you want, go do something else.”