If the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, ESPN is all set to join Inconsistent Disciplinarians Anonymous. The network has come under plenty of fire for the way they’ve handed out punishments over the years, and this summer’s Stephen A. Smith fiasco illustrated their approach hasn’t changed. The recent suspensions to Smith, Dan LeBatard and Max Kellerman, plus the inaction on Mike Ditka’s “Proudskins” comment and the controversy around Josina Anderson’s report on Michael Sam’s showering habits, convinced ESPN ombudsman Robert Lipsyte to investigate the network’s disciplinary approach, and his piece has some fascinating quotes, including ESPN president John Skipper describing the network’s policy as “an electrical dog fence“:

When I asked John Skipper about the consequences of these missteps, the president of ESPN analogized the company’s guidelines as “an electrical dog fence” that every so often zaps someone who needs to be reminded there are limits to free expression on company air. The problem, of course, is that many of the content “crimes” at ESPN are not specifically codified — thus the seemingly covert nature of that foul line — nor is punishment, which often seems inconsistent, even whimsical. 

That’s an interesting analogy, and it’s notable that it exists in a reactive (zapping people who violate it) rather than proactive (telling people where the fence is) manner. Skipper then goes on to say ESPN’s disciplinary decisions are made with consideration for the external PR impact, but the company doesn’t have to defend them or make them consistent:

As for protecting the brand, that’s one of Skipper’s core jobs. As he told me, “There are really two parts to that: the internal culture — making sure our people understand that we respect them and the workplace — and the external PR impact.  “The headline was that Smith says domestic violence can be OK — actually, it’s not clear what he was saying. But in public PR terms we had to counter that blame-the-victim suggestion, make it clear that this is not how we think. It’s not OK in our workplace or in our support of women’s sports or in our ideas of fairness.  “So, we have to do something to make this go away publicly and to retain our credibility internally — and at the same time it can’t be too severe to this individual.”  While none of this was bombshell information, it did offer an unusual level of corporate candor. Skipper agreed but added, “There may seem to be a lack of consistency — we are not a judicial body. I don’t think there is any public right to know about the discipline we hand out.” 

As Lipsyte points out, ESPN’s never shy to discuss discipline handed out by sports leagues, so refusing to make their own disciplinary decisions public (except when it serves their PR purposes) is problematic. It certainly creates a perception that the company’s discipline is ad hoc and motivated solely by stopping criticism of them rather than by upholding journalistic standards. What’s perhaps even more notable than Skipper’s comments is one of his top lieutenants appearing to admit ESPN has different standards for different people, which Lipsyte illustrates near the top of his piece:

Let’s take a trek into this twilight zone with a caveat: I promise some transparency on the ESPN way of dealing with crime and punishment, but no hard-and-fast canon, because there isn’t any. Keep in mind this from Patrick Stiegman, vice president and editorial director, ESPN digital and print media: “We don’t treat everyone the same but we treat everyone fairly.” It’s a recurring mantra in the ESPN belief system. 

It’s tough to see how you can offer fair treatment without treating everyone the same, and the one way that might possibly work (more tolerance for those newer to the company and/or in lower positions, less for prominent long-time people who should know better) seems to be the reverse of how it usually works in Bristol. This is a company that fired a production assistant who “used video from the network without permission and uploaded it to his personal YouTube account,” but only suspended Stephen A. Smith for a week for suggesting women have a responsibility to avoid being beaten, didn’t do anything about Skip Bayless’ on-air lies about his basketball career and has made Jason Whitlock, he of the comparisons of Serena Williams to a cow and racist tweets about Jeremy Lin’s anatomy, editor-in-chief of his own website. (But hey, accidentally write a racist headline and you’re gone.)

From the outside, it seems like “stars” like Bayless, Smith and Whitlock can get away with almost anything, but action’s quick to come against anyone less prominent. That doesn’t seem particularly fair, or particularly reflective of journalistic standards. Instead, it appears like a way to make it look like you’re doing something without annoying your most prominent talent too much.

Another interesting element of Lipsyte’s piece is that there’s information the network declined to give him. When it came to Kellerman’s radio comments, he writes that ESPN Audio senior vice president Mo Davenport “wouldn’t tell me if any members of the production staff were punished,” and on Kellerman’s stealth suspension, “An ESPN spokesman refused to go beyond that statement for me. “As Richard Deitsch noted, that’s problematic:

Keeping the ombudsman (who they’re paying to act as a representative of the public) out of some areas illustrates how committed ESPN is to maintaining its curtain and it also demonstrates how they view PR as such an important element of discipline. What they’re missing is that the inconsistency in suspensions actually detracts on the PR side, though; it makes them look less concerned about journalistic standards and more worried about pacifying top talent while attempting to dampen fervent criticisms.

Lipsyte’s discussion of how ESPN lacks someone specifically responsible for standards and practices is also interesting. It shows how many of these decisions are made on the fly. The company does have a “Editorial Guidelines for Standards & Practices” document, which is a positive, but there’s no one person in charge of that, and it was last substantially updated in 2012.

Lipsyte’s quite right that ESPN’s so big and produces such drastically different content that it would be impossible to apply some things across all shows and platforms, but the current approach perhaps skews too far the other way towards deregulation. His final points about the company needing to empower its production staff to step in when talent starts to go off the rails, establish a stronger guide to what is and isn’t appropriate and create a standards-and-practices position are all good ones. However, ESPN’s current approach and the quotes from their current decision-makers make it seem unlikely that will happen any time soon.

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.

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