Michael Smith Credit: ESPN

As the NFL pursues an equity stake and massive partnership with ESPN, longtime NFL insider and studio host Michael Smith is sounding the alarm on deteriorating credibility.

Speaking as a guest host on The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast this week, Smith explained why such a partnership would mean an even greater hit to the objectivity and independence that sports reporters should strive for.

“The lines have been blurred if not crossed or destroyed between who’s being covered and who’s doing the covering,” Smith began. “From a business sense in this ever-changing media landscape, I guess I understand it … to a certain extent, who are we kidding? We’re all in bed with the NFL.”

But as the NFL becomes a vital partner for more and more networks and streamers and now explores ownership in a media company, objective reporting on the world’s biggest sports league could fall by the wayside.

“I just don’t know, the more the NFL lays claim to ownership in media entities and networks … how people are able to truly maintain the level of objectivity and independence,” Smith explained. “It just feels like it’s going in the wrong direction from what I came up learning and you came up learning in journalism.”

As a former NFL insider at ESPN, Smith knows there is communication between the league office and Disney boardrooms. He worries the NFL could exert that influence even more aggressively. Especially so if it owns a piece of the network.

“I know that there are conversations from higher-ups at the league office and higher-ups at these networks when there’s a story … that they don’t like,” Smith said. “And they feel entitled to do that because they’re partners. I think there’s a difference between partners and ownership, regardless of how small or sizable the equity stake is.”

Simply put, there is no way to ensure independence when it does not exist. An ESPN owned by the NFL cannot be trusted to cover the NFL truthfully, Smith said.

“Getting more dollars does come for me at the cost of true journalistic independence,” the former SportsCenter host concluded. “Maybe in the fine print of this deal, if and when it goes through, there will be an understanding that you cannot dictate how we cover the NFL. But it will be hard for the consumer, the very consumer that they’re trying to go straight to, to not look at NFL coverage on ESPN and wonder how much of it is more PR than it is journalism if they don’t do that already.”

With news that the NBA is pursuing a similar partnership, we may not be far from a world in which the biggest sports media company in the United States is owned in part by at least two of the biggest entities it covers. ESPN is already straying further into entertainment and journalism, and if Smith’s reasonable concerns come true, this could be the final nail in the coffin.

[The Marchand & Ourand Sports Media Podcast]

About Brendon Kleen

Brendon is a Media Commentary staff writer at Awful Announcing. He has also covered basketball and sports business at Front Office Sports, SB Nation, Uproxx and more.