SBD/Issue 211/Sports Media

Why Is ESPN Ignoring Roethlisberger Sexual Assault Allegations?

ESPN Not Reporting Assault
Allegations Against Roethlisberger
ESPN at presstime still had yet to acknowledge the civil lawsuit filed against Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger claiming sexual assault on any of its news outlets, including this morning’s editions of “SportsCenter" or ESPN.com. That contrasts with other major online outlets -- including SI.com, Yahoo Sports, FoxSports.com, CBSSports.com and SportingNews.com -- which all had the story as one of its news headlines this morning. The lack of coverage from ESPN comes after an spokesperson yesterday said ESPN is not currently reporting the story "because no criminal complaint has been filed." The spokesperson: "As far as we know, this is a civil lawsuit that Roethlisberger has yet to address publicly" (THE DAILY). FANHOUSE.com's Michael David Smith notes David Cornwell, Roethlisberger's attorney, "addressed the lawsuit publicly" yesterday, saying the QB will be "fully exonerated." However, ESPN Communications Manager Mac Nwulu indicated that the net "does not consider Cornwell's response enough to warrant ESPN reporting on the issue." Nwulu also "stressed that ESPN strives to be very cautious with civil suits that impugn a person's reputation or character." He added that the net "considers both the subject's track record and whether similar allegations might impact the subject's professional performance" (FANHOUSE.com, 7/22). While ESPN has yet to address the story, it was briefly covered on ABC's "GMA" this morning as well as "World News" last night. Other news shows to pick up the story include Fox Business' "Money For Breakfast" and NFL Net's "NFL Total Access" (THE DAILY).

DECISION HARD TO COMPREHEND: In Philadelphia, John Gonzalez writes the "way ESPN has failed to cover the controversy" surrounding Roethlisberger is an "impossible-to-understand noggin-scratcher." Gonzalez: "Since when has an athlete's silence or lack of cooperation prevented ESPN from covering a story?" ESPN has "covered several civil suits recently, including those filed against" free agent CB Adam Jones, former MLBer Roberto Alomar and Lakers G Shannon Brown. However, ESPN Senior VP & Dir of News Vince Doria said that the decision to "report on or ignore civil suits changes from case to case." Doria: "Each situation is different." Doria added that ESPN will "continue to look at the Roethlisberger situation on a daily basis." But Gonzalez writes, "Maybe ESPN is overthinking it here. Because it feels like the logic is flawed. ... What doesn't make sense, at all, is that on the same day ESPN issued the 'do not report' memo, the company cleared its radio station in Pittsburgh ... to discuss the Roethlisberger controversy." An ESPN source said of the network's decision not to cover the story, "People were going insane. Fox News was doing the story. The AP had it. And they wouldn't even let us mention it. You can't ignore the story. It needs to be on 'SportsCenter.' It makes us look bad. It's not a topic for discussion, but you have to acknowledge that it's being reported, that the story exists" (PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 7/22).

STORY NEEDS TO BE COVERED: In St. Louis, Bryan Burwell writes the Roethlisberger story "needs to be covered, but with the professional neutrality that presumes Roethlisberger is innocent until proven guilty." While "every other major sports news operation has reported that the lawsuit has been filed, the biggest sports news organization in the country ... has been mysteriously silent." Perhaps ESPN "believed it was exercising good news judgment by refusing to initially leap on this story without at least examining some of the more shocking details of the civil suit," but network officials "left themselves open to a boatload of second-guessing once the lawsuit became public by countless other news organizations that meticulously and professionally laid it out without turning it into a needlessly salacious tabloid report." There is a "difference between responsible journalism and blatantly sitting on the sidelines while a story passes you by" (ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH, 7/22).

Does ESPN's Relationship With
Athletes Change Coverage?

ESPN PROTECTING RELATIONSHIPS? PRO FOOTBALL TALK's Mike Florio wrote the handling of the Roethlisberger case "makes us wonder whether there's a complete firewall between the business functions of ESPN and its journalistic activities." Florio: "We say this because we're convinced that the Roethlisberger story initially was ignored due to concerns that ESPN would be jeopardizing its access to the two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who also happens to play for the team with the most loyal and rabid fan base in America." Regardless of "how ESPN came to its conclusion, it clearly swung the bat and missed on this one." ESPN is the "only credible place in which it isn't being reported," and that is "causing some in the media to wonder just how credible ESPN really is." The AP's Dave Goldberg posted on Twitter, "Can u ignore an obvious story and call yourself the 'worldwide leader?' Arrogance has its own method, I guess" (PROFOOTBALLTALK.com, 7/21). WFAN-AM's Mike Francesa said, "Bottom line is ESPN is extremely protective of athletes, especially the ones that do commercials with them. ... ESPN, when they are in bed with athletes, they just protect them. We know that. That's nothing new" (“Mike Francesa," YES, 7/21).

A HIT TO ESPN'S CREDIBILITY: FANG'S BITES' Kenny Fang wrote, "So is ESPN protecting Roethlisberger to maintain a corporate relationship and access to the athlete? If it is, it's another arrow for critics to shoot at ESPN as allegations continue that the network gets too close to certain athletes it covers." The criticisms "may not be true, but as long as ESPN executives continue to hide under their desks on the Roethlisberger story while other outlets continue their investigations, the arrows will continue to be fired at the sports behemoth" (FANGSBITES.com, 7/21). WithLeather.com Editor Josh Zerkle writes ESPN not reporting the story is "colossal evidence that ESPN's newsroom has finally been engulfed by its boardroom." Zerkle: "Preserving the relationships of its subjects has officially taken precedence over preserving the relationship with its consumers" (WASHINGTONPOST.com, 7/22).

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