Deciding Standards for Sports Media Personalities

On the surface, ESPN seems like it couldn’t be doing any better as far as success in sports media goes. They are usually the ones who people go to first when they want to find out breaking news or want to hear experts’ opinions on the most pressing topics in sports. For a very long time, however, ESPN has had a consistent problem with its various media personalities. These characters range from reporters to talk show hosts, with someone getting suspended or fired on a fairly regular basis. This raises two basic questions. The first is whether this is a unique problem for ESPN or just something they should expect given all the coverage and shows they have. The second, broader question is what this says about the standards that sports media personalities in general are held to and whether those standards are appropriate.

Quantitatively, ESPN has a history of punishing its workers and has handed out more than two dozen suspensions. Why have all of these punitive measures been necessary? Some, like James Andrew Miller, who co-authored a book about ESPN, think it could just be that the personalities are paid to be very provocative and engaging. Sometimes, they can get carried away on camera and end up offending or foul-mouthing someone in the process. That’s certainly happened in the past when many personalities have been slapped with penalties for things like racist comments, misogyny, or other unprofessional behavior on air. Others might just have trouble turning off their heat and carry it to the outside world; many are known for mistreating workers off the set and even people they encounter in their daily lives.

ESPN’s view on the matter is that this is inevitable in a company with over 1200 workers responsible for putting out so much material daily. While that could be convincing, it’s worth noting that the culprits generally come from a much smaller subset of ESPN’s workers, namely their reporters, commentators, and talk show participants. In reality, we’re talking about maybe one or two dozen people in this case. In the last year or so, I can think of at least three incidents that led to suspensions and firings: reporter Britt McHenry’s suspension after abusing a towing company employee; Bill Simmons’ suspension after calling NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a liar and challenging ESPN to fire him for that (they eventually let his contract run down in May); and, most recently, Colin Cowherd’s suspension last summer after making some racist comments about Dominican baseball.

If it was just an issue of numbers, ESPN would probably have nothing to worry about since they’ve been able to maintain plenty of reporters and talk show hosts despite the punishments they’ve had to hand down. In the last year or two, however, there has been talk about whether quality is being affected, as more and more of ESPN’s biggest  personalities get themselves into unfavorable situations with the company. Simmons and Cowherd were considered two of the most dynamic people in the network; both were punished and left the company soon after their suspensions. There are concerns that ESPN is beginning to face a “talent drain,” as its biggest names leave the company.

Now we have to consider whether ESPN has been holding appropriate standards for its employees, which will force us to consider more generally what appropriate standards are for sports media personnel in general. I don’t think too much is needed to convince anyone that someone should face penalties of some kind for racist, sexist, or other equivalently offensive remarks on air; any company that wants to legitimately earn the trust of sports fans should make sure their content doesn’t compromise professionalism and respect for all of its viewers just for the sake of entertainment. Cases like McHenry’s, where the offense occurs outside the work setting, are interesting and perhaps a bit more hazy. However, just as anywhere else, employees are the face of their company. As a result, they carry the responsibility of upholding the reputation of the company even off the camera, and should face consequences if they can’t meet those demands.

There are also those who cause turmoil within the ranks of the company, challenging the executives as well as other personalities in a disrespectful manner, such as Simmons. Personalities do need to feel comfortable challenging others in the company to provide some of the entertainment value. However, there is a difference between a reasoned argument and an unnecessarily confrontational challenge, and ESPN, or whatever company involved, should exercise the right to act when they feel that this line has been crossed. It certainly doesn’t look good to viewers when they see that level of conflict between personalities and the company, as it just reads as dysfunctional.

Further, there are some personalities like Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless who many ESPN viewers just don’t like. They feel that their opinions are unfounded and their style too “annoying” (at least, that’s the most common adjective used in Facebook comments). What should ESPN do here? A suspension probably isn’t in order unless Smith or Bayless violate basic expectations of the company like the aforementioned. Should they fire and replace them, then? In this situation, ESPN has to play something along the lines of a ratings game, to see whether these personalities are disliked to the degree that they are losing viewers. Although I can’t be sure, it seems that Smith and Bayless provoke their viewers so much that people flock to watch them, just to bash them later on. It may not be pretty, but, at the end of the day, everything is as it should be; personalities are engaging viewers and viewers are watching in masses.

So, now that all that’s been considered, does ESPN have a problem? As I see it, they’ve been exercising good judgement in terms of who to keep and who to fire thus far. Even though people like Bayless and Smith get under my skin, I’d much rather deal with that than watch Simmons get into a hostile radio confrontation with hosts of another ESPN talk show (which he did do, before he left the company for good). Maybe that will mean losing some big names over the years, and, as a result, having slightly more boring or frustrating content. Although it might not always seem that way, ESPN will be doing its job if it can garner its viewers’ respect. As of now, I think ESPN has acted as a model for other players in sports media in this regard, and it should continue to do so.

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