So close, yet so far

Erin Andrews’ Reebok contract will not be approved again, but her Diet Mountain Dew commercials with Kenny Mayne stand. Scott Van Pelt’s Titleist contract? Soon to be gone. Mike Ditka’s and Keyshawn Johnson’s Under Armour deals? No problem.

ESPN last week unveiled its new endorsement guidelines for commentators. To sum it up: Analysts such as Ditka and Johnson can enter into most endorsement deals, from adidas cleats to Yonex rackets, pending approval. Non-analysts, including anchors, writers, reporters, hosts and insiders — those who do the work of journalists — can take outside money only from organizations that don’t create a conflict of interest, or even an appearance of one.

Three current endorsement contracts are in violation under the new guidelines but will be grandfathered temporarily. NASCAR reporter Jamie Little’s Oakley endorsement, as well as Andrews’ Reebok contract and Van Pelt’s Titleist contract will be allowed, but must expire at the earliest opportunity. Anchor Chris Fowler recently had a speaking engagement deal with Nike, but that’s already over.

These new guidelines are an important step forward and will go a long way toward bolstering the network’s image as an organization concerned with integrity and credibility. But it won’t be enough. There is too much wiggle room carved out to accommodate big stars.

As a result, ESPN’s critics will continue to question the loyalties of the most famous folks at the network. In the coming months, network executives might need to tighten the boundaries further to combat the persistent public perception that ESPN is compromised. In particular, whenever ESPN chooses to let a story that could potentially involve some level of conflict go uncovered, doubters will assign ulterior motives and no one will be able to change their minds.

ESPN’s approach toward endorsements came under intense scrutiny earlier this year when Reebok rolled out its Andrews campaign two weeks after she reported on traction issues with Nike cleats during the Rose Bowl.

Sports journalists outside the network pointed out the conflict of interest: Andrews was reporting critically on the performance of one shoe company’s products and would soon appear in paid promotion for another shoe company. In the surge of attention, bloggers and reporters noted that although her reporting seemed above board, her competing loyalties created, at minimum, the perception of unfairness.

In response to that and other issues, network executives began a review and revision of the guidelines. The ESPN brass understands that, fair or foul, fans make judgments and assign motives to ESPN and its commentators. When it comes to credibility, perception can be as damaging as an actual breach. Hence the new guidelines, distributed internally and externally, represent progress. The network’s previous approach toward endorsements was not widely understood or distributed, and it was not included in ESPN’s standards and practices rollout earlier this year.

The new guidelines address issues of appearance, as well as substance. The policy explicitly forbids:

• Using ESPN logos in endorsements
• Working for direct competitors of ESPN or parent company Disney
• Paid appearances for professional teams, colleges, booster clubs or athletic associations

The following categories are classified as strict review, under the presumption they will not be approved:

• Political endorsements
• Gambling, lottery or firearms endorsements
• Apparel, footwear, training and athletic equipment endorsements

Except there’s one whopping exception to that last clause: analysts. These are the men and women who typically played or coached a sport, and they make up more than half of the 1,000-plus public-facing individuals ESPN refers to as “talent.” That means most of the talent it employs can enter into the very type of contract that prompted the outcry in the first place.

As part of the new guidelines, the network has listed “all relevant, approved talent endorsements” on ESPN.com. That list includes 51 analysts who have endorsements that could be perceived as conflicting, based on the above criteria. Other analysts, and some reporters, have endorsement contracts that are not noted because executives have decided that they do not present a perception problem (think food or restaurant endorsements, not athletic equipment).

Why would the network create a two-tiered system in which some people are allowed conflicts of interest and others aren’t? According to ESPN executives, it’s a matter of practicality, rooted both in the culture of sports and in finances. Endorsements are part of the benchmark of success in sports — nearly all successful athletes have promotional deals. They are also financially lucrative. In some cases, depending on workload for the network — say, covering a few events a year for ESPN — some talent can make as much in endorsements as from ESPN.

“Ultimately, our goal is to serve sports fans with the best commentators available,” said Norby Williamson, ESPN’s executive vice president for production. “These [endorsement] relationships are an established part of the environment that the analysts exist in. It’s standard operating procedure. It’s clearly beyond our control. We believe we’d put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage [if the network didn’t allow the outside deals].”

That’s certainly true. NBC Sports and Fox Sports, for example, don’t prohibit their analysts from having outside contracts — instead, they simply insist on prior review. And even some of the most traditional and well-respected journalists within ESPN told us they didn’t see a way around the compromise.

“ESPN is living in the real world and trying to deal with it,” said Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. “It’s a great big complicated world. They employ basically anonymous people like me, and they hire celebrities.”

Moreover, the ESPN journalists and analysts we interviewed universally took umbrage at the notion that an outside contract, even a lucrative one, would create bias in their work.

“My loyalties are always to ESPN and the job and to basketball,” said Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player and coach and a longtime network analyst. “I do this because I love basketball. When someone asks me a question, my job is to provide a factual basis for my opinion.”

Bilas said he used to have an endorsement contract with KFC that was brokered by ESPN. He currently is paid to endorse a chocolate milk product from Shamrock Farms.

Jeremy Schaap, a radio host and “E:60″ reporter, told us he thought the policy made great advances.

“It makes perfect sense — it’s a reasonable policy,” he said. “Of course, there’s very fine line between someone like [analysts] Kirk Herbstreit or John Kruk and someone who does straight reporting. But our best consumer is an educated consumer.”

Said Schaap of the network taking the step of publicly disclosing the list of endorsements, “Who else does that?” And while the transparency of presenting the list on ESPN.com is another good step forward, it still doesn’t resolve the underlying conflict of interest.

New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick did an excellent job of explaining how problematic certain commercial endorsements can be, pointing out after the Andrews story went public that many analysts on the ESPN college football team have endorsement contracts with Nike.

“Nike, as if they and ESPN didn’t know, is the largest steamroller among the sneaker cartel that has infiltrated, penetrated, dominated and eviscerated U.S. high school and college sports,” Mushnick wrote. “But it’s not as if [Lee] Corso, Herbstreit and Fowler would have any reason to report on any of that, ya know? And it’s not as if Nike would have any reason to pay them off, ya know?”

OK, that’s a little hyperbolic. Yet, based on the released list, Nike has by far the largest share of ESPN endorsements. The company has contracts with two dozen members of the ESPN talent team. Two dozen. That makes Mushnick’s argument more plausible. ESPN is the self-proclaimed “worldwide leader in sports.” If any news organization has the capacity and reporting ability to hold the most powerful companies in the sporting world accountable, it’s ESPN.

Nike commands the sports shoe market. If ever a behemoth of a sports company merited scrutiny, it’s Nike. Whether it’s overseas labor practices or the targeted marketing of outlandishly priced products to poor teenagers, someone should be asking tough questions of the corporation. ESPN should be asking those tough questions — and it has in the past, on ESPN.com, “Outside the Lines” and other platforms. But when it does so, does the audience trust the reporting? Worse yet, if ESPN doesn’t investigate Nike, or scrutinizes Nike and finds nothing amiss, will the viewers believe the story? Those are legitimate questions.

There are portions of this policy that acknowledge this reality.

For example, why can’t anyone at ESPN, even an analyst, take a contract from a college or professional team? Because ESPN likely covers that team. It’s challenging enough to create a perception of fairness during a game broadcast (That’s probably the chief complaint in the mailbag: “ESPN folks hate Team X or Team Y, my team.”) But it would be even harder to maintain credibility in the face of a perceived conflict of interest when the stakes get higher.

What if a player dies because an unreasonable coach bullied him into running too far in the August heat? Or an athletic program covers up the criminal activity of its star athletes? ESPN puts such restrictions into the endorsement guidelines because it recognizes that it would strain trust among the audience if even one person were perceived to be “on a team’s payroll.”

ESPN wants to provide that same level of accountability to other powerful forces, such as the private corporations involved in sports. In keeping its journalists free of conflicts of interest, it certainly has the capacity to do so. But the biggest risk to the network’s credibility comes not from the stories it tackles but those it lets slide. In that vacuum, fans create their own theories, most of them calling ESPN’s ethics into question.

So yes, many steps forward have been taken with these new guidelines. They were widely distributed; they prevent those primarily responsible for doing journalism at the network from conflicted financial arrangements; and the relevant endorsement deals for talent are disclosed.

But it should go further. Short of preventing all talent — including former coaches and players — from signing contracts that pose a conflict, the ESPN policy could place term limits on making such endorsement deals. After a fixed time, say five years of ESPN work, analysts would have to make a choice — sports celebrity or journalism.

And the network should find ways to be even more transparent about endorsements, such as disclosing all contracts, not just those with sporting goods manufacturers. It would be interesting, as well as revelatory, and could potentially strengthen the network’s credibility with the audience.

“We thought about that,” said Laurie Orlando, the network’s senior vice president for talent. “I don’t know that we need to post every single endorsement. We know about all of them. We felt the need to post those that could potentially pose a conflict.”

This policy does move the ever-expanding world of sports journalism down the road toward professionalism. There’s room for improvement, though, and if ESPN honchos are willing to keep refining the guidelines (as they say they are), then, like a muscle you keep flexing, the policy will only get stronger.

This column was originally published on ESPN.com on April 20, 2011.

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