Monday, June 14, 2010

Conflict of Disinterest

I am bemused by all the high-minded hand-wringing over Jay Glazer and his "conflict of interest" in covering the NFL. Have you seen this?

Fox’s Glazer Straddles Jobs as N.F.L. Reporter and Trainer

Jay Glazer is an “NFL Insider” for FoxSports; he's a sports reporter. And then he has a side business where he and his business partner Randy “The Natural” Couture train NFL players using MMA methodologies. From the NYT link above:

He and Couture have developed position-specific exercises to improve players’ leverage, endurance and flexibility. Current and former clients include the Atlanta Falcons, the St. Louis Rams, Chris Long, Ryan Grant, Patrick Willis, Keith Rivers, Matt Leinart and Jared Allen. Glazer hopes to bring in more football players and athletes from other sports. “We want to revolutionize athletic training,” he said.
MMA-style training is a natural for NFL players, who want to train hard and gain an advantage. When you bring Randy Couture to the party, pro athletes are going to take an interest. But does this pose a problem for Glazer's NFL reporting? In the article linked above, the NYT delicately points out:
Glazer’s arrangement is unusual, at best, and raises questions about how he balances his competing interests. While some N.F.L. reporters and sportscasters cover the sport for more than one news media outlet, Glazer reports on some of the same players and teams who pay him for his training expertise. ... Bob Steele, an ethics expert at the Poynter Institute, said Glazer’s entangled roles created “competing loyalties.” He added: “You can only scrutinize what he reports. But you can’t scrutinize what he does not report, so we don’t know what he didn’t ask an athlete.”
Sports Illustrated's Jeff Pearlman, less delicate than the Gray Lady, goes ballistic:
The Jay Glazer Rules
...turned my stomach. When he’s not reporting on NFL players and teams, Glazer, ahem, works for NFL players and teams. Literally. ...
This, journalistically, is a joke. An embarrassing, pathetic, worst-of-its-kind joke.
Glazer, on the other hand, accepts money from the very people he’s covering. One minute he’s helping Brian Cushing become a better athlete, the next he’s supposed to be telling us all he knows about the man—warts included. As clients, these players certainly expect—and receive—a high level of confidentiality. To work out under someone’s watch is to provide him with incredible access; access you don’t want displayed to the public. So what if Glazer hears Leinart calling a hooker? What if he sees Cushing (funny example) poppin ‘roids? What if he doesn’t think Grant is an especially hard worker? Does he sleep on the information, or does he ruin his ties with the players by reporting it? The answer is obvious: He sleeps on it.
Wow, what a controversy.

I wonder if “sports journalists” are at all surprised & disappointed at the blasé response to this tempest in a teapot? I think that most fans, without knowing any specific shortcomings, understand very well that sports reporters are not Woodward and Bernstein. For all their journalistic airs, what they do is not the same sacred exercise of the Fourth Estate that they studied in college.

What's most striking is not Glazer's arrangement, but Pearlman's hypocrisy. Blogger Brooks articulates a much more even-handed view:
Jay Glazer: We Fear What We Don’t Understand
Longtime Pearlman Sports Illustrated co-worker and perhaps the most prominent writer to ever work for the magazine, Rick Reilly, has a history of taking money from athletes for services rendered. In ‘91, Reilly co-authored Wayne Gretzky’s autobiography. In ‘95, Reilly co-authored a book with Charles Barkley about the “wit and wisdom” of the NBA player. In ‘88 Reilly co-authored Brian Bosworth’s autobiography. ... The books were all published while Gretzky, Barkley and Bosworth were still active professional athletes. ... SI baseball reporter Tom Verducci wrote a book with Joe Torre published last year about Torre’s experience managing the Yankees. ...
not a day goes by that I couldn’t cite countless conflicts of interest at the sports media leader, ESPN. Not to mention the NFL-owned and operated NFL Network. In the case of ESPN, the network rakes in hundreds of millions in revenue and branding benefits from the same league that it supposedly objectively covers - the NFL...
I’ve worked in main sports media for 16 years and have covered it daily while running this site for over nine years. From that experience, I can confirm that there isn’t a single sports media organization without a significant conflict of interest. Dealing with those conflicts is what distinguishes genuine reporters from bought-off, agenda-driven hacks.
Brooks stops short of laying out the case for how completely sold-out most sports reporters are. One online forum goes a bit further:
There are guys at ESPN who share agents with the athletes and the coaches they cover. There are guys at ESPN who are very close friends with the athletes, the agents and the coaches they cover.
Do I have a problem with Glazer's side business? Absolutely, but to single him out on this isn't right.
The business with shared agents is something that a fan or reader might never, ever know about. But there are corporate relationships that are obvious to any fan who turns on a TV.
  • CBS, Fox and ESPN pay a combined $4 billion a year for TV rights to air NFL games. How much objective analysis do you hear on CBS & Fox & the four-letter about the American Needle vs NFL Supreme Court case? Drew Brees is writing Op-Ed's in the Washington Post, but it isn't “news”? Come on. How much discussion do you hear on those networks about football-related concussions, and post-football dementia?
  • NBC pays the International Olympic Committee something on the order of $2 billion for the rights to broadcast the Winter Olympics. How much investigative reporting are we going to see on NBC about that legendarily corrupt organization, the IOC?
  • CBS, Turner, and the NCAA recently agreed to a $10.8 billion extension on their deal for CBS to broadcast the mens basketball tournament thru 2024. How vigorous is the discussion on CBS going to be about graduation rates of basketball players, and academic reform, and player stipends, etc? Is Dick Vitale suddenly going to start being critical of Duke?
Jeff Pearlman may try to tell us it's not true that money talk$, but that will be a tough sell.

But actually, sports journalists are ethically compromised long before corporate interests become a factor. That is because the #1 thing a sports journalist has to peddle is access. Either the athletes and coaches and GM's will talk to them, and give them something to report – or they won't. Sports fans desiring information are subject to the whims of journalists who may be soft(er) on the guys who will talk to them, and rough on the guys who don't. Orlando Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy puts it very succinctly:
“No. 1, I'm not worried about my job security, and I'm even less worried about what Michael Wilbon would think about anything,” Van Gundy said. “He's just ... a talking head. I have refused to be on PTI [Wilbon's television show] for years, for five years. I follow that stuff. If you go on guys' shows, they don't criticize you. If you won't go on their show, they do. That stuff is never known. There's a lack of integrity in that business.”
Tom Boswell, among the most respected sports columnists in the country, wrote about this long ago. Forgive the vagueness of this please: I'm going to try to get it from memory. This appeared in an essay in one of his first two books, either How Life Imitates the World Series or Why Time Begins on Opening Day. He's discussing the daily ins-and-outs of covering a baseball team, and how the running of the tape recorder helps maintain some of the professional distance between player and reporter. But sometimes a player will blunder into saying something he didn't mean to, and will exclaim "You can't print that!" Boswell writes that this usually makes for an hour of moral drama on Lou Grant, but he usually shuts off the recorder and discusses it with the player. Boswell goes on to say that usually the thing the player is concerned about is something Boswell wouldn't bother writing about anyway – something of little interest to the general public, like a stupid argument with another player. But sometimes it is something worth writing about, in which case Boz lets the player have another crack at a quote he can use.

Is this a betrayal of journalism? Sports beat reporters travel with the team; they have to rub shoulders with the players for six to eight months of the year, in baseball and football (longer, in pro basketball). It seems professional to me, not to burn access over stupid stuff: otherwise you won't be useful to anyone. Every sports reporter decides, among all the information he is exposed to, what to report and what to save. What's more pathetic: Tom Boswell giving some young player another chance at a quote, or Peter King name-dropping all the players & coaches whose cell number he has? Let's not even talk about Chris Mortensen.

Since when did we come to expect that a sports reporter is “supposed to be telling us all he knows about the man,” in Pearlman's phrase? Nobody expects that. In the first place, there are space constraints; reporters are supposed to be punchy and concise, tell what's important. In the second place, the discretion of the reporters covering Babe Ruth and John F Kennedy are famous: we are no longer stupid enough to trust reporters to give us the whole story, if we ever were. In the real world, a sports fan knows that a certain amount of the iceberg is hidden; and only when a player crosses the line in a truly Roethlisberger-esque way will we ever get a real exposé on him.

Anyway: if it's a problem that Jay Glazer has a professional relationship with some teams & players, then why on earth do sports news organizations label their guys as “Insiders”??? They all but advertise that such a relationship exists; suddenly it's a problem when one of their guys actually gets inside?

Here's the bottom line. Sports reporters are essentially entertainers. What they do is not important in the world.

I mean, it's important to me. I'm dying to know about Joe Flacco working with a baseball pitching coach this offseason, and Ray Rice's training regimen, and whether Fabian Washington & Ladarious Webb are on-schedule to return this season. I need the work product of sports reporters and columnists, because I'm a fan and I crave it. What does Cam Cameron think we need to do to move the ball against the Jets in the season opener? TELL ME!!!!!!!

But a noble profession? It's nice to see sports journalists aspire to a professional standard of ethics. But let's not get delusions of grandeur about the job.


  1. I don't know how often I've heard a sportstalk guy say something like 'you are just going to have to trust me on this', inferring that his source is accurate but shall remain nameless.

    The most recent example that I recall was Terry Foster discussing how disliked Ben Roethlisberger is in his own locker room; ie his teammates respect the player but they hate the man.

    I agree with your thrust and it extends a good bit beyond sports reporting. Those types of editorial decisions have to be made at all levels of journalism and have been for decades. It's not about reporting the truth, but rather which truth to report. Thankfully we now have the internet and its enormous capacity for information dissemination along with anonymity to provide balance.

  2. Yeah, and this is where the blogging community winds up playing heavily because with no source of income driven from this, there's an ability to be objective. The problem of course comes in the form of access. Double edged sword...

    Terrific article, Jim. You should reach out to media outlets and see if anyone would want to run with's a great piece.

  3. Just to clarify, I think it is perhaps a bit egotistical to consider the 'blogging community' as an equal plane. My point was that there are more outlets for information than ever before in history, particularly anonymous information. Adam Schefter may not be able to report everything he knows but he can make sure that key people learn enough that it gets out, whether through Mike Florio or one of the blogs or ESPN blogs or whatnot. I harbor no illusion that blogs at the Oblong Spheroid level are doing any more than speculating and repeating rumors heard elsewhere.

    But we can always dream.


About This Blog

Twitter: oblong_spheroid

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP