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The New ESPN Ombudsman Is One of Its Fiercest Critics

Robert Lipsyte talks about working inside the belly of the beast


In the same way that, as poet Philip Larkin put it, “Sexual intercourse began in 1963,” Robert Lipsyte invented cynicism about the world of sports. Which is to say: He didn’t literally, but he may as well have. Coming on the heels of upheaval that included the jailing of Muhammad Ali and the Curt Flood Supreme Court decision that led to free agency, Lipsyte’s 1975 book SportsWorld: An American Dreamland was the first popular sustained attack on the myth that sports is the prime American arena where human imperfection is shaved off like sharp edges from a piece of furniture. On its very first page, SportsWorld notes that the very thing that draws us to sports—the clear-cut, even Manichean definition of virtue (winning=good, losing=bad)—‪can lead, even within sports itself, to perverse outcomes once one realizes that sports are not a closed system. He called the extrapolation of these values—“this infrastructure”—SportsWorld, and one of its “crueler hoaxes” was the false consciousness it imposed on black athletes, women athletes, and fans. And among the chief culprits in sustaining SportsWorld was the media: “the hunky-dories of SportsWorld,” wrote Lipsyte, “bobbed charmingly on placid rivers of ink, not because of conspiracy or payoff, but because no one in the Sports Department wanted to rock the boat and no one from Outside cared.” 

About four years after SportsWorld was published, a father and son bankrolled by Getty Oil founded the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network in Bristol, Connecticut. Now majority-owned by Disney, ESPN is the colossus of the sports-media landscape, alone worth an estimated $40 billion (more than all National Football League franchises combined). It is, on the one hand, the most important media business partner of every major American sports league, save the NFL and NHL, and of college sports. It is, on the other hand, the most important media outlet for most fans, who may choose among ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3,, ESPN Insider, ESPN The Magazine, Grantland, and more. “As I’ve written," Lipsyte told me today, "when it comes to ESPN, 'conflict of interest' is too flabby a term."

We were speaking because Lipsyte, 75, was just named ESPN’s new ombudsman, effective June 1—a move that, at least momentarily, has charmed even the skeptics. “This Is Awesome: Robert Lipsyte Is ESPN’s New Ombudsman,” read the headline to today’s Deadspin post by John Koblin, a friend of mine and one of a handful of sports-media reporters who spend the majority of their time covering ESPN and frequently condemning it because doing anything else—covering ESPN less, or infrequently condemning it—would inaccurately reflect ESPN’s cultural status and journalistic quality. An example of the latter that most quickly comes to mind: ESPN has not published an ombudsman’s column (its last ombudsman was the non-profit Poynter Institute) in more than five months. Only time will tell whether Lipsyte's hire will net more positive press for the company.

While it is really hard to know where a new ESPN ombudsman should begin, Lipsyte, who has contributed to The New Republic, told me that he is fairly sure of what his central theme will be: “the interface of ESPN’s fiduciary relationship with the leagues and its commitment to coverage, to journalism.” In other words: conflict of interest. “I’ve spent 50-odd years in the business, believing that sports is one of the main currencies of communication in America, and still an important moral and social crucible, and that the media is critically important in the way it presents that,” he told me. “So here you have the most important presentation and media organization—and they both happen to be the same entity.”

According to Lipsyte, ESPN executive editor John Walsh approached him a few weeks ago about the job, and called him yesterday to tell him, “You’ve won the sweepstakes.” Why did he say yes? “As Jacqueline Kennedy apparently once said when asked why she had been seen at dinner with an ugly and not very rich man, she said, ‘He came up to me on the beach and asked me,’” Lipsyte replied. “It’s an amazingly interesting and challenging and possibly difficult job—unlike anything I’ve ever done before. And in some ways a kind of, probably, final job in twilight.” He will work from home, not from Bristol. 

The main differences he sees between his job, which lasts for 18 months, and that of media reporters at outside organizations like Deadspin, is, first, that he will be more sensitive to readers and viewers' complaints—“the mailbag,” as he put it. “I’m not going into this as an enterprise investigator,” he explained. “Something will come up. I’ll get a flood of emails: ‘What the fuck?’ I will try to explain what happened. If it turns out to have been some minor mistake, fine. If it turns out to be a major ESPN fuck-up, then that’s the story, too.” And the second difference is—so he hopes, with a fair degree of confidence (probably more than I would have)—that he will get answers from ESPN that outside reporters might not. “I’d like to think that they have to talk to me,” he said, adding, “I think that they would answer my phone calls, simply because, y’know, how could you not answer your ombudsman’s phone calls? That’s like a guilty plea.”

As a model, he cited the New York Times’ current public editor (the Times being too High German to call its ombudsman an ombudsman) Margaret Sullivan. “I think she’s doing a really good job,” he told me. “I really like her structure, which is to respond to something people are concerned about, do the reporting, lay it out to give you a chance to make a decision, and then at the end: ‘This is my take.’”

Ordinarily, one might be concerned that ESPN, that imperfect outlet, is trying to buy off Lipsyte, that potent critic of imperfections. But there's no such concern here. For one thing, Lipsyte has hardly been a loud ESPN critic of late; his main occupation today, he told me, is writing children’s books. And call me sentimental, but I don't believe you can buy off Robert Lipsyte. Too many, surely, have tried over the past half-century. “Robert Lipsyte has always been recognized as an impeccable journalist with a true gift for reporting, writing, and analysis,” ESPN President John Skipper said in a statement. “His deep and thorough understanding of sports media will assuredly be an asset for ESPN and our users.” Walsh added, “Bob’s reputation as an independent thinker and fearless reporter and columnist will be important qualities.” While it is hard to take much of what Skipper and Walsh say at face value (especially Walsh), it is equally hard to find anything to dispute there. ESPN may have hired Lipsyte as a nice hood ornament—the kind of thing that gets a positive post even out of Deadspin, and makes ESPN look journalistically accountable—but that doesn't mean he's not a great pick for the job.

The one other concern I have is that Lipsyte will be overly focused on the conflict-of-interest angle at the expense of the real story. ESPN's titanic, all-pervading conflict of interest is pretty much all he wanted to talk about with me. “As I see my function,” he told me, “something comes up: some complex issue—something bigger than Bill Simmons tweeting or Roethlisberger doing a girl in a bar bathroom—something really comes up to the core of ESPN.” He was making a key distinction, contrasting two ESPN controversies—the suspension of star columnist Simmons for tweets critical of the ESPN2 show "First Take," and allegations that ESPN ignored for too long rape accusations against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—with the meatier, macro issue of journalism that might serve the broadcasting side's interests rather than the pursuit of truth and fairness. Lipsyte has generally approached his writing from a strong, if not always explicitly leftist angle—the idea of SportsWorld conning new immigrant groups into falsely thinking they have achieved real social progress through sports has a Marxian, "opiate of the masses" feel to it—and so it makes sense that the notion that ESPN’s commitment to being leagues’ broadcasting partners compromises its reporting on those leagues is so attractive to Lipsyte.

But most of ESPN’s journalism problems these days come not from the conflict between airing sports and covering sports, but rather from the conflict between doing money-making journalism and doing great journalism. Putting Skip Bayless on ESPN2 for several hours each day to troll the world does immeasurable harm to ESPN's journalistic brand, but it is likely a lot easier and more lucrative to produce than to fill those timeslots with scrupulous journalism. Bayless gets such screen time because ESPN is a subsidiary of a public company with an obligation to shareholders to maximize its value. Moreover, a lot of ESPN’s shoddy journalism is likely just that: shoddy journalism, without deeper, darker motives behind it. That’s not as sexy an angle as, say, ESPN willfully producing bad journalism to make a buck or making cynical moves to burnish its image—an angle I’ve taken—but perhaps it’s a more fruitful one.

As long as I’m condemning offenses I’ve committed, I should note that it is extremely typical of media coverage of ESPN to hand-wring over things unknown, and Lipsyte hasn’t started his work yet. (“Can we have part two of this conversation in four months?” he joked at one point during our interview.) The big question for him at this point—he said he will start looking at “the mailbag” sometime next month—is whether to join Twitter. “Do you think I should?” he asked. “Twitter would be a great way to get feedback. I’m not sure I want to throw a tweet out as my first response to something, because I shoot from the hip if given the opportunity.” My advice: Join! Join immediately! 

Walsh described Lipsyte's forthcoming presence as "multi-platform"—TV, web, podcasts, and so on—and about this Lipsyte seemed enthusiastic. “What I really want is, I want to be everywhere," he said. Better him than Bayless.