ESPN and the Alamo Bowl: A Shameful Broadcast

Staff Columnist
Posted Jan 10, 2010

Play-by-play man Mike Patrick and color commentator Bob Davie were not to blame for the most controversial and unprofessional telecast of the entire bowl season, but their employer - ESPN - deserves more than a little heat after a disgraceful Alamo Bowl effort on January 2, 2010, in San Antonio.

If you love college football, you surely watch bowl games, and if you watch bowl games, you surely watch ESPN. The Worldwide Leader carried all but two December bowl games, and the cable giant – in its partnership with ABC – carried all but two of the non-BCS bowls played in January as well. With FOX televising three BCS games plus the Cotton Bowl; CBS grabbing the Sun and Gator; and the NFL Network televising the Insight Bowl, the ESPN-ABC alliance televised 27 of the 34 bowl games, or roughly 80 percent.

The claim ESPN has on the world of college football – which will get stronger next season with full rights to the BCS bowl lineup, including the national championship game – is as expansive and far-ranging as the network's stranglehold on the rest of the sports world. If a game is being televised and a league is being marketed, chances are ESPN is promoting it. This broadcast behemoth's interests are almost always advanced when a sports product is given positive publicity and placing. The lack of vigorous competition has allowed numerous conflicts of interest to emerge whenever and wherever ESPN cameras are found.

This forms the backdrop of the Mike Leach-James Family saga that ensnared a week of college football news, concluding with an Alamo Bowl broadcast that was almost as much of a massacre as the one handed to Davy Crockett by the Mexicans in 1836. Human beings slaughtered other human beings 174 years ago in Texas; on the second night of 2010, it was the realm of journalistic ethics that endured a bloodbath.

If you only followed "Leach-Gate" from a distance, or if you didn't catch the Alamo Bowl broadcast in particular, a brief recap of the week's unethical events is in order. Simply stated, the Leach-James showdown was never a fair fight in the media, because one of the two principals had the weight and might of a sports television colossus on his side.

Ever since the initial reports came across the wires on Monday, Dec. 28, Craig James – who leveled charges against Mike Leach claiming that the Texas Tech coach (now ex-coach) mistreated his son Adam – enjoyed a clear upper hand, aided by his employer. James was given a friendly interview by ESPN employee Steve Levy (it could have been anyone else; it's not Levy's fault or his unique burden to bear) when the story was still relatively fresh. James was also allowed to broadcast the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30 with colleagues (and ESPN employees) Chris Fowler and Jesse Palmer, who gave their broadcast colleague yet another sympathetic venue in which to air his views and explain his side of the story.

Leach – like him or not, fair or foul – was not afforded similar treatment. Perhaps Leach didn't deserve similar treatment – ESPN's Rece Davis was appropriately vigorous in grilling Leach on the night of Dec. 31 – but what can surely be said is that if Leach was subjected to the third degree, Craig James needed to be equally scrutinized by an impartial interviewer. (Side note: The Davis interview was claimed by ESPN to be the first exclusive Mike Leach interview; Pete Thamel of The New York Times tweeted on Dec. 31 that the claim was false, saying that his colleague, Thayer Evans, landed the first interview with Leach.)

An investigative journalist, reporter or anchor – preferably from another network or, at the very least, someone with no professional relationship to James – needed to conduct a forceful interview with Adam James's father, with the footage and the transcript making its way to the airwaves in Bristol, Conn. When an ESPN employee becomes part of a major news story – and it should be noted that Craig James had no business being assigned to Texas Tech's Alamo Bowl game in the first place, given his son's presence on the Tech roster – ESPN needed to recuse itself from the story, at least in terms of giving the James family a unique platform which 99 percent of football parents lacked. There was a special moral and ethical obligation on the part of ESPN to treat both parties with the same level of scrutiny and skepticism, but it was clear from the outset that Craig James enjoyed a far more favorable kind of coverage than Mike Leach ever did.

This backdrop only serves to make ESPN's Alamo Bowl broadcast that much more outrageous.

Here's what you need to know about the Jan. 2 telecast from San Antonio: The play-by-play man, Mike Patrick, was Craig James's regular colleague on Saturday broadcasts for the 2009 regular season. The color man, Bob Davie, was pinch-hitting for James; the former Notre Dame coach was announced as James's replacement on the night of Dec. 28, just five nights before kickoff and just three nights before Davie worked his regularly-scheduled bowl game, the Texas Bowl, on Dec. 31 (with regular partner Mark Jones).

The situation should have been woefully evident to ESPN executive editor John Walsh, his deputies, and the people in the production truck at the Alamodome: Patrick was in no position to be unsympathetic or harsh to James. As a booth buddy and traveling companion during a full fall of football, Patrick's professional existence depends on a smooth relationship with his regular color man. Investigative journalism demands friction between and among various parties, but the art of live sports broadcasting necessitates an easy camaraderie between two booth mates. Patrick would not criticize Craig James; moreover, the veteran voice never should have been expected to lay into his normal colleague.

What also should have been obvious to the people in charge at ESPN – who put their on-air personalities in a no-win situation – was that Davie didn't have time (not a normal amount of time, at any rate) to prepare for the Alamo Bowl on the fly. More so than other broadcasters, Davie – heading into the clash between Michigan State and Texas Tech – lacked the ability to study film and experience an analyst's normal work schedule before a football game. The need to wing it was going to be called upon, which meant that talking about Leach was a natural danger for Davie. For their play-by-play man and for their analyst as well, ESPN honchos needed to give their production truck a simple but powerful command: Do not have the on-air talent talk about the character of the principals involved in Leach-Gate. Talking about the story's effect on Texas Tech's mindset or attitude heading into the Alamo Bowl was fair game, but comments on the good name or reputation of Mike Leach or the James family had to be deemed out of bounds.

Yet, no one from the Worldwide Leader evidently made such a decision. No one in the production truck – one of the most overlooked and underappreciated drivers of a broadcast – ever set a proper tone. The production truck gives the booth its cues, and establishes the texture and tempo of a broadcast, but on this night, the truck rolled over and squashed any notions of journalistic objectivity.

Clearly unrestrained and unwarned by their producers in San Antonio, Davie and Patrick – for nearly four excruciating hours – were allowed to defend James on the air, instead of tending solely to a very entertaining football game. In a world where ethics and sound journalistic principles come first, ESPN's production truck – unlike CBS's production truck at the 2009 U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York – wouldn't have made its on-air talent look bad. (For CBS, copy and paste this link into your Web browser so you can view it: ---- Enberg was the broadcaster who was embarrassed when he talked to Del Potro after the men's singles final, but it was his production truck and sitcom-minded CBS executives who created an awkward scene at a post-match trophy-awarding ceremony.) But on this night in the Lone Star State, a fun football game was overshadowed by a network's willingness to once again paint Craig James as the undisputed good guy in a controversy that soiled the reputations of two men, not just one.

James's claims of rough treatment directed toward his son were clearly overstated to a certain degree. Texas Tech personnel backed some of James's more basic charges, but the severity of the James family's statements was certainly greater than the actual facts on the ground. Patrick and Davie should have been given a gag order by their production truck, but when given a green light to comment in an unstructured, unlimited and far-ranging manner, the two men naturally stuck up for their ESPN brother, a person with whom they might share a broadcast booth during the 2010 season.

Anyone with even the slightest and most rudimentary appreciation of journalistic ethics knew that Mike Patrick and Bob Davie should have been given a specific, narrow, and game-based mandate by their production truck – and by extension, ESPN executives and decision makers – on the night of January 2, 2010. Instead, the people in charge of the Worldwide Leader were all too willing to make their employee, Craig James, into a good guy… just as they had done since the afternoon of December 28, 2009.

ESPN seems to own almost all of the sports world… materially, that's true. But there's one thing the behemoth in Bristol doesn't possess at the moment: a properly functioning ethical and moral compass.

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