A Disaster At ESPN.com
(The following is a letter I wrote to ESPN.com ombudswoman Le Anne Schreiber after reading this week’s TMQ column by Gregg Easterbrook; while the letter has, at second glance, some factual errors, they are trivial compared to Easterbrook’s unbelievable intellectual dishonesty. It’s not that I’m upset that someone would classify the Colts/Patriots game as good vs. evil — frankly, I don’t care — but Easterbrook’s ad hominem attacks against the team represent unbelievably bad journalism. I really only started reading him this year after the scandal of years past, and I quickly got bored of his long-winded columns, until he started using almost entirely anecdotal evidence to rip on the Patriots. Yes, I own a Tom Brady jersey, but no, I would have no problem turning on Belichick et al. if they turned out to have done something wrong for which they have not been punished. Easterbrook has turned his suspicions that the Patriots did more wrong than has been suggested and has twisted them into facts, and it’s embarrassing to him and espn.com. He may yet produce facts, but he’s undermining his intellectual integrity in the meantime on a weekly basis. This week, I couldn’t stand it anymore. This letter was copied to him.)
Dear Ms. Schreiber,
First off, I would like to say that I love your column. As a longtime reader of espn.com, there are many things I love about the site but also a great many things I do not like; yours is the first voice from the inside that has resonated with my own on the issue, and needless to say you’ve done it with a breadth and depth unprecedented among level-headed ESPN skeptics.
I say “level-headed” because, on espn.com and elsewhere, there’s a constant reductionism going on: people either love ESPN or hate it; they love the Yankees or Patriots, or hate them; they love Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Clinton, and the other is scary and dangerous. Such thinking itself is dangerous, if commonplace, and it’s the reason I’m writing you instead of Gregg Easterbrook with respect to his most recent column about the Patriots (and, frankly, all of those from the past month): I feel that, by virtue of being born in Boston, Mr. Easterbrook would dismiss my challenges to his outlandishly irresponsible and reductive journalism.
Mr. Easterbrook’s latest column weighs the purported “evil” values of the Patriots versus the “good” values of the Indianapolis Colts, judging that a Colts victory on November 4th bodes well for the future of the league, while a Patriots victory portends doom for the NFL. It’s rare you see such a striking example of irresponsible reductionist thought from someone of the purported intelligence of Mr. Easterbrook, but it is becoming commonplace with him. He dismisses the Patriots’ organization — all of the 55 players on the team, plus the coaches and administration — as “evil” based on the attitude of its head coach, the “smirk” of its star quarterback, an admittedly embarrassing scandal for which it has been punished, and its tendency to “run up the score.” The Colts are “good” because of the public persona and level-headedness of their coach, the vocation of their quarterback’s wife, and the fact that the team’s players do not complain about playing in Indianapolis. Based largely on these six factors, Easterbrook indicts one entire team and lauds another. By reducing each team to a simple thought — I like this about one team, and dislike this about another — he exhibits the sort of intellectual blindness one would expect from the most provincial fan instead of the observations of a supposedly impartial observer. He creates a narrative based on his feelings, instead of creating a document based on football observations: only one of the above sentiments — running up the score — has to do with actual game-play, and if Mr. Easterbrook was to do the most cursory research he would find that virtually every player or coach asked about the Patriots’ bloated scoring tendencies has said that it is within their right to do as they please. No one has complained, but Mr. Easterbrook has been personally aggrieved enough to conflate a single coach’s decision to score an extra touchdown with a franchise-wide ethos of evil.
The main problem here is that Mr. Easterbrook, for all his academic credentials, does not respect the intelligence of his audience. I would argue that the majority of espn.com’s readers recognize that the NFL, based on several business models, has a different value structure as that of a Pop Warner football game, where the rules and mores therein are important not only as facets of the game but as teaching tools for later in life. This distinction seems to be obvious, but Mr. Easterbrook conflates the two as if they are the same in the service of his argument, and expects his audience to follow as he uses this as a backbone for an equally simplistic and child-like argument: this group of guys is good, and this one is bad. Not only is Mr. Easterbrook’s argument reductive and pourous, it’s not even convincing. It presents no new evidence about the Patriots’s cheating scandal (which you had suggested he provide before another broadside), and claims a Patriots Super Bowl victory would tarnish the NFL, ignoring the overwhelming evidence that all the fans care about is the game: the 2002 Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl amid the Ray Lewis scandal — one with far worse real-life consequences than anything the Patriots have done within the confines of the football field — and it is almost never mentioned on ESPN’s networks or on espn.com. Last year’s Cincinnati Bengals were beset by 10 arrests; this year, the only talk about their team is about their struggles on the field. The game’s the thing, but Mr. Easterbrook cannot see the game for his likely copious game-day notes. He’s a fan masquerading as a journalist, and is as heavy-handed on the pro-Colts side as a Bill Simmons column is on the pro-Patriots side. The difference, of course, is that Simmons’s columns are presented as entertainment, and Simmons makes his allegiances clear. Mr. Easterbrook presents his columns as serious football analysis, when in fact his personal opinions have become the driving force of his Colts/Patriots analysis and thus his irresponsible lede. It’s damaging to the reader, it’s damaging to espn.com and it’s damaging to ESPN as a whole to regularly print treatises that would be eviscerated in high school English class for lack of evidence.
Finally, there is the issue of Mr. Easterbrook’s previous firing from espn.com. The issue was unpleasant enough that I do not care to bring the up the specifics again, but between his previous (admitted) carelessness and his current factually-unfounded demagoguery, it would serve ESPN greatly to dismiss him permanently. ESPN would be better served by a football column that stuck to the facts.