SCORING ERROR: ESPN balked (rightfully) when its reporter (Erin Andrews, right) was victimized by a pervert. But it was wrong when it refused to cover another story of a sexual nature involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
The biggest story in sports media last week was the discovery of surreptitiously shot nude-video footage of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews, whose comeliness has made her a favorite — and sometimes a fetish — of the online sports commentariat. The footage was apparently filmed without her knowledge or permission while she was in her hotel room. It's impossible to fault ESPN — the self-described "Worldwide Leader in Sports" — for its handling of the Andrews situation. When the footage in question surfaced on an adult Web site earlier this month, ESPN flexed its legal muscle to have it removed. (Critics pointed out that ESPN's intervention confirmed Andrews's identity — but it also made the video disappear, which was the point.) Later, after the New York Post ran a screen grab on its July 21 cover, ESPN responded by barring all Post journalists from its broadcasts. Given that Andrews's privacy was violated in a criminal, exceedingly creepy act, this protectiveness deserves applause.
The network's handling of the Ben Roethlisberger situation, however, is another story. Roethlisberger is the quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers, the defending Super Bowl champions. Earlier this month, he was accused of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit brought by Nevada resident Andrea McNulty. After the accusation was first reported by the Web site profootballtalk.com on July 20, a bevy of other outlets followed suit, including the Associated Press, Foxsports.com, USA Today, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. But ESPN stayed silent.
Why, exactly? Initially, a network spokesman said ESPN wasn't covering the rape charge because no criminal case had been filed and Roethlisberger hadn't commented. As critics promptly noted, however, the network has covered civil cases before — and Roethlisberger's attorney had, in fact, already offered a public response. In a subsequent interview with Philadelphia Inquirer sports columnist John Gonzalez, ESPN vice-president and news director Vince Doria admitted that the non-coverage of Roethlisberger was really a judgment call. "Each situation is different," said Doria. (On Thursday, after Roethlisberger held a press conference denying the accusation, ESPN finally weighed in.)
Explanations of ESPN's reticence abound: the network didn't want to alienate the Steelers' rabid fan base; it protected Roethlisberger because he's white; it was afraid of sullying Shaq Vs., a new reality show on ESPN's corporate sibling ABC, in which various athletes (including Roethlisberger) do battle with the NBA's Shaquille O'Neal.
But here's the irony: whatever the reasoning behind ESPN's silence actually was, the Andrews situation itself should have convinced the network that self-censorship was the wrong tack to take.
Yes, Andrews was likely victimized by a lone pervert. And yes, the online obsession with Andrews may have emboldened the creep in question. (At deadspin.com, for example, you can still find a candid pic of Andrews opening her mouth to take a bite of a sandwich, under the subtitle "Assorted Cold Cut Poon." Here's a representative reader comment: "Does she swallow the sandwich, or just spit it out when she's done?")
But the cultural problem suggested by the Andrews case is much bigger than her stalker and her more pathetic online fans. The diminishment of women is part of pro sports' DNA. Think of the NFL's cheerleaders and the NBA's "dancers," for example, or Playboy's "Sexiest Sportscaster" contest, or the prolific promiscuity of pro athletes as a group. (As Kevin Elster of the New York Mets once told Sports Illustrated: "You can get sex every night. On the road. At home. It doesn't matter.") This is the world our sports heroes inhabit, whether we want to admit it or not.
Let me be absolutely clear: this broader cultural problem doesn't mean Roethlisberger's accuser is telling the truth. McNulty could turn out to be a spurned lover, or a shameless opportunist, or simply a kook. But it does mean that— for the time being — her charges have to be reported, especially by ESPN. After all, when you're the "Worldwide Leader," you simply can't pretend that sports are all fun and games.
To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.