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ESPN has not been afraid to take shots at NFL and its teams

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell listens to questions during

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell listens to questions during a news conference at the owners meetings in Rosemont, Ill. (June 21, 2011) Credit: AP

The tangled web that is the 21st century sports media business spins off a potentially awkward conflict of interest every, oh, 30 seconds or so.

But considering the money and attention involved, nothing quite compares to the complicated task that faces the NFL's "partners" at CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN -- and, especially, the NFL Network -- in covering the league.

And nothing quite has compared to what those networks have encountered during the past two, tumultuous weeks.

The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson cases have struck an unprecedented chord with the public.

That includes the spotlight focused on commissioner Roger Goodell, whose usually slick, confident public image has taken numerous hits, including from some big names working for the media outlets that pay him huge rights fees.

The assumption long has been that TV networks are NFL addicts who more or less do what they are told, most famously in 2003 when ESPN canceled the scripted series, "Playmakers" under pressure from the league.

It depicted players behaving badly. Imagine that!

But it all has felt different this time, perhaps nowhere more than on ESPN, which across its many shows on many channels has been decidedly unbashful about criticizing the league and its teams.

ESPN was at its most emotional on "Sunday NFL Countdown," which featured several strong personal takes, most memorably from Cris Carter, who said that while his mother did the best she could with discipline while raising seven children by herself, he since has learned, "It's the 21st century. My mom was wrong."

Seth Markman, a senior coordinating producer who oversees NFL studio shows, said Wednesday he spent more time speaking to the show's panelists in advance of Sunday's show than he ever had before, "reassuring them they can say whatever is on their minds as long as they're being honest."

The only prohibition was against "personal attacks or cheap shots," but beyond that everything was fair game -- including calling for the job of the commissioner, if someone had been so inclined.

"It really had nothing to do with football at that point and kind of veered into an area we hadn't been in before," he said of Sunday's 45-minute discussion. "It was almost a therapy session."

Markman said he is not aware of any pressure or negative feedback from the league aimed at his shows or others. "We have a great relationship with the NFL, but they also understand what our responsibility is as journalists," he said.

Also Sunday, ESPN's Hannah Storm offered an emotional recollection based on sitting with one of her daughters as they watched the video of Rice punching his then-fiancee.

Storm was one of many female voices who weighed in on ESPN platforms, including a panel discussion on ESPN Radio Tuesday night.

Even before Peterson's case became news Friday, the NFL Network and CBS faced intense scrutiny for how they would deal with the Rice story in advance of CBS' first "Thursday Night Football" telecast in Baltimore.

The emotional highlight that night was a monologue by CBS' James Brown, but before that NFL Network analysts weighed in, and the network offered multiple news reports on the subject.

Still, the league-owned network admittedly is in a different position than its counterparts. That means far less commentary on off-field matters than one might find on ESPN, and it means a more deliberate approach to reporting, even if that results in not being first with news.

"Everyone here 100 percent realizes who we work for," said Alex Riethmiller, a network spokesman. "When I say that I think most people would assume we work for the NFL, so let's make sure it's always sunshine for the NFL here, but that's not it.

"What I mean is we represent the shield, so the people that work here feel like they have an obligation to 100 percent get the facts right, whether the story is positive or negative . . . We try to break news as much as the next guy, but we are also cognizant we work for the NFL so we want to be 100 percent factually accurate."

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