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ESPN Isn't Even Pretending To Care About Conflicts Of Interest Anymore

The Mets announced today that ESPN baseball broadcaster Jessica Mendoza will be joining the team’s front office as an advisor while she continues to work for the network. Right after that, ESPN announced that Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia will be joining ESPN as a baseball analyst while he continues to play for the Yankees. That ESPN is willing to employ analysts who also work for teams in the sport they cover plainly creates a conflict of interest, and yet the network doesn’t seem to have any problem with such conflicts existing. In a statement to Deadspin, ESPN said:

“There are numerous examples across networks of these type of arrangements where commentators work closely with teams, and we will be fully transparent about Jessica’s relationship with the Mets. We have complete faith in her ability as a leading MLB voice for ESPN.”

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As the statement mentions, Mendoza isn’t the first ESPN analyst to also work for a team (Alex Rodriguez is an advisor for the Yankees and David Ross, who just signed an ESPN extension, is an advisor to the Cubs), and it’s certainly not the first time ESPN and other sports media companies who pay leagues for the rights to air games have had to navigate conflicts of interest. In fact, just yesterday, the Mets announced they had hired MLB Network analyst Al Leiter to be an advisor, posing the same conflict-of-interest question.* Even though ESPN pays the leagues it covers as a journalistic entity, there’s historically been a dividing line, thin as it is, between its financial relationships with leagues and its journalists. Viewers can watch Stephen A. Smith rant about the Knicks being garbage, for example, without wondering too much about where his interests lie. The same can’t really be said for Mendoza, Sabathia, Ross, and Rodriguez. (And Mendoza’s job description, which includes “player evaluation, roster construction, technological advancement and health and performance” indicates she’ll be more than symbolically involved in the team’s operations.) How are viewers supposed to trust what these people have to say about the Mets, Yankees, Cubs or any other team when they’re drawing a paycheck from those teams?

It’s unlikely that any of these strange employment situations will bring some sort of ethical scandal to ESPN, but that doesn’t make the slow, steady erasure of the line between the network’s business and editorial operations any less worrisome. ESPN is just one of many sports media companies that is signaling a shift in how much it cares—or doesn’t care—about dealing with obvious conflicts of interest.

Because sports media is under pressure—athletes and teams don’t need journalists to get their messages out, people are getting rid of cable, and media as a whole is being consolidated—organizations and reporters have had to adjust in order to maintain access to players and teams. This usually means friendlier, less aggressive coverage. As they adjust, the lines between what’s journalism and what’s business or sponcon or straight-up advertisements are being blurred. And as more and more reporters and media companies compromise themselves in order to get more access, and therefore a supposed edge, actual reporting and analysis are going to be diluted to the point of being meaningless.

At one time there was just Darren Rovell being an insufferable, single-minded brand bot. Now ESPN The Magazine is running uncritical sponcon for Kevin Durant while the network handles the Robert Kraft prostitution story with kiddie gloves. There’s Shams Charania at the Athletic writing a fluffy profile of Derrick Rose while his other employer makes a documentary with Rose. There’s Sports Illustrated paying Liverpool to air re-runs of games and for “exclusive content.” This shift is why you see so many sports reporters eagerly writing brand nonsense. Just two weeks ago, Yahoo Sports announced a partnership with the Mets to literally pay the team for access so they can then sell the resulting content!

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All of these things can be brushed off as minor ethical infractions or just the cost of doing business when they are considered independently, but taken together they paint a grim picture of where sports media is headed.

* Update 4 p.m. ET. This line was mistakenly deleted in the editing process and has been added to the post.

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