CRAWFORD BLOG | On ESPN, the Louisville allegations, and the long season ahead
Some Louisville fans were upset about comments ESPN game commentators made about the Louisville escort allegations during Wednesday's game against Michigan State. Eric Crawford examines the comments, and warns them to expect more of the same.
EAST LANSING, Mich. (WDRB) — I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here, because when I’m covering a game, I don’t hear the television commentary that fans hear.
And part of what they want to discuss after the game isn’t just stats and who did and didn’t do well on the court, but the announcers and what they said.
I got a lot of Twitter feedback on comments that ESPN commentators Dan Dakich and Mike Tirico made regarding the Louisville investigation and Cardinals coach Rick Pitino during last night’s 71-67 loss to Michigan State.
In fact, people went nuts. I didn’t hear what was said, but the reaction was such that this morning, I listened to the segment.
A few thoughts.
First, of the entire two-hour, five-minute game broadcast, the segment lasted three minutes. Tirico explained its inclusion into the broadcast by saying that it was Louisville’s first appearance on national television, and that a lot of people didn’t know much about the team or the allegations. (Frankly, you can probably expect the same when Louisville first appears on CBS -- on Dec. 26 against Kentucky.)
Tirico then went through a very general timeline of events, not really going into great detail about the allegations, and the various responses of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich and Pitino.
Then Dakich did what he is paid to do, which is give his opinion. It should be noted, Dakich had said nothing but positive things about Louisville’s team, and Pitino, to that point. And he would say many more positive things before the game was over. He had just finished, before a preceding commercial break, saying that Pitino was perhaps the best player-development coach in the nation.
But on this case, he weighed in with this opinion: “There’s so many layers to it. There’s the NCAA part of it. There’s a criminal investigation. To me, it doesn’t matter whether Coach Pitino knew or didn’t know. It shouldn’t happen under anybody’s watch. I’d be a bad athletic director, I know. I’d be a bad president. I would be. But I would not have Coach Pitino as my coach. When these things come out, you just can’t tolerate that as an institution. This isn’t the only thing that, over the last five years, has come out with Louisville. And as a president or athletic director I’d get tired of these things. I have too much respect for higher education and the people who pay to have their kids go to Louisville to allow that. But he is, and good for him. I mean, hey, his athletic director has stood by him. The president initially didn’t but then he ended up showing support. He’s got full support. And if Rick Pitino didn’t have the Louisville job, he’d have another job in two minutes. That’s how good he is. But you can’t have these things continue, no matter how successful your basketball program is, they cloud your university. ”
And that was pretty much it. Maybe other things were said, but those were the things that I heard about from Louisville fans.
A couple of things. I think Dakich is one of the best game analysts ESPN has. He knows more basketball, and has more insight into what’s going on in games, than most analysts doing the games.
He also has strong opinions. He hasn’t been too popular at times doing games of his own alma mater, precisely because of that pointed criticism. But those opinions are part of what makes him good.
And he’s been consistent. He was no easier on Indiana coach Tom Crean when off-the-court problems hit that program. Whether Crean was involved in those incidents, Dakich said they shouldn’t be happening, they were distracting and casting the program in a bad light, and he said he wouldn’t have it. If you ever hear his radio show, his comments about Pitino were no surprise. He’s been consistent from the start.
Dakich wasn’t picking on Pitino. He’s just telling you how he rolls. And when you have that job of being a professional analyst on a major network, that’s all you can do. People always say to announcers, “Stick to the game.” But that’s not what ESPN teaches, and it’s not what sells the games to fans whose interest in the two teams on the court is marginal.1
Nor is Dakich the only one with that opinion. The most-read story on WDRB’s website about any of this whole sordid mess was a column written by my colleague Rick Bozich making essentially the same points.
I don’t agree with those points2, but you have to acknowledge how reasonable people could come to them. There is a public relations hit to be taken, and there is absolutely no way around that. Louisville fans have got to understand that, even if they don’t like it.
Now a thought or two on ESPN.
It’s a big place. While Louisville fans are angry about the negative opinion of this person or that, they would do well to remember that many, and I do mean many, of the most influential voices that network has have been staunchly in Pitino’s corner.
Dick Vitale has been a defender of Pitino from the start in all this. Jay Bilas has spoken many times in defense of Pitino as a coach. Seth Greenberg has expressed doubt over whether Pitino would weather all this, but never a word of doubt over whether he knew or was in any kind of real way responsible.
There are, within ESPN, like everywhere else, conflicting opinions on Pitino — though it’s rare to find anyone who contends that Pitino knew or had any kind of role in anything that went on.3
A second point on ESPN. I don’t see anything wrong with a diversity of opinion on Pitino, or Louisville. In fact, that’s what makes a strong network.
You’re never going to agree with everything that comes out of any media outlet. I haven’t agreed with everything that came out of outlets I work for — nor should I. Nor should anyone. It’s all right.
In ESPN’s case, what I did have a bit of a problem with, and I’ve written about it, so this is nothing new, was its original acceptance and broadcast of the allegations on just their face value, without pressing either Katina Powell or anyone else on discrepancies in what she is alleging, or any kind of real detail on the allegations themselves.
She accounted for fewer than half of the number of “shows” she alleged. She accounted for only a little more than half of the money she says she got.
At this point, even Pitino has acknowledged a belief that there is probably some truth to what is being alleged. But ESPN should have learned from the Duke lacrosse scandal that original allegations can be a far cry from what eventually is considered the actual truth. Their own report found only two women who alleged that they had sex for money, and only one former recruit. Now, even one is too many, but it could’ve showed a bit more restraint in its presentation given all that, but that doesn’t make for as good a story.
In the days since that original report, ESPN has been careful to note that investigations are ongoing, and Tirico on Wednesday made sure to add that there were multiple investigations, and that this will be around for a while. He even repeated Pitino’s assertion that no one on the current team was involved, though I’m not sure that has been officially determined by the school’s investigators. An open-records request from WDRB turned up email evidence of an NCAA waiver request from the Louisville compliance office for a current player — though there is absolutely no way of telling from the content of that whether it has to do with these allegations, or something else. School officials have declined to discuss the specifics of any NCAA matters. In any event, the players are all on the court, so for the time being, let’s assume that is the case.
The other problem ESPN has with this is Katina Powell’s assertion via a Facebook post purporting to be hers that it gave her a tour of the facilities and some signed items. I mean, this is the sports equivalent to "Pretty Woman" on Rodeo Drive. This, of course, doesn’t really sound like the way a news organization doing a serious job on a serious story handles matters, but that’s ESPN’s business.
In the end, if you're a Louisville fan and you don't like hearing about this stuff during national TV games, it’s going to be a long season. These things aren’t going to stop. I don’t know that every ESPN game will include the kind of timeline this one did — but you can bet, every new analyst that does a Louisville game will feel compelled to weigh in, and Louisville fans will get upset, unless they’re in agreement with what is said.
The twist of this is that, once Pitino does retire, whenever that day comes, he could be one of the best analysts ESPN could hire.
I talk from time to time about the power of television. Al McGuire was a great coach. A Hall of Fame coach, a national championship coach. But just as many people remember him for his television commentary as his coaching. That future is there for Pitino, whenever and if ever he chooses to pursue it.
After all this, however, I’m not sure he’d feel too inclined to pursue it with ESPN. He’d have to speak to that himself.
In the meantime, U of L fans might want to think about turning the TV volume down and the radio volume on Paul Rogers and Bob Valvano up, if they don’t like hearing comments on the allegations. I have a feeling they’re not going to stop anytime soon.
1The "stick to the game" crowd is always present. But here's something I've never heard talking about a broadcast the next day: "Did you hear (insert announcer here) breaking down how Tom Izzo started slipping screens against the Louisville zone in the second half, and how he started moving Denzel Valentine from position to position to get him the ball and loosen up the defense?" No, 99 percent of the time it's: "Did you hear what Dakich (or Vitale, or Bilas, or Bill Walton) said during the game last night?" Now things are different here in Kentucky, and probably in North Carolina, too, and Indiana, where fans are the most serious about the game. I remember sitting at a Kentucky-North Carolina game and hearing two female students talking about a Tar Heel player. One mentioned how cute he was, and the other replied, "Yeah, but he can't go to his left." People here know the game. They probably appreciate game analysis more than most. But the average viewer -- and networks like ESPN have to go for the widest audience -- remembers and talks about opinion. Louisville fans probably got more game analysis from Dakich Wednesday night than they'll get in 90 percent of their national broadcasts this season. What they were talking about, however, was his opinion. That's my point.
2Let's assume Pitino had been let go by U of L. During Wednesday night's broadcast, would that "timeline" segment have disappeared? No. Instead, you probably would've gotten positive opinion and praise from Dakich for making a statement. But you also would've had discussion of what penalties the school is facing, because letting Pitino go would be a tacit admission of guilt and responsibility by the university, even before the investigation was complete. Oh, and as an added bonus, you'd have been getting your rear end handed to you by Michigan State on national television, the first of many such drubbings, depending on who you got as interim coach, which would be a thorny question in itself. All of which, of course, doesn't even take up the question of whether Pitino did even a single thing wrong in any of this, and if he did, what was it, what kind of sanction did it really merit? In any event, if you're going to let a Hall of Fame coach go, it should be something more than just a public relations strategy.
3Powell’s own attorney, Larry Wilder, even said to WDRB on Nov. 12, “As a lawyer, I can tell you as we sit here right now today, I have no knowledge of any demonstrative evidence, any admissible evidence, any circumstantial evidence, that would cause me as a lawyer to believe that there is any ability to demonstrate that coach Rick Pitino had knowledge of what was gong on. I can say that without hesitation, having had benefit of all the information I have."
The question is whether Pitino himself should bear the tangible responsibility for what went on. Even within the NCAA’s notion of “strict liability,” there are several tests the NCAA will put the allegations through to determine whether Pitino should be held culpable in any tangible way.
The NCAA states in its principles of institutional control: “This is not to imply that every violation by an assistant coach involves a lack of institutional control. If the head coach sets a proper tone of compliance and monitors the activities of all assistant coaches in the sport, the head coach cannot be charged with the secretive activities of an assistant bent on violating NCAA rules.”
But there are a lot of hurdles a coach and department must clear to get to that point. How Louisville will fare in all those, only NCAA enforcement officials can say.
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