Veteran ESPN ombudsmen are weighing in on ESPN baseball analyst Curt Schilling's “hurtful” comments comparing Muslims to Nazis, including one who labeled him a “right-wing dummy.” They're also urging the sprawling sports media empire to bring back the ombudsman position that has not been filled since late 2014.
“I think an internal critic is really, really healthy,” said George Solomon, who was named the first ESPN ombudsman in 2005 and served for 21 months. “Having someone in that role is a good thing and I would hope they would reinstitute it. I think they should have kept the position, it's good to have an internal critic.”
Schilling kicked off a controversy this week after a Twitter post in which he compared Muslims to Nazis, a move that caused ESPN to pull him from its Little League World Series coverage and this week's edition of Sunday Night Baseball. After ESPN announced disciplinary measures, Schilling tweeted, “I understand and accept my suspension. 100% my fault. Bad choices have bad consequences and this was a bad decision in every way on my part.”
But the offending tweet wasn't a momentary lapse in judgment. Schilling has a history of posting and sharing incendiary material on social media, including suggesting Hillary Clinton is a drunk murderer, defending the confederate flag, and criticizing civil rights leaders.
Josh Krulewitz, ESPN vice president of communications, declined to say if more discipline would occur.
The incident took place at a time when ESPN has been without an ombudsman for more than eight months, having failed to replace Robert Lipsyte when his term ended in December 2014.
Lipsyte was one of three former ESPN ombudsmen who spoke to Media Matters Wednesday about Schilling, calling him a “right-wing dummy” and saying his views hurt his image on the network.
“My feeling is that if Curt Schilling can make the kind of comments that he does outside the white lines then I don't trust anything he has to say about anything,” Lipsyte said. “He's obviously a right-wing dummy.”
He later added, “Everybody in journalism these days is under pressure to be on social media, which also reflects on your employer. There are no personal tweets. You are reflecting whoever you represent and Curt Schilling is representing ESPN.”
George Solomon, the first ESPN ombudsman hired in 2005 for 21 months, said the Muslim/Nazi comparison “can be quite hurtful to a number of people.”
He added, “ESPN gives its employees, particularly its commentators, a lot of leeway and it seems sometimes that causes a problem and in Schilling's case it seems to be a problem that ESPN will have to deal with, looking at his whole body of work ... ESPN will have to decide, 'Do we want Mr. Schilling to represent us with these comments?' Coming from an era where Twitter was not a factor and social media was not part of my life that can be difficult because people who represent ESPN or other networks will put things on Twitter and other social media outlets that they would not say that can be a problem.”
Asked what he would do if he was still the ombudsman, Solomon said, “I would probably comment on the remarks. To compare the Muslims with the Nazis is a stretch.”
The network had employed an ombudsman regularly since 2005, with five people holding the job through the years. But the position has been empty since Lipsyte left.
Krulewitz said the network has not ruled out bringing the position back, but stopped short of offering any firm plans: “We're in the process of determining our plans for our next ombudsman. We're exploring what our options are ... we're in the midst of the process now.”
Asked if the latest Schilling situation would change the plans to expedite the ombudsman, he said, “no.”
“The ombudsman is an independent, someone we hire independently to review and discuss her or his viewpoint of ESPN,” Krulewitz said. “We're going to go through the process and we obviously want to do the process the right way.”
But the former ombudsmen who spoke to Media Matters said the position is needed, perhaps now more than ever given the recent Schilling situation.
“I can't understand what's taking them so long, with all the things,” said Lipsyte. “When I left ESPN, my exit interview, the takeaway was 'why should we pay for criticism when we get so much for free.' That doesn't sound to me like an organization that really wants independent oversight. Everybody needs an ombudsman.”
Solomon agreed: “I've said that from the start. Taking myself out of the mix, the ombudsmen they've had have been really valuable and informative and really good.”
He also added, “I think ESPN was sensitive to what the ombudsmen, including myself, had to say. They listened, they paid attention, they were very responsive when I did the reporting for my column.”
Le Anne Schreiber, another ESPN ombudsman who served from 2007-2009, urged the position's return, saying they helped many of the network's journalists who conduct in-depth reporting.
“Some of the employees are very, very serious journalists,” she said. “The ombudsmen have always had their backs. Many of them said to me how much moral support they felt in their place in the institution by the presence of the ombudsman, if only for that reason. Just being a watchdog and just being a voice raised the traditional journalist values. It gave a lot of aid comfort and support to the serious journalists who are there and who deserved it.”
She also said the network needs specific policies about what is allowed and what the punishment will be for these type of actions.
“ESPN needs to have a very clarified policy about what is acceptable and what is not on their airwaves and ESPN.com,” Schreiber said. “ESPN should stop dealing with these ad hoc, making them up in response to public heat of the moment; make a very clear policy. It really is about a consistency of policy.”