MLB Power Rankings
Last Week: 1
The name "Ubaldo" is at least phonetic to a Spanish speaker; the name Jhoulys Chacin is a bit more of a challenge. (It's pronounced "JO-lease cha-SEEN.") The only thing trickier has been hitting him in the air. Utilizing an 89-91 mph fastball, Chacin threw a six-hit, complete-game shutout Friday night against the Cubs, and he leads the majors in groundball-to-flyball ratio at 3.91. The 23-year-old has yet to allow a home run and has yielded just three extra-base hits (all doubles) in 22 innings with a 1.64 ERA.
Last Week: 5
It has only been four games and 14 at bats, but Grady Sizemore's return to an Indians uniform has been an unquestioned success story so far. After undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee, he made it back to the majors on Sunday and homered in his second at bat. He's had multiple hits in each of his first two starts and is batting .357 with three extra-base hits. Whether the speed ever returns is unknown -- he averaged 29 steals in his four full seasons -- but he's only 28 and ought to have several good years ahead of him.
Last Week: 2
On Wednesday afternoon the Phillies rallied from a 3-0 deficit to beat the Brewers thanks to home runs from Placido Polanco and Shane Victorino. Indeed, the top two hitters in Philadelphia's lineup accounted for all four RBIs; Polanco is now tied with Ryan Howard for the team lead with 15 while Victorino is tied with Raul Ibañez for third place with 10. Add catcher Carlos Ruiz and rightfielder Ben Francisco, and six of the Phillies' top seven hitters in the lineup have at least nine RBIs. The lone exception is No. 3 hitter Jimmy Rollins, who somehow only has one RBI, which came in his 12th game. The culprit is his .229 average with runners on base.
Last Week: 9
Los Angeles Angels
Howie Kendrick looks like a completely new hitter in the first three weeks of the season. The second baseman's career high for homers is 10, and he's never exceeded a frequency of one HR every 37.4 at bats. In 2011, however, he's already hit six homers with an AB/HR rate of 12.3. He's also drawing walks at an unprecedented rate. His career high is to draw a walk on 5.0 percent of plate appearances, but he's up to 11.8 percent so far this year. The homer and walk rates -- if he keeps them up -- will push him from high-average singles hitter to a power hitter in the company of second-base counterparts Robinson Cano and Ian Kinsler.
Last Week: 7
New York Yankees
In 1990 rookie Kevin Maas became an immediate Yankees sensation when he began his career with 12 home runs among his first 28 hits. Jorge Posada, in his first year as a full-time D.H., is on track to shatter that pace. Five of Posada's first seven hits this season were home runs, accounting for eight of his nine RBIs. The former catcher has 11 seasons with at least 17 homers, but he has never exceeded 30 in a year. The other hits should come soon, however. Posada's batting average on balls in play is an astronomically low .094 -- by far the worst in the majors -- and should start creeping toward the MLB average of .292 soon, a move that will manifest in the form of singles and doubles, balancing out his early power.
Last Week: 3
Given the cost of the trade (set-up man and former closer Frank Francisco), the Rangers were expected to find at bats for Mike Napoli, either at catcher or first base, especially after he homered in his first two games and three of his first five. Instead, Napoli played in just six of Texas' first 14 games, restricted by being one of only two catchers on the team along with Yorvit Torrealba and thus making manager Ron Washington reluctant to use him as a pinch-hitter. But on Wednesday the Rangers called up a third catcher, Taylor Teagarden, which will create what Washington called more "offensive flexibility with Napoli." Good thing -- through nine games he's slugging .704.
Last Week: 6
Kansas City Royals
Billy Butler started his 25th birthday on Monday with two singles and two walks. In the eighth inning, however, while sliding into second on a possible force-out, Butler thought he had been called out and wandered off second base; he later discovered -- too late -- that he had been safe at second. It was an unfortunate gaffe in a game the Royals went on to lose, marring his hot start to the season: Butler has a batting line of .354/.475/.508. He leads the AL with five intentional walks and is tied for fifth with 14 total walks.
Last Week: 12
The Marlins have a three-time All-Star and former batting champ in Hanley Ramirez, a hyped power-hitting prospect in Mike Stanton and two 2010 All-Stars in John Buck and Omar Infante, but the team's two best hitters so far this season -- by far -- have been Logan Morrison and the man who displaced Morrison from first base to leftfield, Gaby Sanchez. Both are hitting above .325 with an OBP of at least .400, and
Last Week: 14
San Francisco Giants
Slimming one's waistline wouldn't seem to have an effect on a player's batting eye, but third baseman Pablo Sandoval, fresh off an offseason in which he lost 40 pounds, is more patient at the plate, taking his time to feast on offspeed pitches rather than hastening his way to the postgame spread. Sandoval has put together a .328/.400/.603 batting line with five homers by changing his approach at the plate. He's seeing 3.80 pitches per plate appearance (up from 3.42 for his career), by swinging at the first pitch only 26.2 percent of the time (down from 44.1 percent in his career) and by reducing his number of plate appearances per walk to 9.29 (down from 13.35 for his career).
Last Week: 11
Last year Prince Fielder drew the most walks in his career (114) and had his fewest RBIs (83) since 2006. In 2011 Fielder has reversed that trend. He has a major league leading 19 RBIs, meaning he's on pace for 171, and has walked only six times, a rate of 7.7 percent of all plate appearances compared to 16.0 percent last year. No doubt Fielder is swinging more freely in his contract year -- RBIs earn more cash than walks -- which, along with the emergence of Casey McGehee as his protection in the lineup, partly explains why he's on pace to more than double his RBIs and more than halve his walks.
Last Week: 28
Tampa Bay Rays
In his last five full games before suffering a finger injury on Sunday, Johnny Damon went 8-for-23 (.348) with at least one hit and one RBI in each, all of which were Rays wins. Twice in the weekend series against the Twins, Damon delivered a walkoff win for Tampa Bay, with a two-run homer on Thursday and an RBI single on Saturday. Damon has always had a flair for the dramatic and is tied for the major league lead in both go-ahead RBIs (six) and game-winning RBIs (five).
Last Week: 20
St. Louis Cardinals
Nearly 90 percent of the season remains, but at the rate Lance Berkman is going, I'm likely to owe him an apology. In SI's baseball preview issue, I identified him as the NL Central's "star on the decline" -- in 2010, after all, he struggled mightily against lefty pitchers and this year the Cardinals were asking the oft-injured 35-year-old to be an everyday outfielder for the first time in seven years -- but he logged one the best five-game stretches anyone in baseball will enjoy this year. Berkman went 10-for-21 (.476) with six home runs and 12 RBIs.
Last Week: 21
Admittedly, the Twins' Joe Mauer is on the D.L., but in his absence the Diamondbacks' Miguel Montero is asserting himself as one of the game's premier offensive catchers. Montero's 1.028 OPS is No. 1 among catchers and is No. 10 among all NL hitters. He's not only batting .358 but has drawn eight walks. There are two drawbacks, however, to his fine start. One, his batting average on balls in play is .405, which will likely regress closer to his .311 career rate and cost him a few points on his average; two, he has made five errors, also the most among all catchers.
Last Week: 4
Writers and fans have become numb to most athlete arrests, but Monday's incident with Mike Leake stood out for the alleged perpetrator (a promising young pitcher of little national name recognition except for his having skipped the minor leagues), the alleged offense (stealing six t-shirts that cost less than $60) and his compensation (he received a $2.3 million signing bonus and is making $425,000 this season). Making matters stranger is this Cincinnati TV report which suggests Leake tried to make an in-store exchange without telling any store employee and the police reports which lists his place of employment as "Reds Stadium" rather than Great American Ballpark.
Last Week: 16
In Carlos Zambrano's third start of the year on April 13, he pitched five scoreless innings and homered in the top of the sixth before allowing five runs in the bottom half of the inning and leaving the mound before his manager, Mike Quade, arrived to take the ball. Zambrano apologized the next day and what likely spoke louder than words was his performance in his next outing on Monday night. Zambrano threw eight shutout innings and struck out 10 while allowing just three hits and one walk.
Last Week: 17
Rickey Henderson's name and face keeps popping up everywhere. Most notably, he appears -- thrice -- in this new Pepsi Max commercial in which three Rickey Hendersons, wearing different uniforms, appear; while one drinks from a bottle of soda, the other two are playing Paper-Rock-Scissors before one proclaims (in the third person, of course), "Rickey wins again." Meanwhile, the Oakland A's are trotting out a Rickey Henderson bobblehead night, and their TV network is running a commercial in which Coco Crisp excitedly tells the clubhouse manager that Henderson told him that disco aerobics are the key to his fitness level -- only for the clubbie to tell Crisp that Henderson told another player that Irish line dancing was the secret. And there's this tale, from a blog, in which Henderson mistook the steal sign for adulation.
Last Week: 24
Nationals second baseman Danny Espinosa had only 15 RBIs in 28 games in 2010 but notched his 15th RBI of 2011 in his 17th game and, in fact, has nearly twice as many RBIs as any teammate. (Ian Desmond ranks second with eight). But don't expect that to continue: Espinosa has hit his way out of most RBI opportunities. By reaching base reliably -- he has a .375 OBP -- he has taken over from Desmond, his double-play partner, as the Nationals' new leadoff hitter.
Last Week: 18
Centerfielder Austin Jackson was the AL Rookie of the Year runner-up last year, while leftfielder Ryan Raburn was the club's breakout performer by finishing with 13 homers and a .333 average over the season's final two months. But this year Raburn has struck out 25 times and Jackson 24 times -- while batting just .230 and .157, respectively -- which means that two-thirds of the Tigers' starting outfield are the majors' top two strikeout victims.
Last Week: 15
Los Angeles Dodgers
On Wednesday MLB commissioner Bud Selig essentially seized control of the Dodgers and handed it to an as-yet-unnamed representative to "oversee all aspects of the business and the day-to-day operations of the Club." Such a move likely won't immediately affect the Dodgers' on-field performance -- players generally have little regular interaction with ownership -- but it could hamstring general manager Ned Colletti if he wants to add payroll at the trade deadline. Admittedly, the Rangers were very active last year under the league's watchful eye and made it to the World Series, but, as Jonah Keri thoughtfully reflects over at FanGraphs.com, things weren't as rosy when MLB took over the Expos in 2002.
Last Week: 22
San Diego Padres
In the first 18 games of the 2010 season then-Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez had a .317/.429/.667 batting line with six homers and 14 RBIs. In San Diego's first 18 games of 2011, however, with Gonzalez now playing in Boston, the team has had a major dropoff in production from their starting first basemen. Brad Hawpe and Jorge Cantu have shared starting duties at that position, and collectively the two Padres first basemen have .129/.182/.200 batting line with one home run and only three runs scored.
Last Week: 13
Toronto Blue Jays
Aaron Hill and Adam Lind continue to replicate each other. It started in 2009 -- when Hill batted .286 with 36 homers and 108 RBIs and Lind hit .305 with 35 homers and 114 RBIs -- but it hasn't been a good thing since. In 2010, Hill fell to .205 with 26 homers and 68 RBIs; Lind checked in at .237, 23 homers and 72 RBIs. And in 2011 Hill is batting .242 with zero homers and nine RBIs, and Lind is hitting .232, one homer and nine RBIs. Each has three doubles, while Lind has four walks to Hill's three.
Last Week: 10
That dalliance atop the AL East standings was fun, but reality struck cruelly. Beginning with the second game of a doubleheader on April 9, the Orioles lost eight straight, going from a one-game lead in first to fourth place and a 3 ½ game deficit. During that skid the club batted .219 and scored just 20 runs, an average of 2.5 per game. On the season, not one player with at least 25 at bats is hitting better than .274 or has an OBP higher than .333, which are fine numbers for a team average but not for the top of the scale.
Last Week: 19
Mayfield Farms, a prominent dairy farm in the southeastern U.S., announced recently that it was creating Triple Play, the official ice cream of the Atlanta Braves. The name comes from the three flavors -- white chocolate ice cream with a raspberry puree and raspberry-filled chocolate cups ? that comprise it but the Braves haven't turned a triple play in seven years, last doing so on May 6, 2004 against the Padres. In 2003, however, then shortstop Rafael Furcal completed one of the rarest feats in baseball by turning an unassisted triple play against the Cardinals. That was duplicated against Atlanta in 2007 when Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki did the honors.
Last Week: 23
As bad as the Pirates were last year -- their .352 winning percentage was their worst since 1954 -- at least they won at home, going 40-41 in front of their fans at PNC Park. That, unfortunately, left only 17 wins in road games. This year, oddly, the Pirates have reversed that trend, starting 7-5 on the road and 1-5 at home. If their struggles in Pittsburgh continued, they may not be immune to the mocking laugh of the scoreboard Pirate (check these videos on Yahoo!'s Big League Stew).
Last Week: 30
Boston Red Sox
After starting 0-6 and 2-10, it was easy to point to Boston's starting rotation as the key culprit. The staff had a 6.71 ERA in those first dozen games, and opponents hit .281 against them. In their last five games, however, which is a full turn through the rotation, Sox starters are 4-1 with a 1.15 ERA after allowing just four earned runs and a .179 average against in 31 1/3 innings. Most surprising was the outing from Daisuke Matsuzaka, who pitched seven shutout innings, yielding just one hit and one walk and needing only 89 pitches to get 21 outs. He had thrown seven innings in his first two starts combined, while allowing 10 earned runs.
Last Week: 8
Chicago White Sox
From 2007 to 2009 the first pitch for White Sox home games was scheduled for 7:11 p.m. as part of a sponsorship with convenience store chain 7-Eleven. After that contract expired, games were returned to their prior start time of 7:10, and this year the White Sox ought to move forward the remainder of their home games by far more than one minute. Through three weeks, Chicago is 1-6 in night games but 6-5 in day games. The club is in the middle of a seven-game losing streak, and though they won't actually change their entire home schedule, it may be time for a drastic shakeup of another kind -- maybe by shuffling the lineup and dropping struggling Juan Pierre and Gordon Beckham out of the top two spots.
Last Week: 29
On Wednesday, in Houston's 18th game of the season, the first Astro hit multiple home runs -- not for the game but for the season. Amazingly, no player had more than one homer until Hunter Pence parked his second round-tripper of the season at the Mets' Citi Field. It was the key blow in leading the Astros to consecutive wins for the first time this season.
Last Week: 26
Of the Twins' early-season problems -- catcher Joe Mauer's leg weakness and viral infection, closer Joe Nathan's struggles and subsequent demotion, the broken leg of Tsuyoshi Nishioka, the rampant flu that sidelined Justin Morneau and Delmon Young and Francisco Liriano's shakiness -- at least one, Liriano, showed a glimpse of turning things around. In his first three stars he allowed a 9.42 ERA without pitching more than five innings. But against the Orioles on Monday, the lefty earned his first win after allowing only two runs in 6 1/3 innings. Troubling still was that he walked five while striking out two, bringing the season total of both to 14, and that he didn't get a swing and miss on any of his 47 fastballs despite averaging 93 mph.
Last Week: 27
In Eric Wedge's last six seasons managing the Indians, they never scored fewer than 773 runs, even when they only won 65 games. That's the background to his recent comments blasting the offense of his new team, the Mariners, who scored a paltry 513 runs last year and have scored only 70 runs in 19 games this year. That's a pace for 597 runs. Though that's way more than last year's Seattle team, it still would have ranked last in the AL. That's why Wedge told the Seattle press recently, "It's the same thing, different day, and it's unacceptable." Unfortunately for Wedge, he doesn't have a ton to work with -- so little, in fact, that he used second baseman Adam Kennedy, whose career slugging percentage is a paltry .387, as clean-up hitter.
Last Week: 25
New York Mets
The Mets' early-season losing has already become so monotonous and routine that New York Daily News beat writer Andy Martino led his story of Tuesday night's loss like so: "Blah blah blah blah rain blah blah blah Niese blah blah Astros blah blah Mets got spanked. Blah blah, 6-1. We really don't know what else to tell you about this one. But we will try . . ." One out of the ordinary note with the Mets: last week they hosted an afternoon doubleheader while the Yankees were home at night, allowing me to see (most of) a tripleheader.
ESPN commentator endorsements
As part of ESPN's transparency efforts and guidelines for commentators and endorsement relationships, the following is a list of relevant, approved endorsements. This information will be updated as warranted.
Erin Andrews: Reebok
Paul Azinger: Adams Golf
Mike Bellotti: Nike Coaching Clinic at USC
Ato Bolden: Adidas
Bruce Bowen: Nike
Tim Brown: Under Armour
Olin Browne: Callaway, Razor Hawk, Odyssey
Chris Burandt: Monster, Polaris, Slednecks, Klim, HMK, Starting Line Products, Holz Racing Products, Fox Racing, Snox, EGT, VCHK, 509, Boon Docker Performance, RSI, RPM, Sled Solutions, Better Boards, Timbersled, Sledez, Edge Products
Darren Cahill: Adidas, Wilson, Donnay
Cris Carter: Nike
Jimmy Coleman: Metal Mulisha
Lee Corso: Nike
Jane Crafter: Footjoy, Titleist, Feel Golf, Callaway
Zach Crist: K2 Skis
Dan Dakich: Nike, Adidas AAU Camp
Tony DiCicco: Adidas
Trent Dilfer: Nike, Callaway
Keir Dillon: Nike
Mike Ditka: Under Armour
Jimmy Dykes: Nike
Mary Joe Fernandez: Nike, Wilson
Fran Fraschilla: Nike Skills Camp
Brad Gilbert: Nike, Wilson
Kirk Herbstreit: Nike
Keyshawn Johnson: Under Armour
Bill Kratzert: Ashworth, Adidas, TaylorMade
Kara Lawson: Nike
Jamie Little: Oakley
Sal Masekela: Nike, Oakley
Dennis McCoy: Vans
John McEnroe: Nike, Dunlop
Patrick McEnroe: USTA "General Manager of Player Development," Nike, Wilson
Jeremy McGrath: Sky Optics, DC Shoes, DC Riding Gear, Troy Lee Designs, Dunlop Tires, Coyne Powersports Group, Motorcycle Mechanics, Specialized Bicycles
Rocco Mediate: Chervo, Par West, Titleist, V1, Vharness Clubs, Adams Golf, Club Fourteen, Taggart, Audemars Piguet, InBalance
Jessica Mendoza: Nike, Louisville Slugger, Dudley, Spalding
Urban Meyer: Nike
Andy North: F2, Fairway and Greens
Chris Pastras: Converse
Kyle Peterson: Easton
Judy Rankin: Adidas
Jalen Rose: AEG sponsored by Nike
Tes Sewell: Oakley, Fox Racing, Ogio, DC
Pam Shriver: Yonex Corp
Miles Simon: Nike Skills Camp
Michele Smith: Rip-It Sporting Goods, Three-and-Two, JUGS Pitching Machines
Curtis Strange: Nike, Administaff
Rick : Nike
Taylor Twellman: Nike
Scott Van Pelt: Titleist
Robin Ventura: Easton
Jay Walker: Russell Athletic
Rusty Wallace: Oakley, Toyota
Cat Whitehill: Nike
Jay Williams: Under Armour
ESPN Commentators Now Have Guidelines When it Comes to Endorsements
By Kelly McBride and Regina McCombs
Erin Andrews' Reebok contract will not be approved again, but her Diet Mountain Dew commercials with Kenny Mayne stand. Scott Van Pelt's Titleist contract? Soon to be gone. Mike Ditka's and Keyshawn Johnson's Under Armour deals? No problem.
ESPN last week unveiled its new endorsement guidelines for commentators. To sum it up: Analysts such as Ditka and Johnson can enter into most endorsement deals, from adidas cleats to Yonex rackets, pending approval. Non-analysts, including anchors, writers, reporters, hosts and insiders -- those who do the work of journalists -- can take outside money only from organizations that don't create a conflict of interest, or even an appearance of one.
Three current endorsement contracts are in violation under the new guidelines but will be grandfathered temporarily. NASCAR reporter Jamie Little's Oakley endorsement, as well as Andrews' Reebok contract and Van Pelt's Titleist contract will be allowed, but must expire at the earliest opportunity. Anchor Chris Fowler recently had a speaking engagement deal with Nike, but that's already over.
These new guidelines are an important step forward and will go a long way toward bolstering the network's image as an organization concerned with integrity and credibility. But it won't be enough. There is too much wiggle room carved out to accommodate big stars.
As a result, ESPN's critics will continue to question the loyalties of the most famous folks at the network. In the coming months, network executives might need to tighten the boundaries further to combat the persistent public perception that ESPN is compromised. In particular, whenever ESPN chooses to let a story that could potentially involve some level of conflict go uncovered, doubters will assign ulterior motives and no one will be able to change their minds.
ESPN's approach toward endorsements came under intense scrutiny earlier this year when Reebok rolled out its Andrews campaign two weeks after she reported on traction issues with Nike cleats during the Rose Bowl.
Sports journalists outside the network pointed out the conflict of interest: Andrews was reporting critically on the performance of one shoe company's products and would soon appear in paid promotion for another shoe company. In the surge of attention, bloggers and reporters noted that although her reporting seemed above board, her competing loyalties created, at minimum, the perception of unfairness.
In response to that and other issues, network executives began a review and revision of the guidelines. The ESPN brass understands that, fair or foul, fans make judgments and assign motives to ESPN and its commentators. When it comes to credibility, perception can be as damaging as an actual breach. Hence the new guidelines, distributed internally and externally, represent progress. The network's previous approach toward endorsements was not widely understood or distributed, and it was not included in ESPN's standards and practices rollout earlier this year.
The new guidelines address issues of appearance, as well as substance. The policy explicitly forbids:
• Using ESPN logos in endorsements
• Working for direct competitors of ESPN or parent company Disney
• Paid appearances for professional teams, colleges, booster clubs or athletic associations
The following categories are classified as strict review, under the presumption they will not be approved:
• Political endorsements
• Gambling, lottery or firearms endorsements
• Apparel, footwear, training and athletic equipment endorsements
Except there's one whopping exception to that last clause: analysts. These are the men and women who typically played or coached a sport, and they make up more than half of the 1,000-plus public-facing individuals ESPN refers to as "talent." That means most of the talent it employs can enter into the very type of contract that prompted the outcry in the first place.
As part of the new guidelines, the network has listed "all relevant, approved talent endorsements" on ESPN.com. That list includes 51 analysts who have endorsements that could be perceived as conflicting, based on the above criteria. Other analysts, and some reporters, have endorsement contracts that are not noted because executives have decided that they do not present a perception problem (think food or restaurant endorsements, not athletic equipment).
Why would the network create a two-tiered system in which some people are allowed conflicts of interest and others aren't? According to ESPN executives, it's a matter of practicality, rooted both in the culture of sports and in finances. Endorsements are part of the benchmark of success in sports -- nearly all successful athletes have promotional deals. They are also financially lucrative. In some cases, depending on workload for the network -- say, covering a few events a year for ESPN -- some talent can make as much in endorsements as from ESPN.
"Ultimately, our goal is to serve sports fans with the best commentators available," said Norby Williamson, ESPN's executive vice president for production. "These [endorsement] relationships are an established part of the environment that the analysts exist in. It's standard operating procedure. It's clearly beyond our control. We believe we'd put ourselves at a competitive disadvantage [if the network didn't allow the outside deals]."
That's certainly true. NBC Sports and Fox Sports, for example, don't prohibit their analysts from having outside contracts -- instead, they simply insist on prior review. And even some of the most traditional and well-respected journalists within ESPN told us they didn't see a way around the compromise.
"ESPN is living in the real world and trying to deal with it," said Wright Thompson, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. "It's a great big complicated world. They employ basically anonymous people like me, and they hire celebrities."
Moreover, the ESPN journalists and analysts we interviewed universally took umbrage at the notion that an outside contract, even a lucrative one, would create bias in their work.
"My loyalties are always to ESPN and the job and to basketball," said Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player and coach and a longtime network analyst. "I do this because I love basketball. When someone asks me a question, my job is to provide a factual basis for my opinion."
Bilas said he used to have an endorsement contract with KFC that was brokered by ESPN. He currently is paid to endorse a chocolate milk product from Shamrock Farms.
Jeremy Schaap, a radio host and "E:60" reporter, told us he thought the policy made great advances.
"It makes perfect sense -- it's a reasonable policy," he said. "Of course, there's very fine line between someone like [analysts] Kirk Herbstreit or John Kruk and someone who does straight reporting. But our best consumer is an educated consumer."
Said Schaap of the network taking the step of publicly disclosing the list of endorsements, "Who else does that?" And while the transparency of presenting the list on ESPN.com is another good step forward, it still doesn't resolve the underlying conflict of interest.
New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick did an excellent job of explaining how problematic certain commercial endorsements can be, pointing out after the Andrews story went public that many analysts on the ESPN college football team have endorsement contracts with Nike.
"Nike, as if they and ESPN didn't know, is the largest steamroller among the sneaker cartel that has infiltrated, penetrated, dominated and eviscerated U.S. high school and college sports," Mushnick wrote. "But it's not as if [Lee] Corso, Herbstreit and Fowler would have any reason to report on any of that, ya know? And it's not as if Nike would have any reason to pay them off, ya know?"
OK, that's a little hyperbolic. Yet, based on the released list, Nike has by far the largest share of ESPN endorsements. The company has contracts with two dozen members of the ESPN talent team. Two dozen. That makes Mushnick's argument more plausible. ESPN is the self-proclaimed "worldwide leader in sports." If any news organization has the capacity and reporting ability to hold the most powerful companies in the sporting world accountable, it's ESPN.
Nike commands the sports shoe market. If ever a behemoth of a sports company merited scrutiny, it's Nike. Whether it's overseas labor practices or the targeted marketing of outlandishly priced products to poor teenagers, someone should be asking tough questions of the corporation. ESPN should be asking those tough questions -- and it has in the past, on ESPN.com, "Outside the Lines" and other platforms. But when it does so, does the audience trust the reporting? Worse yet, if ESPN doesn't investigate Nike, or scrutinizes Nike and finds nothing amiss, will the viewers believe the story? Those are legitimate questions.
There are portions of this policy that acknowledge this reality.
For example, why can't anyone at ESPN, even an analyst, take a contract from a college or professional team? Because ESPN likely covers that team. It's challenging enough to create a perception of fairness during a game broadcast (That's probably the chief complaint in the mailbag: "ESPN folks hate Team X or Team Y, my team.") But it would be even harder to maintain credibility in the face of a perceived conflict of interest when the stakes get higher.
What if a player dies because an unreasonable coach bullied him into running too far in the August heat? Or an athletic program covers up the criminal activity of its star athletes? ESPN puts such restrictions into the endorsement guidelines because it recognizes that it would strain trust among the audience if even one person were perceived to be "on a team's payroll."
ESPN wants to provide that same level of accountability to other powerful forces, such as the private corporations involved in sports. In keeping its journalists free of conflicts of interest, it certainly has the capacity to do so. But the biggest risk to the network's credibility comes not from the stories it tackles but those it lets slide. In that vacuum, fans create their own theories, most of them calling ESPN's ethics into question
So yes, many steps forward have been taken with these new guidelines. They were widely distributed; they prevent those primarily responsible for doing journalism at the network from conflicted financial arrangements; and the relevant endorsement deals for talent are disclosed.
But it should go further. Short of preventing all talent -- including former coaches and players -- from signing contracts that pose a conflict, the ESPN policy could place term limits on making such endorsement deals. After a fixed time, say five years of ESPN work, analysts would have to make a choice -- sports celebrity or journalism.
And the network should find ways to be even more transparent about endorsements, such as disclosing all contracts, not just those with sporting goods manufacturers. It would be interesting, as well as revelatory, and could potentially strengthen the network's credibility with the audience.
"We thought about that," said Laurie Orlando, the network's senior vice president for talent. "I don't know that we need to post every single endorsement. We know about all of them. We felt the need to post those that could potentially pose a conflict."
This policy does move the ever-expanding world of sports journalism down the road toward professionalism. There's room for improvement, though, and if ESPN honchos are willing to keep refining the guidelines (as they say they are), then, like a muscle you keep flexing, the policy will only get stronger.