The media frenzy over Kobe Bryant’s death

Note: An edited version of this blog item appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 3, 2020.

The controversy over the suspension and rapid reinstatement of a Washington Post reporter after a social media firestorm over coverage of Kobe Bryant’s death illustrates all too well where we are in the passion and often bad decision making of the digital age. In the hours after the initial report that the NBA legend had died in a helicopter crash near Los Angeles, reporter Felicia Sonmez sent a tweet with a link to a story on a years-old sexual assault allegation. 

There is a fundamental journalistic issue that has vexed obituary writers for generations. When a person dies, the general rule is to speak kindly and with reverence. Yet, many who die have bad things in their past. 

Bryant in 2003 was accused of sexual assault of a 19-year-old hotel employee in Edwards, Colo., not far from the celebrated ski areas of Vail and Beaver Creek.  The criminal charges eventually were dropped. A civil lawsuit resulted in an undisclosed settlement. Bryant maintained that the sex was consensual. It should be noted that Bryant in 2001 had married Vanessa Lane, the mother of his four children. One of the daughters, Gianna, 13, also died in the crash, as did seven others.

The tweet by Sonmez linked to a Daily Beast story published in 2016, “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: The DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession.” In an email sent to her and later released by Sonmez, executive editor Marty Baron said: “A real lack of judgment to tweet this. Please stop. You’re hurting this institution by doing this.” 

Perhaps reacting to the thousands of negative and often threating tweets and other social media comments, the paper placed Sonmez on administrative leave. Members of the paper’s Newspaper Guild protested the decision, saying that she should have been offered protection in light of the threats she received. The Washington Post isn’t the first mainstream news organization to cope with ethical complexities of social media, and it won’t be the last. The paper has made the right decision in reinstating Sonmez.

The day after the suspension, I posed the question to a class of 90 undergraduate students in my Media Ethics course at SMU in Dallas. A number of students spoke up. The consensus seemed to be that the reporter shouldn’t have sent out the tweet. There was clear sensitivity to the emotion of the moment when a beloved athlete with global standing was lost in a tragedy. And yet, there was clear sentiment that the suspension of the reporter was overreaction. I agree with the students on both counts. Any discussion of the sexual assault allegation would have been better handled with time and thoughtful consideration of the full picture of Bryant’s life. Unfortunately, the digital age doesn’t allow for that.

So much of what happens now is a digital moment. Social media and the immediacy of the Internet seem to dictate action and reaction with little thought. Good, solid reporting that is factual and sensitive gets overwhelmed in the news cycle. The mistakes and the controversies linger. There were factual mistakes made by mainstream media as well as social media. We’ve gotten accustomed to those mistakes since the world of Twitter became a prime news source. And the website TMZ announced quickly, before any family could be notified, that Kobe Bryant was dead. TMZ has never played by the norms of traditional media. 

The Newspaper Guild statement protesting the suspension noted that it is the responsibility of journalists to publish the whole picture of individuals and institutions, including that of a negative nature. And that’s certainly true. Yet social media seems only to encourage and exacerbate overreaction. Negativity reigns in making the snap judgments. Threats, insults and harsh conclusions have become the standards in communication, especially in the aftermath of major news stories.

Mainstream news media, print and broadcast, have for some years encouraged reporters and editors to engage in social media. Social media is used to link to stories that can build audience and help alleviate the economic cataclysm that has struck most traditional news organizations, especially newspapers. That miscues and even disastrous communications occur when responsible journalists are encouraged to make snap communications over social media should be no surprise. 

We have now had the 24-hour news cycle wrought by cable news for more than a generation. The idea that news was never complete and got on the air immediately with little or no vetting became the standard. Not only did reporting and journalism change, our very perception of the news changed. 

The same dramatic change is now taking place with social media and digital technology. The standards and ethics of the past no longer mean anything. News and reaction are even more instantaneous and less vetted than cable news. We interpret major news events through the brief sentences that often have truncated spellings, millennial-style initialisms and emojis, and horrible grammar.  Whatever we may think of these changes, they are here to stay. 

Tiger and the Masters

Accolades and comparisons with history have been flowing since Tigers Woods’ one-stroke victory yesterday in the Masters, his 15th major. There had been 22 years pass since his first Masters win in 1997, 14 years since his last Masters win in 2005, and almost 11 years since his last win in a major, the U.S. Open in 2008. I had predicted in this blog a couple of years ago that Tiger was finished as a major title contender. A failed marriage, publicity over multiple affairs, and health issues resulting in major back and knee surgeries all had made such prospects dim. This is not, to me, comparable to Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning Super Bowl III over the Baltimore Colts in 1969. Joe Namath was a personal hero, and the fact that he predicted a win while his team was such an underdog ranks very high in my sports history catalog. Nor did Tiger’s win have the global impact and national catharsis of the U.S. hockey team beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid. I have never witnessed such collective emotion in sports as seen after that event.

Tiger Woods sinks a short putt to claim his 15th major golf championship.

As to my prediction two years ago, I hereby eat my words. And I apologize to the greatest golfer of his era. I have followed sports and especially golf since I was eight years old in 1958. Tiger’s win yesterday is the most extraordinary individual comeback I’ve ever witnessed. We all like comebacks, and this is one for the ages. At the age of 43, after all his personal turmoil and health issues, he won against a generation of players he helped inspire who are stronger and every bit as capable as he ever was. Tiger is no longer the longest off the tee. There have always been better drivers of the golf ball, better short iron players, even better putters. But no one ever put all of the elements of golf together better than did Tiger in his glory years. Nor has any other golfer had such a flair for the dramatic, pulling off incredible shots at exactly the right time.

When he first came onto the tour in the 1990s, swing analysts noted the likelihood of injury with the aggressive and even violent movement he made over the golf ball. He had extraordinary hip rotation, creating club head speed and making him always at or near the top in tour driving distance. The swing took a toll on his lower back and left knee, which absorbed the pressure of the movement. Sure enough, a rebuilt left knee and multiple back surgeries followed. His swing is a bit more controlled than it was in the past, although he still seems to hit shots wide to the right. Whether the back and the knee continue to hold up is anyone’s guess, as is whether or not Tiger can approach the record of Jack Nicklaus with 18 major titles.

This week is a time to celebrate what sport has always meant when sport is at its best. It’s a drive to succeed against the longest of odds, the ability to overcome obstacles, and to demonstrate the fierce will to win that all champions have. I saw very little in the way of social media that was against Tiger. Clearly, some people maintain a bit of a grudge against him for his actions, and clearly some of his problems were his own doing. But golf creates the crucible for individual pressure, grace, and intensity that no other sport offers. It is an individual sport, and what happens is entirely of a player’s own doing. Yesterday, we saw the brilliant Italian Francesco Molinari fail when he hit shots into the water on the famous 12th hole and then again on the 15th at Augusta, ending with double bogeys on both. It was painful to watch, but then we were reminded again what grace is when Molinari patiently answered questions after his loss. “Sometimes it’s your day,” he said. “Sometimes it isn’t.”

The legendary golf writer for The New Yorker, Herbert Warren Wind, perhaps said it best: “Beyond the fact that it is a limitless arena for the full play of human nature, there is no sure accounting for golf’s fascination. Perhaps it is nothing more than the best game man has ever devised.”

The Zeke Elliott case

As this is written, Ezekiel Elliott, star running back of the Dallas Cowboys, and the National Football League are involved in a spat over a six-game suspension given Elliott for domestic violence involving a former girlfriend, Tiffany Thompson.  The incidents of violence are said to have occurred in July of 2016 in Columbus, Ohio, where Elliott played at Ohio State. Charges were not brought against Elliott in Columbus. Prosecutors there said there were conflicting accounts of what happened. The NFL, however, having botched a couple of previous domestic violence cases, including the infamous case of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, on Aug. 11 announced a six-game suspension for Elliott. In the Rice case, the NFL announced a two-game suspension for an incident Rice’s attorneys had described as minor. Later, a video emerged of Rice hitting his then-fiance in the face and knocking her unconscious. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledge that he blew the decision in the Rice case and then announced a zero-tolerance policy in which any incidence of domestic violence would bring a six-game suspension.

Elliott has attacked Thompson’s credibility. It has been determined that she lied about one of the incidents in question. Goodell said in his findings that Elliott used physical force against Thompson on three specific occasions. When the six-game suspension was announced it was clear that Elliott would appeal. It went through the proper appeals hearing with the NFL, which of course refused to reduce or eliminate the suspension. Now Elliott and the NFL are in federal court going through the process.  A federal judge in Sherman, Texas, issued an injunction and said that Elliott had not been given a fair hearing by the NFL. The NFL has appealed in the 5th Circuit in New Orleans. And on, and on, and on. There at one point was sports talk radio discussion of being strategic in the appeal. If the Cowboys think this is their year for a Super Bowl run, Elliott should go through the appeal so that he can play. But if the Cowboys think next year might be a better year, Elliott should accept the suspension and miss the first six games when the NFL regular season begins in a few weeks.

I’m a bit turned off by the whole strategic discussion. Why don’t we focus on what’s right and what’s wrong? My personal opinion is that neither Zeke Elliott nor Tiffany Thompson is going to be a candidate for any citizenship awards. The NFL had evidence, likely not reaching criminal legal standards, that Elliott used physical force. If it’s a zero-tolerance policy, that’s it. The case is frequently compared to New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady’s situation in the deflategate case. Brady delayed his two-game suspension by a year and challenged the commissioner’s authority to make such a decision.  The legal question in the Brady case, and perhaps will be also in the Elliott case, was whether the commissioner of the NFL has the power to order such suspensions. The commissioner indeed has such power, as granted by the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement.

The courts ruled in the NFL’s favor in the Brady case, and almost certainly will again in the Elliott case. Elliott has already had a couple of other incidents, including pulling down a young woman’s top to expose her breast while at a St. Patrick’s Day event. A video of that incident is widely circulated. What would be refreshing from Elliott is an acknowledgement of a major mistake in the issues involving Tiffany Thompson and a commitment that it won’t happen again.  Don’t expect that to happen. And I also won’t be surprised if there are other incidents that show what many of us suspect: Zeke Elliott is sadly deficient in basic character.


The new golf legend

Jordan Spieth’s image as it appears on his Twitter account.

Much discussion is taking place after Jordan Spieth’s win in the British Open yesterday. (I’ll leave for another day discussion of the use of “British” in the name of the tournament.) It was a spectacular closing round, and without question it elevates Spieth’s stature in the game and provokes endless speculation about his future.  He has now won three majors at the age of 23, and yesterday’s win certainly would seem to rid him of demons from his meltdown in the final round of the 2016 Masters. He will compete next month in the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club in North Carolina. Should he win, he would be the youngest player in history to win the Grand Slam of golf.

Golf commentator Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open winner, had an interesting observation in an interview on ESPN Radio. He said that if you saw Spieth on a practice range with some of the other top golfers today, including Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy, you wouldn’t think Spieth was the best. Spieth isn’t the strongest or the longest. And he will occasionally hit a real foul ball off the tee, as he did on No. 13 in the final round yesterday. But through the end of the British Open, Spieth is second in greens in regulation. He’s third on the PGA Tour in putting with an average of 1.710. That translates to wins. But time has a way of evening out our predictions and our perspectives. In 2014, when McIlroy won both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championsionship, there was a lot of betting on the young phenom from Northern Ireland being the next great thing. He may yet be, but he’s been in a bit of a slump.

Part of the discussion now will naturally focus on majors. Jack Nicklaus won 18. Tiger Woods has 14, none since the train wreck of his personal life and marriage in 2009. It seems unlikely that Woods can ever add to that total. Spieth will almost certainly win more majors.  But I honestly don’t see Spieth getting close to Nicklaus, and perhaps even Woods. It’s difficult to explain my reasons, but it’s just a feeling. Predicting the next 10 to 15 years for any athlete is impossible. Certainly he would have to remain in good health and free of any significant injuries. And he would have to continue a strong focus and commitment to excellence, despite having extraordinary wealth that is a part of success in professional golf.

Spieth is also just a really good guy. He has a nice family history and knows how to behave, on and off the golf course. But he also lacks a certain flamboyance, and whether he can help the visibility of the sport and golf ratings on television over the long term remains to be seen. I just don’t see anyone dominating the sport as did Woods from 1997-2008.  That dominance helped produce interest and ratings. Even before Woods’ fall from public grace in 2009, he had a good image, and his aggressive play on the golf course, together with an extraordinary flair for the dramatic shot at the right time, helped the game and television ratings soar. That will never happen with Spieth. And while it shouldn’t create judgment about his standing in the game, we do tend to assess greatness in a way that isn’t completely data driven.

Welcome First Amendment decisions

Whatever one thinks of the U.S. Supreme Court, there has been a rare consensus emerging to protect free speech. Two court decisions this week highlight this important protection of the First Amendment. The first decision came in favor of an Asian rock group that attempted to trademark the name Slants. The group challenged the U.S. Patent and Trademark office because of a law against trademarks that disparage people or groups.  The leader of the group, Simon Tam, said that the group was trying to reclaim the slur against Asians as a point of pride. The group lost in the first legal rounds. But Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought we hate.” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a concurring opinion that was joined by the court’s liberal wing, but all justices agreed on the basic decision that the law infringed on free speech.

The court was also unanimous in striking down a North Carolina law that prohibited sex offenders from using social media websites on which they might come into contact with potential targets. Kennedy wrote that the law was much too broad and “unprecedented” in limiting the scope of First Amendment speech. The court noted that the law prevented sex offenders from engaging in public discourse and using websites that might lead to employment. It’s obviously difficult to find sympathy with sex offenders, and several of the justices noted that much narrower laws limiting sex offenders’ access to social media might withstand constitutional scrutiny.

The first case seems to lend broad support to the ongoing controversy of the Washington Redskins. The NFL team has been pressured to change the mascot of the team because the term is widely considered offensive. Team owner Daniel Snyder said in a statement that he was thrilled, and “Hail to the Redskins.”

Even some conservatives have agreed that the term Redskins is offensive, and is different in its characterization than other similar terms, “Chiefs,” as in those in Kansas City, and “Braves,” as in Atlanta. Numerous college and high school sports teams have been pressured into changing mascot names. Some of the changes perhaps have been justified; others, sadly, have simply been caving to the pressure of political correctness. I agree that the origin of the term “Redskins” leads one to the conclusion that the term is disparaging and offensive. So be it. Do we really want government bureaucrats making that determination? If the First Amendment stands for anything, it stands for the right to be offensive, and, yes, even hateful. We are seeing appalling attempts by certain groups on the left to limit free speech and to place boundaries on robust dialogue. The court’s decisions this week, especially the first regarding offensive trademarks, are a welcome affirmation that the First Amendment still stands for free speech.

Tiger will be second after all

News media have reported the arrest of Tiger Woods in Florida for driving under the influence. Woods immediately took responsibility for the incident, but said that alcohol was not involved and that he suffered a bad reaction to pain medication after a recent surgery. The police report seems to corroborate Tiger’s statement. Nonetheless, it’s another chapter in the fall of one of the most storied athletes of the post-World War II generation. And it’s a shame. The beginning of the downfall can no doubt be traced to the late 2009 incident in which Tiger had been chased out of his home after his wife, Elin Nordegren,  discovered his infidelity. Reports had her hitting him with a golf club, which he denied. For the next months, his girlfriends came out of the woodwork to comment to journalists and describe his affairs. His infidelities included a number of high-dollar prostitutes..

He has won tournaments since 2009, but not a major. He is stuck on 14 major tournament wins, second only to Jack Nicklaus at 18. Throughout his first years on tour, Woods seemed on track to beat the record of 18. That won’t happen. It’s interesting that a number of Golf Channel and network specials have in the past year or so reviewed the Nicklaus record, which truly is extraordinary. It’s almost as if it’s now clear Nicklaus will be considered the greatest golfer of all time. The chances of anyone now challenging his record seem remote. (It’s always been equally impressive to me that Nicklaus finished in second or tied for second 19 times in major tournaments, in addition to his wins.)

Woods had a major impact on golf in the late 1990s and early part of the 20th Century. He did wonders for television ratings. He was a charismatic figure on the golf course who had the knack for making spectacular shots at exactly the right time. There were always others in the game’s history who did certain parts of the game better. Greg Norman,  Lee Trevino, and Colin Montgomery were better drivers of the golf ball. Many could play mid-irons better. Nicklaus himself was without question the finest long iron player in the history of the game, and he played in a time when long irons were important. Phil Mickelson was and is the best short iron player. Gary Player was without equal as a bunker player. Bobby Locke, Billy Casper and Ben Crenshaw were better putters. (And Nicklaus wasn’t bad in that category, either.) But nobody put all the elements of the game together and played with the complete skill that Woods had. From the time Woods won his first major tournament at the Masters in 1997 until the 2009 incident, he was the best. And no one else was even close.

Our heroes have a way of disappointing us, sometimes tragically. Woods is no exception. And in fairness, Woods has aged. As this is written, he’s 41. Multiple surgeries on his back have been a major hindrance. And he has also worked with multiple coaches over the years, demonstrating at least three very different setups and golf swings at various times in his career. It’s rare that we have seen an athlete develop so publicly from childhood and continue through the prime of his career and then into the twilight. But long after the tabloids and the mainstream news media are finished with the lurid details of his life, his record will remain. He will be second-best in terms of major championship titles, but that record, as well as his ability, determination, and charisma, will be the standards by which future golfers are judged.