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Few things in sports go hand-in-hand as well as ESPN and hypocrisy.
Sure, there are the high-profiled bashings of spring college football two days before ESPN decides to send Gameday to the University of Florida's spring game. And then there is ESPN's talk of high journalistic standards, the same standards that lead one of its primary writers to announce that Les Miles had accepted the head coaching position at the University of Michigan just an hour before he publicly announced that he had not taken the job.
But this story has been ignored, brushed to the side, because ESPN never wanted it to see the light of day.
On February 29, Save Oregon Wrestling (SOW) purchased 11 half-minute time slots on ESPNU and one on ESPN for broadcast during the 2008 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in St. Louis. Just one day before the event was set to begin, ESPN turned back the advertisements, claiming that the network did not air “advertising that consists of, in whole or in part, political advocacy or issue-oriented advertising.” SOW was reimbursed in full.
ESPN, it should be noted, had a backlog of advertisers who wanted to buy airtime that was already sold to various groups, including SOW.
SOW was founded not shortly after the University of Oregon decided that it would drop wrestling after the 2007-2008 school year, a decision that was made July 13, 2007. It dropped wrestling to make way to add baseball, as well as to make competitive cheerleading a scholarship sport.
At the time, Oregon was the only full PAC-10 member without a baseball team and one of only four with a wrestling program.
Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny made the decision, claiming that the decision was his and not ordered by anyone else in the department.
“I felt it was my responsibility to examine all facets of the athletics department and determine how we could improve its operation and fiscal efficiency,” he wrote in a release to the media the morning of the decision. “The changing landscape of collegiate athletics over the past decades has influenced me to come to the conclusion that these changes will be in the best interest of the future of the university."
Kilkenny, it must be noted, was a former booster of the university who helped finance the buyout of his predecessor. He also has no college degree, the only Division I athletic director at any school who does not have this basic requirement.
He dropped the program and claimed that Title IX was at issue, a stance that he would later retract.
Additionally, financial problems certainly are not the problem. Baseball costs more than $1 million annually to field a program; wrestling is about $700,000. Furthermore, the university will have to pay more money for scholarships for competitive cheer.
All this is not to mention the money that Nike gives the department.
Finally, SOW raised more than $2 million, enough to fund the team for three years while it continued to raise its goal of $6 million, enough to build a stand-alone facility for wrestling. Yet Kilkenny wouldn't budge, deciding instead to cut wrestling and lie to the student-athletes about the motive behind cutting wrestling.
It's not financial. He is adding a sport that costs much more and adding scholarships to another sport.
And it is not Title IX. The department has come out and shown that it was in complete compliance with Title IX and adding a sport wouldn't have affected that.
Then what is it?
But the real problem is ESPN's hypocrisy.
ESPN had a chance to put this story on the front page, to let the world know about what the Oregon athletic department was doing, but it chose not to. Investigative journalism into a real issue in one operation of sports is not ESPN's way.
Sure, it will investigate heckling in Little League Baseball, but it won't investigate the disorganization of an athletic department.
Instead, it turns down the advertisements and hides behind a policy that it seems to only enforce when it wants to.
ESPN has no problem airing “issue-oriented advertisements” that it agrees with, such as a campaign to keep children away from steroids. Those commercials have been running left and right on ESPN for the past couple of weeks. Is that not, at least in part, issue-oriented?
No, it is issue-oriented, but it is one that ESPN agrees with. ESPN has invested itself in a campaign against steroids and therefore it has no hesitation airing advertisements that talk against steroids.
But a campaign against lying to student-athletes? But a campaign against the manipulation of the population of an entire state because a booster wants baseball and doesn't want his school to support wrestling?
Never. That's not ESPN's way.
So here we are now, three months later, and these wrestlers are suing the university, a case they might very well win because the university did not engage in good-faith negotiations with the program, and it is a non-story. It is a non-story because ESPN wants it as such. ESPN wants every story to be about steroids, not wrestling.
ESPN's policy is hypocritical and it probably knows it. The executives aren't stupid.
They know that steroids are an issue, and yet they chose to air advertisements on the subject. Just the same, they chose not to air advertisements aimed to save a wrestling program.
The policy looks good, but ESPN enforces it only against issues it does not want to turn into a story.