George Solomon on ESPN, Redskins Fans and Petitions

"I don't remember Edward R. Murrow ever saying 'Boo-yah!' in one of his commentaries or in one of his reports. You know, let's talk about Joe McCarthy ... Boo-yah!"


George Solomon writes a weekly column for the sports page of the Washington Post, where he served as the assistant managing editor for sports from 1975 until 2003. This past summer he became the first-ever ombudsman for ESPN.

Felix Gillette: What are the major issues you’re currently grappling with as the ombudsman for ESPN?

George Solomon: What’s interesting about the job is that issues develop, literally, every day. They concern what commentators say, programming decisions, policy. The viewers of ESPN are very passionate and very vocal about how they feel about the network. And there are also so many of them. I hear about a lot of issues, and I try and deal with them and look into them. Then I write a monthly column.

FG: How’d you get this gig?

GS: I was approached last year by ESPN executives about whether I would be interested in such a position. Certainly I knew enough about the role of ombudsman being at the Washington Post full-time for 32 years, and having witnessed a number of really skilled, exceptional ombudsman at the Post — many of whom were not always very kind to me. So I knew the role of the ombudsman. I shared my views with the ESPN executives, told them how I thought the job should be structured. They then got back to me, and we agreed upon a deal.

FG: Over the past year, you’ve criticized ESPN on a number of issues and made various suggestions for improvement. How seriously does the ESPN brass take your advice?

GS: I think you would have to speak to them. It would be presumptuous on my part to say how they react to my column.

FG: A few months ago you wrote a column criticizing the celebrity-centric show ESPN Hollywood. ESPN recently cancelled the show. How much credit should you get for the show’s cancellation?

GS: Again, you’d have to talk to them. I didn’t call for the cancellation of the show. What I said was: Is this the kind of journalism that ESPN wants to do? And, if it is, could they do it better?

FG: Among Redskins fans it seems to be universally agreed upon that ESPN’s Len Pasquarelli hates the Redskins. In general, do you hear that sort of complaint a lot — fans complaining about bias on the part of certain reporters or on the part of the network against their team?

GS: What’s really interesting about the job is that fans believe that there are demons out there. Fans believe that many, many of the commentators and the writers for and the magazine have agendas against their particular teams. I look at these complaints. I think it’s the normal passion that viewers and readers bring to the table. I think when you offer criticisms or you’re not supportive, fans will react one way or the other.

FG: How many emails a day do you get?

GS: It’s actually quite remarkable. I have an assistant who helps me. It averages about a thousand a month.

FG: Does your assistant go through the emails and highlight the interesting ones for you?

GS: I also go through them myself. He puts a synopsis together of the most interesting subjects. He responds to as many as he can. I try [to] respond to people as well. If people are really upset about something, or if people are really very critical about something and I can see that they are very pained, I will personally respond.

FG: What percentage of those emails are completely crazy, ones that you can just throw out immediately?

GS: I look at each one seriously. I will say, I just got one today, it’s a petition to fire my friend Joe Theismann, signed by two thousand people in Longview, Texas. I don’t take that particularly seriously. But I was stunned by the number of people who attached their names to such a thing….There are 90 million people who watch ESPN. You’re going to get people who feel pro and con about every subject, every team, every commentator.

FG: When I was in the 4th grade my mom got a job teaching 8th grade English at my school. In subsequent months, her good students were nice to me and her bad students were not so nice to me. Your son Aaron produces ESPN’s Around the Horn. Do you think he ever catches any grief based on your public criticism of his colleagues?

GS: He probably catches an enormous amount of grief. To be honest with you, when I began to consider whether or not I wanted to do this, there were two people who had the right to void my intentions. He would be number one. And then there was the editor of the Washington Post, Len Downie. If he felt it was uncomfortable for me to do this then I wouldn’t have done it because I still write a column for the Post. When I write about these panel shows or about Around the Horn — also I had a 27-year relationship with [Tony] Kornheiser and [Michael] Wilbon — I point out to the reader that I come to this with history.

FG: But your son was okay with you taking the job?

GS: Yes. Sometimes, if I suggest that maybe some panelist on his show should tone it down, I think he kind of rolls his eyes.

FG: Do you spend a lot of time in Bristol, Connecticut? Or do you do most of your ombudsmanry from afar?

GS: I live in Arlington, [Virginia]. I do most of the work here. But I try to get up to Bristol, once every six weeks or so, just so that they can see me.

FG: About a year ago, Stephen Rodrick wrote an article for Slate in which he argued that television had killed the newspaper sports column. He wrote: “Being a columnist at a major daily paper was every sportswriter’s dream job… Now, a sports column is nothing more than a springboard, a gig that starts you on your way to becoming a multimedia star. As with many things in sports media today, television — and more specifically, ESPN — is to blame.” Do you agree?

GS: I don’t. The fact that Wilbon and Kornheiser and Mitch Albom and Mike Lupica — those are four people I’ll talk specifically about — have opportunities to appear on television, all four still write for their respective newspapers. All four still write interesting columns. All four still provide the readers of those newspapers with their views and good writing.

Now, as the former sports editor, would I have preferred 100 percent of Kornheiser and Wilbon strictly for the [use of] Washington Post? The answer is yes. That was unrealistic. I would rather have both of those guys, for instance, work for the Post than not work for the Post.

And there are a number of sports columnists — for reasons, either newspaper policy or their own — who don’t do television. Like George Vecsey, for instance, one of my favorite columnists for the New York Times. He doesn’t appear on television. His colleague, Bill Rhoden does appear on Sports Reporters. I like them both. If I was in the position of writing a daily sports column, I don’t know if I could do that. First of all, I’m not good on television. Second of all, it would take me too much time.

FG: Getting back to ESPN, in the past you’ve criticized the blurring of reporting and commentary on ESPN. Why do you think that’s an important issue?

GS: On Sports Center, for instance, I think ESPN wants the anchors to be interesting and somewhat controversial. Their reporters who are out on the field pretty much stick to reporting and don’t inject their opinions. I’m talking about, say, Rachel Nichols and Andrea Kremer. I don’t see their opinions coming out in their reporting. But the anchors on many of the shows offer commentary, analysis, as well as the news. It sometimes confuses viewers. I think younger viewers —viewers who are younger than me — accept that easier than I do.

FG: Why do you think that is?

GS: I’m old. I literally watched Edward R. Murrow. I don’t remember Edward R. Murrow ever saying “Boo-yah!” in one of his commentaries or in one of his reports. You know, let’s talk about Joe McCarthy … Boo-yah!

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.