Sports “journalism” strikes again: why can’t ESPN FC get the obvious stuff right?

Chicharito celebrates offside winner

It’s no secret to Chelsea fans that the sporting press, such as it is, does not love us overmuch. Time and again, whether we’re reading a match report or an  editorial “analysis” or listening to in-game commentary, we’re confronted with “journalists” who seem on the verge of bursting into song every time something bad happens to our side.

Fine. I can deal with this, and in a way it’s a badge of honor. Nobody bothers working up much in the way of snark or venom if you’re bottom of the table, do they? Still, as a guy who has been a journalism professor, it galls me at a professional level to see the media simply ignore the facts.

Take today’s ESPN FC initial report on Manchester United’s 3-2 win at Stamford Bridge. I’m going to include the entire text, as it appeared at 12:30pm MDT, so that we have it before us. (By 1:20, they had updated the story to include the crucial missing detail I’m mention in a moment. Kudos for sort of half-assedly getting it right eventually, but still, there’s no excuse for not getting something this obvious right in the first place.)

United narrows gap with controversial win
October 28, 2012
By ESPN.com news services

Substitute Javier Hernandez ended Manchester United’s 10-year wait for a Premier League victory at Chelsea on Sunday, striking late to secure a 3-2 win after the hosts had two players sent off.

The Mexico striker scored in the 75th minute as United rose to second, a point behind Chelsea.

United had thrown away a two-goal lead established inside 12 minutes. Robin van Persie saw his shot turned in by Chelsea defender David Luiz before getting on the scoresheet himself.

Chelsea fought back as Juan Mata curled in a free kick just before half time and Ramires headed in an equalizer eight minutes after the break.

Chelsea defender Branislav Ivanovic was sent off in the 63rd for bringing down Ashley Young, and striker Fernando Torres received a second booking for diving.

Now, the headline is accurate in acknowledging that the win was “controversial.” That’s actually a bit of understatement, honestly, but good on them so far. They further note a couple key points of contention – the red cards awarded Torres and Ivanovic. Still fine.

But part of being a good journalist involves not only telling the truth, but in including all relevant information. Telling us that Mr. Booth attended the theater without mentioning that he shot the president is simply not acceptable. In this case, some key information has been left on the bench. The truth, yes, but the whole truth, please. I mean, The Guardian got it rightThe Daily Mail got it right – in the freakin’ banner, even (“Chelsea 2 Manchester United 3: FIVE goals, TWO red cards, an offside winner and a touchline spat between Fergie and Di Matteo”). Goal.com got it right – on the splash page, no less.

First off, I have no quibble with the first sending off. Ivanovic didn’t get much of the breakaway attacker, but he got enough of him to make it a legitimate foul and there is no arguing that it was a clear scoring opportunity. The second one, though, is a different story. Referee Mark Clattenburg issued Blues striker Fernando Torres a second yellow (he had earlier been the recipient of a well-earned caution over a rash tackle) for diving.

It’s good to see officials taking a keener interest in the problem of simulation, and I’ve personally called for positively Byzantine measures to eradicate it from the game. And I will not pretend that Torres has never gone to ground a bit too easily in the past. Perhaps a certain reputation hurt him today. If so, let this be a lesson to him and a warning to the rest of the league.

However, an official’s decision to card for diving needs to be based on whether or not the player going done was, you know, fouled, instead of the call being based on the artistry with which he falls. In this case, replays were not controversial: Torres was clipped on the play. He was not fouled hard, and in my estimation he could have remained afoot with a bit of effort. However, technically he was fouled. If the ref wants to play on because it was a soft foul, okay. If he wants to award a free kick, okay. But sending off a player who was, in fact, clipped by the defender, that is something I can only hope the FA and Mr. Clattenburg will discuss this week.

The ESPN FC story, you’ll note, carries on as though instant replay hasn’t yet been invented. It also pretends that there wasn’t a very similar play on the other end that also went in United’s favor. (I suppose this is a less egregious omission – Sam the Chelsea fan hates it, but Sam the journalism professor can make his peace with it.)

Then though, we arrive at the point of the story where the reporter, were this to be handed in as an assignment in one of my classes, would have earned him/herself an F. Because the story fails to mention the ultimate point of controversy: the winning goal by Javier Hernandez was clearly offside. Again, this is not opinion and it is not controversial: instant replay showed that he was off and multiple angles (as well as a nice augmented reality animation projecting the line across the field) confirm it in spades. If you want to celebrate Chelsea’s misfortune because you don’t like them, that’s fine, but if you argue that it was a legitimate goal you’re either dishonest, in need of new glasses or simply not very bright.

In other words, after all the other questionable calls, the game was ultimately decided on a blown call by the linesman. (Excuse me, I mean “referee’s assistant.”)

This gripe isn’t about “the ref screwed us out of the game.” Ivanovic might be faulted for getting skinned on the play where he was sent off. Torres might later have accidentally knocked the United winner into Chelsea’s own goal. Had the Chicharito goal been disallowed United might have turned around and scored on the next trip down the field. No way to know, and the Butterfly Effect is a real thing, especially in sports, and I won’t pretend that I can know what the outcome would have been in the absence of the blown call.

But the damned ESPN story is inexcusable. Those of us who have been journalists and journalism educators have our inside jokes, and one of them is that “sports journalist” is an oxymoron. We have low expectations. Still, it’s distressing to see the media underperforming them no matter how low we go. If it gets much worse I’m going to need a backhoe.

As noted above, an updated version of the story (posted around 1:15 or so) did get that huge detail right. Sort of. They note, in the 21st paragraph, that Torres was in fact fouled on his “dive.” Then, in the 23rd graf they admit, grudgingly, that “Hernandez snatched what proved the winner 15 minutes from time from an offside position.” Mr. Booth went to the theater is the lede, then they spend 20 grafs talking about the play and about how lovely Mrs. Lincoln’s dress was and who was sitting in the adjoining boxes. Finally, at the tail end, we get “as the denoument waned, the president was shot.”

I don’t mind you hating my team, even if you’re a “reporter.” But please, for fuck’s sake, would it kill you to at least report the facts that the millions of us with instant reply clearly saw with our own eyes?

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