Media Circus continued
The Tillman Story, described by SI as a "searing look at the murky events surrounding Pat Tillman's killing by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan," debuted in New York City and Los Angeles over the weekend to remarkable reviews. Having seen it, I can attest that it is a remarkable examination of a family searching for the truth about the death of its son and loved one. On Sunday, the film's director, Amir Bar-Lev, answered some sports-related questions via e-mail for this column.
SI.com: Over the course of your reporting and research for The Tillman Story, how would you characterize the reporting of the sports press regarding the death of Pat Tillman?
Bar-Lev: I have to honestly say we focused mostly on the general news press' handling of the Tillman case. I can speak in only the broadest strokes about the sports press, but invite you to check out this L.A. Times op-ed. That said, I think all of us played a part in turning Pat into a cartoon character -- the sports and general press, cable TV producers, and filmmakers, too. (I got a look at some of the fiction scripts about Pat Hollywood producers were hoping to get [Tillman's widow] Marie Tillman to sign off -- laughably bad.)
The Pat Tillman that Americans are familiar with is a slo-mo of his face, superimposed with the falling twin towers and Old Glory, smoke and soldier silhouettes and martial music underneath. It's an image Pat would have laughed heartily at, but the more serious truth is that we do a great disservice to our heroes when we depict them this way. One piece of news footage we have in the film says, "Pat had everything to live for -- except a sense of purpose. He said he found that, on September 11th." It's patently false on so many levels -- he did have a sense of purpose, and he never said he found anything on September 11th. It says much more about who WE needed or wanted Pat to be than it says about Pat himself.
SI.com: After making the film, did you come away with any larger truths about the mythmaking of athletes in the American culture?
Bar-Lev: I'm not sure if it's limited to mythmaking around athletes, but I was struck while making this how often adulation is self-serving. We weren't content to admire Pat; we needed him to be on our team so his admirable qualities would rub off on us. It's no accident that the little note you see written to him in the impromptu alter [established after] he died says "Our Hero," with the OUR underlined instead of the hero.
SI.com: Classify your contact with the NFL before, during and after the completion of the piece?
Bar-Lev: The overwhelming majority of our contact was with NFL Films, and they were invaluable. They scoured their archives for material on Pat, and bent over backward to get us the highest quality transfers of their remarkable Super 16mm slo-mo footage. I can't imagine the film without their contribution."
ESPN's Jenn Brown, who will debut this fall as sideline reporter for College Football Primetime coverage on Thursdays, did an interview with the Orlando Sentinel last month in which the takeaway from reporter Jeremy Fowler was that Brown was looking to carve her place as a serious journalist (his words). Brown herself said that she wanted "to try my best to fly under the radar. If nobody's talking about me, that's just as good as them talking or saying positive things."
Five weeks later, in-boxes throughout the sports media world were filled with a press release trumpeting Brown as the spokesperson and brand ambassador for IceHouse beer.
Should a reporter covering colleges endorse an alcoholic beverage? I tweeted out last week that I thought it was an unwise decision by Brown. If the sideline reporter were assigned to a pro sport, I'd have zero issues with her decision. But there's a large percentage of athletes and fans Brown will cover this year who cannot drink legally. For me, it's a matter of figuring out what you want be in sports television: If you are serious about making a name for yourself in newsgathering, you politely turn down this fame and money grab because students are involved.
Yes, I know the counterarguments: College students are going to drink; the whole damn college football system is corrupt; and why shouldn't Brown take advantage of the opportunity? Plus, who am I to make value judgments? Fair enough. Spencer Hall of SB Nation, in disagreeing with me, writes winningly on the hypocrisy of it all here. Alex Weprin at Media Bistro sees it more in my direction. If you asked most college football fans, I'd bet the majority would not have a major problem with it.
ESPN does not have a formal policy regarding its talent endorsing commercial products. The network has long said that it evaluates each of the requests on an individual basis and makes a determination on it. "These opportunities are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," an ESPN spokesperson said when asked about Brown's deal. "While this request was approved, we are reviewing the matter internally."
The fact that ESPN is reviewing the matter is interesting, and the network would be wise to ask Brown to politely decline it. If her work is solid and if fans like what she's doing, Jenn Brown is going to have plenty of opportunities to endorse products down the road. This is one she should ice.
At the end of the month I'll weigh in on Jason Whitlock's radio-thon last Friday, a three-hour, this-is-your-life radio appearance on Kansas City's 610 AM sports-talk station in which the former Kansas City Star sports columnist obliterated his former employer, preached about the fate of democracy and wept on the air. Meanwhile, here are two interesting links on the subject: First, Topeka Capital-Journal sports writer Tully Corcoran struggles to make sense of what it means to his town. The second is this lively debate on SportsJournalists.com, where the posters debated how Whitlock handled his on-air exit interview. The message-board commenters include New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro, former Ann-Arbor News sports columnist Jim Carty, CBC Sports' Elliotte Friedman and AOL FanHouse columnist Lisa Olson.