That ESPN Story On The Dissenting Missouri Player Sure Looks Silly Now

A lesson in why you shouldn't write stories off a single, anonymous source.

It’s been a fall full of blunders for the University of Missouri administration as the school repeatedly failed to respond to the string of racist incidents that took place on its campus. But late last night, just about 12 hours before university president Tim Wolfe resigned from his post, ESPN proved to be wearing similar social blinders, as its report on the issue both missed the point behind the students’ recent protests and proved why such measures are so necessary.

ESPN’s piece handed a microphone to the one football player who opposed his team's decision to strike in the name of racial equality. And by focusing on this single dissenter on a roster of 100-plus, ESPN skewed its readers’ understanding of the Tigers' solidarity, sullying the public’s perception by reporting on just a portion of the facts.

But solidarity was made evident when coach Gary Pinkel posted a photo of the entire team, arms linked, on Sunday afternoon.

The photo was intended as a sign of fellowship, a mark of cohesion, as players physically joined together to indicate just how seriously they considered their symbolic unity. So something was clearly amiss when ESPN penned and sent to press an article focusing entirely on a single player’s dissent -- one white player, who, notably, would only speak to the media on the condition of anonymity. 

Call me jaded, but those who demand anonymity are often those who are among the angry minority on an issue, those whose views are condemned -- not condoned -- by those for whom they supposedly speak.   

"Not everyone agrees with the decision [to strike football activities]," the player told ESPN. "Most people are pissed, including the black guys [on the team] … As much as we want to say everyone is united, half the team and coaches -- black and white -- are pissed.” 

Again, call me jaded, but picking out and providing a megaphone to the only player on the team who has spoken out against this strike seems to have been a classic case of sample bias and distortion. If 99 out of 100 dentists endorse Crest Toothpaste, but The New York Times focuses on that one outlier’s strong preference for Colgate, readers may not understand that that one opinion is an anomaly, that that singular judgment is a needle in a haystack.

In this case, on Mizzou’s campus, this one anonymous football player’s opinion that the status quo was just fine -- that the fight against racial injustice was perhaps less important than the team’s upcoming fight against Brigham Young University -- was the needle. And all the other players who stood behind grad student Butler, who were challenging Wolfe, who linked their arms and took off their pads and helmets to make this point -- these players were the hay. So for ESPN to have disregarded this overwhelming majority was alarming and misleading -- and Wolfe’s resignation Monday morning was simply a testament to this journalistic mistake, as the former university president confirmed the true power behind the team’s solidarity with every word he spoke from the podium.

In the wake of Wolfe’s press conference, sports editor Dave Zirin’s Sunday night tweet on this flawed line of logic seems almost prescient:

His point was this: 100 percent acceptance on any issue is damn near impossible to achieve, so, please, let’s try not to undercut the powerful statement this team is making and the unity it is showing by focusing on a single outlier. And his words were borne out with Wolfe’s ship-jumping hours later.

Here's the takeaway for journalists: We have to play the numbers game. By reporting on only a fraction of the story, we report only a fraction of the truth. By subjectively deciding whose opinion we present to the exclusion of all others, we break one of the ethical tenets of journalism -- to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help us editors. By not doing that, we miss the point, just as the Mizzou administration did this fall. By not doing that, we, like Wolfe, wear social blinders. And we should know by now that those who don those blinders often end up on the wrong side of history. 


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