Jason Collins, Chris Broussard and ESPN: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

By: Michael Abitabilo

On April 29, 2013, NBA center Jason Collins became the first active professional athlete from one of the four major North American professional sporting leagues to publicly acknowledge he is gay.  While most of the major publications and websites covered just about every angle of this story in a more eloquent and professional way than I ever could, one of the more interesting subplots that developed involved ESPN reporter Chris Broussard, one of the few public figures whose reaction was not one of unconditional support and encouragement.

As word of Collins’s revelation spread, it was met with widespread support from athletes, celebrities, and politicians around the country:

Collins’s announcement – or more specifically his lifestyle – was not met with universal support, however.  Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace quickly became the subject of much scorn when he tweeted: “All these beautiful women in the world and guys wanna mess with other guys SMH…” (This tweet and his immediate follow-up were quickly deleted from Wallace’s account, and an apology ensued).  Wallace’s reaction demonstrated a level of ignorance and/or naivety that – while inexcusable – was certainly not unpredictable.  In fact, the reality of the “dumb jock” stereotype in professional sports is one of the primary reasons it took so long for a male professional athlete to come out, and why Collins’s announcement was so newsworthy in the first place.

Compare Wallace’s reaction, though, to that of Chris Broussard, a (mostly) well-respected journalist working for the most successful sports media organization in the universe.  As widely reported, when asked his opinion about Collins’s announcement, Broussard stated his belief that homosexuality is a sin: “I believe [homosexuality] is walking an open rebellion to God and Jesus Christ.”  For context, though, take a look at his response in its entirety.

By prefacing his response with a testament to “tolerance and acceptance,” and by also including “adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals” in the same vein as homosexuality, Broussard was as tactful as he could be in providing his response while remaining true to his beliefs.  Nonetheless, his answer became an immediate story unto its own, causing ESPN to issue a formal statement expressing “regret” that Broussard’s statements caused a “distraction” from the coverage of the Collins story.  Broussard later offered a statement of his own, noting that he provided his “personal opinion” and clarifying that he has “no objection to [Collins] or anyone else playing in the NBA.” Despite this statement, Broussard was quickly labeled a bigot and a homophobe.

Before we examine ESPN’s role in all of this, let’s discuss Broussard some more.

As far back as 2009, Broussard was instrumental in launching an initiative known as the K.I.N.G. Movement, which is described as a “Christian Men’s Movement geared toward strengthening men in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

I first learned of Broussard’s connection to the K.I.N.G. Movement in January of 2013, when Broussard tweeted: “Check out website for K.I.N.G., the national Men’s Movement I recently launched: http://www.kingmovement.com .”

After clicking on the link and exploring the site a bit, I remember thinking at the time that it was somewhat of an odd decision for Broussard to so publicly proclaim his devotion to Christianity.  With every faith-related tweet or other statement, Broussard risked alienating his readers/viewers and becoming known as “Chris Broussard, Religious Nut” instead of “Chris Broussard, NBA Reporter.”  What I didn’t necessarily consider at the time was whether and to what extent Broussard’s beliefs would affect his ability to report on his area of expertise.

While I don’t agree with Broussard’s sentiment, I also don’t think it’s fair for him to have been publicly lambasted the way he was. This wasn’t an example of an ignorant dolt spewing hate (like, you know, some random twitter users did).  It was a well-educated sports reporter who was placed in a difficult position and repeatedly pressed to give his opinion on a sensitive social issue.  Well aware that his opinion would be polarizing, Broussard attempted to remain respectful, and was sure to note that his views were based on the teachings of his faith.  Broussard’s position on this issue – and by extension his religious beliefs – should not subject him to shame.  To ridicule someone for his or her religious beliefs is not very different than doing so for his or her sexual orientation.

While Broussard should be afforded some credit for remaining true to himself, he isn’t without blame for creating this controversy.  Almost immediately after the Collins story broke, I thought of Broussard and his previous tweets, and wondered whether he would comment on the issue.  It was an obvious Catch-22: if he expressed unqualified support for Collins, he undoubtedly would be called a hypocrite; if he stated his true beliefs, he would become a pariah.  But without his public devotion to Christianity, Broussard would have been the furthest thing from my mind after hearing about the Collins story.  And so Broussard’s actions raise several important questions. First, is it appropriate for a reporter to publicly state his or her beliefs on important social issues, when those beliefs will necessarily impact the outcome and credibility of the reporter’s work? Second, is it appropriate for someone like Broussard, using the notoriety (and twitter follows) he gained by working for ESPN, to use that platform to promote issues unrelated to his work at ESPN? (For nerdy legal reasons, ESPN’s Social Media policy doesn’t explicitly prohibit the use of social media to promote non work-related subjects).

Despite Broussard’s culpability, ESPN was equally responsible for creating this “distraction” (their word, not mine).  Undoubtedly aware of Broussard’s beliefs (if not his opinion on this issue in particular), ESPN could have shielded him from shit-stormery by turning to any number of its NBA personalities to comment on the Collins story.  Instead, the network chose Broussard, and made him part of a discussion with LZ Granderson – an openly gay columnist who writes for ESPN the Magazine, ESPN.com, and CNN.com. Moreover, the network didn’t air the debate on Around the Horn, First Take, or any of its other talking head shows.  Instead, it aired the segment on Outside the Lines – one of the few shows on ESPN that remains dedicated to reporting hard news, seemingly premised on higher journalistic standards than the aforementioned debate format shows.  ESPN made this decision without regard to the impact it would have on Broussard.  Why would ESPN do this?  Some have speculated – and I certainly believe – that one of the reasons was to insert themselves into the narrative after being scooped on one of the biggest sports stories of the year.  ESPN knew Broussard’s position on this issue would be divisive, but wanted us believe they “regret” the “distraction”? Please. Not surprisingly, ESPN President John Skipper later issued a thorough mea culpa for the mess the network created, noting they should have been “more careful with Chris Broussard.”

While Broussard may have opened the door for this to become an issue, ESPN willingly kicked the door down in a (successful) attempt to earn ratings and media coverage. This chain of reckless decisions took away from the Collins story and may have permanently damaged Broussard’s reputation more than any shoddy reporting ever could.

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Mike Abitabilo is the co-founder of the Read Zone, and thought Chris Broussard was a knuckle-head long before he started tweeting about the K.I.N.G. Movement.