US Open Prominently Showcases Conflicts of Interest
Following US Open coverage from mainstream media outlets has become like watching the 2012 American elections unfold — both are riddled with half-truths and constant political angling.
In employing experts who are involved strongly enough in the tennis world that they can describe the player experience accurately, media outlets are faced with the problem that many of their expert commentators and pundits are involved in the very situations they should be reporting.
ESPN chose the McEnroe brothers to provide commentary for a first round US Open match between World No. 1 Roger Federer and struggling American Donald Young. Throughout the match, they belittled Young’s game ad nauseum, though any player of Young’s ranking would have produced the same result. Facing the World No. 1 in the first round of a Major is a no-win situation.
Of course, they failed to mention that Patrick McEnroe had been in a well-publicized feud with Young over disagreements related to his role as the USTA’s head of player development.
So while another commentator could have provided a meaningful discussion on Young’s recent struggles, the McEnroes instead spent the entire match criticizing a much lower-ranked player who failed to beat the World No. 1, as if he was expected to have a chance of beating Federer. An entire tennis-watching audience in the United States heard a diatribe from the McEnroes on Young’s failings, not knowing the story behind the feud.
This is not a new problem. ESPN has hired Brad Gilbert to provide commentary on Andy Murray’s matches, even though he coached Murray. The Tennis Channel has employed Justin Gimelstob to provide commentary for matches featuring American players he assists in training. ESPN uses Mary Jo Fernandez, whose husband is Federer’s agent, to provide commentary for Federer’s matches. Fernandez has even sat in Federer’s player’s box. Darren Cahill, who coaches Adidas players, regularly provides commentary for their matches. The list goes on and on.
Another recent example comes from Taylor Townsend’s situation with the USTA. The Wall Street Journal reported that Townsend had been asked to not play the junior US Open because the USTA felt she needed to get into better shape.
Today, after the story had created a PR nightmare for the USTA, an article appeared on Tennis.com written by Matt Cronin, citing an anonymous source that said the USTA’s decision had nothing to do with Townsend’s weight, and was rather due to a health issue, a story Townsend’s mother disputes.
It takes little digging to discover that Cronin writes regularly for USTA.com. So although Cronin’s story could be credible, it must be taken with an enormous grain of salt. By producing an article that attempts to exonerate an organization that employs him in any capacity, he renders the story dubious.
Even more striking is the fact that the Townsend story, which caused major outrage in the tennis world, was not reported on ESPN during the US Open. Why? Probably because Patrick McEnroe, one of the parties involved in the spat, covers the tournament for ESPN.
These issues might be easy to overlook for hardcore tennis fans who usually have a good idea that these conflicts exist. But the casual tennis fan would have no idea that a commentator might be railing against a player because they have a personal issue with them.
These conflicts of interest shape the public’s perception of the sport, and mainstream media outlets would be wise to place limitations on allowing commentators to cover certain matches, or at least enforce a more transparent level of disclosure.