Buckeye Witch Hunt: Does ESPN’s Ohio State Lawsuit Create A Mammoth Conflict Of Interest?
Talk to just about any diehard Ohio State fan and he or she will make one thing very clear to you: ESPN has it out for the Buckeyes. In fact, on OSU message boards like this one, The Worldwide Leader is often referred to as "ESPiN" for its perceived ability to "spin" any OSU-related story into a negative one.
And while that sentiment could very likely be a case of fanbase paranoia, it's not going to be changing anytime soon, because ESPN is suing The Ohio State University.
The lawsuit is centered around the university's failure to make certain information available to the media, as the school has cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to withhold emails regarding a series of scandals that have rocked the OSU football program. The scandals centered around former head coach Jim Tressel's failure to report improper player benefits, and cost him his job.
ESPN is disputing that the requested emails should be protected under FERPA.
"FERPA has no application here," ESPN lawyer John Greiner said in his filing, "and this court should not permit it to be used in a manner that is equal parts cynical and hypocritical."
Through the lawsuit, ESPN is requesting access to the following e-mails:
-All emails, letters and memos to and from former football coach Jim Tressel, university president E. Gordon Gee, athletic director Gene Smith and compliance director Doug Archie regarding Ted Sarniak, the hometown mentor to former OSU quarterback Terrelle Pryor.
-All documents related to NCAA investigation of Tressel prepared for the NCAA since January 2010.
-All emails or documents containing the names of people banned from receiving game tickets from players.
-Any report, email or correspondence between the NCAA and Archie or any other OSU athletic department official related to the violations surrounding the football program since January 2005.
OSU has responded by claiming that the last three requests were rejected for being "overly broad."
Of the requested emails, the first set could be the most damaging, as it was previously acknowledged by the university that Tressel had contacted Sarniak regarding the violations committed by Pryor. But if it's revealed that Gee, Smith, or Archie was aware that violations had occurred (and none of them reported them to the NCAA) the impropriety of the OSU football program would extend beyond the ex-communicated former coach. Heads would likely roll, and the football program, already damaged, would be beaten down further.
As for the lawsuit itself, and the possible conflicts of interest surrounding a major media outlet suing one of the subjects of its coverage, it may not be as bad as it sounds. ESPN is suing OSU for information, not for money. And when you consider the way that the OSU Athletic Department has treated the media over the past several months (last week, Smith held a press conference, where only certain members of the media were invited to attend), it was only a matter of time before something like this happened.
This also isn't anything new for ESPN, who sued Texas in December 2010 over a similar matter regarding realignment in the Big 12. That didn't seem to damage the network's relationship with Texas, whatsoever.
But don't tell that to Buckeye Nation, who remains convinced that its school is the subject of an on-going witch hunt. It probably didn't help matters that a few weeks ago, 97.1 The Fan in Columbus reported that an ESPN reporter was in town begging former OSU players for stories, to no avail.
OSU has 21 days to respond to the lawsuit. It will be up to the court to accept or deny ESPN's request for the emails, or it could set a schedule for legal briefs.
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