ESPN's Francis draft story lacked a lot especially facts


From now until the May date the NBA sets for college underclassmen to declare themselves eligible for the draft, Maryland's Steve Francis will have to answer questions about whether he will leave school early to turn professional.

And that's fair, because Francis opened the door to speculation last year by hinting that he was looking into jumping to the NBA before he even got to College Park.

But ESPN didn't do Francis any favors Sunday with a speculative piece that said the 6-foot-3 junior college transfer would be leaving Maryland after this season to go to the NBA.

By the end of the evening, after the Terps had defeated Clemson in overtime, Francis and his coach, Gary Williams, had denied the story through a school spokesman.

ESPN continued to report the story yesterday on its Web site, where Williams, coincidentally, was a guest for his regular biweekly chat session, and he called the ESPN report "inaccurate."

So, who's right? For now, it doesn't matter. Unless Francis changes his mind and takes off for the NBA, we really won't know the answer until May.

However, what does matter is the way the story got reported by ESPN, and let's say that Sunday's story, aired on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and on "College Hoops 2Night" on ESPN2, won't go in a time capsule as an example of the best journalism the "worldwide leader in sports" has done.

For one thing, there was no attribution, meaning the viewer was given to wonder exactly where the information was coming from. Was the source someone who is a friend or relative of Francis, or someone within the Maryland program, or even an agent who hopes to represent Francis? No one knows.

That's not to say that ESPN was going to reveal its sources. Alas, in this day and age, when people leak information indiscriminately while hiding behind a cloak of anonymity for whatever reason, it's more than a little far-fetched to expect ESPN or anyone to tell you exactly who is giving up sensitive information.

But it's not too much of a stretch to expect the reporting organization to give you a general sense of where the material originates, so you don't think that it's strictly speculation, informed or not, and you can judge for yourself how credible the report is.

Dean Diltz, an ESPN spokesman, said yesterday that three "very solid" sources provided corroborating information and that the channel felt "very confident" in reporting the story.

The ESPN Web site reported yesterday that Maryland was now "actively recruiting" two players to fill Francis' presumed absence.

Diltz said the ESPN news staff attempted to contact the Maryland sports information department to get a comment or confirmation on the story but couldn't reach anyone.

Chuck Walsh, the Maryland publicist who works directly on the men's team, was courtside at Clemson during the game, but said yesterday that he called ESPN on Sunday after hearing the report to relay that Francis and Williams were denying the item.

"It's a 'he said, she said' thing. We stand by what we said," Diltz said.

It should be noted, however, that for all its faith in the story, ESPN dramatically underplayed it. It aired in the second block of the 11 o'clock "SportsCenter" on Sunday night and more than halfway into "College Hoops 2Night."

This is just a guess, but it seems from this vantage point, if ESPN felt more comfortable with what it was reporting, especially given the impact that Francis has had on the college season, it would have made more of the story, airing it closer to the top of its broadcasts.

You can be certain that Jan. 24 has been written in ink on a host of calendars in the Baltimore-Washington corridor. If Francis elects to stay, someone in Bristol, Conn., ESPN's headquarters, will have to answer a lot of questions.

'SportsCentury' dilemma

In a move that is certain to draw criticism from some corners, ESPN will recognize former Heisman Trophy winner O. J. Simpson as the 49th-greatest North American athlete of the 20th century as a part of its new "SportsCentury" documentary series.

Simpson, who was the first NFL running back to run for 2,000 yards in a season, was selected to the list by a panel of journalists and observers.

Simpson was acquitted on criminal charges that he killed his ex-wife and her companion but found liable for their deaths in a civil trial. In a news release issued yesterday, ESPN said that while non-sports issues, like Simpson's trials, will be noted in the program, panelists were asked to select athletes based on their athletic ability alone.

The 30-minute program airs Friday at 9 p.m.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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