Artful language may be employed, but read between the lines, and often a "we blew it" is there. Even if it's only occasionally, and even if it's a little fuzzy, the admissions are refreshing.
Concessions came last summer with errors in airing "The Decision." More recently, as it laid out guidelines on endorsement policies for on-air talent. And, if frequent ESPN critic John Feinstein is to be believed, by nudging Bob Knight to apologize for insinuating the University of Kentucky allows its basketball program to make a mockery of academic requirements.
Of course, this isn't to say ESPN couldn't do better in swatting away some contradictions -- the new endorsement policy has holes. Or, that the pursuit of higher ratings and resulting profits isn't its lodestar.
But those financial aims may be at the heart of where ESPN deserves some credit.
The endorsement policy will have sideline reporter Erin Andrews giving up a deal with Reebok, ostensibly so she won't unfairly criticize teams wearing Nikes. Anchor Scott Van Pelt will be dropping an arrangement with Titleist, apparently so viewers won't have to wonder if he's holding back while evaluating golfers using the company's products.
(It's curious why Andrews and Van Pelt won't follow the lead of colleague Chris Fowler and immediately walk away from their paydays.)
The new endorsement guidelines are rooted in a tempest that emerged after Andrews reported during the Rose Bowl about Nike cleats failing to help players maintain balance. ESPN could have ignored the contretemps, and it would have subsided.
Its ratings continue to rise and projections call for stronger ad sales. Neither would have been hurt by any questionable endorsement policy.
Top ESPN executive Norby Williamson, however, noted "fair public criticism," which prompted the new protocol.
That's in contrast to CBS showing no compunction in allowing announcer Jim Nantz to call golf tournaments where Phil Mickelson becomes the primary story. Both cash in as Rolex endorsers.
Last year, Williamson tacitly admitted ESPN was off-target with its much-blasted "The Decision," where the network allowed LeBron James to dictate terms of how he'd make the announcement on ESPN that he would be signing with Miami. ESPN's then-ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer wrote "ESPN 'paid' for exclusive access to a news story."
Williamson told Ohlmeyer the show was a "unique" situation that did serve the interests of sports fans -- ratings were high, and it was an important story. But, he said it "wasn't perfect, and this is not how we would draw it up if we were starting a show from scratch." Later: "we learned some things about how we could improve."
It would have been easy for Williamson to -- correctly -- defend ESPN by saying a slew of other networks would have jumped at the opportunity to air "The Decision," but he held back.
Williamson did not issue a sweeping "wea culpa," but the message was clear.
The latest example of ESPN addressing a controversy with concessions comes courtesy of John Feinstein, who has worked at ESPN, but is a strident critic.
Over the weekend in a speaking engagement, ESPN analyst and former coach Bob Knight accused Kentucky of starting five players in the 2010 NCAA tournament who spent an entire semester not going to class. Kentucky's athletic director shot back that Knight was "blatantly erroneous." Knight apologized. ESPN's Williamson said the network had communicated its disappointment to Knight and was heartened by his apology.
Feinstein, who wrote a definitive book on Knight, suggests ESPN coerced Knight into apologizing -- which came after Kentucky indicated it would make things difficult for ESPN in some manner. So maybe ESPN had significant self-interest at the core, but as Feinstein says, getting the prickly Knight to admit error is a mountainous feat.
If true, give ESPN some ups for even trying, let alone succeeding.