I’ve been meaning to whip this up for a while now, as it’s something that’s frustrating me still, 6 weeks on.
Phil Ball was a freelance writer for ESPN, contributing weekly columns about La Liga and Spanish culture in general. I read them on a less than consistent basis, so I was far from a loyal and familiar fan. From what few articles I did read , I enjoyed the commentary on sport but his writing style and method weren’t too appealing to me. Still, I generally liked his coverage.
Anyway, a few months back Ball was invited on a trip to Qatar, presumably to dispel rumors about corruption, bribery, slavery and the like that have been leveled against Qatar and their buildup to the 2022 World Cup. Ball lived in Qatar for a time in 2009, which is why he was given the invitation. ESPN’s editors in England approved it, and off he went.
Oh, and by the way: the Qatari government paid for his trip, in full (a fact he attempted to leave out of the article, until his editors caught it and put it in).
You can probably imagine the result. Ball wrote a puff piece. He makes little mention of the alleged human rights violations, and spends much of the time praising Qatar’s bid. He reasons that Qatar didn’t have to bribe anyone, as their bid was the best, orchestrated by Harvard-educated people (this quip about their education serving to prove that they’re not desert barbarians).
Essentially, he claims that Qatar need some slack to pull this off, that we need to have patience so they can show that they deserve this. Here’s an important quote (credit to Business Insider) that summarizes his view:
Meanwhile, it might be a good idea to get off Qatar’s back and try to consider the interesting things that will come out of this venture.
In other words: Ignore the controversy because this could be really neat. (If you’re looking for the article, ESPN pulled it 24 hours after it was posted. But you can find a PDF version here. Again, credit to Business Insider.)
Of course, being a journalism student and pretentious doofus, I was furious. It seems a lesson in ethics. You can’t accept gifts. Or meals. Or flights and lodging etc etc. A few choice quotes that demonstrate the puffery of the piece…
On the reports that Qatar won’t deliver on its promise for air-conditioned stadium and apparent concerns about alcohol…
The cooling system, already in place at Al-Sadd’s stadium, will work. Alcohol? You can drink in many of the hotels, and a prominent American beer is one of the main sponsors
How does he know the systems will work? He quotes no one. That alone is a PR message. Ditto with the alcohol bit. Sure, he can say he’s sticking his neck out to give Qatar credit, but that’s because he’s working as a mouthpiece for the government who are trying to assuage minor concerns to direct away from the major ones. Moreover, in light of recent events, who cares? Why does the alcohol situation matter right now? Misdirection. You look over there, we’ll push the problems out stage-right.
To Ball’s credit, the reporting he did about Qatar’s football foundations was great and informative — but that’s something that should also have been secondary. But all the same, I enjoyed that bit.
Ball had a very unique opportunity to sit down and discuss the problems with people higher up in Qatar. I understand that his role is to cover football. But if he wanted to do that, he could have written a multipart piece. One on the bid and bribery (again, written in a different manner than how he did) and then a much more in-depth and reporting-based piece on the allegations. He instead paid little attention to the conditions of migrant workers, devoting a few paragraphs or so. His one bit of reporting about the workers’ conditions was a question aimed at one of his hosts, who responded with this puffy, empty quote:
We are a young nation. We’re learning too.
Which Ball seemed content with:
There were no lame excuses offered.
WHAT? How is that an acceptable answer? To allegations of slavery, you respond that you’re just learning? Learning what? Furthermore, how is that empty nonsense NOT a lame excuse? Come on.
And presumably Ball did not push them on this BS answer, letting it slip into the back seat as his pursuit to abolish rumors that Qataris bribed FIFA officials took the wheel.
Unreal. His primary role as a journalist is to inform and report, to do no harm and deliver a balanced account. How is it possible to do that if you ignore the story around you? How is it possible to do that if you don’t push your subjects beyond their ridiculous, public relations answers? He may argue that other journalists are ignoring the bribery story around them, ignoring how neat the Qatar World Cup will be. But humanity > cool stadiums.
He covers football in secondary capacity. Yes, that capacity is very close to being his first job. But he ignored either duty, ignored this amazing opportunity to do some actual reporting on a major and controversial topic. Ball took an easy route, riding around with the bigwigs and admiring their concepts while ignoring the people building the stadiums in (reportedly) hellish conditions.
Ball has been fired (ESPN said they would no longer need his columns, but that’s tantamount to firing for a freelancer), and rightfully so.
It goes without saying that he gets a failing grade in ethics. Not only in the circumstances of which he wrote and reported the piece, but also in the manner he addressed the backlash. He took to Twitter, lashing out at anyone questioning him. Yes, people on Twitter (myself included) bombarded him, some with less grace than others. But he is a professional journalist. There are better ways to handle it (talking it over with ESPN and publishing a piece airing everything out, perhaps). He commented on blogs and got into arguments with other football journalists, like SI writer and KC-native Grant Wahl, who is probably the top footie writer in the US. According to Wahl, he messaged Ball his cell number and offered to talk about it in that capacity. Ball continued to tweet back furiously at anyone who questioned him. He still is, firing off the occasional bitter tweet about being the subject of a witch hunt for his brave decision to cover something other than the human rights violations.
(One such tweet to Wahl read, “Some of us are prepared to put our necks on the line. Others just carp from the sidelines, it seems. Ciao.”) Woof.
I love Grant Wahl. Throughout Ball’s little pot shots at him, Wahl seemed to keep it professional and above the belt. Of course, Ball probably seems to think otherwise.
As far as I can tell, he has yet to acknowledge any mistakes made. He continues to maintain that he wrote a balanced piece, that the human rights issues have been covered enough and he needed to look elsewhere, which I find ridiculous. Ball wasn’t sitting in Spain and writing about their bid and preparations — he was IN Qatar, with the chance to do on-site work. And he failed in that respect.
Furthermore, his editors also made a complete mess of the situation. They failed him, their audience and ESPN. Which is why ESPN pulled it. (You can read an article about ESPN’s response at the bottom of this page.) They approved his trip with full knowledge it would be all-expenses paid. Higher-ups at ESPN then stepped in and did the right thing, pulling the article, giving an interview as to why they did it and fulfilling their duty as a reputable source for sports journalism.
Again, perhaps I’m naive. After all, Ball wrote for ESPN for 10+ years (as he said in a tweet), and I’m a third-year journalism student. Perhaps I’ve still got stars in my eyes and I know nothing about the true world of reporting. But I think even the most ignorant bloke can spot the insanity in this.