A Journalism Perspective


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.


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About the author: Seth Klamann


I like Chelsea, Barcelona and the US national team. I'm unimaginative when filling out personal bios.
I can be reached at Google+

Website: https://www.soccerpro.com


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  • AndrewMcCole

    Watch out world…get in Seth’s cross-hairs, and it is GAME OVER!

    Well done sir…love the piece…

  • It’s a well-written piece Seth, but I still think it’s unfair. I originally wrote two pieces for ESPN, one preparing the ground, the other analysing the feasibility of the bid. ESPN’s merger of the two (plus the insertion of the ‘expenses’ line) is what you saw. It was a decent piece of editing, but it still skewed my original intentions. What were my intentions? To hide the fact that the trip had been paid for? Why would I do that, when (as you point out) the trip had been cleared by ESPN? Was my intention to help the Qataris obscure their evil ways? Well…whether you liked my writing or not, I think my record suggests that I understand the notion of objectivity.

    You make some fair points, on the surface of the issue, but fail to address the wider issue of whether a journalist (well, I’m not actually. I work in education. Always have done) can suggest that the Qatar WC is, at the very least, an interesting possibility. I think that was my intention. I’ve never liked to fall in with the mainstream, and that’s why I think I lasted so long, but hey, maybe I’m naïve. The Qatar issue is an emotive one, but the human rights abuses (which I acknowledge more than you suggest) are hardly exclusive ones, with regard to WC bidders. We now have the problem of Russia, and Brazil is hardly as paragon of democracy and wealth distribution. I could go on. Does that preclude them from putting on major sports events? Do the Snowden revelations disable the US etc, blah blah……You can’t make ethical issues relative, on some sort of continuum. We’re all guilty somewhere along the line. Qatar’s labour laws are a disgrace, and the country is a weird sort of mish-mash of post-modernity and medievalism. What I wanted to say was that they were bound to make mistakes – but that there are some pretty sharp guys there (hence the Harvard reference) who, in theory, can sort it. Why not accept the potential? That’s what I saw. I don’t think I was saying much more than that. I felt that, as you say, my insider perspective enabled that. Al Saad’s cooling system is up and working, for example, as a template for 2022. Again, why do you see that as evidence of my being bought off? Why? Because you want to, obviously.

    Re my fight-backs on Twitter, you have a point. However (and I hope it never happens to you) the digital age has created a very nasty little circus where people can insult with gusto, and it can be very hurtful. You have no way to defend yourself, and at least Twitter gives you a chance to state your case. It looks bad, I know, but you need to be in that position to understand its impact on your psyche. I woke up to stuff on the web saying ‘Phil Ball kills Nepali workers’ and ‘Phil Ball – f***** c**t’. That’s the tip of the iceberg. In that light, a few acidic lines thrown the way of guys like Grant Wahl (I don’t share your view of his writing) are perfectly understandable.

    I worked hard for ESPN for 12 years, every Sunday. 423 articles to be precise. I tried to never let them down, quality-wise. Every following Monday, I was at the desk doing a very different and demanding day-job, but I never harped on about that, in the column. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet, and I’m obviously capable of making mistakes, but the two original articles were not ‘puff pieces’. I’ll defend them to the grave. And someone needs to start looking at the WC 2018, and all its attendant political issues. Qatar’s record isn’t a good one. But Russia…..? Now there’s a good piece to help you finish your degree.

    Anyway, you write well. Best of luck.

    Phil Ball

  • Hey Phil,

    I appreciate the feedback. I think we may disagree fundamentally here, but I’d love to talk about it more. You can reach me at [email protected].


    • Phil Ball

      Hi Seth – and sure, we can carry on privately, but since you’ve written quite a lot here, I still need to take issue with a few public matters, obviously. The problem for me is that too much self-defence comes over as bitter and twisted, but the issues here are both of a personal nature and a wider remit.

      There are a couple of things I’m not too happy about, although the rest is up for debate, yes. The two things are (1) ‘a failing grade in ethics’ and (2) ‘Ball has been fired….and rightly so’. Let’s take those two separately:

      1. As I explained, there were two separate articles. The first one dealt with the football scene in Qatar. I went to a game, and then I went to Al Arabi to interview Uwe Steilike because I knew he’d have an opinion on 2022, and also because my son had been signed by their U-15 side when I was there working in 2009. There were all sorts of insights – I can send you the original if you like. No problem. But they were insights from him, and also it was great to go back where my son had played. They treated us really well, and Steilike was amazingly nice – which is saying something because he can be very grumpy. He lost his own son tragically, but he was very nice to mine.

      I thought it came over well as the first article, but ESPN chose to edit it all out. You’d have to ask them why. They’d agreed to two pieces – well, London had, but it was the American team who did the editing. That hadn’t been the norm for me, since 2002, but I guess they saw these pieces as special. The 2nd piece was more on the bid, the progress and the ethics – although you tend to focus on my neglect of the latter. Ok – but the whole scene regarding the problems there had been covered very well by various quality papers in the months preceding my visit. My visit was for an annual business conference surrounding 2002. I hadn’t been sent by ESPN to do an investigative piece on Qatari politics and labour laws. I do, at various points, criticise the labour laws, but yes, ‘en passant’. But surely, that’s the nature of the text-type here, of the context? It’s ESPN – it’s not CNN or the BBC. If I’d written an openly ‘investigative’ piece it wouldn’t have been published, because that wasn’t the agreement. As I’ve said a billion times, ESPN agreed to the trip, and agreed to the 2 pieces. It was a cheap exclusive for them.

      So…I can’t see how I get a failure in ethics Seth. Your implication is that I deliberately avoided the issues because I’d been paid by the Qatari Sports Committee to fly out to their business conference. But I don’t avoid the issues! I just say that the bid is interesting, and that the whole process is pretty awesome, which it is….if you ignore the labour camps and the deaths…..which I don’t! I just don’t make it the focus of the article. That’s what YOU want it to be. I say that their labour laws are a disgrace – but one thing doesn’t cancel out the other (the fact that 2022 is feasible). I was sent to see if the bid was feasible – if the 2022 concept is crazy or not. I still maintain that it’s feasible – but sure, the Qataris have got to get their moral compass straightened too. So do Russia! I could go on.

      In short – a public article always has a context, and the context conditions the way it is written and the weight of the focus. That’s a simple law of literary stylistics. If you want to change them Seth, then change them, but please don’t accuse me of coming up short on morality.

      2. So they were right to fire me? Well, I think you need to think seriously about the employer-employee relationship. I wrote 423 articles between 2002 and 2013, covering 12 seasons, 3 World Cups, 2 European Championships and a whole host of other stuff. I’m not blowing my own trumpet, but just stating the facts. I always delivered. I was not always freelancing with them, and there was a period when I was contracted. But never, not on one occasion, did ESPN ever edit anything out. They never needed to. I built up a big readership, and the column was popular. Everyone knows that.

      Now if you’re the employer, you look at the guy who’s worked hard for you, successfully, year in year out – who’s never asked for a penny in travel fees and who’s always delivered, despite the logistical problems of having a demanding day job in education, and you say ‘Hey – looks like Phil messed up this time. That’s a shame – he doesn’t usually. Let’s pull the piece but let him carry on – maybe a rap on the knuckles.’ But they decided to cover their own asses, of course. Which is odd, because allowing me to continue would have been much smarter. ESPN agreed to the articles, they knew the trip was paid for, and they even said they loved the pieces when I sent them! But the shit-storm that was blown up by people like your hero Grant Wahl made them panic, and they pulled it. I can understand that, but the whole thing got skewed out of proportion. Surely you can see that? And so they were ‘right’ to sack me? How can you conclude that Seth? It makes no sense at all. They even inserted the line about the expenses.
      Transparency? Well ok – but occurring as it does, in the opening paragraph, the reader can no longer look at the piece objectively. They didn’t ask my permission either. So who is failing in ethics? Me or ESPN?

      There are other issues, such as the right to be able to oppose the easy mainstream view that Qatar 2002 is simply absurd, I mean as a potential sporting event. Also, the US bid was affected by it, the Muslim thing…..etc etc. But let’s carry on in private.

      I state my case. ESPN were not ‘right’ to fire me, and I’m not some sort of unethical jerk. Thanks for listening.

      Phil Ball

  • improbableTRIUMPH

    Occasionally, I find myself searching the internet for Phil Ball articles – for years I started my Monday mornings with his columns – which is how I landed here today. Although I’m a year late to this conversation, I enjoyed reading Mr. Ball’s replies.

    Back in 2008, Phil Ball wrote, “Feedback is a curious old thing. I suppose all journalists have to put up with the rough and the smooth, and to treat them both as impostors, to a large extent.” So I’ve filtered out the extremes in my opinion and am left with this:

    Seth, there are people like me who pay money for Phil Ball’s books and take time to follow his words online. Perhaps there’s a bit for you to learn from the way he writes, even if you don’t like the style?

    Phil, I assume there are many others like me that still look for your take on the world, especially Spanish football. Hopefully, you take it up again soon.

  • Phil Ball

    Thanks IT. If you want to read my stuff now, you can find me on Sport 360. Just punch in Phil Ball with that site.

  • Eugene Lavery

    ESPN’s La Liga coverage hasn’t been the same since Phil Ball was fired.

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