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Can broadcasters play hardball?

Scandals putting commentators in a bind

Will the crises gripping baseball, football and basketball force sports broadcasters to call ’em as they see ’em?

That’s the high-stakes question for ESPN and the four broadcast networks as they cover Barry Bonds‘ home run chase, Michael Vick‘s indictment for alleged dogfighting and the FBI’s charge that an NBA referee fixed games for the Mob.

The rare confluence of scandals comes at a time when attendance and ratings are surging, except for the NBA. The trifecta means the usual obtuse boosterism by sportscasters won’t quite cut it.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ august play-by-play man Vin Scully is among those in baseball who consider Bonds’ record tainted. ESPN, while not shying away from hard news, also has given airtime to plenty of Bonds apologists.

Few will apologize for Vick, who is sitting out at least part of the season to contest the grim allegations that he killed dogs and orchestrated dogfights for years. But yet, how deep will John Madden & Co. go in their on-air commentary? For that matter, how deep do viewers want them to go?

It’s a similar issue for basketball. Though, unlike the NFL’s Vick case, it doesn’t pivot on a superstar.

“Fans compartmentalize sportsmanship and ethics,” says David Carter, a consultant and head of the Sports Business Institute at USC. Balancing the two of them is tricky. “You can’t just talk about Xs and Os, because sports are now affected by business, law and politics. But if you focus too much on scandal, then you could alienate fans looking for an escape.”

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