In Defense of ESPN’s Will Selva

ESPN's Will Selva has been suspened indefinitely for plagiarism, sometimes the pressure of a deadline can lead to a lack of judgement (Photo Courtesy: Medialite.com)

I’ll admit it, I’m a slow writer. When I first started working in Sports Television I marvelled at our team of writers that could bang out 15 scripts in a hour without breaking a sweat. I’m the opposite, I write something, hate it, erase it, start again… wash, rinse, repeat. In the deadline driven world of Television there is no time for slow. Slow leads to mounting pressure, mounting pressure leads to mistakes.

I’m not here to speculate on what led ESPN News anchor Will Selva to plagiarise Kevin Ding of the Orange County Register, but I know I’ve been there and I know many others who have too. No I’m not admitting a past sin of plagiarism, but I will admit to making mistakes in judgement as the clock ticked closer to air time and my to-do list just didn’t seem to shorten.

I’ve made anchors look bad, I’ve made factual mistakes, I’ve hung directors out to dry. I’ve also produced over 1,000 shows, even Tom Brady throws an interception once in a while.

Ina statement released by ESPN, Selva said he had been researching stories from local newspapers, and came across Ding’s column, he cut and pasted the story into his script, but forgot to write his own words.

It may sound unbelievable, but this can happen. It is a pretty standard technique at a national sports network to find statistics or pieces of information from local news writers who follow their teams more intimately than a national network ever could. A sports anchor at a national network like ESPN or FSN has to speak with authority on every team, but they can’t possibly know everything there is to know.

As a Producer, it was my standard procedure to copy and paste story angles or statistics into scripts that I thought would be helpful to an anchor. These nuggets would be the lighter fluid to get their fire burning, but it was always their obligation to put things in their own words or give credit to the original writer. The type of mistake that Selva made could have happened in any one of my shows.

Maybe Selva got busy and forgot, maybe he panicked because he was about to go on air and let this one slide, maybe he’s done this before and the only difference is that this time he got caught. We just don’t know so you have to take him at his word, it was a mistake, and with ESPN announcing his indefinite suspension, a mistake he is paying dearly for.

If Selva’s feeling sorry for himself today he only needs to Google the names Ron Borges and Mitch Albom, two famous sportswriters suspended from their respective newspapers for offenses very similar to his. Both have put their suspensions behind them and continued to build award-winning careers because they are great writers who made momentary mistakes.

Selva was wrong and his actions earned the punishment he received, but count me as someone that hopes he gets a another chance.

Disclosure: I do not know Will Selva personally, although we worked at the same network it was at different time. Many of my former colleagues have spoken kindly about him, but my perspective in this article is unbiased and based on my own experience.

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Article by Brian Clapp

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  1. Troy Oppie says:

    Maybe I’m jealous. In fact, that’s probably it – but I simply don’t feel bad for Selva.

    Like him, I read newspapers from across the conferences I cover, and like him – I’ve copy-pasted bits into an in-progress script. Usually it’s AP wire copy, but not always.

    For someone at the worldwide leader, with its editors, writers, producers and BAs all with their hands in the show as well, I don’t feel any sympathy for his forgetfulness under deadline pressure.

    Even if I make the mistake of leaving verbatim copy from somewhere else in a script – which I have done by mistake once – it’s easily recognizable: not in caps, not notated in my style, etc. At that point, I end up ad-libbing an intro – and definitely pay the price for my sloppiness by looking disjointed and unprepared on the air.

    It was a sloppy mistake, one I don’t think should be afforded someone working with all those resources. (like I said – there’s a bit of jealousy here, becuase I certainly don’t have those resources and am just lucky to get everything on the air some nights). I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t just get caught for the first – but that’s just my gut.

    Either way, I wish him the best of journalistic recoveries. This job can be unforgiving, merciless and non-stop, but damned if it’s not the most fun thing I’ll get paid to do in my life and I wouldn’t want the opportunity to be put in jeopardy.

  2. pam says:

    the anchors at ESPN have a lot expected of them and they work really hard. even with all those “resources” you mention, things unfortunately happen. Will is a solid guy and a very hard worker. I hate to see you condemn him for this mistake because it could just as easily be you, Troy.

  3. Brian says:

    Troy –
    When I worked at a national network, there were times when the resources you speak of were not as apparent as you would think – especially this time of the year. We would do hour long shows with one solo anchor & no writers full of highlights leadins and breaking news. Vacations and sick time would leave a large staff quite spartan. On those shows one anchor might write 10 lead ins, 10 news stories 8 teases and have 20 highlights to prepare for.

    I do not know the situation Selva was dealing with, or the resources at his disposal (I have inquired, but haven’t heard back yet), but I think it’s a vast assumption to conclude that he had it easy and handed to him and chose to be sloppy or lazy.

    No one denies he was wrong, the dude messed up and I said as much in the column, but I don’t think you’re being honest with yourself if you don’t see how this can happen, or that you have made mistakes under pressure yourself.

  4. Geoff says:

    Quoting from Troy: “This job can be unforgiving, merciless” – this may be the most interesting thing that Troy said – when people make similar mistakes in other jobs (computers, teachers, nurses, etc), I doubt the standard is this high. (It’s a horrible mistake either way, but is the margin for error less?) Similarly, how much of that has to do with the employer, and the standards there of?

    So the question to the group – is this punishment more about being part of the the World Leader, or, is this standard fare, even if you’re part of the local cable show in Dover, Delaware?

    Something tells me that being part of ESPN is also a big part of the punishment, like being a 7-9 coach. You can can Coach the Westford Grey Ghost high-school team for 20 years like that, but not the Patriots. Thoughts?

  5. Troy Oppie says:

    Brian – I’ll stand by sloppy – but I’d never call him lazy. The circumstances of the mistake appear to show research in progress, which by nature is not lazy.

    I’ve made plenty of mistakes under pressure; missed slot twice, a dozen empty scoreboards, a couple scores reversed on scoreboards. Not something I’m proud of – sloppy work to be sure, much of it well in the past (knock wood) – but I’ve never accidentally (or intentionally) plagiarized a peer. It’s not like I hate the guy or think his career should be over, nothing even close to that at all. I just didn’t feel bad for him in this situation.

    Geoff’s comment hit home with me a little bit, some good perspective I think.

    There’s a quote up in our office from Jay Glazer after the whole Favre-ESPN-Glazer dust-up in 2009.

    “It’s just sports, and they take it so seriously”

    I certainly take my responsibilities seriously, but there’s a reason I work in this business and didn’t go into med school/law school/et al. I don’t think I could handle working without a safety net.

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