ESPN does a DeepFake video of Damian Lillard and then tries to BS its way out of the outrage over ethics

A screenshot of the video ESPN posted that was digitally altered to put him in a Bucks uniform on the Bucks’ court after his Bucks debut.


THE LEAD: ESPN is backpedaling faster than the defense trying to stop Dame on a fast break after people figured out it created a “deepfake” video of Lillard using altered video footage from 2020 on its social media feed.

BACKGROUND: Lillard joined the Bucks in the off-season from Portland in a blockbuster trade. His debut against the 76ers lived up to the hype, as he scored 39 points, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out four assists.

After that, ESPN tweeted out a six-second video that featured Lillard in his Bucks jersey, with an ESPN microphone held at length, in which he lets people know this is basically going to be his resting pulse for the whole year as he’s making a run at a championship.

The problem is that people started figuring out this wasn’t legitimate, as the game was on TNT, so why was ESPN alone on this interview? Also, what was up with the weird pole thing? More detailed sleuths took issue with the fact the Bucks arena floor and Lillard’s jersey didn’t look right compared to the game footage they’d seen.

ESPN then issued a statement trying to explain away the fact they’d taken a video from the 2020 “Bubble Era,” removed TNT’s logo, PhotoShopped a Bucks jersey over Dame’s old Portland jersey and basically made stuff up:

“We occasionally look to connect sports moments of the past with contemporary imagery and storylines as part of our social content. While it was never our intention to misrepresent anything for fans, we completely recognize how this instance caused confusion.”




Uh-huh. SURE you didn’t mean to mislead people.

It’s hard to know the motivation of any one person and any one post, but this self-serving statement is total crap. That said, here’s the bigger problem: When you are the purveyor of actual content (games, SportsCenter, breaking news on athletes’ lives etc.), you are held to an actual ethical standard higher than that of a dipshit teen playing with an Instagram filter.

The spin that ESPN put on this thing about trying to “connect sports moments of the past with contemporary imagery” is laughable at best. If they had done something like a series of clips of Lillard over his career, with that audio over the top, fine. That’s at least “past meets present” (sort of).

But what they did was fabricate reality in a way that they KNEW would lead people to believe this was a contemporary moment, captured in its entirety by ESPN. (Also, what, exactly, was the need to PhotoShop out a competitor’s logo and PhotoShop in yours, if this was only an issue of trying to “connect sports moments?” Seems more like a cheater’s attempt at self-promotion to me.)

Deadspin does a good deep dive into this, where the ethical issue is front and center in chunks like this:

The ethical problems revealed by ESPN’s inexplicable lack of judgment are complex but illustrative of the battle currently being waged in sports media, and in news media overall.

First, there’s the problem of much of society seeing sports as entertainment, rather than news. If you justify sports as a space where people come to have fun — especially NBA Twitter, TikTok, and Instagram, which is undefeated in terms of passionate fans who continually make hilarious memes and videos — then pretty much anything is ethical, right? After all, we’re all just having fun; no one thinks any of this is real.

And that’s very much the attitude had been many in the sports media space including, apparently, whoever green-lighted the Dame video at ESPN. And with the loss of shows that featured actual investigative reporting in sports, like ESPN’s Outside the Lines and HBO’s Real Sports, the space for real journalism in sports media continues to shrink.

In short, if you want people to take you seriously, you can’t do stupid crap that says, “Hey, we’re just screwing around with stuff for fun!”



DISCUSSION STARTER: What, if anything, should ESPN be doing in this arena?

  • Should it be making stuff up, but telling people enough to let them know it’s made up? Or will that just perpetuate a problem and keep sliding toward the line between journalism and fiction?
  • Should it get the heck out of this kind of “construction of reality,” in that it’s not ESPN’s gig, even if everyone else is doing it?
  • Should it find ways to use the digital technology that helped them do this in specific ways but not other ones?
  • Is there a different angle we’re missing?

Leave a Reply