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ESPN Pulled Its Kevin Johnson Documentary—But Not Before I Watched It

'Down In The Valley' glorifies Sacramento's Mayor, an alleged sex abuser

Noel Vasquez / Getty

On Monday, ESPN postponed its new 30 for 30 documentary Down In The Valley, a recounting of the years-long fight by the city of Sacramento to keep its NBA team from moving to a different city, a fight led by its mayor, the former NBA star Kevin Johnson, that had been set to air on October 20. But when I asked for a screener of the new Kevin Johnson film from ESPN, I was corrected by a spokesperson, who told me it was not, as early critics had leveled, a heroic depiction of the efforts of the city’s now-embattled mayor, but rather told the story of “the power of sports to inspire a city and revitalize a struggling community.”

Last Friday, ESPN pulled the media screener of the documentary, citing piracy concerns. But before it was pulled, I was able to see the film in its entirety. And despite the best efforts of ESPN’s PR apparatus to try to convince the media otherwise, the film goes well beyond portraying Kevin Johnson in a positive light. Down In The Valley amounts to a 77-minute political advertisement for Johnson, a man who in 1995 paid a 15-year-old over $230,000 to keep quiet after she alleged that he had sexually abused her.

Johnson’s more recent exploits, some as mayor, include intentionally bankrupting a historic black mayor’s conference, flagrant misuse of federal funds, and the installation within his city hall of paid staff members of an aggressively pro-charter school organization, who often failed to disclose their other employer. These revelations, as well as his long history of alleged sexual abuse, have been brought to the nation’s attention by the veteran sportswriter Dave McKenna, who has been meticulously detailing the dealings of Johnson for Deadspin. But even before that, thanks to the dogged reporting of the Sacramento News and Review, a paper Johnson has battled with recently, as well as recent coverage by the larger Sacramento Bee, ESPN had to be well aware that the protagonist of its film was not even close to the near-messianic figure he was being made out to be.

The film starts out in the standard sentimental style of ESPN Films, with a strange and ill-fitting quote by Joan Didion—“They have been to Los Angeles or to San Francisco, have driven through a giant redwood and have seen the Pacific glazed by the afternoon sun off Big Sur, and they naturally tend to believe that they have in fact been to California. They have not been, and they probably never will be”—followed by overexposed shots of Sacramento and its surrounding areas. A narrator explains that this often-overlooked city would soon need to call on one of its own to save it. Cut to pictures of a young Kevin Johnson, playing baseball and basketball, and growing up on the rough side of town before developing into a world-famous basketball star. Johnson is front and center from the very beginning of the film, and his mother and his former chief of staff Kunal Merchant are leaned on heavily to provide commentary about his love for the city, as well as his heroism in keeping the team from moving elsewhere. After a brief detour explaining the history of the team and its troubled former owners, the Maloofs, the film focuses solely on Johnson for its final hour, letting him provide the play-by-play of the procedures involved in convincing the NBA to not let any new ownership move the team. In convincing the NBA to stay, Johnson pushed through the city council a new stadium plan, even though the voters of Sacramento had only years before voted 80-20 against a proposal that would have involved the public funding of the new stadium.

Completely missing from the film is any meaningful information about the cost of that new basketball arena. Johnson intentionally crafted the bill approving the arena to be immune to any public referendums, even though the public is on the hook for $226 million, almost half of the cost. Johnson, in his desire to keep the team in the city, convinced software tycoon Vivek Ranadivé to lead up an ownership group to buy out the Maloofs for a then-record $534 million. Johnson then got the city council to pass a spending bill that would avoid a public vote to pay for a new arena for the team, now assured that they would be staying. Down in the Valley mentions none of this.

Instead, the vision we get of Johnson is that of a fearless mayor doing battle against the hardened business-minds of the NBA relocation committee (which includes billionaire team-owners Micky Arison and Ted Leonsis), winning them over with charm and gumption while using the toughness he learned on the streets of Sacramento to keep his hometown team from fleeing an aging arena. There are scenes of him moving NBA owners to standing applause with his passion. Of him receiving a hero’s welcome at the airport when returning from critical meetings in New York. Of him answering the phone at lunch to hear that the NBA relocation committee hadn’t approved a move of his beloved franchise, but had voted unanimously that any new owners must keep them in Sacramento. The documentary ends with shots of young Kings fans, excited for the prospects of a new season, and a future where they get to have a basketball team.

The story told in Down in the Valley is not a new one. It is constantly being replayed throughout the country, as sports ownership groups hold cities hostage, threatening to move their beloved teams unless those municipalities devote massive subsidies and funding for the construction of a new stadium (a stadium where the owners get to keep almost all the profits). This story is playing out right now in Oakland, San Diego, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. Down in The Valley acts both to burnish Johnson’s standing (at a time in which he desperately needs good PR, thanks, in large part, to the work of McKenna) as well as serve as a model for leaders in other cities that are currently being squeezed by franchise owners. Relent and become a hero, or forever be known as the despised mayor who let your team walk.

ESPN benefits from providing franchise owners with good PR. Its main revenue stream remains the games it broadcasts, the result of contracts awarded by the leagues it claims to also cover without bias. Why the network would produce a piece of political advocacy for a mayor at the worst moment of their tenure is a bit more baffling, but not out of the ordinary. The network has demonstrated a willingness to produce sympathetic narratives for disgraced figures in exchange for access. Earlier this year, ESPN aired a short 30 for 30 documentary about George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch of a World Series games in the weeks following the September 11th attacks. The uncritical film, which featured exclusive interviews with Bush, acted to bolster the former president’s legacy, framing his ability to throw a strike as an act of heroism and leadership, only months before W. was to launch perhaps the most disastrous war in U.S. history.

In postponing the film, John Dahl, the vice president and executive producer of ESPN Films, said that he thinks “the most important thing here is to make sure it’s clear that we are not tone deaf and we’re aware of a renewed focus on certain issues." Not seeming tone deaf would seem near impossible to do by airing the documentary in a form that at all resembles its current one. The shelved version of the documentary is a tribute to Johnson, and by its own logic, he can do no wrong. Even disregarding the allegations of sexual abuse or political malfeasance, the very bedrock of the film, that Johnson saved the city by keeping its basketball team, is an outright lie. Johnson has committed to public spending that the city cannot afford, keeping its team intact but leaving the city’s finances almost as much of a disaster as ESPN’s failed attempt to present him as a hero.

Update: An earlier version of this article attributed the "dogged reporting" of Kevin Johnson solely to the daily Sacramento Bee. The smaller alternative weekly Sacramento News and Review, and specifically the reporter Cosmo Garvin, first covered the mayor's misdeeds.