It's a big word, but it's an important role for publications, and one that ESPN at least seems to be trying to maintain. Le Anne Schreiber is the current ombudsman, and her columns are generally quite insightful and well worth reading.
Her most recent one is fantastic, and I recommend the full article to everyone. One sample above the fold, then a few more afterwards. (But go read the whole thing.)
All I can say for sure is that factuality has been devalued in 24/7 sports media. If you look at the proportion of airtime and cyberspace devoted to reporting fact versus delivering opinion on ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio, it is clear that the main function of sports news is to serve as the molehill on which mountains of opinion are built. We don't have news cycles anymore. We have opinion cycles.
The rage is general all over the land of sport. Fans, not to mention coaches and athletes, are sick and tired of being subjected to a relentless media onslaught of opinion that is simultaneously overheated and half-baked. Unfortunately, in a kind of sports Stockholm syndrome, many of them have learned to imitate the rhetorical belligerence of the media masters they resent.
On "The Patriots Spy Game Cycle"
The amount of opinion was so vast, its range so wide and contradictory, that it was beyond hard for readers and viewers to get their bearings within it. It was clear Belichick had violated a league rule, but what kind of "cheating" did that amount to, what kind of unfair competitive advantage could it bestow? Reporting might have answered that crucial question, but the question was tossed to the realm of opinion. If you search the archives of ESPN.com, if you remember the scores of opinions voiced on dozens of different programs, you are free to conclude: (A) It bestowed no competitive advantage whatsoever; (B) it might have provided the winning edge for those Super Bowls, which would then warrant a Bondsian asterisk in the record books; or (C) nobody knows, but you shouldn't let that stop you from choosing option A or B because having an opinion about it is all that matters.
On Donovan McNabb and his recent 'controversy'
ESPN did not create the McNabb controversy, not directly, but it fed on it, and as the Worldwide Leader in Sports, it is the prime mover in setting the agenda for what is talked about in sports and how it is talked about. Through its emphasis on opinion programming, ESPN has contributed enormously to the tendency to frame sports issues and nonissues alike as controversies. Within the constraints of its allotted half-hour, "Outside the Lines" routinely does its best to provide context through reporting, but that's not enough.
The loss for fans is that there is progressively less reason for any athlete to speak thoughtfully, candidly or at length about anything because his or her words, like McNabb's, will only be mined for nuggets of controversy potential.
There are a lot of prices to pay for opinion-driven sports journalism -- capriciously tarnished reputations and careers, close-mouthed athletes and coaches protecting themselves by letting only the occasional bland cliché slip past their lips, fan rage at the media and, last but not least, the diversion of resources and reward from news reporting, which gradually undermines the very practice of journalism at its best.