The Worldwide Liar In Sports?

I’ve never worked for ESPN, but plenty of really talented and decent people I’ve known personally, some from college and some from professional alliances, have.  Some still do, though in recent years that list has diminished significantly.  I especially miss the ones who routinely handed out branded swag like Tic Tacs at various events they sponsored, making me a hero with family members when I’d pass on the extra hats, shirts and clocks I’d bring home.  Quality stuff indeed.

So yes, there’s a sense of disappointment that lately those letters are popping up in headlines for stories more appropriate for TMZ than any ESPN entity.  This week, a double whammy of events has brought tarnish and shame to the network and brand at a once-unthinkable rate.

The ongoing saga of Pat McAfee’s bromance with Aaron Rodgers, and the ensuing corporate fallout that has resulted from what many see as a middle finger, continued to mushroom with a series of events that clearly points, with the adjacent finger, that the times, they are a-changin’.  VARIETY’s Brian Steinberg offered this recap yesterday:

Pat McAfee has generated reams of unwanted publicity for the Disney-backed sports-media giant in recent days, allowing frequent guest Aaron Rodgers to spread misinformation about vaccinations; insulting Norby Williamson, an influential ESPN executive who manages many studio shows and tries to keep a tight rein on them, and accusing him of working to sabotage his show in talks to media outlets; and giving Rodgers room to call out Jimmy Kimmel, the ABC late-night host who is one of the most high-profile employees in the Disney empire.

McAfee’s antics fill a need in an era when more of the cable customers who pay billions in fees to ESPN are leaving for streaming-video frontiers. “It appears ESPN is willing to tolerate a lot to have this level of attention,” says Nicole Kraft, director of Ohio State University’s Sports & Society Initiative.

ESPN on Wednesday seemed to gain new control over McAfee, who told his viewers that Rodgers, a regular guest who is paid for his appearances, would stop appearing while this NFL season is in play. No one said Rodgers would not return.

And to prove that very point, in the wake of Bill Belicheck’s parting of the ways with the New England Patriots a day afer this new policy was announced–and four days after the NFL season was no longer in play–of all the possible experts and pundits available to weigh in on this breaking news, McAfee chose to bring on who he billed as the “last man to speak to Bill on an NFL playing field while he was the Patriots’ coach”.  Yup, Aaron Rodgers.

That slow burn you may have seen emerging from the chill of Bristol, Connecticut was likely coming from the offices of Williamson, one of the staunchest defenders of the ESPN brand, and his loyalists.  And yes, that brand is still pretty damn strong, as evidenced both by traditional ratings and consumer studies.  I spent decades poring over those sobering realities as a competitor, frequently having to force FOX executives to grudgingly admit that in spite of their own beliefs, we were still playing catch-up.

But we also learned there were paths to different forms of street cred with specific audience segments that saw ESPN’s one-size-fits-all approach as limiting and uninclusive, kinda like Disney itself.  And in recent years, whenever those kinds of voices wanted to be heard on ESPN, Williamson and other keepers of the flame consistently quashed them and chased them away.  Steinberg rattled off a litany of those incidents:

Last year, ESPN parted ways with Sage Steele, a veteran anchor and host who came under management’s scrutiny in 2021 after making comments on an outside podcast about getting vaccinated and criticizing ESPN’s coronavirus policy, saying that “it’s sick and it’s scary.”

The network has even thwarted personnel with whom it enjoyed a previously great relationship. In 2017, ESPN pulled the plug on a reworked version of its 6 p.m. “Sports Center” that allowed co-hosts Jemele Hill and Michael Smith to talk about social issues and broader cultural topics, and even advocate certain positions. Hill was suspended after taking to social media to call then-President Trump a “white supremacist” and calling for her followers to boycott the Dallas Cowboys. ESPN in 2018 pulled its colorful former host Michelle Beadle off of the then-nascent morning program “Get Up” after she announced on the show that she was no longer watching football due to the way the sport treated women – just before the NFL and college-football seasons are set to begin in earnest.

But as Steinberg further observed, in a landscape where technology and polarization thrive, and new forms of meaningful measurement beyond traditional Nielsen ratings actually matter, voices of dissent don’t go away.  They turn up on a variety of competitors and with their core audiences are actually amplified:

McAfee’s hire in some ways reflects that, as ESPN seeks to keep current with aficionados who can find any number of outside podcasts, videocasts and audio programs that chew up the issues of the day that have little to do with touchdowns, home runs or free-throw percentages. Fox Corp. in 2021 bought Outkick, a sports-and-commentary site led by conservative pundit Clay Travis. Two popular former ESPN personalities, Dan Le Batard and Pablo Torre, now hold forth on shows backed by Meadowlark Media, founded by Le Batard and John Skipper.

In a different era, people who left ESPN were consigned to new obscurity. But in an era of mobile video, subscription-based digital sites and social media, anyone can launch their hot take into the sport-o-sphere. You don’t have to be on Disney to hit a sports-media home run.

And while all of this was going on, yet another successful insurgent in the sports media landscape, THE ATHLETIC, broke this story about how further cracks in the ESPN wall of integrity have apparently being ongoing while these on-screen machinations and attempting puppeteering were occurring.  Per Katie Strang:

In March 2023, Shelley Smith, who worked 26 years as an on-air reporter for ESPN, received a call from Stephanie Druley, then the network’s head of studio and event production. Druley said she wanted to talk about something “serious” that needed to stay between the two of them, Smith recalled. She then told Smith that Smith needed to return two sports Emmy statuettes that she had been given more than a decade earlier.  

That request was one of many ESPN made of some of its biggest stars last year after the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), the organization that administers the Emmys, uncovered a scheme that the network used to acquire more than 30 of the coveted statuettes for on-air talent ineligible to receive them. Since at least 2010, ESPN inserted fake names in Emmy entries, then took the awards won by some of those imaginary individuals, had them re-engraved and gave them to on-air personalities.

Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Samantha Ponder, among others, were given the ill-gotten Emmys, according to a source briefed on the matter, who was granted anonymity because the individual is not authorized to discuss it publicly. There is no evidence that the on-air individuals were aware the Emmys given to them were improperly obtained.

Turns out one of the executives who has been held accountable for this is one Craig Lazarus, whose ESPN Press Room biography is as upbeat and detailed as is Williamson’s.   Strang cautions that (w)hile it is not known who orchestrated the scheme… Lazarus, vice president and executive producer of original content and features, and Lee Fitting, a senior vice president of production who oversaw “College GameDay” and other properties, were among the ESPN employees NATAS ruled ineligible from future participation in the Emmys.

Once the story was broken, ESPN has attempted to put out this dumpster fire as swiftly as they tried to douse the flames surronding the McAfee incidents.  As the Left Angeles TIMES’ Emily St. Martin reported yesterday:

“Some members of our team were clearly wrong in submitting certain names that may go back to 1997 in Emmy categories where they were not eligible for recognition or statuettes,” an ESPN spokesperson said in a statement obtained by The Times.

“This was a misguided attempt to recognize on-air individuals who were important members of our production team. Once current leadership was made aware, we apologized to NATAS for violating guidelines and worked closely with them to completely overhaul our submission process to safeguard against anything like this happening again.”

But as Rodgers’ sudden reemergence within 24 hours of a similarly calming statement reminds, there’s no such thing as a fully effective safeguard any more.  Especially since some of the motivators that Strang reported were prevalent in the executive ranks are right up there with the ‘tude that McAfee and company have exhibited:

When asked why people at the network would scheme to secure trophies for on-air talent, one person involved in the ESPN Emmy submission process in recent years said: “You have to remember that those personalities are so important, and they have egos.” Smith, for one, pushed back at that and remarked how some executives lined their office shelves with statuettes. One executive interviewed during ESPN’s probe said that some company leaders were obsessed with the Emmys, using the numbers of wins each year to prove their dominance over competitors: “It’s very important to the people who go (to the ceremony) and the old-school television guys.” 

Old school television guys like, say, Norby Williamson?

Perhaps Craig Lazarus just wanted to keep pace with the track record being blazed by others with his surname, including NBCUniversal Media Group topper Mark– or perhaps Mark’s pioneering sales executive dad John, who designed many of the anti-ESPN sales strategies for FOX as it chipped away at ESPN’s dominance?

And that, to me, is perhaps the biggest disappointment in seeing all of this come to light in as controversial and surprised takes as what has emerged this week.  You may not like McAfee’s bluntness, nor may you respect his giving the likes of Rodgers a pulpit.  And you may not quite understand why newer-school ESPN leaders like Jimmy Pitaro are reluctant to show him the door as they did others, especially in light of the modest linear ratings his daytime talk show deliver have delivered for the network, numbers that pundits like the NEW YORK POST’s Andrew Marchand are quick to point out are less than half those of its hugely successful morning “drive time” lead-in FIRST TAKE.

I’d remind Marchand that if one were to look at audience flow on any morning news flagship on any linear network versus later-morning shows, there’s declines of that magnitude across the board.  It may not look that way, but people, particularly men 18-54, are going back to work.  And if they are still consuming sports media in later daytime hours, they’re more likely doing it on platforms that Nielsen still can’t fully measure accurately.  Platforms that the likes of McAfee dominate.  And as Disney toppers are challenging Pitaro and his minions with the eventual pivot of ESPN to a consumer-first offering, those metrics, and the appeal of strong, alternative voices like McAfee’s, are going to be far more significant in determining success and failure.

I probably wouldn’t call out someone like Williamson as an “old hag” in the manner that McAfee did.  But as someone closer to his age and sensibility, I’d offer he perhaps consider the cautionary words of Eckhert Tolle:  “Humanity is now faced with a stark choice: Evolve or die. … If the structures of the human mind remain unchanged, we will always end up re-creating the same world, the same evils, the same dysfunction.”

And perhaps be more aware of how his fellow executives are behaving.  Some of them apparently are also among the Worldwide Leaders–in misinformation.

Until next time…

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