Criticism of ESPN
While ESPN is one of the most successful sports networks, it has not been free from criticism. This criticism includes accusations of biased coverage, conflict of interest, and controversies with individual broadcasters and analysts. Mike Freeman's 2000 book ESPN: The Uncensored History, which alleged sexual harassment, drug use and gambling, was the first critical study of ESPN.
Bias towards certain teams and players
ESPN is often accused of having a bias towards certain teams and a "love affair" with superstar players such as Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Lebron James, Tim Tebow, Michael Vick, Dwyane Wade, Derek Jeter, Kobe Bryant, Danica Patrick, and especially Tiger Woods, and teams such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Heat, Philadelphia Eagles, Los Angeles Lakers and the New England Patriots. The ESPN ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber responded to these criticisms by saying that the industry is ratings-driven. Since MLB Network went on the air on January 1, 2009, Baseball Tonight has been the target of criticism because of its perceived bias in favor of certain teams such as the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, in particular. The most vocal comment was expressed by Heath Bell:
“ I truly believe ESPN only cares about promoting the Red Sox, Yankees, and Mets—and nobody else. That's why I like the MLB Network, because they promote everybody. I'm really turned off by ESPN and Baseball Tonight. When Jake Peavy threw 8⅓ innings on Saturday, they showed one pitch in the third inning and that was it. It's all about the Red Sox, Yankees, and Mets. ”
On August 4, 2009, Dish Network sued ESPN for $1 million in a federal lawsuit, alleging that it had breached its contract by not extending the same carriage terms the programmer provided to Comcast and DirecTV for ESPNU and ESPN Classic. The lawsuit claims ESPN violated the "Most Favored Nations" clause.
The next day, ESPN announced they will fight the lawsuit and said in a press release: "We have repeatedly advised Dish that we are in full compliance with our agreement and have offered them a distribution opportunity with respect to ESPNU and ESPN Classic consistent with the rest of the industry. We will not renegotiate settled contracts and will vigorously defend this legal action, the apparent sole purpose of which is to get a better deal."
Dish Network moved ESPNU from its "America's Top 250" package to its "America's Top 120" package on September 30, 2009. However they claim it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.
On June 22, 2010, The Walt Disney Company (owner of ESPN) pulled ESPNews HD, Disney Channel HD, Disney XD HD and ABC Family HD from the Dish Network channel list although the standard definition channels remained.
The most common reason for these disputes is rights fees; see the Cost section below.
Integration of ABC Sports
It was announced in August 2006 that ABC Sports would be totally integrated into ESPN, using ESPN graphics, music, and production. The brand integration does not directly affect whether ESPN (the cable channel) or ABC carries a particular event, as in most cases this is governed by contracts with the applicable league or organization. Perhaps confusingly, this means that some events are broadcast with ESPN branding during ABC coverage, even though another channel owns the cable rights – for example, TNT owned cable rights to the British Open from 2003 to 2009 (with ABC picking up weekend coverage), while IndyCar Series rights are currently split between ABC and Versus.
The last live sporting event televised under the ABC Sports banner was the United States Championship Game in the Little League World Series on Saturday, August 26, 2006 (ABC was slated to carry the Little League World Series Championship Game on Sunday, August 27, but the game was postponed to Monday August 28 due to rain, subsequently airing on ESPN2). The changeover took effect the following weekend to coincide with the start of the college football season, with NBA, IndyCar Series, and NASCAR coverage eventually following suit.
However, ABC used its own graphics (with the ABC logo), to cover the final round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, similar to the older-styled ESPN graphics but with a yellow base. In 2008, though, it used the newer yellow and red ESPN graphics which had been used on other recent telecasts but also with the ABC logo.
Despite the rebranding, it appears that ABC Sports continues to exist, at least nominally, as a division of the ABC network – George Bodenheimer's official title has remained "President, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports" (the second part would be unnecessary if ESPN had fully absorbed ABC's sports operations). In addition, ABC itself maintains the copyright over many of the ESPN-branded broadcasts, if they are not contractually assigned to the applicable league or organizer, suggesting that ESPN has merely "loaned" usage of its brand name, staff, and infrastructure to ABC, rather than having acquired ABC Sports outright. Although ESPN has been criticized for decreasing the amount of sports on ABC, especially during the summer; an example is NASCAR. From 2007-2009, ABC showed all of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races, along with 1 other race. Since 2010, ABC only shows 3 races Sprint Cup races with only 1 Chase race (Charlotte) to the outrage of many NASCAR fans and sponsors.
This is likely a minor technicality stemming from ESPN being technically a joint venture of Disney (80%) and Hearst Corporation (20%), even though Hearst is believed to be more of a silent partner rather than an active participant in ESPN's management. However, this relationship does mean that Hearst's ABC affiliates, such as WTAE-TV Pittsburgh, WCVB-TV Boston, WMUR (Manchester, New Hampshire), WISN-TV Milwaukee, and KMBC-TV Kansas City, have first right of refusal on the local simulcasts of ESPN-televised Monday Night Football games involving home-market teams, which are very rarely waived to other stations in their markets. Equally, other Hearst stations such as NBC affiliated WBAL-TV in Baltimore have been able to air NFL games from ESPN for the same reason.
Under NFL broadcasting rules, the league's cable games must be simulcast on broadcast television in the local markets of the teams playing, though the home team's market does not get the game if it does not sell out 72 hours before kickoff - games that are not sold out must be blacked out in the market of origin. Similar rules and rights were previously in place for ESPN-televised Major League Baseball playoff games.
Coverage of individual sports
Major League Baseball coverage
Bonds on Bonds
Bonds on Bonds was a 10-part reality TV series starring former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds that aired on ESPN in 2006. At the time, Barry Bonds was mired in the scandal of steroid allegations. ESPN was criticized[by whom?] as allowing Bonds such a one-sided public pulpit, as ESPN was the most powerful name in American sports journalism; the show was seen by some as ESPN giving up any semblance of journalism in favor of becoming a PR front for major sports teams and players. ESPN responded to the criticism by claiming that Bonds would not have creative control and that the episodes would be fair, balanced, and only document the day-to-day activities of Bonds as they occurred, not as Bonds wanted them to occur. However, Bonds grasped at more control and ESPN ultimately cancelled the show.
The network failed to do any significant follow-up after a Los Angeles Times story claimed former player Jason Grimsley had implicated several other players in connection with the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Almost immediately, officials from the government said the article had major errors, but the network and all print journalism outlets failed to review the article or to pinpoint its flaws.
Local station pre-emptions
The 2007 Subway 500 from Martinsville Speedway was not shown on KABC in Los Angeles (the second largest media market in the United States) on October 21 due to the California wildfires of October 2007, specifically the Buckweed fire in Santa Clarita and the Canyon Fire in Malibu. Instead, the broadcast was shown on digital subchannel ABC7+, which is not available to all local residents.
Several stations chose to pre-empt NASCAR Countdown for local news. KABC did so before every Saturday night race, and also did it before the 2007 Ford 400, a Sunday-afternoon event, to show The Suite Life of Zack & Cody from the Disney Channel to fulfill an E/I programming requirement. WPLG in Miami, Florida and KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas also did so at least once in 2007.
At the other end of the scale, KTKA in Topeka, Kansas left the 2007 Bank of America 500 on October 13 to launch its nightly late newscast at 10 p.m. Central time and did not return. Topeka is located about 60 miles (100 km) from Emporia, the hometown of NASCAR Cup driver (and 2007 Chase participant) Clint Bowyer. KSAT also aired a brief news update, which came during a red flag, but returned in time for the checkered flag.
The 2008 Sharpie MINI 300 was not seen on several ABC stations for various reasons, ranging from weather bulletins (WSB in Atlanta and WSOC in Charlotte) to the Big 12 basketball tournament (KLKN in Lincoln, Nebraska) (where the race moved to ESPN2 on the alternate channel, used when Syndex rules force an ESPN blackout). In addition, WABC in New York City carried the race, but pre-empted NASCAR Countdown and the rain delay to cover a construction accident at a high-rise building in Manhattan.
After a red flag during lap 284, the 2008 Checker O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 Presented by Pennzoil, viewers in the Eastern and Central Time Zones of the USA were forced to switch from ABC to ESPN 2 to see the finish of the race on Lap 284 as the network broadcast America's Funniest Home Videos at 7:30 PM EST, while ABC continued the race to its conclusion (313 laps) in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones.
ABC's NBA coverage
Some complaints have concerned the promotion, or perceived lack thereof, of NBA telecasts. The 2003 NBA Finals received very little fanfare on ABC or corporate partner ESPN; while subsequent Finals were promoted more on both networks, NBA related advertisements on ABC were still down significantly from promotions on NBC. NBA promos took up 3 minutes and 55 seconds of airtime on ABC during the week of May 23, 2004 according to the Sports Business Daily, comparable to 2 minutes and 45 seconds for the Indianapolis 500. Promotions for the Indianapolis 500 outnumbered promotions for the NBA Finals fourteen-to-nine from the hours of 9:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. during that week.
Pistons-Pacers brawl coverage
ESPN's studio team was generally more criticized than praised. After the Pacers–Pistons brawl, ESPN's studio team came under severe criticism, both by the media and by ESPN itself for their stance regarding the actions of Indiana Pacer Ron Artest (who entered the stands to confront a fan, sparking the melee). John Saunders came down hard on Detroit fans, referring to them as "punks", while Greg Anthony and Tim Legler defended Artest. The day after the brawl, Steve Levy led into a report on the brawl on SportsCenter by saying, "Before you unconditionally blame the players, take a look and a listen." He concluded the report on the brawl by calling it "on an overall sorry night for the NBA, and especially fans of the Detroit Pistons," without any reference to the Pacers.
“ I just hear from our family and friends back home that, 'Boy, ESPN is killing you guys,' ... 'And (Nancy) Lieberman and Doris Burke are just trashing you left and right.' Not only me, but also some of our players on our ballclub. ... We're telling ESPN today to basically stick it. ”
LeBron James' "Decision"
On July 8, 2010, LeBron James announced on a live ESPN special that he will be playing for the Miami Heat for the 2010–11 season. In exchange for the rights to air the special, ESPN agreed to hand over its advertising and air time to James. James arranged for the special to include an interview conducted by Jim Gray, who was paid by James' marketing company and had no affiliation with the network. ESPN's reporting leading up to the James special, its decision to air the program, and its decision to relinquish editorial independence were widely cited as gross violations of journalistic ethics.
Rush Limbaugh incident
On July 14, 2003, ESPN announced that conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh would be joining Sunday NFL Countdown as a weekly commentator when it premiered on September 7. Limbaugh would provide the "voice of the fan" and was supposed to spark debate on the show. On September 28, Limbaugh commented about Donovan McNabb, the quarterback of the Philadelphia Eagles:
- "Sorry to say this, I don't think he's been that good from the get-go. I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault case
On July 18, 2009, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in a civil lawsuit filed by Andrea McNulty. ESPN came under fire for being the only major media outlet that refused to report on the story. ESPN officials attempted to justify their actions by stating that the case is a private matter. Furthermore, ESPN claimed that since Roethlisberger has not addressed the issue publicly, and since no criminal charges have been filed there is no reason to report on it. However, many have been quick to point out other instances where ESPN has reported on civil cases as well as statements addressing the matter by Roethlisberger's attorney. The network's actions resulted in some media sources accusing them of double standards and poor journalistic practices. On July 23, 2009, ESPN began reporting on the story, and on August 18 they released a column on their website explaining the network's decision.
ESPN currently charges the largest retransmission consent fee of any major cable television network in the United States. The main channel alone carries a $4.69 per subscriber per month price tag, nearly five times the price of the next-highest channel, TNT, with other English language ESPN channels costing an additional $1.13; these prices rise on a nearly constant basis. Part of the cause of this high fee is the amount of money ESPN pays for sports rights, particularly the NFL. In August 2011, ESPN agreed to pay the NFL $1.9 billion annually for the rights to carry Monday Night Football through 2021; this despite the fact that the broadcast networks pay approximately $700 million for their packages, which include playoff games (including the lucrative Super Bowl) while ESPN's does not. Cable and satellite television operators condemned ESPN's most recent contract extension with the NFL and have contemplated moving the network to a higher broadcast tier to mitigate cost increases.
UFC and MMA coverage
Lack of coverage and negative coverage
Despite the growth in popularity of Mixed Martial Arts and its largest promotion the Ultimate Fighting Championship in particular, many fans of the sport feel that ESPN still treats the sport as a fringe sport by either not showing highlights of recent drawing matchups or by portraying the sport in a negative light. Commentators such as Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser of Pardon the Interruption along with Skip Bayless of First Take have openly criticized the sport as inferior to boxing. Jim Rome of the ESPN program Jim Rome is Burning however, often defends the sport and features fighters as guests. Some MMA fans feel that the influence of ESPN's parent company Disney (both not having broadcast rights and Disney's traditionally family friendly image) along with the influence of the Boxing media have contributed to what they perceive as negative coverage of the sport on the channel. Other complaints include the ESPN show MMA Live being in a Friday late night at 1 AM EST timeslot that many fans of the sport feel is inadequate and is often prone to preemptions due to live programming. Following the UFC signing with rival network Fox, UFC president Dana White lashed out at ESPN following a cancellation of an appearance for an interview promoting the UFC 134 event.
Controversies/Criticisms involving ESPN personalities
Bloggers and on-air sportswriters
Gregg Easterbrook, who writes the weekly Tuesday Morning Quarterback article during the NFL season on ESPN.com's Page 2 section, was fired from ESPN in 2003 after a blog he had written for The New Republic Online in which he was critical of what he considered to be the senseless violence in the Quentin Tarantino film Kill Bill. Easterbrook wrote the following:
Set aside what it says about Hollywood that today even Disney thinks what the public needs is ever-more-graphic depictions of killing the innocent as cool amusement. Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice.
This caused an uproar and accusations that Easterbrook and The New Republic were anti-semitic. Easterbrook wrote that he "mangled" his own ideas by his choice of words and wrote the following to explain his thought process and to apologize:
He further explained that he worships at Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church, one of the handful of joint Christian-Jewish congregations in the United States. Easterbrook had previously written in a column that "One of the shortcomings of Christianity is that most adherents downplay the faith's interweaving with Judaism" and indicated that he and his family sought out a place where Christians and Jews express their faith cooperatively. The New Republic accepted blame for the piece in an apology and denied that his comments were intentionally anti-Semitic. Easterbrook continued to blog for the New Republic Online, and still writes articles on environmentalism (especially the damage caused by sport utility vehicles), religion and other subjects. After Easterbrook's firing, Tuesday Morning Quarterback moved to NFL.com while Easterbrook himself became an analyst for the then-fledgling NFL Network. In 2006, after Michael Eisner was ousted at Disney, Easterbrook was rehired by ESPN, and Tuesday Morning Quarterback returned to ESPN.com.
At Soxfest in early 2004, Chicago White Sox broadcaster "the Hawk" Ken Harrelson called Jay Mariotti "the biggest sports fraud", adding that he had never seen him in the White Sox club house. Trading barbs through the media, the two were eventually involved in a physical altercation in July 2004 at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Mariotti suffered a broken nose after the incident. Afterward on his radio show, Mariotti threatened to "pinch Hawk's beak off". In June 2006, Ozzie Guillén, the manager of the Chicago White Sox, publicly apologized for calling Mariotti a "fag." However, he did not apologize to Mariotti, only for the slur. On August 21, 2010, Mariotti was arrested in Los Angeles and booked on suspicion of a felony after a domestic altercation with his girlfriend.
Because of his relatively brash claims and stances, Skip Bayless has been publicly criticized by some high-profile sources. Le Anne Schreiber, the ESPN Ombudsman, criticized him for being so "absolute" in his arguments and for yelling too much on TV; ESPN columnist Bill Simmons has taken multiple shots at him in his columns. According to sources at ESPN, criticism of Mr. Bayless far exceeds that of any other anchorperson or ESPN personality. Bayless was criticized multiple times during the 2005-06 college football season due to his perceived bias against the Texas Longhorns. Many television personalities who observed this believed it to be because of Bayless' Oklahoma roots. Bayless also erroneously claimed former Suns and Rockets player Eddie Johnson was facing criminal charges. As in the case of many of the criticisms of ESPN, the mistake originated from a faulty print journalism report.
When Jason Whitlock was interviewed by sports blog The Big Lead, he disparaged two of his ESPN colleagues. Whitlock labeled one, Mike Lupica "an insecure, mean-spirited busybody", and referred to another, Scoop Jackson, (who is black) as a "clown", saying that the publishing of his "fake ghetto posturing is an insult to black intelligence." After those comments were made public, Whitlock stopped appearing on ESPN and soon announced to The Kansas City Star newspaper readers in September 2006 that he was fired altogether from ESPN as a result of his remarks; he wrote that the company does not tolerate criticism and acted as it saw fit.
On June 28, 2007, it was reported that a former makeup artist for Cold Pizza was suing ESPN, alleging incidents of sexual harassment against host Jay Crawford, and Woody Paige. Both Crawford and Paige have denied these allegations.
During the 2008 NBA Playoffs, Jemele Hill was suspended from her post after referencing Adolf Hitler in an article about the then-NBA champion Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons. In a editorial describing why she could not support the Celtics, Hill wrote: "Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It's like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan. Deserving or not, I still hate the Celtics." The comments immediately generated a negative response from readers and that portion of the editorial was taken out shortly after the column was published. Hill was subsequently suspended for several weeks and issued an apology through ESPN. In 2009, Hill once again was reprimanded for her comments after comparing University of Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball coach John Calipari to Charles Manson. She later apologized to the university.
In 2010, Paul Shirley penned a long blog entry at FlipCollective.com about Haiti and the consequences of its earthquake. He begins the entry by stating that he has not donated to relief efforts in Haiti and "probably will not... for the same reason that I don't give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads 'Need You’re Help' is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him. If I use history as my guide, I don’t think the people of Haiti will do much with my money either." Shirley added:
"I don’t mean in any way that the Haitians deserved their collective fate. And I understand that it is difficult to plan for the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it is not outside the realm of imagination to think that the citizens of a country might be able to: A) avoid putting themselves into a situation that might result in such catastrophic loss of life. And B) provide for their own aid, in the event of such a catastrophe."
Shortly thereafter, ESPN cut ties with Shirley. The company's full statement: "He was a part-time freelance contributor. The views he expressed on another site of course do not at all reflect our company's views on the Haiti relief efforts. He will no longer contribute to ESPN."
Color commentators and studio analysts
Dick Vitale is often criticized for being a "homer" for Duke, especially for Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as well as most teams in the ACC. He is also known for mentioning Duke frequently during broadcasts, even when Duke is not playing. Temple head coach John Chaney once said "You can't get Dick Vitale to say 15 words without Duke coming out of his mouth". He is also called "Duke Vitale" or "Dookie V", a take-off on his "Dickie V" nickname, by detractors for the same reason. Although his bias towards Duke is widely speculated by many, he is also believed to favor the entire ACC in general, including Duke's rival, North Carolina.
On July 25, 2006, Harold Reynolds was fired from ESPN. The ESPN spokeswoman confirmed that Reynolds "is no longer with the network" but did not give a reason for the departure. "Three people who work at ESPN and familiar with the case said the cause was a pattern of sexual harassment." Reynolds confirmed that an accusation of sexual harassment was the reason for his departure but called it "a total misunderstanding" and that "I gave a woman a hug and I felt like it was misinterpreted." It was announced on October 30, 2006 that Reynolds planned to sue ESPN after having tried "everything possible to handle this situation quietly behind the scenes," while stating that he is seeking the money owed to him under the remainder of his contract, including interest and lost earnings. He is also asking the court for damages for lost future opportunities. The Smoking Gun obtained a copy of Reynolds' contract that was filed as part of the lawsuit. Reynolds' lawsuit is for $5m, roughly equivalent to the value of the contract Reynolds signed that was scheduled to cover the 2006–2011 seasons.
While earning a name as a critic of many people and organizations, Tony Kornheiser is famously averse to criticism himself. Stephen Rodrick wrote for Slate that Tony Kornheiser was allowed by ESPN to argue aimlessly on television and that his Washington Post column was being used to plug side projects rather than gather news from cited sources. Kornheiser called on Slate, then owned by The Washington Post, to fire Rodrick.
After Kornheiser's first game on Monday Night Football, Paul Farhi wrote in The Washington Post that Kornheiser had emphasized the obvious, played third fiddle, and was reminiscent of Dennis Miller "in a bad way." Kornheiser responded saying that Farhi was a "two-bit weasel slug" and his own newspaper had back-stabbed him during an interview on The Dan Patrick Show on August 15, 2006. His response generated more criticism from The Washington Post and other media outlets. Mike Golic, an ESPN colleague of Kornheiser's, who had expressed skepticism regarding his prospects as an on-air analyst because he was never an athlete, said that his performance on MNF was “fine.” Kornheiser's response was, “I just want to wring Golic’s neck and hang him up over the back of a shower rod like a duck.” During the September 15, 2008, broadcast, Kornheiser issued a vague apology almost two quarters after he joked about not being able to understand what a Spanish-language broadcaster was saying. He also earned a rebuke from commentator Ron Jaworski during the same game. After Cowboys linebacker Zach Thomas "read" the intended receiver and deflected a pass without turning around, Kornheiser insisted the play was simply fortunate, even though this type of coverage is taught at the youth league level. Kornheiser's overall tone of the broadcast was deferential to the Cowboys, he is noted to have said that he loves the Cowboys because they always bring star power and drama to the sport.
On February 22, 2010, it was announced that Kornheiser was suspended from the show Pardon the Interruption for two weeks for comments he made on the way SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm dressed. He apologized for his comments.
In the fall of 2006, Sean Salisbury was suspended by ESPN for one week, allegedly for indecent exposure. A column in the New York Post by Phil Mushnick on January 19, 2007 confirmed the suspension. According to the allegations, Salisbury took a picture of his penis with a cell phone and showed it to many women who worked at the station. On February 26, 2008 Salisbury's contract was not renewed by ESPN. Salisbury suggested, according to Profootballtalk.com, that he was unhappy with his salary and status compared to those analysts who were more prominent players in their NFL careers. Salisbury explained, saying that “I’d grown tired of being punished for not being an NFL superstar,” He also complained that “analysts who don’t work as hard as me, don’t prepare as hard as me, and don’t have my resume were making more than me just because of their ability to throw or catch a football.”
Brian Kinchen was a commentator for ESPNU but was suspended after making a comment during a game that receivers needed to use their soft hands to "caress" the ball and responding to his comment as "kinda gay."
On October 18, 2008 ESPN analyst Lou Holtz apologized on air for mentioning German dictator Adolf Hitler during a college football studio show the previous night. The former Notre Dame coach said "Ya know, Hitler was a great leader too," while attempting to make a point about good and bad leadership during a discussion of the struggles of first-year Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.
On October 21, 2009 Steve Phillips revealed that he was involved in an affair with a 22 year old production assistant at ESPN. Phillips was fired by ESPN four days later due to his affair. His wife of 19 years, Marni Phillips, filed for divorce on September 2, 2009
On October 24, 2009, Bob Griese provided color commentary for the University of Minnesota at Ohio State University football game. During the broadcast, a list of the top five drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were displayed on the screen. Broadcaster Chris Spielman asked where Colombian NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya was on the list. Griese responded, "He's out having a taco." Griese apologized for the comment at the end of the broadcast.
Craig James' son Adam is a redshirt sophomore receiver for Texas Tech. Adam James was the center of the controversy that resulted in Texas Tech suspending, and later firing, head football coach Mike Leach shortly before the 2010 Alamo Bowl. Leach allegedly had James twice stand in a shed for two hours during practice because Leach believed the player to be faking a concussion. In light of the allegations, ESPN has removed Craig James from announcing the Alamo Bowl with Mike Patrick. Former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said that Craig James was a "helicopter dad" who used his influence and media platform at ESPN to push for more playing time for his son, Adam. Later reports surfaced from position coaches that Adam James' poor work ethic and "sense of entitlement" lead to constant clashes between Mike Leach and Craig James over playing time.
During a lull in the proceedings of Day 3 of the 2010 NFL Draft, Matt Millen and colleague Ron Jaworski were into a conversation about fried bologna sandwiches, at which point Millen said, "Ask any polack from Buffalo how they like them, right Jaws?" "Polack" is a derogatory term toward people of Polish descent. About 30 minutes after the comment, Millen made an on-air apology for the comment, stating that his comments were not meant to offend people of Polish descent and reflected his "great," "playful" relationship with Jaworski.
Play-by-play men and studio hosts
In 1997, Keith Olbermann abruptly left ESPN under a cloud of controversy, apparently burning his bridges with the network's management. This began a long and drawn out feud between Olbermann and ESPN. During the time between 1997 and 2007 incidents between the two sides included Olbermann publishing an essay on Salon.com in November 2002 entitled "Mea Culpa" in which he conceded that his own insecurities and neurotic behavior had led to many of his problems at work. The essay told of an instance of where his former bosses remarked he had "too much backbone," - which is literally true. Olbermann has six lumbar vertebrae instead of the normal five. In 2004, ESPN famously snubbed him from the guest lineup of its 25th Anniversary SportsCenter "Reunion Week," which saw the likes of personalities such as Craig Kilborn and Charley Steiner return to the SportsCenter set. In 2007, ten years after Olbermann's departure, in an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, he said "If you burn a bridge, you can possibly build a new bridge, but if there's no river any more, that's a lot of trouble." During the same interview, Olbermann stated that he recently learned that as a result of ESPN agreeing to let him back on the airwaves, he was banned from ESPN's main Bristol, Connecticut campus.
Mike Tirico's period at ESPN has not been without controversy. Two books about the network, ESPN: The Uncensored Biography (2000) by former New York Times sportswriter Michael Freeman and 2011's These Guys Have All the Fun (by Washington Post writers James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales), recount incidents of alleged sexual harassment, for example. Tirico, Freeman writes, was suspended by the network for 3 months during the early 1990s for pursuing female co-workers.
Gary Miller's sportscasting career was interrupted by an incident in October 1997, while covering the ALCS in Cleveland. Miller was arrested for urinating out of a window at a Cleveland club in the now defunct Flats section called The Basement. According to Miller, he was drinking at an open-bar party, hosted by the American League, then went to the Flats. He needed to use the restroom but the lines were too long, so he used an empty beer bottle. Newspaper reports quoted the police as saying he had "an instrument used for drugs" -- Miller said it was a plastic dental pick—and the reported "residue" in his pockets were from aspirin and Rolaids. That was later confirmed. Miller was initially charged with indecency, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He immediately pleaded not guilty, but settled the matter with a no contest plea to disorderly conduct.
At SportsCenter, Stuart Scott was part of a duo with Rich Eisen which made both famous. His use of non-standard English elevated his profile as a sports broadcaster, but also made him the target of criticism. Scott's supporters insist his style effectively taps into and regurgitates the hip-hop language and culture of a youth demographic critical to ESPN's ratings success. But most observers see it as contrived, overwrought faux-hipness with nothing more than a marketing-inspired persona. Others have condemned Scott for plagiarism. One of his most famous oft-repeated phrases, "he's as cool as the other side of the pillow", was lifted from at least one other sports commentator (Wayne Walker, a former NFL player and analyst for the San Francisco 49ers' radio broadcasts). On May 12, 2010, Scott inadvertently referred to the Washington Nationals as the "Nat-zis" on SportsCenter at the end of a highlight. His shortened name for the Nationals was pronounced the same as the word "Nazi."
In 2004, Todd Harris began his involvement with ABC and ESPN's coverage of the IRL. He was assigned to be a pit reporter for their IndyCar Series coverage after joining the network for motocross and X Games coverage. In 2005, Harris was promoted to be ABC and ESPN's new lap-by-lap announcer of the IRL, replacing Paul Page. Fans who met the popular Page (widely considered as the voice for U.S. open wheel racing) at events after the announcement said he was shocked and disappointed by the decision. Other race fans believe Disney has made bad calls with announcers, first with Bob Jenkins leaving the network after the 2003 season, and also with pit reporters Jack Arute, Jr., son of the Stafford (CT) Motor Speedway owner, and Jerry Punch, who substituted for Jenkins frequently on NASCAR broadcasts in the late 1990s, including Dale Earnhardt, Sr.'s last NASCAR win in 2000, whom some believed should have taken the role of lap-by-lap. ABC Sports and in particular, Todd Harris were widely criticized by sportswriters after the race for their coverage of the 2005 Indianapolis 500.
One of the most significant events in the race was that a female racer Danica Patrick, who started and finished 4th, lead 19 laps in the process, becoming the first woman ever to lead the race. Even when Patrick was running mid-pack, as she had through the middle portion of the race, ABC and Harris focused significant attention on her. This angered several columnists, who thought the frontrunners deserved more coverage than they received. When Patrick took the race lead on lap 59 (partly because most of the frontrunners had pitted, and Patrick opted to stay out), the first time a woman led a lap in the Indy 500, Harris said, "50 years from now, you will remember where you were." Orlando Sentinel sportswriter Jerry Greene disputed this, writing the next day, "I seriously doubt it, Todd." Greene also wrote that Harris "said many stupid things Sunday because of Ms. Patrick's efforts."
Houston Chronicle writer David Barron said during the pre-race show and the race's first 90 minutes, he "counted an average of one Patrick reference every five minutes, and each reference went on for some time." Toronto Star writer Richard Sandomir wrote that Harris and his analyst, former two-time Indy 500 runner-up Scott Goodyear, failed to note that Wheldon had overtaken Patrick on lap 193, seven from the finish, until 20 seconds after it happened. Sandomir also wrote that it took Harris thirty seconds to note Patrick had drifted back to fourth place, behind Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta. Jerry Lundquist of the Richmond Times-Dispatch mentioned Page in his review, saying, "Viewers lose. [Page's] professionalism was missed. Harris' enthusiasm for the event was over the edge." Lundquist also wrote, "Either [Harris] was told to or took it on himself to become Patrick's personal flack." Newsday writer Steve Zipay said that in the final laps, Harris "raised the volume in what seemed suspiciously like rooting for Patrick." Two days later, on May 31, Zipay appeared on sportscaster Tim Brando's radio show on The Sporting News' radio network, and wondered if ABC seemed like too much of a cheerleader for Patrick.
Danyelle Sargent was the product of minor controversy on March 9, 2006 when she was co-anchoring a live broadcast of ESPNEWS and a series of technical difficulties occurred, leading ESPN to air a taped segment played. Thinking her microphones had been cut (which is the normal procedure when airing a taped segment), she exclaimed "What the fuck was that?" over the broadcast.
Dave O'Brien teamed up with former U.S. national soccer team captain Marcelo Balboa for the 2006 World Cup as the play-by play man on the ESPN and ABC Sports' primary announcing team. O'Brien and Balboa called the most prominent games of the tournament with their commentary generating controversy for several reasons, notably some questionable statements made on-air. ESPN and ABC stated that their broadcast strategy was intended, in voice and style, to target the vast majority of Americans who do not follow the sport on a regular basis. In 2007, Balboa was replaced on ESPN's soccer coverage. For 2008, ESPN put O'Brien solely on its baseball coverage so that he will miss fewer Boston Red Sox games, with JP Dellacamera taking over soccer duties.
In February 2008, videos of Chris Berman on the ABC Monday Night Football set appeared on the video sharing site YouTube. The videos, filmed in 2000, when Berman anchored the MNF halftime show, depicted Berman using off-color language and flirting with a female member of the broadcast crew. Berman acknowledged the authenticity of the videos, but commented, "Do I wish I didn't say a few things nine years ago? Yes. But if that's the worst thing I ever did, I can live with it."
At a roast for co-workers Mike Greenberg and Mike Golic in January 2008, an intoxicated Dana Jacobson reportedly said, "Fuck Notre Dame." "Fuck Touchdown Jesus." "Fuck Jesus." ESPN has released a statement apologizing for any offense given to the Notre Dame Football program while not specifically addressing the remarks that Jacobson made nor releasing any video or transcripts of her remarks.
During a production meeting prior to ESPN's telecast of the Chick-fil-A Bowl on December 31, 2010, veteran announcer Ron Franklin addressed sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards in a condescending tone as "sweet baby"; when she objected, Franklin called her an "asshole". The incident was reported to ESPN by another colleague, and ESPN tried to pull Franklin from the Chick Fil-A coverage that night but it was unable to; instead Franklin was removed from ESPN Radio's coverage of the 2011 Fiesta Bowl the following day. Franklin apologized for his remarks the following Monday and said he deserved to be pulled from the Fiesta Bowl. However, ESPN fired Franklin the following day; in a statement, ESPN noted "based on what occurred last Friday, we have ended our relationship with him."
Five years earlier, Franklin had an incident with another female sideline reporter during a contest between Purdue and Notre Dame. Holly Rowe praised Purdue defensive coordinator Brock Spack for using all three timeouts on defense despite trailing by four touchdowns late in the game. "If the coaches are giving up," Rowe added, "what does that say to the players?" Franklin responded: "Holly, it's not giving up. It's 49-21, sweetheart."
In November 2005, Colin Cowherd was criticized by former ESPN ombudsman, George Solomon for his treatment of the death of professional wrestler Eddie Guerrero. Colin was quoted as saying "he passed away doing steroids", implying that Guerrero's death had been caused by steroid use. According to the assistant chief medical examiner for Hennepin County in Minnesota, the autopsy showed that Guerrero died from a hardening and narrowing of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. He had an enlarged heart and other enlarged organs related to a history of anabolic steroid use. In March 2006, Cowherd was criticized for using a joke on his show that was posted on the "M Zone", a University of Michigan fan blog without crediting it. Cowherd later apologized on-air and gave the M Zone full credit for the material.
On April 5, 2007, listeners of The Herd knocked The Big Lead blog site offline. Cowherd directed his listeners to access the web site home page simultaneously which resulted in a massive increase in traffic. The blog site's servers were not capable of handling so many users at one time so the site was knocked off-line for approximately 96 hours. ESPN's new Ombudsman wrote an article sharing her (negative) opinion of Cowherd's actions and contacted Traug Keller, a Senior Vice President at ESPN Radio. Keller indicated that Cowherd would face no disciplinary action for the stunt, because there had been no policy against such a tactic at the time. To prevent this from happening again, Keller instituted a zero tolerance policy of such activities in the future. Cowherd was criticized for comments made regarding the circumstances surrounding NFL player Sean Taylor's death.
On November 28, 2007, one day after Taylor's home invasion murder, Cowherd claimed that Taylor's past had brought this upon himself, and that Redskins fans who mourned him were not "grown ups." Taylor's death was later found to be the result of a botched robbery, and the robbers had not known Taylor was home when they entered.
"It is the most intimidating place to play because of the configuration of the arena... and, let's be honest... they are Mormon. They are in Salt Lake, and there's nothing up there. They gotta smile and be happy all the time... and this is the one opportunity for people to get vicious in a fair arena. And the fans seem to take full advantage of it."
Bucher later apologized for the remarks.
On May 27, 2008, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Mark Madden had been fired by ESPN. This transpired after Madden made inflammatory comments regarding Massachusetts Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy on his radio show Wednesday May 21, 2008. He stated "I'm very disappointed to hear Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts is near death because of a brain tumor. I always hoped Senator Kennedy would live long enough to be assassinated. And I wonder if he will receive a get well card from the Kopechne family." Two hours after making the statement, under pressure from station management, Madden backtracked. WEAE 1250 announced on Monday, May 26, 2008, that Madden was suspended from his radio show. His last appearance on ESPN Radio 1250 was May 22, 2008.
While some have been critical of Jim Gray for being abrasive in interviews, others have also criticized him for giving soft interviews. Gray has been known for his close relationship with Kobe Bryant, which showed in the immediate aftermath of Bryant's sexual assault situation (the night when the news broke, Gray appeared on SportsCenter in defense of Bryant's character) and in several sideline interviews. It was Gray whom Bryant phoned to vent about teammate Shaquille O'Neal in October of that year (a phone call that started one of O'Neal and Bryant's worst disagreements). Also, some found Gray's interview with maligned baseball player Barry Bonds in 2006 to be too soft.
Lisa Salters received criticism for racially insensitive remarks made during the November 6, 2007 broadcast of E:60, in which, as a member of the roundtable discussing the legitimacy of the French sport of Parkour, Salters stated:
“ [This] sounds like the silliest non-sport I have ever heard [of]. … It's not a sport—this is something white people do!" How many black people parkour? None! … There are some things that are intrinsically not interesting to us as a people. This is one of them. ”
Salter's comments were seen by some as inappropriate, and even ironic, considering one of the founders of Free running, an activity similar to Parkour, is black. ESPN edited portions of Salters comments out of rebroadcasts and online versions of the show.
ESPN media outlets
Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Book, Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, notes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly told ESPN President George Bodenheimer that "Your phone is the dumbest fucking idea I have ever heard."
Concerns have been raised by some fans, bloggers, and journalists that ESPN's financial stake in the Longhorn Network creates a potential conflict of interest. Some fear that ESPN's involvement in the network will inhibit journalistic integrity as ESPN has a financial interest in the success of the athletic programs at the University of Texas. Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch wrote: "The network's existence... creates an impossible situation for ESPN's college football producers and reporters (plenty of whom care about reporting). For every story ESPN does on Texas and its opponents, they'll be skeptics wondering what the motivation was for the story."
Additionally, some have questioned the stipulation included in the network's founding agreement that gives Texas the right to dismiss LHN announcers that don't "reflect the quality and reputation of UT." An ESPN spokesperson addressed the situation by stating: "This is not common in ESPN agreements because this UT network is so unique/new for us ...The provision does not allow for random replacement of commentators or reaction to critical comments... it's more about potential situations where a commentator makes completely inappropriate comments or gets involved in inappropriate actions."
ESPN original programs
"Who's Now" was a daily series aired during SportsCenter throughout July 2007, in which viewers helped ESPN determine the ultimate sports star by considering both on-field success and off-field buzz. Based on fan nominations, ESPN Research selected 32 finalists to square off in a single-elimination bracket. The show received more than 5 million votes on ESPN.com, and on August 5, 2007 ESPN announced that professional golfer Tiger Woods was the winner. The show received heavy criticism from fans and sportswriters, citing it as nonsensical and irrelevant.
Participants were placed in one of four eight-way "regions" named for historic athletes that, in the judgment of ESPN, best exemplify the qualities of "now": former NBA player Michael Jordan, former boxer Muhammed Ali, baseball player Babe Ruth, and former tennis player Billie Jean King.
- Criticism of The Walt Disney Company, for criticism and controversies on one of ESPN's owners, Disney itself.
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