A couple of years ago, when ESPN2’s unctuous chat show, First Take, was finding itself in hot water on a weekly basis, a high-ranking ESPN official told me it was becoming too big a headache for the company and something needed to be done. This is often the ESPN way: There comes a breaking point for the company when the headache exceeds the value. First Take, because it makes the company millions of dollars (it’s cheap to produce given they own the studio space), was spared more drastic measures beyond additional executive oversight.
Curt Schilling was not as lucky.
On Wednesday evening, ESPN announced it had terminated the MLB analyst following repeated political discourse on his feed, which some tabbed as hate speech. Said the company in a statement: “ESPN is an inclusive company. Curt Schilling has been advised that his conduct was unacceptable and his employment with ESPN has been terminated.”
Schilling met with ESPN management on Wednesday in Bristol, Conn., as he was scheduled to work Baseball Tonight on Wednesday night. The company declined to say the executive that delivered the news, but no such decision would be made without the approval of ESPN President John Skipper and ESPN Executive Vice President of Programming and Production John Wildhack.
For those unfamiliar with how we got here, Schilling apologized last September for his tweet comparing the number of Nazi sympathizers in Germany to the percentage of modern Muslim extremists. That tweet prompted ESPN to remove him from its Little League baseball coverage. He was then removed from ESPN’s postseason coverage following an exchange with editors of the sports blog Awful Announcing.
“At all times during the course of their engagement with us, our commentators are directly linked to ESPN and are the face of our brand,” ESPN said in a statement at the time. “We are a sports media company. Curt’s actions have not been consistent with his contractual obligations, nor have they been professionally handled; they have obviously not reflected well on the company. As a result, he will not appear on ESPN through the remainder of the regular season and our Wild Card playoff game.”
This week he made headlines by posting a meme on Facebook that crudely referenced the transgender community. ESPN management clearly made a conclusion that he was responsible for the inclusion of that image on his page, and thus its public availability. Schilling offered his extended thoughts on the matter in a blog post on his website.
I’ve been critical of ESPN when it comes to discipline of its talent because too often the discipline was arbitrary and selective. Where Bob Knight can go unpunished for calling Jeremy Schaap a “c---sucker” and nary a word is said about Stephen A. Smith’s odd threats to former Sixers guard Michael Carter-Williams or Kevin Durant, ESPN staffers with less juice often get whacked Sopranos-style. (The only consistent rule seems to be that Skip Bayless can say whatever he wants on any medium, especially if it’s about LeBron James.) I previously wrote that I did not think Schilling should be suspended for his earlier comments. It’s not that I agree with Schilling’s point of view, but having covered ESPN for a long time, there is rarely a day when one of its staffers is not offering a political opinion on social media. But Schilling knew that he was walking on thin ice given his previous interactions in this space and he provoked management yet again. They had to act in some manner, especially given how active ESPN with LGBT issues.
This isn’t a freedom of speech issue because Schilling’s speech isn’t being censored on his feed. He has every right to espouse whatever he wants, and his employer in turn, has every right to respond accordingly should it have issues with those opinions, which ESPN clearly did. In reality had Schilling been an analyst that ESPN felt it could not live without, he likely would have gotten a longer rope, perhaps been given a lengthy suspension here as opposed to an outright termination. But he’s easily replaceable – as most of us are. I’d expect him to work somewhere in the sports media again, but it will not be at ESPN.
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the week’s most notable sports media stories)
1. Sports Business Daily’s John Ourand reported that Fox Sports was close to signing a deal that gives it half of the Big Ten’s available media rights package. Ourand said the deal would give Fox around 25 football games and 50 basketball games that it will carry on both the broadcast channel and FS1 starting in the fall of 2017. The deal, according to the reporter, runs six years and could cost Fox as much as $250 million per year. ESPN has been paying $100 million a year for its current deal. Ourand reported rest of the package is expected to include around 25 football and 50 basketball games.
2. For Monday’s column, I spoke to Joe Buck on what has been a proposal by many: Vin Scully calling the World Series before he retires.
2a. New York Daily News writer John Harper suggests Scully to do the All Star Game.
2b. As both pieces clearly indicate, Scully has repeatedly turned down such inquiries. Baseball fans can dream, however.
2c. The NBA on TNT averaged 1,682,000 viewers for the regular season, up 1 percent over last year’s 1,669,000 viewers. The network said since Jan. 1, TNT is averaging 1,680,000 viewers, up 13 percent vs. 1,490,000 over same period last year
2c. Sports Business Daily assistant managing editor Austin Karp reported that NBCSN, USA Network and CNBC had combined to average 494,000 viewers for 16 NHL Playoff games through Sunday, up 13 percent from 438,000 viewers during the same period last postseason. The first round on NBC Sports Live Extra drew 391,000 unique visitors and 46 million minutes watched across all platforms, up 31 percent and 90 percent respectively, from the same period last year.
2d. Per Karp: Alabama spring game on ESPN last Saturday (0.6 overnight rating) topped all weekend NHL playoff games on cable television.
3. Welcome to episode No. 52 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast with Richard Deitsch. In this podcast, which is published weekly, Deitsch interviews members of the sports media about their work and interesting people about the sports media. This week’s podcast features ESPN NFL Front Office Insider Louis Riddick, who will work all three days of the NFL Draft on ESPN television.
On this episode, Riddick discusses in-depth how he his prepares to cover the NFL Draft, how candid former NFL executives can be on television, how scouts evaluate draft picks, the sports television bias against those players who were not stars in their sport, why NFL teams and media missed so badly on Johnny Manziel, why certain teams are a terrible fit for players, whether he still has NFL executive aspirations, how to learn the mechanics of sports television, why NFL offices often have an adversarial relationship with the media, whether teams specifically put misinformation into marketplace during draft season, and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at Deitsch.
4. Sports and non sports pieces of note:
•ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne does a deep dive on Kobe Bryant.
•From Bloomberg’s: Joshua Brustein and Eben Novy-Williams: Virtual weapons are turning teen gamers into serious gamblers.
•NBA guard Jerian Grant on Notre Dame women’s basketball.
•From NCAA Magazine’s Brian Burnsed: The story of sisters who lost their mother in the Charleston church shooting.
•Chicago Tribune sports writer Chris Hine on Andrew Shaw’s homophobic slur.
•ESPN’s D’Arcy Maine on her open-heart surgery.
•South Korea covered up mass abuse, killings of ‘vagrants.’
•Via Adam Serwer: The Secret History Of The Photo At The Center Of The Black Confederate Myth.
•From Mike Rosenberg: America now has nearly five PR people for every reporter, double the rate from a decade ago.
•Deadspin’s Kevin Draper on ESPN's firing of Curt Schilling.
5. The Big Lead’s Ty Duffy did a long examination on the relationship between Twitter and the sports media.
5a. SI broke the news on Monday that ESPN and national college football reporter Joe Schad are parting ways.
5b. NBCSN has picked the rights to the Dan Patrick-hosted “Sports Jeopardy!” show. The show will debut on Saturday, August 6, at midnight ET and following the Rio Games, it will air immediately following the network’s coverage of NHL Wednesday Night Rivalry.
5c. The Globe and Mail examined the viewership issues Rogers Media (Canada) is having with its NHL package.
5d. ESPN’s daily game show -- Around the Horn -- will offer its first all-female panel Thursday, featuring Kate Fagan, Jemele Hill, Jackie MacMullan and Sarah Spain.
5e. Jerry Greene, the longtime Orlando Sports columnist, passed away at 74.