Most of ESPN’s staffers found out about the resignation of company president John Skipper at the same time the public did.
“It is the biggest what-the-f*** I’ve experienced short of a death,” said one longtime ESPN staffer.
“Speechless,” said another, who works on NFL programming.
“We’re all stunned,” said another ESPN staffer, who works on SportsCenter. “He just signed a new contract. He just gave us this rah-rah speech at the mandatory meeting. No one knows what to think.”
At 11:00 a.m. ET on Monday, ESPN announced that Skipper, 61, had resigned from his position, citing a substance addiction problem. In a statement, Bob Iger, chairman and chief executive of The Walt Disney Company, said that former ESPN president and executive chairman George Bodenheimer (who worked at ESPN from 1981 to 2014) will serve as acting chair of the company for the next 90 days, overseeing the transition process. Then Iger will presumably name a fulltime president.
“With his departure, George Bodenheimer has agreed to serve as acting chair of ESPN for the next 90 days to provide interim leadership, help me identify and secure John’s successor, and ensure a smooth transition,” Iger said in a statement. “I am grateful for George’s support and look forward to working with him again in this temporary role.”
“I have great respect for John’s leadership, and I applaud the courage he's demonstrating by addressing his challenge head on,” Bodenheimer said in a statement. “The most important thing right now for John and his family is that he conquers his addiction, and the entire ESPN family is behind him. I've stayed in close contact with John, and I believe in the direction he's taking ESPN. He's assembled an outstanding leadership team—many of whom I know very well—and I am extremely confident we will work together effectively to move ESPN forward during this transition.”
Plans to address the entire staff remain in progress, an ESPN spokesperson said. An ESPN spokesperson also said he did not know the nature of the addiction, nor did any staffer spoken to for this piece. Skipper became ESPN president and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks on January 1, 2012.
ESPN staffers were sent an email note from Skipper at 11:02 a.m. ET, followed by the official company release.
“I'd like to share a statement I'm issuing today, as well as one from Bob Iger,” Skipper e-mailed employees. “It has been my absolute privilege to serve as president of ESPN. Sincerely, John.
“‘Today I have resigned from my duties as President of ESPN. I have had a wonderful career at The Walt Disney Company and am grateful for the many opportunities and friendships. I owe a debt to many, but most profoundly Michael Lynton, George Bodenheimer and Bob Iger. I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. I have disclosed that decision to the company, and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign. I will always appreciate the human understanding and warmth that Bob displayed here and always. I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down. As I deal with this issue and what it means to me and my family, I ask for appropriate privacy and a little understanding. To my colleagues at ESPN, it has been a privilege. I take great pride in your accomplishments and have complete confidence in your collective ability to continue ESPN’s success.’”
Skipper called a handful of senior management people this morning to tell them of his decision before going public, sources said. The timing of the resignation will understandably be questioned based on news of the last couple of months. In countless other instances, employees citing addiction issues have taken leaves of absences, rather than take the permanent step of resignation.
Skepticism is fair. Skipper signed a three-year contract extension with ESPN just last month. But more than that ESPN had recently shifted its external strategy to make Skipper more front and center to push its brand message after an annus horribilis for ESPN employees. Skipper announced in November that approximately 150 staffers had lost their jobs in positions across the company including producers, executives and digital and technology staffers. That followed the layoffs of roughly 100 front-facing staffers last April, including many well-known names in sports journalism. The network has dealt with controversy after controversy—some of it self-inflicted, some of it out of its control. In recent weeks, the company had made clear that Skipper was going to be the point person in an attempt to change the narrative. Skipper has asked for privacy. But, as a captain of media, he likely knows as well as anyone that this announcement—and its curious timing—will spur additional reporting and follow-up.
Last week Skipper spoke to nearly 500 analysts, commentators, play-by-play voices, reporters and writers in Bristol, Conn., in what the network tabbed as “Talent Gathering 2017.” There, he addressed the company’s front-facing talent (meaning those who present themselves to the public via audio, digital or television) on issues such as ESPN’s current priorities, the recent changes to the company’s social media policy, how political and social issues should be handled by editorial staffers, how the company approaches sexual harassment allegations and upcoming initiatives.
“The intention was for him to start being more visible and to combat some of the narrative out there,” a staffer said.
You cannot overstate the shock this will be to the ESPN ecosystem. Skipper’s background was in content—he was the company’s executive vice President of content from 2005 to 2012—and he had deep relationships with talent. He particularly pushed ESPN to become more diverse on air and online when it came to both gender and race. The promotions of Doris Burke, Jessica Mendoza, Beth Mowins, Sam Ponder and Jemele Hill (as an opinionist) into positions traditionally held by men happened as a direct result of Skipper’s initiatives. Same with the founding of The Undefeated, a website at the nexus of race and sports. Skipper was a major believer in ESPN’s journalism and the company would not have expanded Outside The Lines or funded its enterprise reporting without him. He joined ESPN in June 1997 as senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine and quickly moved up the corporate ladder. His exit comes just as Disney announced last week it had purchased 22 regional sports networks from 21st Century Fox.
On Monday, Twitter was quickly filled with company employees responding to the news.
“John Skipper is one of the finest people I’ve ever worked for,” said Hill. “He’s been incredibly supportive throughout my career at ESPN. This isn’t company-speak. I seriously cannot express how much respect I have for him.”
“Shocked and saddened to lose our leader who always made time for me and made sure my voice was heard,” tweeted SportsCenter anchor Lisa Kerney. “A man I truly respect and admire in this industry and as a person. Always enjoyed talking hoops. My best to John and his family as they navigate this difficult time.”