How did a 19-year-old sophomore from Denison University land an interview with one of the most powerful people in sports?
Well, he asked.
Alex Kaufman (@nsf_alex), a Spanish and communication double major with a minor in vocal performance, interviewed ESPN president John Skipper last Friday for his sports talk show on 91.1 FM WDUB, the student radio station for which Kaufman is the technical director, sports director and co-host of Big Red Sports Talk. And he did a very solid job. He probed a number of areas with Skipper, including the executive’s thoughts on the unequal adjudication of ESPN suspensions, the contract status of Bill Simmons, the future of The Undefeated (ESPN’s upcoming site on race and culture), potential conflicts of interest between ESPN’s business and journalism wings and former ESPN and NBC executive Jamie Horowitz moving to FOX Sports 1 to start up his own Voldemort division.
To his credit, the ESPN president answered every question, even if some of those answers were as artfully constructed as a Tennessee Williams play.
“He sent me an email and I answered,” Skipper said in an email to SI.com on Monday. “I have done the occasional college show interview and made the occasional classroom visit. I think it is helpful in understanding what is going on with students, who are both a core group of fans and an essential group of our fans.
Among the topics covered during the 20-minute interview on the afternoon of May 1:
Skipper, on issue of standards versus ratings: “We are not willing to compromise our standards for ratings. That, of course, is why once or twice on several of our shows we have had to suspend somebody who we felt had compromised our standards relative to the way in which we do debate. We insist things not be personal. We insist that the discussion be consistent with our standards at the company. Our standards are inclusive and we believe in an environment where everyone has a chance to succeed. We don’t have any intention of compromising our standards. We are not looking for controversy but we are looking for provocation and smart provocation. So I know what you mean by balance and where are we willing to go and not go. We want to go to smart provocation. We are not interested in creating controversy. That is not the business we are in.”
Skipper, on the issue of retaining Bill Simmons: “Bill and I are friends and our preference would be to figure out challenging and interesting things for him to work on if he stays ... Bill and I have been talking, we keep talking and I hope to figure something out. I think that is his hope as well.”
Skipper, on the issue of having an ombudsman: “We have an ombudsman. Most of our critics work for companies who do not. I’ll be interested in seeing exactly what the ombudsman process at Deadspin is, for instance.”
On the issue of The Undefeated and editor Jason Whitlock, in no surprise to longtime ESPN observers, Skipper remained committed to the project and its lead editor. Said Skipper: “The site is still on track to launch this summer and we think we will ultimately answer the critics with a very high-quality site with smart writing.”
In an interview on Monday, Kaufman said he started searching the web for Skipper’s email a couple of weeks ago. He soon located email addresses for Skipper and former ESPN president George Bodenheimer, an alum of Denison. He emailed both, and while the Bodenheimer email bounced back immediately, Skipper responded that evening, saying his assistant would set something up. About a week later, Kaufman heard back from Skipper’s assistant saying that he had some time last Friday to record.
“I was nervous at first because he's the president of ESPN,” said Kaufman, who grew up in Highland Heights, Ohio, which sits on the east side of Cleveland. “But once we talked before the interview and once I got through the first question or two, I got more comfortable. I was still a bit nervous throughout because it's not like he has to answer any of my questions and I don't want to come across as unprofessional. I try and get one guest for each week's show but it is difficult because I'm the host, producer, guest booker and intern. I treat the show as my baby and it's great to think about how far I've come and how far it has come since I came to Denison and joined WDUB in the fall of 2013.
“There weren't really any ground rules discussed ahead of time. We chatted for a couple of minutes and he said he would talk for about 15-20 minutes. I lost track of time, which is why the interview ran over. That said, he let it go about five minutes longer than he wanted, which I'd like to believe means I did a good job. I send out a lot of emails to prospective guests knowing full well I won't hear back from most of them. I'm extremely grateful to anyone who is willing to talk with me.”
Kaufman said Skipper is the most well-known person he’s ever interviewed, though he did conduct an email interview with singer-songwriter Drake Bell.
At Denison, Kaufman is a busy student. He works for the school’s sports information department, where he broadcasts numerous campus sporting events. He’s also a staff writer for The Denisonian, the school’s student newspaper, and a member of the Denison Chamber Singers, who toured in Iceland over spring break. This summer he'll be interning with the Licking County Settlers, a collegiate baseball team located in Newark, Ohio.
Kaufman said he normally would have had his co-hosts with him—he hosts his sports show with Denison football players Drew Gray and Zach Neufeld—but they had weightlifting to do that day. Kaufman said the station does not have a separate recording studio with a phone line, so he used a USB microphone plugged into his laptop and called Skipper through Skype. The ESPN president mentioned before and during the interview that he has a fondness for the university because former Disney head Michael Eisner and Bodenheimer are alums.
“He had no qualms about answering my questions and was great to talk with,” Kaufman said. “The interview aired the following evening during my weekly sports talk show. It was my final show of the semester, so I'd like to think I'm ending the school year on a high note.”
THE NOISE REPORT
SI.com examines some of the week’s biggest sports media stories.
1. Interesting story to watch heading forward for the pay-per-view sports industry: The president of fight promoter Top Rank, Inc. told the L.A. Times that the company plans to pursue legal action following widespread piracy of Saturday's Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight on video-sharing smartphone apps and websites. Top Rank represents Pacquiao.
1a. Via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Here’s some examples of problems viewers had with pay-per view outages for the fight.
2. My Monday column had a number of items you might be interested in, including thoughts from ESPN and NFL Network executives on the NFL draft; the highest-rated TV cities for the Kentucky Derby and the draft; and Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston sending a message to ESPN.
3. Highly recommend the E:60 production of “WWE: Behind-The-Curtain” debuting Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN. It’s a one-hour documentary on the developmental road for WWE wrestlers, with interviews from many of the principals from pro wrestling.
3a. The excellent E:60 profile of Turner Sports host Ernie Johnson will re-air May 10 – first at 7a.m. ET on ESPN2, then at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN. Worth DVR-ing and watching later.
3b.60 Minutes Sports on Showtime will air a piece Wednesday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the problems China’s sports system is facing.
3c. Former NBA commissioner David Stern and ESPN reporter Shelley Smith are guests on We Need To Talk this week, which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network. The CBS Sports panelists are Allie LaForce, Andrea Kremer, Dara Torres and Lisa Leslie.
4. Golf.com’s Alan Shipnuck on the PGA Tour vs. golf blogger Stephanie Wei.
5. Respect that ESPN publicist Stephen McDonald updated his original post to add women to predictions from ESPN staffers on who would win the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight.
5b. The behind-the-scenes staffers who make SportsCenter go (producers, directors, stage managers, camera people, production assistants, researchers and assorted crew members) deserve mega-praise for pulling off what they did last week as the show aired from multiple sites across the country, including Chicago [NFL draft] and Las Vegas [Mayweather-Pacquo]. The amount of hard work exhibited by that group was impressive. Many on-air staffers distinguished themselves.
If you cover sports media, you’ve come to expect hubris from some at ESPN The Kremlin, including boasts that SportsCenter is better than its competitors. These kinds of tweets play well in-house and likely get you free dinners in West Hartford. It’s good in-office PR.
But where I feel awful, just awful, for the hard-working people behind the scenes at SportsCenter is that the dominant on-air figure for the show last week was Stephen A. Smith, a red-light happy hype man for Floyd Mayweather and, as Deadspin pointed out here with an eye-catching headline, the embodiment of a comments section men’s rights activist. Canada’s top sports columnist, Bruce Arthur, also weighed in, writing that Smith “prayed at Mayweather’s altar, even as Mayweather’s people banned [CNN’s Rachel] Nichols and [ESPN’s Michelle] Beadle from covering the fight.”
You don’t need Media Reports to inform you that First Take is loathsome and cynical theater, a profitable, noxious mix of ego and bluster. But at least it usually stays in its own box, like passing gas in your own bedroom. That wasn’t the case last week as Smith rode the Money Train on multiple SportsCenter segments, especially last Saturday as Beadle and Nichols were fighting an access battle. It’s been a cynical couple of weeks in Bristol, depressing as hell. Maybe May will be better. Man, it has to be.