The Times ESPN Created Controversy Out Of Thin Air
ESPN is one of the (if not THE) most popular sports coverage networks, a position it has fought for aggressively over the course of its 35+ year history. But that much history comes with a heavy dose of baggage, and ESPN is no stranger to controversy.
The network has been accused of everything from blatant bias and favoritism to numerous conflicts of interest, and sometimes it can seem like a sportscaster getting canned over an awkward hot mic situation is one of those annual traditions we should just expect, like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Maybe the network tagline should be “ESPN: Creating Controversy Out Of Thin Air Since 1979.” It wouldn’t be that far-fetched. Let’s take a look at 12 times the embattled network sports analysis empire did just that.
#12 That Time They Tried Covering Soccer And Hilariously Failed
When ESPN teamed up with ABC Sports to cover the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the network replaced longtime play-by-play voice JP Dellacamera with sportscaster Dave O’Brien, who they thought would be more relatable to Americans who don’t regularly follow soccer (sorry, “football”). The problem is, O’Brien didn’t know anything about soccer, mispronounced player names, completely botched soccer terminology and basically proved that he knows next to nothing about how the game is played or covered. English-speaking soccer fans thought it was so bad, they switched to Univision. Afterwards, ESPN was heavily criticized for the tone-deaf decision.
#11 That Time They Gave A Reality Show To A Disgraced Baseball Player
Also in 2006, ESPN aired a 10-part reality series starring former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds. Sounds pretty cool, except that Bonds was right at the height of bad press and accusations that he had used steroids during his MLB career. ESPN was heavily criticized for essentially handing Bonds a platform to make a one-sided case for what a solid dude he is, basically turning in their journalism card for a PR one.
ESPN claimed that the show was going to be fair and balanced, but Bonds demanded so much creative control that they ultimately had to cancel the show. Whoops.
This wasn’t the only time ESPN would hand a platform to a celebrity athlete with no strings. Check entry #9 on the list.
#10 That Time They Basically Created Tim Tebow
ESPN has been criticized time and time again for showing favoritism towards teams and individual players, and that has never been more apparent than with the controversy that is Tim Tebow. Tebow was the subject of a strange infatuation on ESPN’s part. The network followed him obsessively, and well past the point his 15 minutes had fizzled. They basically created Tim Tebow, or at least the public image of him we all know.
Don’t believe us? Former ESPN sportscaster Doug Gottlieb confessed that the network’s obsession with Tebow was approaching “Single White Female” levels. Is it ridiculous how much you have to talk about Tebow? Yeah! But for whatever reason people can’t get enough of that story, and they kind of stoke the fire—that’s kind of what ESPN does,” he said.
Author Jim Miller agreed. “They want to own the Tebow story,” he said. “They want to put their watermark on it.”
#9 That Time They Worked For LeBron James
In 2010, basketball player LeBron James revealed his decision to leave the Cavs for the Miami Heat in a live, one-hour ESPN special that was actually called “The Decision.” ESPN wanted exclusive rights, which James agreed to … as long as he got to basically run the show and handle all the advertising. It all ended with an extended interview conducted by someone planted by James’ marketing team.
If this all seems pretty unseemly, remember that ESPN is a JOURNALISM network, and pay-to-play in journalism is kind of a no-no. Buying influence and special favors? Telling a one-sided story? Also no-nos. The network was extensively and vehemently criticized for ethics violations and essentially shilling for James.
This wouldn’t be the last time ESPN would trade in its journalism card for money. Skip to slide #7.
#8 That Time They Hired Rush Limbaugh
If you’ve never heard of Rush Limbaugh, you’re probably better off for it. He’s a super controversial political radio talk show host, and for some reason, that sounded like exactly the kind of guy ESPN wanted to help host “Sunday NFL Countdown” in 2003. He was brought in specifically to incite controversy and get the other commentators debating.
Problem is, Limbaugh likes to incite controversy with racism. Referring to Philly Eagles QB Donovan McNabb, he said:
“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.”
A week later, Limbaugh was pushed to resign.
#7 That Time They Took $15 Billion In Hush Money From The NFL
ESPN took $15 billion (yeah, with a “b”) from the NFL in a 2011 deal. That much money is sure to raise a few eyebrows, and several media organizations called ESPN out, citing potential conflicts of interest that could stem from the deal. The NFL has its own fair share of controversies and scandals, so the idea is, if they “own” the biggest sports network on the planet, they can kind of tell the story they want to tell (or not tell, as the case may be).
Since the deal, various media outlets have accused ESPN of downplaying stories that are unfavorable to NFL owners, including crimes and sex scandals. Additionally, the network has an oddly pro-NFL bias when it comes to union issues and player strikes.
And it only gets worse …
#6 That Time They Buried An Important Documentary
If you’re like most of the world, you’re probably a little confused by the recent concern over player concussions. Well sure, they’re football players, they get concussions, right? The problem is, the extent to which repeated brain damage kind of ruins your life hasn’t been discussed much by the leading sports networks.
That was all supposed to change with the PBS Frontline documentary “League of Denial” in 2013, produced in partnership with ESPN. The doc was an expose on the history of players and devastating head injuries in the NFL. Upon hearing of the doc, the NFL called a meeting with ESPN and shortly thereafter, ESPN terminated its relationship with PBS.
They say the meeting with league commissioner Roger Goodell had nothing to do with the dissolution of the relationship.
#5 That Time They Used “Deflategate” To Get You To Ignore Something Worse
Everyone has opinions about “Deflategate,” and we’re not going to get into that here (although you’re welcome to in the comments). Consider, though, that within the first year of the Deflategate story breaking, ESPN had done over 800 stories about it.
Now, consider that in the same amount of time, Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam was under FBI investigation for running a Ponzi Scheme and defrauding customers through his convenience store chain to the tune of millions of dollars. ESPN only did 23 stories on that scandal. You tell me which is more newsworthy, and whether ESPN’s relationship with the NFL had anything to do with the discrepancy.
#4 That Time They Canned Two Dudes For Asking Too Many Questions
ESPN sometimes acts like the mafia, though instead of making you disappear literally (like, from life) they just make you disappear from their network with no explanation.
In 2015, after an embattled couple of years facing accusations of a conflict of interest with the NFL, favoritism, and myriad other scandals and controversies, ESPN commentators Keith Olbermann and Bill Simmons made the career-ending mistake of criticizing the league and its top boss, Roger Goodell.
You might have thought that the 2015 Monday Night Football schedule on ESPN sucked. Insiders believe that was payback for Olbermann and Simmons going off-script. Later that year, ESPN canned the two commentators.
#3 That Time “First Take” Got Super Racist
“ESPN First Take” is one of the network’s most popular original programs, but it’s also a gigantic magnet for controversy and criticism. A frequent theme in that criticism is how the show handles race.
Rock bottom came during a 2012 program where the hosts discussed Washington Redskins QB Robert Griffin III. Griffin had commented earlier that he wanted journalists and commentators to look past the color of his skin (he’s black). Guest Rob Parker started on a pretty racist line of questioning, asking if Griffin was a “cornball brother,” seemingly mocked the QB for having a white fiance, and suggested that the player was a closet Republican.
This exchange is frequently cited by critics of the show as a prime example of its insensitivity to racial issues, and amazingly, the show just keeps getting worse somehow.
#2 That Time They Conducted An Unscientific And Worthless Poll
“Sportscenter” had a segment every day called “Who’s Now” in the summer of 2007 which, in theory, allowed fans to get in on the fun and help the commentators select the number one sports star of all time.
The criteria were seemingly simple — you had to consider both the individual’s athletic performance (i.e., how well they did their actual job) and the public celebrity they enjoyed (the other stuff that’s not as important as we make it out to be).
Though the segment brought in over 5 million votes from viewers and featured a highly-publicized bracket challenge for the 32 finalists, many fans and journalists said the whole affair was pointless and stupid. How do you compare the athleticism of Michael Jordan to someone like Babe Ruth, or even Tiger Woods?
Tiger Woods won by the way.
#1 That Time They Gave Caitlyn Jenner An Award
If you want to court controversy, find a Kardashian.
In 2015, ESPN announced Caitlyn Jenner as the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award, and the entire world lost its collective mind. Criticism from fans online was directed at the political statement ESPN was making on the heels of Jenner’s announcement, while some members of the media accused the network of exploitation.
Additionally, commentators pointed out that there were a plethora of other contenders who were “more deserving” of the award that year, including college basketball player Lauren Hill (who continued to play despite immense pain from a brain tumor that was killing her) or Noah Galloway, a double amputee Iraq War vet, but nevertheless extreme sports competitor and “Dancing with the Stars” finalist.
An old saying in journalism goes, “report the story, don’t become a part of it.” In ESPN’s case, it finds itself in the headlines for scandal more often than it reports on them.
Look, nobody is perfect, no network is going to get it 100 percent all the time, and we’re not even trying to argue that ESPN is the only network that has this many skeletons in its closet. But you still have to wonder how the bosses behind ESPN seem to get it so wrong so often. Heck, they even seem to be ramping up in recent years.
Whether we’re talking about a relationship with the NFL that’s a little too cozy or commentators who run their mouths a bit too much, ESPN is unlikely to stop being a source of controversy (and entertainment) in the near future.