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Despite its acclaim and notability, ESPN and its sister networks have been the targets of criticism for some of its programming, including 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.
ESPN has been accused of having a bias towards certain sports teams and a "love affair" with superstar players (such as Tim Tebow; Brett Favre; LeBron James; Kobe Bryant; Dwyane Wade; Jarvis Varnado; Johnny Manziel; Robert Griffin III; Peyton Manning; Tom Brady; Michael Vick; Michael Sam; Jason Collins; Derek Jeter; Alex Rodriguez; Yasiel Puig; Mike Trout; Danica Patrick; David Ortiz; Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy) along with teams (such as the Boston Red Sox; New York Yankees; Los Angeles Dodgers; Miami Heat; Los Angeles Lakers; Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim; Dallas Cowboys; New England Patriots; Denver Broncos; Washington Redskins; Pittsburgh Steelers; USC Trojans; North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils). ESPN's ombudsman, Le Anne Schreiber, responded to these criticisms by saying that the industry is ratings-driven.
Since MLB Network launched 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 teams, in particular. The most vocal comment was expressed by Heath Bell:
|“||I truly believe ESPN only cares about promoting the Red Sox and Yankees—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 and Yankees.||”|
On August 4, 2009, Dish Network sued ESPN for $1 million in a federal breach of contract lawsuit, alleging that the network violated the "Most Favored Nations" clause by not extending the same carriage terms that it provided to Comcast and DirecTV for ESPNU and ESPN Classic. On August 5, ESPN announced it would fight the lawsuit and stated in a press release that "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, the provider claimed that the change had nothing to do with the lawsuit. On June 22, 2010, ESPN majority owner The Walt Disney Company pulled the high definition feeds of ESPNews, Disney Channel, Disney XD and ABC Family from Dish Network's lineup, although the standard definition feeds of all four channels remained on the provider.
In August 2006, ESPN announced that ABC Sports would be fully integrated into ESPN, using the channel's graphics and music for its sports presentations, in addition to handling production responsibilities for the ABC sports telecasts. The brand integration does not directly affect whether either the ESPN network or ABC carries a particular event, as in most cases this is governed by contracts with the applicable league or organization. Perhaps confusingly, this resulted in some events being broadcast with ESPN branding during ABC coverage, even though another channel owns the cable rights – for example, TNT owned the cable television rights to The Open Championship from 2003 to 2009 (with ABC holding rights to broadcast weekend coverage), while IndyCar Series rights are currently split between ABC and NBCSN.
The last live sporting event televised under the ABC Sports banner was the U.S. Championship Game of the Little League World Series on August 26, 2006 (ABC was slated to carry the Little League World Series Championship Game on August 27, but the game was postponed to August 28 due to rain, and subsequently aired 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 alongside the ABC logo.
Despite the rebranding, George Bodenheimer's official title remained "President, ESPN Inc. and ABC Sports" until his retirement at the end of 2011, upon which the "ABC Sports" portion of the title was retired. 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. ABC-affiliated stations owned by Hearst Television (such as WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh; WCVB-TV in Boston; WMUR-TV in Manchester, New Hampshire; WISN-TV in Milwaukee and KMBC-TV in Kansas City) have the right of first refusal over the local simulcasts of ESPN-televised Monday Night Football games involving teams within their home market, which are very rarely waived to other local stations in their market areas. Equally, other Hearst-owned stations affiliated with other networks (such as NBC affiliate WBAL-TV in Baltimore) have been able to air NFL games from ESPN for the same reason.[dead link]
ESPN has been criticized for decreasing the amount of sports broadcasts on ABC, especially during the summer months. One such example is NASCAR: from 2007 to 2009, ABC aired all of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup races, along with the penultimate race to the chase. Since 2010, ABC has only broadcast three Sprint Cup races with only one Chase race (held in Charlotte, North Carolina) to the outrage of many NASCAR fans and sponsors. Several other events such as the Rose Bowl, the Capital One Bowl and The Open Championship, have also been moved from ABC to ESPN. This, however, is not entirely the fault of ESPN, as ABC in general has attracted a primarily female viewership in recent years, with sports largely attracting a male-dominated audience.
Under NFL broadcasting rules, game telecasts aired on cable must be simulcast on broadcast television in the local markets of the teams playing, though the game cannot be televised in the market of the home team if it does not sell out tickets 72 hours before the time of 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.
Dave O'Brien joined Marcelo Balboa on the primary broadcast team for the 2006 FIFA World Cup coverage on ESPN and ABC Sports, despite having no experience calling soccer matches prior to that year. Because The Walt Disney Company, owner of both television outlets, retained control over on-air talent, the appointment of O'Brien as the main play-by-play voice was made over the objections of Soccer United Marketing, which wanted JP Dellacamera to continue in that role. Disney stated that its 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. Mispronunciation and incorrect addressing of names, misuse of soccer terminology, and lack of insight into tactics and history plagued the telecasts, resulting in heavy criticism from English-speaking soccer fans, many of whom ended up watching the games on Univision instead.
Some Arena Football League fans complained that ESPN's 2007 and 2008 game broadcast schedules "inequitably favors teams" such as the Philadelphia Soul, Chicago Rush and Colorado Crush, teams whose ownerships respectively include Jon Bon Jovi, Mike Ditka and John Elway. 14 of the 17 ESPN games featured at least one of the three teams playing in the broadcasts. The Soul (whose part-owner and team president is former AFL on ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski) appeared in seven of the 17 regular season games aired on ESPN platforms, more than any other team in the league. This criticism was also present when NBC opted to not let certain teams appear on their schedule. In 2008, the Chicago Rush had nine regular season games on ESPN and ABC, while the 2007 Arena Bowl Champion San Jose SaberCats appeared in just one – a Week 1 game against the Rush; and the New York Dragons appeared in one broadcast, a 10:30 p.m. game versus the Crush. Other criticism includes the scheduling of games on various days and times, as opposed to a weekly AFL gameday.
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In 2006, former San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds starred in Bonds on Bonds, a 10-part reality series that aired on ESPN. At the time, Bonds was mired in allegations of steroid use during his Major League Baseball career. ESPN was criticized[by whom?] for allowing Bonds such a one-sided public pulpit, as it 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 public relations 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 2007 Subway 500 from Martinsville Speedway was not shown on ABC owned-and-operated station KABC-TV in Los Angeles (owned by ESPN co-parent The Walt Disney Company) on October 21 due to coverage of a series of wildfires that affected Southern California, specifically the Buckweed fire in Santa Clarita and the Canyon Fire in Malibu. The race was instead shown on its second digital subchannel (branded as "ABC7+"), which was not available on satellite providers or on select cable providers in the area.
Several stations chose to pre-empt NASCAR Countdown to carry their local newscasts. KABC pre-empted the pre-race program before every Saturday night race, and as well as before the 2007 Ford 400, which was held on a Sunday afternoon, to air an episode of the Disney Channel series The Suite Life of Zack & Cody from the network's ABC Kids block to fulfill E/I programming requirements enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. ABC affiliates WPLG in Miami, Florida and KSAT-TV in San Antonio, Texas also pre-empted NASCAR Countdown at least once during the 2007 NASCAR season.
KTKA in Topeka, Kansas (located about 60 miles (97 km) from Emporia, the hometown of NASCAR Cup driver (and 2007 Chase participant) Clint Bowyer) broke away from ABC's coverage of the 2007 Bank of America 500 early on October 13 to air its nightly 10:00 p.m. newscast and did not resume its broadcast of the race. 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 (such as those aired on WSB-TV in Atlanta and WSOC-TV in Charlotte) to stations airing coverage of the Big 12 Men's Basketball Tournament at the time of the race (such as with KLKN in Lincoln, Nebraska; where the race moved to an ESPN2 alternate feed, which is normally used when syndication exclusivity rules force an ESPN blackout). In addition, ABC's New York City owned-and-operated station WABC-TV 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 were forced to watch the finish of the race on Lap 284 on ESPN2 as ABC ended its broadcast of the race to air America's Funniest Home Videos at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Time, while the network continued the race to its conclusion (ending at 313 laps) in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones.
Some complaints regarding ESPN have concerned the promotion, or perceived lack thereof, of NBA telecasts. The 2003 NBA Finals received very little significant promotion on ABC or corporate partner ESPN; while subsequent Finals were promoted more often on both networks, NBA-related advertisements on ABC were still significantly fewer compared to 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 timeframe between 9:00 and 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time during that week.
ESPN's studio team was generally more criticized than praised. After the Pacers–Pistons brawl in November 2004, ESPN's studio team came under severe criticism, both by the media and by the network itself for their stance regarding the actions of Indiana Pacers player 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.||”|
On July 8, 2010, basketball player LeBron James announced on a live, one-hour ESPN special that he would leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join the Miami Heat, beginning with the 2010–11 season. In exchange for the exclusive rights to air the special, ESPN agreed to hand over its advertising and airtime 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.
ESPN suspended analyst Dan Le Batard for purchasing billboard signs in Akron, Ohio after Lebron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July 2014, which said "You're Welcome, Lebron. Love, Miami". 
ESPN is often accused of having a bias towards certain college basketball teams, including those in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), particularly the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels. ESPN maintains a broadcast rights agreement with the ACC that runs through the 2026-27 season, which provides additional football, men's and women's basketball and Olympic sports coverage on a variety of platforms, suggesting that the bias may have a financial motivation.
Dick Vitale is often criticized for being a "homer" for Duke, especially for Coach Mike Krzyzewski, as well as most teams within the ACC. He is also known for mentioning Duke frequently during broadcasts, even when the Blue Devils are not playing. Temple University head coach John Chaney once said "You can't get Dick Vitale to say 15 words without Duke coming out of his mouth". Vitale is sometimes 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 ACC in general, including Duke's rival, North Carolina.
On July 14, 2003, ESPN announced that conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh would join Sunday NFL Countdown as a commentator for the 2003 NFL season, beginning with the season's first Countdown telecast 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 Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb:
|“||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.||”|
On October 2, 2003, less than one week after he made the comment and following the controversy that resulted, Limbaugh resigned from ESPN.
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 had not addressed the issue publicly, and since no criminal charges had been filed, there was 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. ESPN began reporting on the story on July 23, 2009; one month later on August 18, ESPN released a column on its website explaining the network's decision.
ESPN currently charges the highest retransmission consent fee of any major cable television network in the United States. The main channel alone carries a monthly rate of $4.69 per subscriber (nearly five times the price of the next-costliest channel, TNT), with ESPN's other English language channels costing an additional $1.13 per subscriber; these prices rise on a nearly constant basis. Part of the cause of this high fee is the amount of money that 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 providers condemned ESPN's most recent contract extension with the NFL and have contemplated moving the network to a higher programming tier to mitigate cost increases.
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 MMA fighting 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 former ESPN program Jim Rome is Burning however, often defends the sport and featured fighters as guests.
Some MMA fans feel that the influence of ESPN's corporate parent The Walt Disney Company (both due to not having broadcast rights and due to 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 aired in a late Friday night (1:00 a.m. Eastern Time) timeslot that many MMA fans feel is inadequate, and is often prone to preemptions due to live programming. After the UFC signed a television rights deal with rival Fox Sports, UFC president Dana White lashed out at ESPN following the cancellation of an appearance for an interview promoting the UFC 134 event.
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 Ken Harrelson (commonly known as "the Hawk") called Jay Mariotti "the biggest sports fraud," adding that he had never seen him in the White Sox clubhouse. 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, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillén 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. ESPN ombudsman LeAnne Schreiber criticized him for being so "absolute" in his arguments and for yelling too much on-air. According to sources at ESPN, criticism of 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 Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets player Eddie Johnson was facing criminal charges. Bayless has also been well known for his constant praise of Tim Tebow, while he has constantly criticized LeBron James and Aaron Rodgers.
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 African American), 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 in a September 2006 article in The Kansas City Star that he was fired from the network 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 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 an 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 the 8.7 magnitude earthquake that hit in February of that year. He began 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."
The December 13, 2012 edition of ESPN First Take featured a discussion on an answer that quarterback Robert Griffin III gave to a reporter's question at a December 12 Washington Redskins press conference, in which Griffin was asked about his race and being a quarterback in the NFL. Griffin stated, among other things: ""For me, you don't ever want to be defined by the color of your skin," Griffin said. "You want to be defined by your work ethic, the person that you are, your character, your personality. That's what I strive [for]. I am an African American, in America, and that will never change. But I don't have to be defined by that." When this topic was brought up on First Take, analyst Rob Parker stated this when asked, 'What does this say about RGIII?":
|“||This is an interesting topic. For me, personally, just me, this throws up a red flag, what I keep hearing. And I don't know who's asking the questions, but we've heard a couple of times now of a black guy kind of distancing himself away from black people. I understand the whole story of I just want to be the best. Nobody's out on the field saying to themselves, "I want to be the best black quarterback." You're just playing football, right? You want to be the best, you want to throw the most touchdowns and have the most yards and win the most games. Nobody is [thinking] that. "But time and time we keep hearing this, so it just makes me wonder deeper about him. And I've talked to some people down in Washington D.C., friends of mine, who are around and at some of the press conferences, people I've known for a long time. But my question, which is just a straight honest question: Is he a brother, or is he a cornball brother?||”|
Parker then proceeded to state that he was not sure if Griffin was "down with the cause."
Other participants continued the conversation by asking Parker for further explanation:
Skip Bayless then asked Parker about RGIII's braids. "Now that's different," Parker said. "To me, that's very urban and makes you feel like…wearing braids, you're a brother. You're a brother if you've got braids on."
Later, Parker was given an opportunity to clarify whether he was judging Griffin's blackness. "I didn't mean it like that," he said. "We could sit here and be honest, or we can be dishonest. And you can't tell me that people in the barbershops or people that talk, they look at who your spouse is. They do. And they look at how you present yourself. People will say all the time, you're not gonna get a job in corporate America wearing those braids. It happens all the time. Let's not act like it doesn't, because it does." Later that day, ESPN spokesman Mike Soltys said that Parker's comments "were inappropriate and we are evaluating our next steps." The following day, ESPN announced that Parker had been suspended "until further notice"; on December 20, 2012, the network announced that Parker would be suspended for 30 days.
Retired 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 Atlantic Coast Conference in general, including Duke's rival, North Carolina.
On July 25, 2006, Harold Reynolds was fired from ESPN. An 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 backstabbed him during an interview on The Dan Patrick Show on August 15, 2006. His response generated more criticism from the 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 Dallas 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, ESPN announced that Kornheiser would be suspended from Pardon the Interruption for two weeks for comments that he made on the way SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm dressed. He later apologized for his comments.
In the fall of 2006, Sean Salisbury was suspended by ESPN for one week, allegedly for indecent exposure. The suspension was confirmed in a January 19, 2007 New York Post column by Phil Mushnick. 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 network. On February 26, 2008, ESPN announced that Salisbury's contract with the network was not renewed. 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."
In 2007, ESPNU commentator Brian Kinchen 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 ESPN production assistant. Phillips was fired by the network four days later following the admission. Marni Phillips, with whom he had been married for 19 years, filed for divorce on September 2, 2009.
On October 24, 2009, Bob Griese provided color commentary for the University of Minnesota-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.
In 2010, play-by-play announcer Craig James' son Adam, a redshirt sophomore receiver for the Texas Tech Red Raiders at the time, 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 removed Craig James from announcing the Alamo Bowl with Mike Patrick. 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 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?" About 30 minutes after the comment was broadcast, Millen made an on-air apology for the comment, stating that – despite the use of the derogatory term – his comments were not meant to offend people of Polish descent and reflected his "great," "playful" relationship with Jaworski.
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 ten-year period 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" – a literal statement as Olbermann has six lumbar vertebrae, instead of the normal five. In 2004, ESPN famously snubbed Olbermann from the guest lineup of its 25th anniversary SportsCenter "Reunion Week," which saw former show 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. Olbermann returned to ESPN as host of a commentary and analysis program, Olbermann, which debuted in 2013 and is taped out of the network's New York City production facilities.
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, Freeman writes that Tirico was suspended by the network for three 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 American League Championship Series 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 part of the accounts 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.
Stuart Scott was part of an anchoring duo on SportsCenter with Rich Eisen, which made both famous. Scott's use of non-standard English elevated his profile as a sports broadcaster, but also made him the target of criticism. His 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 Indy Racing League (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 Stafford Motor Speedway owner Jack Arute, Sr., 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 female racer Danica Patrick, who started and finished 4th, led 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 that 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 when she co-anchored a live ESPNews broadcast on March 9, 2006. A series of technical difficulties occurred, leading ESPN to air a taped segment played. Thinking that 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 analyst on 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 that were 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 would miss fewer Boston Red Sox games; JP Dellacamera took 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 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; ESPN then 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 that occurred the following day. Franklin apologized for his remarks the following Monday and said he deserved to be pulled from the Fiesta Bowl. ESPN subsequently 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 in 2005, Franklin had an incident with another female sideline reporter during a college football game between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. 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."
On a February 18, 2012 ESPNews broadcast, anchor Max Bretos used the term "chink in the armor" (the word "chink" also refers to a racial slur towards people of Asian descent) in reference to New York Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin, who is Chinese. Bretos received a 30-day suspension by ESPN. Bretos apologized on Twitter, saying "my wife is Asian, would never intentionally say anything to disrespect her and that community". The day prior, ESPN had also used "Chink in the Armor" on its mobile website, as a headline for a story on the nine turnovers that Lin had in the Knicks' loss to the New Orleans Hornets. The headline was removed 35 minutes later; ESPN subsequently apologized, and fired the employee who posted the headline.
In April 2013, Chris Broussard came under fire for comments that he made on an ESPN Outside the Lines program about NBA player Jason Collins coming out as gay. Broussard had expressed his religious views on homosexuality and other sexual behaviors he characterized as sins, stating "If you're openly living in unrepentant sin...I believe that's walking in open rebellion to God."
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 website's 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, resulting in the site being knocked offline 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 Washington Redskins fans who had 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 on 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 management at Pittsburgh ESPN Radio station WEAE, Madden backtracked. On May 26, 2008, WEAE announced that Madden was suspended from his radio show. His last appearance on the station was on May 22, 2008.
On January 18, 2010, Mike Greenberg had a controversial slip of tongue on his daily ESPN Radio program Mike & Mike in the Morning by referring to Martin Luther King Jr. as "Martin Luther Coon King Jr."
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 the sexual assault allegations against Bryant in 2003 (the night when news of the accusations 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 2003 (a phone call that started one of O'Neal and Bryant's worst disagreements). Some also found Gray's interview with maligned baseball player Barry Bonds in 2006 to be too soft. Gray is also notorious for giving an interview to Pete Rose that Rose himself referred to as "a prosecutor's brief."
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 that Sébastien Foucan, 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.
The book Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN notes that Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly told ESPN President George Bodenheimer in reference to an ESPN-branded Samsung flip-phone released in 2006, "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 (which launched in August 2011) 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 writer 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."
Through the show's success, ESPN First Take has also experienced substantial controversy and faced increasing criticism. The show was criticized for what is perceived by many as its excessive coverage of the career of Tim Tebow. During his tenure with the New York Jets, in which he did not start in a game, Tebow was nonetheless often a leading topic.
As Miami Heat forward LeBron James began a series of playoff appearances with the Cleveland Cavaliers, host Skip Bayless became well known for his belief that James had been overrated by the media and not received enough criticism for his team's playoff failures. Bayless has himself been criticized by fans as well as members of the media for exaggerating James' failures and diminishing his successes. In an exchange with Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Cuban argued that Bayless had reduced his analysis of the 2011 and 2012 NBA Finals series to subjective assessments of player psyche rather than relying on objective analysis based on the schematic principles used by the teams in each series.
The show has also received criticism for its treatment of issues of race. During a December 2012 discussion regarding Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and his commenting that he did not wish to be perceived solely as a black quarterback, frequent guest Rob Parker asked whether Griffin III was a "brother" or a "cornball brother." When pressed by host Cari Champion on what he meant, he mentioned that Griffin III had a white fiance and questioned whether he was a Republican. Parker, though, acknowledged that he did not have any information substantiating that claim. In response, Bayless asked whether Griffin III's braids did anything to assuage his concerns. To many, this exchange was part of a larger trend of the nature of the treatment of issues of race by the show.
"Who's Now" was a daily series that 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's research department selected 32 finalists to square off in a single-elimination bracket. The show received more than 5 million votes on ESPN.com; during the August 5, 2007 broadcast, professional golfer Tiger Woods was the revealed as 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.