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ESPN’s Year From Hell

The year 2017 was, in the words of esteemed former ESPN anchor Bob Ley, an “annus horribilis” at the company. The news this year isn’t just bad, it’s incredibly weird.

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Back in 2018, I had dinner with Bob Ley. Ley was the host of ESPN’s Outside the Lines. He was a figure of fatherly rectitude inside the network. And he had just survived the craziest year in ESPN’s history.

What was 2017 like? I asked him over pasta.

“What’d the Queen say—‘annus horribilis’?” said Ley, reaching for a very Bob-like reference. “I think Elizabeth nailed it.”

In other words, ESPN had just been through a Year From Hell.

I got to thinking about that conversation on Thursday night. Maybe it was because I’d seen ESPN’s latest sports Emmys humiliation in a media newsletter alongside a list of depressing stories about layoffs across the industry. Maybe I’d just rewatched the clip of Charles Barkley saying he would have punched Aaron Rodgers if Rodgers had made the seedy implications about Barkley that he made about Jimmy Kimmel on The Pat McAfee Show.

The news about ESPN isn’t just bad. It’s bad and weird. Its badness and weirdness have become a topic of national conversation outside the usual precincts of Curtis and Marchand and Deitsch and Strauss and Draper. ESPN is having its second Year From Hell.

Before plunging into the current Year From Hell, it’s worth remembering just how grim 2017 was in Bristol. ESPN could have made a really great 30 for 30 about the year. When I talked to ESPN employees in 2018, even the true believers, I found their emotional state was somewhere between worn out and depressed.

By far the biggest crisis of 2017 was the Trump White House’s attack on ESPN after SportsCenter host Jemele Hill called Trump a white supremacist on Twitter. Trump’s press secretary called for Hill’s firing. The president himself tweeted about ESPN’s politics. Hill was later suspended for tweeting about a potential boycott of the Dallas Cowboys, whose owner, Jerry Jones, opposed his players’ practice of kneeling during the national anthem. Then Trump tweeted about Hill. Hill would come to feel, correctly, that ESPN president John Skipper hadn’t stood up for her.

The same year, Skipper signed Dan “Big Cat” Katz and Eric “PFT Commenter” Sollenberger to host an ESPN show called Barstool Van Talk. Imagine that: the network chasing after young viewers it was afraid were slipping away. The day before the first episode of Van Talk aired, ESPN NFL host Samantha Ponder criticized Katz and Barstool on Twitter, an incident of “talent-on-talent crime” that was left out of this week’s litany. Van Talk was canceled before its second episode.

ESPN’s first Year From Hell included incidents that would feel like they were made up if not for the Awful Announcing links. After the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that August, ESPN took a play-by-play announcer named Robert Lee off the call of a University of Virginia football game, the network explained, “simply because of the coincidence of his name.” The same month, ESPN apologized after its NFL fantasy draft reminded some viewers of a human slave auction.

In December, Skipper, who molded ESPN in his own words-loving, counterculture-adjacent image, shocked everybody by abruptly resigning. Skipper later admitted he had used cocaine and that “someone from whom I bought cocaine attempted to extort me.” That brought 2017 to a close.

The next year, Disney picked Jimmy Pitaro to replace Skipper as president. Part of Pitaro’s job was to end the day-to-day craziness of the late Skipper era. During Pitaro’s first year on the job, he kept a low profile. My favorite story: An ESPN host warmly greeted a man he mistook for Pitaro at the company’s New York headquarters. The host was later informed that he had been talking to Jonathan Givony, the network’s NBA draft analyst.

Pitaro’s low-profile managerial style worked to a point. In 2018, after a meeting with Pitaro, Hill got what she wanted: her release from ESPN. In 2021, Dan Le Batard and friends left the company and took their podcast feed with them. Pitaro’s style was to squash any controversies quietly and internally, to quote an ESPN press release from last week.

Over the last week and a half, ESPN has had the most external set of nightmares imaginable. These aren’t the usual backroom intrigues. Everything has played out on air or on a podcast.

The first round of ESPN crises—Rodgers’s insult, Kimmel’s response, executive Norby Williamson’s national becoming, McAfee’s photo with executive Burke Magnus, Rodgers’s non-apology and COVID-misinformation rabbit hole (no offense to rabbit holes)—became national news during a busy week of the football calendar when three legendary coaches left their longtime homes.

Consider what has happened at ESPN just since Tuesday, when Rodgers and McAfee signed off after one of the strangest and worst TV segments in ESPN history. On Wednesday, McAfee announced that Rodgers was off the show for the rest of the NFL season. McAfee admitted he was relieved to step out of the Rodgers-created—and ESPN-abetted—maelstrom. The next day, Rodgers was back on The Pat McAfee Show—a clear sign that McAfee, not Pitaro, is in charge of the rundown. (ESPN licenses the show from McAfee.)

On Wednesday night, Stephen A. Smith used his non-ESPN podcast to pepper Jason Whitlock with insults and recount stories about their years together at ESPN a decade ago. In a quieter time, the pod would have been held up as one of the most remarkable monologues ever delivered by an ESPN host. It played on media Twitter for only one night.

On Thursday, ESPN’s second Year From Hell achieved the quality of strangeness that made 2017 so memorable. The Athletic’s Katie Strang reported that ESPN executives had engaged in a scheme involving the sports Emmys. Nobody cares about sports Emmys outside of the industry; everybody cares about them inside of it. According to Strang, ESPN employees submitted the names of phony personnel (“Kirk Henry” instead of Kirk Herbstreit, “Lee Clark” instead of Lee Corso) so that on-camera talent could get a physical Emmy statuette they didn’t qualify for under the rules. ESPN just changed the nameplates on the awards.

Comparing Years From Hell is as tricky as comparing players from different eras. There’s nothing quite as strange and horrible—least of all for Jemele Hill—than having the president of the United States sic himself and his supporters on you.

What’s unique about this year’s nightmares is that they emerged directly from ESPN’s bigger, existential nightmare: irrelevance. I’d argue that Smith and McAfee, probably in that order, have more creative license than any hosts in the history of the network. They have that license because they don’t need ESPN. And they have it because ESPN is trying to figure out its streaming future, and thinks they ought to be part of it, and therefore won’t or can’t tell them what to do. Pitaro is a player’s coach who’s trying to be a wartime consigliere.

To capture the full measure of ESPN’s second Year From Hell, we could backdate the year 12 months, like sportswriters used to do with the Tiger Slam. That would allow us to include last spring’s and summer’s layoffs, Smith’s fundraising for Chris Christie’s now-defunct campaign, Sage Steele’s lawsuit and departure, the departure of executive Lee Fitting (now with WWE), and McAfee wondering aloud whether he should leave College GameDay.

After the last week and a half, manipulating the calendar seems unnecessary. The best evidence that ESPN is embarking on another Year From Hell? It’s only January 12.