One of the main stories breaking on the opening day of College Football is the departure of ESPN's longest tenured College Football writer, Bruce Feldman. Bruce will be fine; he has accepted an offer to join CBSSports. He will be appearing on CBS's pregame and postgame TV coverage, starting tonight (on CBS's college sports network) and his first column for CBSSports.com has just posted. The wider significance of this move stems from a couple of days from this past July; some of you may recall that ESPN had suddenly suspended Bruce for having co-authored a book with Mike Leach, after having received prior approval from the network for participating in that project. Or they didn't suspend him, but did take him off of his assignments. After a couple of days of shaming from the College Football blogosphere as well as many of the national CFB writers, ESPN relented, but did not forget, as Bruce told Dan Patrick of his ensuing contract negotiation.
Feldman said his contract was up and an executive at ESPN questioned his "credibility." They at first offered him three years and a raise. Then they changed it to one year and no raise.
"If you’re a problem for them, you can’t exist in that world," Feldman said. He said when your employers aren’t truthful … "it’s a problem."
Specifically, the three-year offer came before July's drama, with the change to one-year coming after the suspension (and Feldman making a fool out of one of ESPN's execs during the disciplinary conference call).
... Vince Doria, he got all bent out of shape, and the word he used was "credibility." He said I had credibility issues. I'm going, wait a minute, you guys put Craig James on the air. You're talking about my credibility?
A week later, I'm in Bristol and the three-year extension and raise became a one-year deal with no raise. Something changed. There was some kind of disciplinary action.
With his employment with ESPN over as of last night, Feldman was on Dan Patrick's radio show this morning to talk about his time with ESPN - an appearance that produced the above quotes, and those to follow - but specifically the shenanigans that the network was engaging in regarding the Leach/Craig James situation. SBNation has a transcript of the interview. There are plenty of blows launched against tWWL there, particularly relating to the hypocrisy of the network, taking advantage of Bruce's access with Leach, and then later attacking him because of it.
ESPN approved me doing the book with Mike Leach. They had benefited from my access, asked me to come on SportsCenter the day Leach was fired. I said, "I want to be clear, you identify me as writing a book with Mike Leach, not about Mike Leach."
They said yes and I did several SportsCenter hits that day. They asked for my help to set up a Leach interview after he had been fired. I knew that Leach was gonna sue them, in the spring of 2010, at that point he'd gotten the documentation and they had under-oath depositions with Craig James, which are all in the back of the book for the readers to see. It's record.
When I had went to my bosses at ESPN Magazine, up the food chain, they were clear on it. They knew what was gonna be in the book. They knew there was gonna be a lawsuit. Six months before the book went to print, I talked to ESPN's lawyers. So when it came out in mid-July and Norby and Vince or whoever got really angry, they shouldn't have been surprised.
Yep, when Texas Tech fired Mike Leach because of accusations leveled by one of ESPN's on-air "talent" (a word I use with tongue firmly in cheek in referring to Craig James) and fueled by their television coverage, they used the information and insights that Feldman had gained from collaborating with Leach to explain the situation to SportsCenter viewers, and later used him to attempt to get an interview. He gave the network and its counsel a heads up that Leach was going to sue them after seeing the documentation that Leach had gathered against the network, and still network executives were 'shocked' over the book's publication.The day after Feldman's suspension came to light, ESPN announced that he had never been suspended, and that his duties at the network had been restored. As contradictory as those two statements sounded at the time, Bruce's recollections of that week and the final weeks of his tenure at ESPN that followed shows both to have been lies.
I was told I couldn't tweet, don't do any radio, don't blog, the SEC Media event was the following week, which I'd already registered for and booked my travel to Alabama, was told you cannot go to that ... The day after the conference call, when ESPN put out that "He didn't get suspended, but he's resuming his duties" press release, that day, the editor-in-chief of ESPN Magazine Chad Millman put out even more restrictions on me.
They also put out a do-not-book notice to their talent produces. They basically stopped me from being able to do my job.
As well as those initial restrictions on his job and the change to his contract extension offer described earlier, the restrictions continued after the time that ESPN told the public that Feldman had resumed his duties. Bruce described the pretty understandable feeling that he was under continuing restriction - if not suspension - by ESPN.
Covering the SEC is a big part of the job. The fact that they said a week later I still couldn't do that. I had a chat every Friday, and I was told I couldn't do that. The stipulations at ESPN Magazine added on top of that, there were so many things.
With the airing of the Feldman/ESPN drama, I doubt many folks thought that the two parties would stay together longer than contractually required, and there was definitely no desire for Bruce to stay on in Bristol after this business went down. Here he shared his thoughts on the network, the priority that business takes over journalism at ESPN and his own move to CBS.
It's like ESPN ... if you're not a part of their agenda and you're a problem for them, you can't exist in that world. If you can't trust the people you work for you have a problem. That's why I'm so excited about going to CBS. I've spent time with these guys and seen what they're about, and I feel really good.
... It's business. I think everybody knows that. Whether it's the Longhorn Network or any of these other relationships. It's complicated. It's always been complicated, but it's gotten significantly more so in the last few years. It's a huge company. No matter what came of this, it's still all about ratings and TV contracts.
As Bruce told the Wall Street Journal this morning, ESPN turning their focus away from accurately covering sports and toward maximizing their own business opportunities led to him souring on the network.
"I’m leaving a place, at ESPN, where I had lost all faith in the management there," Feldman said in an interview with the Journal, "and I’m going to a place where people have really shown me that they’re committed to me and to covering the sport."
With his central role in the greater Mike Leach saga that led to Bruce Feldman's departure from ESPN, it is no surprise that Craig James came up during the Dan Patrick interview. He discussed his opinion that James was a key figure in the firing of Leach, and ESPN willingly amped up his grievance and went along for the ride.
Well he hired a PR firm, yeah, he did that. Under oath, he tried to say he never hired Spaeth Communications, and there's all kind of documentation in the book showing that he did. ESPN got stuck with it.
In what world is it a good idea to take as gospel the word of a PR firm hired by someone who happens to be in the middle of this investigation? Somebody should've taken a five steps back and said, you know what, we're gonna let CBS or Yahoo! or Sports Illustrated take the lead on this one.
While Bruce Feldman certainly has reason not to like Craig James, he is far from the only professional in the College Football writing world to hold a low opinion of the ESPN broadcaster. Richard Deutch, the media writer for SI.com, recently produced a round-table column with the site's college football writers - Stewart Mandel, Andy Staples and George Schroeder - to discuss the state of television coverage of the sport. While none of the questions referred to Craig James or the Mike Leach/ESPN saga specifically, James and his role in the Mike Leach were a popular topic of discussion. When asked the question " Which college football announcer/s are the least appealing for you and why?", there was one unanimous answer.
Mandel: Craig James and Jesse Palmer. James' glaring conflict of interest (more on that later) aside, it's still two ex-jocks glad-handing each other and spewing clichés for three-and-a-half hours. I feel bad for Rece Davis, a true pro, who spends Thursday nights wedged between those two and Saturdays moderating the Mark May-Lou Holtz circus act.
Staples: Craig James, because he adds very little to the broadcast, and ESPN has sacrificed much of its journalistic integrity to protect him in the wake of his campaign to get Mike Leach fired at Texas Tech. If ESPN replaced James with any random ex-jock, viewers wouldn't complain a bit. Yet for some reason the network has bent over backward to protect James. It makes no sense.
Schroeder: Other than Craig James? Even aside from the helicopter-dad/Mike Leach/Texas Tech stuff, I'm not a big fan. And how can we leave aside that stuff? ...
Deitsch: That Craig James gets such prominent assignments remains a mystery on the D.B. Cooper scale. He is unpopular by any fan metric you choose, including performance and likeability. The fact that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is suing James merely adds noise here. ESPN management says it values James for his relationships with coaches but what that ultimately leads to for viewers is little more than backslapping commentary. The network deserves to get crushed for keeping him on the air.
Mandel and Schroeder went on to discuss James and the ESPN/Leach saga when asked about changes they would like to see in ESPN's college football coverage, but the guns all came out blazing again when the question of whether Craig James can be trusted to fairly report on Big XII Football was posed.
Mandel: I wouldn't trust Craig James to report on sixth-grade volleyball. It's been established, via documented emails, that he not only encouraged a sitting Big 12 football coach's dismissal but hired a PR firm to intentionally manipulate coverage. And yet he's still walking into Big 12 coaches' offices every week to break down tape.... How he's still on television (and in prominent time slots at that) is one of the great mysteries of modern civilization.
Staples: No. But I don't trust him when it comes to reporting on anything.
Schroeder: Does he report? I'm not sure how ESPN justified keeping him around. But he's still around. And now that Leach is no longer at Texas Tech, the immediate storm has passed. It would be unthinkable to have James in the booth for one of Leach's games (when Leach inevitably returns to coaching). Which is why it will probably happen.
One would think that ESPN would have second thoughts about expending a great deal of its institutional credibility in support of, and giving a significant voice to a person who is held in such low regard by his professional peers. But, not the WorldWideLeader. For some reason ESPN is heavily invested in him; as reported by Sportsgrid, the network has given him special treatment regarding his recent political advocacy and statements. The network recently censured Paul Azinger for posting a politically-aimed tweet, and previously was said to be 'discussing' with Lou Holtz a political fundraising letter that he wrote prior to the 2010 election. Over the past few months, it has been rumored that James may run for a U.S Senate seat out of Texas. Whether he goes through with that bid, he has launched a campaign of sorts - which to be clear he has every right as an American to do - which appears to fly in the face of several ESPN rules pertaining to political advocacy by its public personalities, and the network's social media policy.
Somehow, with all of the above issues staining the credibility of Craig James, he retains a featured place in ESPN's coverage of college football. Meanwhile, the network forces out one of the most respected writers covering the sport - Bruce Feldman. You can't help but to ask what the heck is going on in Bristol, Connecticut.