Bruce Feldman on ESPN: “If you’re not part of agenda and you’re a problem for them, you can’t exist in that world”September 1, 2011 – 2:00 pm by Chris Fedor
On the eve of college football kicking off it’s only fitting that we hear from one of the best college football scribes in the business. It’s Bruce Feldman. I’m sure by now everyone has heard or read about what happened between him and ESPN that led to him moving on. For the first time Feldman opened up about everything and it’s so fitting that he opened up with Dan Patrick considering Patrick had the same kind of falling out the mothership. It’s also a really good thing for college football fans like myself that he already has a new gig with CBS Sports. Before taking his new deal Feldman took some well-deserved shots at his former employer. Take it away Bruce.
Bruce Feldman joined The Dan Patrick Show to talk about the real story behind what happened between him and ESPN, if he got suspended by ESPN because he helped write the book with Mike Leach, whether or not he thinks ESPN wanted him to quit, why he quit, and gives his thoughts on Craig James.
Did I get the story?
“Yeah it’s been a crazy six weeks. You know, I mean, right off the top, I should say this. You know, ESPN approved me doing the book with Mike Leach. They had benefited from my access, you know, asked me to come on ‘Sportscenter’ the day Leach was fired to talk about his mindset. I said, look, I want to be clear, identify me as writing a book with Mike Leach, not about Mike Leach. They said yes. I did several ‘Sportscenter’ hits that day. They asked for my help to set up a Leach interview for ‘Sportscenter’ after he had been fired. I told them, you know, when you were talking about me working on the book with him, I knew that Leach was going to sue them I think in the spring of 2010. At that point he had gotten the documentation and they had, you know, under oath depositions with Craig James and things that they had had which are all in the back of the book for the readers to see. I mean, it’s there. It’s record. When I had went to my bosses at ESPN magazine, literally went up the food chain, one to the next to the next to tell them, they were clear on it. They knew exactly what was going to be in the book. They knew there was going to be a lawsuit on top of that. Six months before the book went to print, I had actually talked to ESPN’s lawyers. They had interviewed me. So when it came out in mid-July and Norby (Williamson) and Vince (Doria) or whoever up there got really angry, they shouldn’t have been surprised.”
Well, I should point out, Norby Williamson runs “Sportscenter.” Vince Doria is a news director at the mother ship. That meeting, is it just a coincidence here, Bruce, or did you actually get suspended by the mother ship for being a part of this book?
“I was told, this is the day before that meeting, couldn’t tweet, couldn’t do any radio, and 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, you know, when ESPN put out that, ‘he didn’t get suspended but he’s resuming his duties press release,’ that day when they put that out, the editor in chief of ESPN magazine Chad Millman actually put more restrictions on me. They also sent out a do not book list to their talent. To their talent producers, I found out about. They basically stopped me from being able to do my job.”
Did you consider yourself suspended?
“Yeah because I was basically in complete limbo. Covering the SEC was a big part of the job. They won BCS title after BCS title. The fact they said a week later I still couldn’t do that, the fact that I was told the next day I had a chat, no you can’t do that the stipulations that ESPN magazine added on top of that, there were so many things. I’ll put it this way, ESPN can play semantics what they wanted to with their PR people and everything, but a couple of weeks before I had that conference call, Gary Belsky, who was the editor in chief of ESPN magazine and is still in the company, he had reached out to me and said, look, he knew my contract was coming up, we want to extend you for another three years. You’ll get a raise. I mean, I have that in e-mail. I brought that up on the conference call. Vince Doria got all bent out of shape. The word he used was ‘credibility.’ He said I had credibility issues. Here I am listening to this, wait a minute you guys put Craig James on the air. You’re talking about my credibility? After that happened, a week later I’m in Bristol and the three-year extension and the raise all of a sudden became no extension. We’ll offer you a one-year deal. No raise. Something changed. There was some kind of disciplinary action that clearly was taken.”
Did they want you to quit?
“I think they did, yeah. I mean, why else would they have done that? Dan, look I’ve been in the company 17 years. As you know, back in those days, I was literally the first hire on espn.com. I was there when there was two pc’s in the whole place. I’ve been there 17 years. You know, I’ve been best in American sports writing three years. They nominated a bunch of my stories for national magazine awards. You know, I was behind a pay wall. My insider numbers had doubled from the previous year. I said to them what am I going to show you in one year I haven’t shown you in the previous 17? If you’re not part of their agenda and if you’re a problem for them, you can’t exist in that world. Once you come out of there do you have faith in the people who are running the place? 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 because I saw the commitment. I’ve spent time with these guys. I know what they’re about. I feel really good about where I’m going.”
Why did you quit?
“If you don’t have any faith in — I’m going to CBS. This is a better opportunity. If you don’t have any faith in the people who you work for, because — when their backs are against the wall, you find out a lot about people. When they’re not truthful, you know, it’s a problem.”
Did you find out that ESPN’s priority is journalism or business?
“It’s business. I think everybody knows that whether it’s the longhorn network or any of these other relationships. Look, it’s complicated. I think it’s always been complicated, but it’s gotten significantly more so in the last few years. I mean, it is a huge company. No matter what came of this, still it’s all about ratings and it’s all about TV contracts.”
Your thoughts on Craig James?
“If he ran for office I probably wouldn’t vote for him you know? My feelings on him are probably not as favorable as the people who run ESPN. Let’s put it that way.”
Do you think that he lied to get Mike Leach fired?
“Well he hired a PR firm, yeah. He definitely did that. Under oath he tried to say he never hired Spaith Communications. They showed him record that he did. There’s all kind of e-mail and documentation that are in the book saying that. And I think that ESPN got stuck with it. I mean, his PR firm, I said this to Gary Belsky at the time over a year ago. I said in what world is it a good idea to take as gospel the information that’s getting fed to you by a PR firm hired by one of the people you work for who happens to be in the middle of this investigation? On that, somebody at ESPN should have taken five steps back and go, you know what? We’re going to let CBS or we’re going to let Yahoo or Sports Illustrated take the lead on this one.”
I’d like to have you on next week if I can. I know the feeling you’re in. just so you know, it might get a little worse before it gets better. because they fought me tooth and nail to try to put me out of business. just understand that.
“I understand. The last six weeks I’ve seen what they are capable of. I’m glad I’m at a different place. I’m excited that the season’s going to start. I wanted, wherever I’ve been, you know, gone on the road to different colleges or anything, I’ve had people come up and ask me. It’s cryptic and bite your tongue on it. The big thing is, after today, tomorrow, whatever, just being able to say, look, I’ve spoken about it. I just want to talk about college football.”