Late last week, Bruce Feldman ended his indefinite Twitter silence by announcing he was leaving ESPN after 17 years to go to CBS Sports. Even though Feldman had made sporadic appearances around the “family” of networks in Bristol, he was largely silent as a public figure since his July “suspension” at the hands of ESPN corporate suits. Bruce’s move from ESPN to CBS was met with widespread approval across the internet as the popular college football writer was finally liberated. CBS touted Feldman’s arrival and aptly titled his new column (above) as “Free Bruce.” This not only pays homage to the passionate #FreeBruce Twitter campaign that supported Feldman during his summer journey through the abyss, but also the fact that his quality writing is now out from behind the ESPN Insider paywall. Now, common folk like you and I can freely read a freed Bruce Feldman.
At this point, it would seem that everyone can go home happy and the story is finished. The fans, bloggers, and sportswriters that came together behind Bruce Feldman can rejoice at his new CBS job that leaves behind the swampland of conflicts and corporate meddling at ESPN. CBS adds another quality writer to their impressively growing stable of online and network talent. Feldman can finally move on with his career and make a fresh start at a new internet zipcode. And, the mothership in Bristol can move on with their 99.99% indestructible death star, covering up the embarrassment of the Feldman Chronicles with some plywood or something.
But in the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend! Bruce Feldman went on The Dan Patrick Show September 1st to unleash his side of the story – calling ESPN’s version of the story untruthful. Then he went on Paul Finebaum’s show in Alabama to continue dropping pipebombs on his former employer.
Now that Feldman’s story is out, the Free Bruce story has further unraveled a complicated web that takes us back to the initial drama of last July. The list of characters involves Feldman, several members of ESPN brass, Brooks, the Poynter Institute as ESPN ombudsman, and of course, Craig James. So now that Bruce is free and everyone’s story is finally in the public, what does it all mean? In the spirit of ESPN sage Jim Miller, we’re bringing together documented quotes and writings from the involved parties into an oral and written history on Free Bruce for you to decide. Probably because nobody else would be crazy enough to spend their Labor Day weekend doing such a thing. What follows is our creative attempt to provide a complete look at Free Bruce using those statements and writings. The context and ordering of the quotes have been edited by AA to try and best present the story of Free Bruce in this oral/written form. Here’s our list of sources:
The original Sports by Brooks report, ESPN’s statement in response, Poynter I and Poynter II and the quotes of ESPN execs therein, Tweets from ESPN PR, SI’s roundtable thoughts on Craig James, Richard Deitsch’s report on Feldman, Feldman’s interview with Dan Patrick, and his interview with Paul Finebaum which we transcribed.
Now, the definitive oral and written history of Free Bruce…
Brooks Melchior, Reporter
ESPN Vice President and Director of News Vince Doria, ESPN THE MAGAZINE Editor-in-Chief & ESPN Books Editorial Director Gary Hoenig, and ESPN.com Editor-in-Chief Pat Stiegman participated in the conference call and were behind the decision to punish Feldman.
Doria, Hoenig and Stiegman informed Feldman today that he has been banned from writing for any ESPN entity, is forbidden from appearing on any ESPN platform, is not allowed to Tweet from his Twitter account nor participate in any promotion of a recently-released book in which Feldman played a role.
Bruce Feldman, CBS Sports
I was told — this is the day before that meeting, couldn’t tweet, couldn’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.
ESPN Public Relations Statement
There was never any suspension or any other form of disciplinary action. We took the time to review his upcoming work assignments in light of the book to which he contributed and will manage any conflicts or other issues as needed. Bruce has resumed his assignments.
Kelly McBride, Poynter Institute, ESPN Ombudsman
ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out. The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
Managers gave Feldman the all-clear on Friday afternoon, but Feldman as of Monday morning had yet to tweet or make any public statements, even to explain why he’s not saying anything. Brooks Melchior first posted the erroneous news of Feldman’s suspension on his blog Sports by Brooks, Thursday afternoon, just hours after ESPN brass, prompted by the book’s publication, met by conference call with Feldman to discuss his involvement.
The day after the conference call, when ESPN put out that — you know, 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 producers, I found out about. They basically stopped me from being able to do my job.
ESPN pointed out the error almost 24 hours later in a news release, igniting further argument over the difference between being suspended and merely being asked to take a break. This is more than just semantics. A suspension is a disciplinary action involving human resources, a record in your file and not being allowed onto the company premises for a period of time. Several people on that phone call reported to us that Feldman specifically asked whether he was being suspended and that he was told no.
Lying low and staying out of the public eye is different than being forced to stay home from work.
Chris LaPlaca, ESPN PR
Sports analogy: coaches take time outs to discuss developments. The game briefly stops but is not suspended. It resumes. Same thing here.
I was stopped from being able to do my job. Was I still getting paid? Yes. Was I told the next day I could not do a chat I was scheduled to do? I was told that. I was told I could not file, I could not do radio. When you’re stopping someone from doing their job, you are suspending them. Now, it’s semantics, but if ESPN doesn’t think I was disciplined for this, then explain how they reneged back on a contract I was told I was getting and then completely reversed course in the wake of that. Nothing else had changed.
Gary Hoenig, General Manager of ESPN publishing
We told him, short of getting out of the book, you need to remove your name from the book and distance yourself from the book. I said, “Are you sure you want to do this? This could really harm your career at ESPN.”
Rob King, ESPN Senior VP of editorial for digital and print media
He’s paralyzed. He doesn’t want to go out to an event and become the subject of the story. But he doesn’t know what to say or how to say it, in order to put the story to bed. Everyone wants to portray this as either a staff writer went renegade or Twitter overreacted. Neither of those are completely accurate and it’s a lot more complex than that.
One of the high-ups who was mentioned in the “ombudsman story” was Rob King. He had weighed in and gave some quote in the story about my mindset. Well Rob King had never spoken to me. The last thing I’m worried about is how I move forward from this and what I’m able to talk about. What I am worried about, you knew this, is my job at ESPN, my career at ESPN, was threatened on that call. Everybody I talked to had known that. Now, if he’s going to be quoted in a story, in some journalistic entity, why he wouldn’t have reached out to me to at least talk to me to find out what my mindset really is as opposed to just weighing in blindly with a person he doesn’t know speaks to a lot of the problems there. At some point, ESPN needs to look in the mirror.
At a company as big as ESPN, with dozens of vice presidents, it’s not surprising that communication is complicated. King, who was recently promoted to a position that includes editorial supervision of the magazine, learned last week for the first time that Feldman was writing the book. Hoenig, head of publications, said he knew all along but had to refresh his memory on what decisions were made. Millman is new to his title, as well, and is still transitioning into the magazine’s lead editorial role.
At the point that Leach filed suit, Feldman should have again sought clarification, but he did not, ESPN executives said. For its part, ESPN should have insisted Feldman walk away from the book and offered him the financial and legal help to do so. The publisher could have brought in another writer/editor to finish the work. Of course, Feldman would have been upset; he’d already put months of work into it and the book was mostly complete. But the conflict was untenable, and it was ESPN’s responsibility to recognize that.
He has a stubborn and somewhat admirable, moral streak. I don’t think he took our message the way we intended, which was, “This might impair your ability to do your job.”
If I had explained what actually happened, not what Vince Doria and Norby Williamson, the ESPN executives and their PR people were trying to tell people from my “suspension”… That didn’t happen from me resuming duties. I was scheduled to go down and cover the SEC media event the following week… that was one of the many things they had made stipulations that I could not do once they got wind that the Leach book was out and they didn’t like it.
They had approved the book, they had benefitted from my access, I had talked to them throughout, I had given them a heads up that Leach was gonna sue them… when I brought it up on the conference call in July they basically punted. Vince Doria said he only vaguely recalled hearing I was doing a book with a coach. I said, “You know, Mike Leach had a huge firestorm with ESPN and Craig James just a few months ago, you wouldn’t remember that? And that was the reaction I got.
Chad Millman, Editor in Chief ESPN Magazine
I remember he and I having a conversation that he didn’t want to be the eye of the storm and he didn’t want to be the story. He was scheduled to go to (SEC) media days and I said, “It’s up to you, but you’ll get asked about it.”
The situation with me could have been rectified in a heartbeat, except they tried to spin it and spin it and they kept making it worse. I think those are the things where you get some people who are very vinidictive. I think they still see themselves as “we’re the little guy and we’re fighting” even though they’re not. That’s the thing where you make it worse. I’m not the guy who wants to be in the center of everything… I just want to talk about football. None of those things needed to be this way. I’ve been in the company 17 years. For me to have been treated this way at the end of this was just mind-boggling.
Feldman did what reporters do: He assumed that truth would keep him safe and that by the time the book was published, everyone at ESPN would agree that the network itself had failed in reporting the Leach-James controversy. And perhaps if “Swing Your Sword” were an independently reported biography instead of an autobiography with a distinct bias, it could have provided the definitive chapter. As it is, the book is merely one more point of view in a muddled narrative that many individuals and institutions failed to live up to their ideals.
When a reporter has a clear conflict, it’s standard in journalism to isolate that reporter from the conflict. Having authored a book in Leach’s voice, Feldman clearly can’t cover Leach, or Texas Tech, anymore. Leach’s former staffers, who are now spread far and wide — some of them now head coaches — make for questionable material too. Is the entire Big 12 off limits?
Things had shifted in the last few years. Obviously there had been significant issues. The ESPN ombudsman writes that I may have questions dealing with the Big XII. Has she ever heard of the Longhorn Network? There’s some significant issues. At the core of it, it’s a TV company, that’s what it’s really about, that’s what pays bills. If you work there, you have to be very mindful of it, or cautious.
The issues of ESPN’s competing interests lie firmly at the center of not only Bruce Feldman’s suspension, but the controversy surrounding ESPN college football analyst Craig James. Free Bruce wasn’t just about Bruce Feldman, it was about Craig James and ESPN having to decide between one of their star analysts and star columnists. Would ESPN stake their claim with jourrnalistic truth or sensationalized celebrity? It was Craig James who was firmly thrusted into the Mike Leach controversy when his son Adam accused Leach of having him stuffed in an electrical closet. As was documented through Feldman and Leach’s book, James used a PR firm to undermine Mike Leach and forward the story of his son. ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad was fed stories from James and his PR firm. As Swing Your Sword revealed through documentation, the story of Adam James was mostly fabricated and the behavior of Craig James in trying to get Leach fired and substantiating that story was underhanded.
From the beginning, the Craig James conflict was obvious to any keen observer of the story. How could ESPN go to Craig James for any sort of statement on the Leach investigation that involved his own son? Instead of playing the story down the middle, ESPN brought Craig James out as the concerned father of a victimized son. After Swing Your Sword was released and James’ actions were revealed, public sentiment turned firmly against the former SMU star. Craig James won Awful Announcing’s Joe Morgan Tournament as the least favorite sports media personality in the nation. There were calls for his removal from ESPN because of the way he used his influence to alter the story. Notably, Kelly McBride and Poynter did not address the James angle as of early September, which drew much criticism for not seeing the forest through the trees. And yet, in spite of this betrayal of fairness and journalistic integrity, ESPN continued to stand by Craig James. While ESPN suspended Bruce Feldman for uncovering the truth, they rewarded Craig James with two premier broadcasting assignments and nary a word on his actions or the inherent conflict of interest.
(ESPN VP and Director of News Vince) Doria literally brought up my “credibility” moving forward. This is after I was to have a three year contract extension with a raise. They already talked to me about it. Then they did a 180 on it when they saw the reaction to Swing Your Sword and saw what was literally in the back of the book with all the actual documentation and e-mail and deposition and they didn’t like it. So, they got pissed off and they grabbed the nearest person they could grab, and that was me.
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 it 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.
They can say whatever they’re gonna want to say. People know how ESPN operates, I think people aren’t blind to that. People know that they are getting a spin from them. There are many good people that work at ESPN, but on the top of things they become their own worst enemy with some of these things. In one sense, they want to say they’re transparent, but they’re anything but when it comes to these situations.
He (Feldman) suggested that his conflicts, created by writing the book, are tiny compared to those of Craig James, the ESPN announcer named in Leach’s lawsuit. If the allegations in the lawsuit are accurate — that James hired a PR firm to smear Leach — then ESPN has an even bigger problem that we’ll certainly be writing about.
He hired a PR firm, yeah. He definitely did that. Under oath, he tried to say he never hired Spaeth 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 ESPN got stuck with it. I said this to Gary Belsky, at the time the editor in chief at ESPN Magazine 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?”
Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated
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.
It’s obvious that ESPN feels very strongly in support of Craig James. They’ve gone all-in with him. I had made the point to the higher-ups at ESPN Magazine when I first found out Leach was going to sue ESPN in basically the spring of 2010 saying what do you at ESPN think about taking five steps back and letting SI or Yahoo take the lead on this one. It’s really a no win situation.
Andy Staples, Sports Illustrated
Craig James 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.
You know, 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.
On September 1st, Feldman’s silence finally broke with his CBS announcement and damning allegations against ESPN. Feldman called out several ESPN executives by name, documenting how his side of the story greatly differed from what had been put forward by ESPN and Kelly McBride from Poynter. McBride’s first article as ESPN Ombudsman was slammed as little more than ESPN PR spin, largely because it only sourced ESPN executives. Brooks’ report was brushed aside as “gossip” and ESPN’s version was given a freeroll at a legitimate platform. After Feldman’s interviews, Poynter produced a second article to analyze the controversy that also included a conversation with Feldman. One of the many discrepancies involved centered on why Feldman did not speak to Poynter for the first article. Was it of his own volition, or was he directed by ESPN Executive VP John Skipper to not speak to the independent voice?
As the second Poynter article indicated, an ESPN official directing an employee on what to say to the ombudsman would be a severe breach of protocol and one that would leave Poynter’s ombudsman work pointless. If ESPN can’t allow the truth to be told to their truthchecker, then how can viewers trust Bristol moving forward with any story? As Feldman and Skipper told their sides of the story, onlookers were left asking who to trust in that case and the larger Free Bruce narrative. Or, does the fact that ESPN’s credibility is already being called into question mean that enough damage has been done to Bristol?
Feldman said that Skipper asked him not to speak to the Poynter Review Project, which is serving as ESPN’s ombudsman. Feldman described the (initial) Poynter piece as “littered with inaccuracies.”
John Skipper, ESPN Executive VP
It is categorically inaccurate that I told him not to talk to you guys. I am a little displeased with his actions. I suggested that getting into a public fight with your employer and calling them liars was not wise. I called Bruce and said, “If you feel that you need to go on the record with The Poynter Institute, you should do so.” I will confess that I said, “You need to remain careful.”
I lost all faith in the people who were running ESPN. You find out a lot about people when you see how they spin a story and continue to spin it.
Mike Soltys, ESPN PR
We have significant disagreements with Bruce Feldman’s account. Beyond that, time to move on.
The primary ethical failure still rests on ESPN’s shoulders. It grows out of a bad policy that allows “as told to” books and a failure of leadership to step in and prevent Feldman from going forward with the book when it became clear that the publication would create an impossible tension.
But if your boss won’t protect your credibility, you have to do it yourself. Feldman should have recognized that in writing Leach’s book, he was becoming too much of an insider on that topic, walling himself off from too many important stories.
Now his conflicts are CBS Sports’ problems. And ESPN, and the Poynter Review Project, are left to address the James issue.
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, you know, 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.
With both sides cemented in their trenches, the truth of what happened will likely never be fully unearthed. Like all good mystery novels, the ending is left to the reader to decide what really happened. Feldman’s story largely aligns with the initial Sports by Brooks report and stands against what ESPN executives said themselves and to Kelly McBride. Who are you left to believe? Has ESPN’s reputation been significantly harmed? Will Craig James be reassigned to the Canadian Football League? (Sorry, Canada.)
For some sports fans and media observers, Free Bruce was the most important story of 2011. For others not tuned into blogs and internet reporting, Free Bruce may as well refer to a Springsteen concert at no cost. The controversy and questions that arose did cause those in tune with the story to look at the most powerful sports media company in the world in a different light. Will Bruce Feldman, Craig James, the Longhorn Network, and other developments erode what was left of ESPN’s trustworthiness as a reporting entity? Or, will Free Bruce be largely forgotten as ESPN continues to dominate the sports media landscape? Only time will tell.
At the very least, Free Bruce was a stunning example for how the sports landscape has changed in recent years. Free Bruce showed the power of social media and the way we consume sports in 2011 through Twitter and other new media outlets. It showed that fans, writers, and bloggers are willing to come together when they perceive an injustice to be done. It showed that we can be part of the story and no longer have to be inactive bystanders waiting to be fed news and information by traditional sources. Free Bruce now belongs to the history books, but the next chapter of how these last six weeks precisely changed sports media remains to be written.