Back in January, ESPN announced that they were joining forces with the University of Texas to form the Longhorn Network.  The deal was groundbreaking in the sense that no sports entity had gotten behind a singular university with the size of investment that ESPN was making with Texas.  The deal also raises some major questions.  Can viewers of ESPN take their analysis and coverage of Texas seriously knowing that the Bristol machine is pumping 300 million dollars over a 20 year period into Texas and the Longhorn Network???  This isn’t some flea sized endorsement deal by some sideline reporter creating a supposed conflict of interest.  These are major league dollars we’re talking about here that ESPN isn’t investing into Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, or any other university… except Texas.  (There’s the whole special branding of the SEC on ESPN, but that’s another story for another day.)

Well, a new report about the Longhorn Network from the Austin-American Statesman is cause for more eyebrow raising.  You see, not only is ESPN devoting its resources towards the University of Texas and creating a network, but ESPN is also giving Texas the say over on-air personalities.  From the Statesman

According to the contract, “in the event that UT reasonably determines that any on-air talent does not reflect the quality and reputation desired by UT for the Network based on inappropriate statements made or actions taken by such talent and so notifies ESPN, ESPN will cause such talent to be promptly replaced (and will in any event no longer allow them on air following such notice).”

On Tuesday, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz explained in an email, “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.”

ESPN, which owns the network, will build a multi-million dollar studio in Austin, and hire network personnel… is handing over to the University of Texas the power to terminate any talent that “does not reflect the quality and reputation desired by UT for the network…”  Consider me flabbergasted!  ESPN is basically wrapping their integrity in a burnt-orange gift box and burying it in Austin.  The response from ESPN is nonsensical.  Is ESPN not capable of disciplining its own talent for completely inappropriate comments or actions on their own??  Does Texas justice imply something different?  The issue is that what Texas considers inappropriate comments or actions, what ESPN considers, and what fans consider will be markedly different.  Will a critical interpretation of a loss be considered inappropriate by the university?  ESPN says no, will Texas say yes?  How about a report on an arrest or NCAA violations?   Why can’t a company as massive as ESPN decide for itself what inappropriate comments or actions are fireable offenses for its own employees?  Will these reporters and on-air personalities actually be working for ESPN or Texas, or does anybody even know?

Now, let’s be real.  Is what the Longhorn Network does in the grand scheme of things a big deal to most sports fans outside of Texas?  No.  It’s no mystery that personalities on the Longhorn Network should be pro-Texas.  It doesn’t take a chemical engineering student to get that.  However, the real issue is how deeply ESPN is climbing into bed with the University of Texas (insert that’s what she said joke here).  This is a new frontier for college sports.  If ESPN is giving Texas the power to fire people hired by ESPN, what impact will that have on the company at large and the way it treats the university?  I don’t care if it’s the Longhorn Network or not, that’s a disconcerting step into uncharted waters.  Let’s say Kirk Herbstreit isn’t too fond of Mack Brown’s coaching – can he be truthful without upsetting Longhorn Network, and thus ESPN brass?  Let’s say Mark May comes on the LN to cheerlead… does he then go back to giving real analysis on College Football Live?  On second thought, maybe we can permanently banish Mark May to the Texas channel.  Will any negative criticism on College Gameday towards Texas hurt the brand of the Longhorn Network in the eyes of ESPN?  Will the SportsCenter theme be replaced with this?? 

[Austin-American Statesman