When the news of Brent Musburger leaving ESPN and ABC to headline the new Vegas Sports and Information sports radio network first came out, some wondered if this had any relation to his controversial comments on Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon during the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl. In an interview with AA’s Jim Weber last week, though, Musburger’s brother and agent Todd vehemently denied that the Mixon comments had anything to do with this move, and Musburger himself went further in a Sunday interview with Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated, saying “There was no blowback.”
However, while it seems clear that Musburger wasn’t kicked out over these comments and rather chose to leave for this new opportunity, an ESPN spokesperson told Deitsch that the Mixon comments were in fact addressed with Musburger. According to that spokesperson, the Mixon comments were specifically discussed in a post-Sugar Bowl meeting with ESPN president John Skipper and senior vice-president (event and studio production) Stephanie Druley. Here are the two accounts of that meeting, from Deitsch’s piece:
“We had already started the process of me leaving,” Musburger said. “The morning after the Sugar Bowl I had breakfast with [ESPN president] John Skipper and [senior vice president of event & studio production] Stephanie Druley, and they wanted to work out a plan to keep me at ESPN. There was not even a discussion about what had been said specifically about Mixon. In fact, the only person who mentioned it to me was a telephone call two days later from [Disney chairman] Bob Iger, who is an old friend, and he said, ‘This too shall pass.’ That was the only comment. There was no blowback. There is absolutely no connection.“I did not want them to be in the middle [of gambling issues]. I am sure they have had some phone calls about [gambling] comments that I have made on the air over the years. It certainly never came back to me, but I have no doubt it happened. I just wanted no connection whatsoever. I will tell you that my relations with ESPN and everyone there could not be better. We have been completely up front in this process. I leave with nothing but good feelings about these people. I never had a bad day for them and enjoyed it very much.”
On the topic of talking to Musburger, an ESPN spokesman said, “It was discussed with Brent in that meeting [with Skipper and Druley] that his discussion [of Mixon] should have included more focus on the victim.”
This doesn’t appear to be a room for interpretation situation, as Musburger specifically claims there was “not even a discussion” and that Iger’s call “was the only comment,” while ESPN PR specifically claims Mixon was brought up in the meeting with Skipper and Druley. Whether the way it was brought up counts as “blowback” or not may be debatable, but either it was discussed or it wasn’t, and Musburger’s version and the official ESPN account differ there.
What actually happened or didn’t happen in that meeting doesn’t change the result, of course. Musburger is leaving ESPN after calling a final college basketball game Tuesday (Georgia-Kentucky), he doesn’t appear to have been forced out, and both sides seem to be parting ways amicably. But which side is true does matter from a perspective of evaluating how ESPN reacts to problematic on-air comments.
If Musburger’s account is completely true, and there was no mention of Mixon from Skipper or Druley, no internal blowback from anyone else, and only support from Iger, that doesn’t make the company look good. The Mixon comments created a lot of external criticism, much of it deserved, and if they can’t even talk about it, that doesn’t bode well for the future. However, the ESPN side of this would reflect much more of how this should have been handled; these comments didn’t necessarily deserve a suspension or a firing, but at the very least, they deserved further discussion with Musburger.
This isn’t necessarily intentional lying on either end, as memories are faulty, and people often remember the same event differently. Perhaps the ESPN executives made their point and thought they got it across, and perhaps Musburger forgot about that part of the meeting (which surely wasn’t the whole meeting’s focus) after the fact. (This is a good argument for taking notes in meetings.) Perhaps Musburger was trying to emphasize that this exit wasn’t about Mixon, and he wound up exaggerating the lack of blowback as a result. Or perhaps Musburger’s right and it wasn’t addressed, and the ESPN executives meant to address it, thought they did, but actually didn’t.
In any case, it doesn’t really make a difference for this particular situation. Musburger’s leaving, he seems happy to do so, and ESPN doesn’t appear to have pushed him out, regardless of if they discussed his Mixon comments with him or not. Still, the hope from this corner is that the network did address this with Musburger, and did so beyond just a supportive phone call from Bob Iger. If they didn’t, that doesn’t auger well for their ability to handle future on-air controversies.