When news broke Thursday that John Skipper had apparently been the victim of an extortion plot by his cocaine dealer, leading to his abrupt resignation from ESPN, it was fairly surprising news.
Skipper announced the news himself in an interview with Jim Miller for The Hollywood Reporter, likely in an effort to dispel any other lingering theories as to his departure. From our post yesterday:
Skipper resigned abruptly in December, only days after delivering a forward-looking speech to employees about the company’s direction. He told Miller that he had no plans to step aside until the day he was extorted: Friday, December 15. On that day, Skipper said, he had a long conversation with Disney CEO Bob Iger, during which the two agreed that resignation was the best course. The following Monday, Skipper announced his departure.
Though Skipper reasserted to Miller that he had resigned, not been fired, it is clear that Iger played a large role in the decision. Skipper said multiple times in the THR interview that he had put Iger in “an untenable situation” and added that “it became clear in my conversation with Bob what I needed to do.”
The news was surprising to those outside ESPN and according to a report from Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, ESPN employees were similarly shocked.
One employee, who described having a “good, professional relationship with Skipper,” reacted to the interview like this: “Shocked, absolutely.”
A fourth employee described feeling surprised by Skipper’s original admission of substance abuse. “I was blindsided,” the employee said. “We had just had our all-talent meeting the week before, which he was all over.” (Skipper said in the interview that the extortion threat came after the all-staff meeting.)
Wagner did speak to others who seemed less surprised by the cocaine usage in general, but still surprised (perhaps even suspicious) that this was the cause for his departure:
One employee said the information from the interview fits with details previously known to employees, and added that there had never been any indication Skipper’s work was affected by his drug use. “The extortion news is surprising but believable. No one I know ever saw Skipper’s job performance suffer because of drugs,” the staffer said. This person also wondered about Iger’s decision to let Skipper go rather than put him on leave: “It also leads me to believe that Iger could have kept him on, but preferred not to.”
A different employee wasn’t convinced. “I do think is there is more to the extent of the drug stuff than was in the interview,” they told me. “I think the extortion is what made [Skipper] come to Iger and say ‘this is what’s going on,’ but I honestly do not believe that there is some deeper ulterior motive.”
It’s definitely an odd story all around. The extortion plot is sadly believable, although it is unclear as to why that wasn’t just announced at the time, or at least closer to the time. If Skipper had been hoping to avoid personal embarrassment, he was naive. In the absence of news, there were always going to be theories and stories about why he left so abruptly. If this is all it was, it’s frankly not that bad.
But, then again, if that’s all it was, why wait until now to talk about it? Apparently, plenty of ESPN employees are asking that same question and others like it.