Pat McAfee and Aaron Rodgers Pat McAfee interviewing Aaron Rodgers in November 2022. (The Pat McAfee Show.)

Pat McAfee has made it very clear that he does not want to, and is not prepared to, contest controversial claims put forward by guests like Aaron Rodgers in real-time.

McAfee has also made it quite clear that his The Pat McAfee Show those claims are broadcast on is owned and operated by him and merely syndicated on ESPN platforms (including the main network, ESPN+, and their YouTube channel) as part of a five-year, $85-million deal. And, as such, he’s said he has no “boss” for that show.

That deal also includes actual ESPN employee work, such as appearances on shows like College GameDay. But McAfee’s daily show is a separate thing licensed to ESPN. And that’s why he’s made it clear that there is a very short list of Disney and ESPN management he’ll really listen to about it, including ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro. So that makes one note in a lengthy Wall Street Journal profile on Pitaro published Sunday evening quite interesting. Here’s how that note in the piece (from Isabella Simonetti and Robbie Whelan) read as of 5 p.m. ET Monday:

McAfee brought NFL star Aaron Rodgers on for regular appearances, and in one telecast Rodgers made a controversial remark about comedian Jimmy Kimmel—falsely insinuating that he had ties to the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The comment threatened to land the network in hot water. Frustrated, Pitaro told McAfee that such incidents needed to be avoided, and other network officials emphasized that conspiracy theories by guests should be fact-checked in real-time, according to people familiar with their exchange.

But that’s not how it originally read, as per the correction at the bottom:

ESPN officials conveyed to host Pat McAfee that conspiracy theories by guests should be fact-checked in real-time, following an incident involving Aaron Rodgers. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Jimmy Pitaro had directly given McAfee that guidance. (Corrected on March 18. )

How does McAfee’s licensing deal impact this?

With the vast majority of people who appear on ESPN, that correction would be notable, but not necessarily a huge deal. Pitaro obviously does not implement every single ESPN policy personally in all circumstances, and comments from “ESPN officials” to ESPN personalities can generally be seen as in line with both the overall strategic approach he’s established and the latitude within this he’s created for the armies of executives under him to execute that vision tactically.

That’s how things typically work in a wide variety of hierarchical organizations. That includes sports teams (GMs and head coaches give instructions to coordinators and positional coaches, who then have their own latitude in what they relay to players), the military to businesses. So an instruction from “ESPN officials” would normally be presumed to have the backing of those officials’ superiors (and if not, to lead to consequences for them).

But McAfee’s deal with ESPN is a major exception to that traditional setup. And the “fact-checking” idea here in particular is both seemingly quite odd for the situation (at least, if implemented fully literally) and for what McAfee has said about his Rodgers interviews. And that makes this comment worth some further levels of scrutiny.

“Do I deserve to have this platform if I don’t know everything about everything?”

On an episode of All The Smoke with Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson last month, McAfee said he sees his role in interviewing Rodgers as getting Rodgers’ opinions out there:

“The stuff Aaron’s talking about, he’s very passionate about. He firmly believes that. And there’s a lot of people in the world that believe that, whether you hate that or not, that is a fact of life. I don’t know that world, though, I’m not educated in that world, and there were a lot of times where I’m like ‘Do I deserve to have this platform if I don’t know everything about everything, so that this s*** can’t happen and people don’t end up hating us?’”

“There was nights I couldn’t sleep, I’m like ‘Am I f****** this up completely?’, and then I got back to like ‘We’re having conversations with people.’ You can disagree with them completely, but at least you learn and know where Aaron’s at.

“Like, this is a Mount Rushmore quarterback in the history of the NFL. In real time, you’re learning about him completely. I feel like that’s a form of journalism as well, even though people won’t really talk about.

McAfee went on there to discuss his overall “conversationalist” style and ask “Is this not journalism?” And there’s a discussion to be had there, as well as around if Rodgers is still worth giving this level of platform. But the most notable thing here for our current purposes is McAfee saying that he doesn’t know enough to fact-check Rodgers in real-time (there’s at least somewhat of a point there: the width of conspiracy theories Rodgers is willing to promote is quite something), and that he wouldn’t do so in any case because of the “conversational” approach of his show.

“There’s no way anybody had that as the expectation”

Back in November 2021, long before he struck this ESPN deal last year, McAfee previously brought that up around Rodgers. That came after Rodgers defended his “immunized” response to questions about vaccination. There, McAfee said the safe space he offered Rodgers is what he goes for, and that it was bizarre to think he’d push back on Rodgers’ claims about vaccines and COVID-19:

“I do apologize for potentially not hammering home the science and stats like I should have, I guess a lot of people were saying,” said McAfee. “But also, there’s no way you were thinking that’s what I was gonna do. Like there’s no way anybody had that as the expectation.

And I appreciate and respect everybody afterward, you know, thinking that is what I can do. And for that I am humbled. I am incredibly humbled that you can look at that screen and you can see what I do…and if you immediately thought ‘hey, this guy f***ing knows the ins and outs of the COVID situation.’ This is the only guy… If you thought that, I am incredibly humbled, honored, and I promise at some point in my life I will work to become that person.”

So to those people, thank you for the incredible honor of thinking that is something I’d be able to do. I apologize, I’m not. But once again, your peers were in the room when he said ‘I’m immunized’ and just let it fly in the middle of the entire thing.”

It was quite obvious from that point, if not before, that McAfee would not push back on controversial claims from Rodgers live. And that became even clearer over the next few years of their “conversations that rattled the sports globe,” both before and after McAfee went to ESPN. So ESPN knew what they were getting when they signed him, and that became more explicit still with McAfee’s defenses to his concerned fans that the content of his show would not change with the move.

Yes, the Kimmel controversy was a line that Rodgers hadn’t crossed in an appearance on McAfee’s ESPN-broadcast show to date, with him suggesting a Disney-employed personality in Kimmel had links to a convicted sex offender in Epstein. But, even around that and the backlash it did draw (including from Pitaro, as discussed in this WSJ piece), it seems bizarre that any ESPN executive would actually think McAfee would “fact-check guests in real time” at this point.

Just who are these “ESPN officials”?

This all raises real questions about the “ESPN officials” quoted here. It becomes even more notable with that correction that it wasn’t Pitaro who said this to McAfee. It’s interesting with McAfee’s previous All The Smoke comments on how he “doesn’t have a boss” for his show at ESPN, and how there are only a few executives he sees as above or equal to him, including Pitaro, Disney CEO Bob Iger, and ESPN president (content) Burke Magnus:

“I’m the executive producer of my show, I report directly to Jimmy and Bob, so I’m not really feeling any of it. Everyone was like ‘Pat calls out his boss’ and I’m like ‘I don’t got a m************ boss!

“What are we…like, are we talking Jimmy Pitaro or Bob Iger? Is that who we’re talking about? Because those are people who could technically be described as my boss. Burke Magnus as well, I have a great relationship with him. But I think even Burke would say like ‘Yeah, we have a good relationship with him, we’re talking like this [horizontal hand motions] as opposed to like this [vertical, top-down hand motions].”

From the outside, without particular knowledge of the reporting process or the sources involved here, there are still ways that what was presented here could be true. One is that as part of the aftermath of the Kimmel situation, some level of ESPN executive sent a general reminder to all potential on-camera interviewers of the general journalistic idea of pushing back on controversial claims, or sent some level of general ESPN principles document stating that to McAfee, or maybe even sent McAfee a specific note on that.

It seems unlikely that was Iger or Pitaro who sent McAfee this, especially after the specific correction here that it was not Pitaro. It also seems unlikely it was Magnus (and as McAfee said, he sees Magnus as more of on a line with him than his boss). With those being the only executives McAfee has spoken about publicly as being able to impact the direction of his show, it seems unlikely that a note on this from anyone else would have done much.

Comparisons to past suspensions

Of course, that doesn’t mean this note necessarily should have accomplished much. Fact-checking someone in real-time is a difficult matter, especially on a topic not prearranged. ESPN often doesn’t fact-check its own personalities, much less its guests. And the idea of McAfee fact-checking Rodgers in real time seems quite absurd, especially after years of evidence that he won’t. But it’s strange to see this reported in the WSJ as attempted ESPN pushback on McAfee, especially with it coming from unspecified “ESPN officials” and coming without any level of direct quote on just what they said.

The larger point in this piece (which, again, is an overall profile of Pitaro, not anything specific on McAfee) of some discussion of how Pitaro handles McAfee is reasonable. But even that is curious, with it coming around discussion of McAfee’s “rat” slam of ESPN head of event and studio production Norby Williamson, and past ESPN suspensions (which were of people who worked more fully for them, not had a show syndication arrangement with them). And even there, there’s no mention of how inconsistent those suspensions have been, and Tony Kornheiser’s 2010 Hannah Storm suspension is the only specific case cited:

Some people close to ESPN said Pitaro went too easy on McAfee—indicative, they say, of how he gives stars too much leeway. Other ESPN network personalities and staffers have been suspended over the years for making offensive comments. In 2010, for example, anchor Tony Kornheiser was suspended for two weeks after he called a SportsCenter anchor’s outfit “horrifying” on his radio show.

Pitaro prefers to deal with any flare-ups with talent privately and doesn’t see suspensions as the only effective form of discipline, a person close to him said.

There are certainly people at ESPN who think Pitaro likely “went too easy on McAfee,” perhaps especially Williamson and his allies. But the particular framing here shows no acknowledgment of how different McAfee’s status is from past ESPN personalities and cases. That doesn’t necessarily mean his deal with ESPN is good; it can of course be criticized. But they agreed to it and have abided by it so far.

Yes, there can still be friction there. Indeed, this piece has Pitaro irked he didn’t get a specific heads-up from McAfee of Rodgers’ surprising return to talk Bill Belichick. (That’s funny in contrast with the piece opening with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell irked he didn’t get more of a heads-up from Pitaro about the joint streaming venture with Fox and Warner Bros. Discovery.) And questions about whether the ESPN-McAfee relationship will run its full five years are fair game. But if that does end for one reason or another, it seems unlikely it will be over a demand from some unnamed ESPN officials that McAfee fact-check Aaron Rodgers live on air.

[The Wall Street Journal]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.