Pat McAfee on the set of ESPN College GameDay prior to the game between the Colorado Buffaloes and the Colorado State Rams at Folsom Field. Credit: Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

How did ESPN not see this coming? You can’t give mavericks this much control and not expect them to test the limits of their power.

The only person who should be shocked by the latest Pat McAfee mess is Jimmy Kimmel, an innocent bystander who took a shot from McAfee’s problematic and highly paid broadcasting buddy Aaron Rodgers.

ESPN has added mavericks to its roster before, bringing in guys like Bill Simmons and Dan Le Batard who pushed the boundaries of what the network was willing to tolerate. There is often a cost to this risk. Simmons was suspended for three weeks after calling Roger Goodell a liar on his podcast and then daring his bosses to punish him. Le Batard was suspended for two days for a billboard stunt that mocked LeBron James

Not surprisingly, Simmons and Le Batard left The Worldwide Leader in Sports. Also not surprisingly, both have found great success by striking out on their own. But Simmons and Le Batard never had the kind of control at ESPN that McAfee currently wields. And last week, it blew up in the network’s face.

During McAfee’s weekly interview with Aaron Rodgers, Rodgers accused Kimmel of connections to notorious convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. Kimmel threatened legal action, and McAfee and ESPN later apologized. Last Friday, McAfee called ESPN executive Norby Williamson a ‘rat’ and accused him of ‘attempting to sabotage our program.’

Oh boy.

ESPN released a statement in support of Williamson, and CNBC’s Alex Sherman reported that “there is no planned suspension for McAfee, and ESPN hopes to find a path forward for both Williamson and McAfee, according to a person familiar with the matter.”

McAfee’s claims about Williamson might be valid but, for now, it seems like we’re not going to get further details. ESPN has always been sensitive to criticism, and the airing of dirty laundry by its on-air talent is not good for the brand. Management will try its best to push this out of the news cycle. But while this is bad for the network, the controversy isn’t necessarily bad for McAfee and his outsider reputation.

ESPN has never had a talent quite like McAfee who is arguably bigger than the network. His legions of fans are loyal and are receptive to him raging against the establishment even when he’s cashing paychecks from the establishment. This feeds into a narrative that has made McAfee so popular and polarizing.

How long will the McAfee and ESPN union last? Probably for as long as both sides can stomach each other and while the business arrangement is profitable. Today, it doesn’t seem like a long-term marriage. The larger question is: will ESPN ever let anyone have this much control again?

ESPN doesn’t need these headaches. It has always been able to create its own stars. No one is irreplaceable. Not even hot-take artist Stephen A. Smith who has become the face of the network.

Instead of bringing in the next McAfee who is liable to make a mess by bringing in guests who offer unhinged opinions, it’s safer to promote from within. Or, if you’re going to go the free-agent route, insist on greater content control.

ESPN doesn’t want to stifle creatives. But it also probably doesn’t want to issue another apology to a valuable longtime employee like Kimmel. We don’t know what is happening behind closed doors but it’s reasonable to assume that there have been several conference calls and face-to-face meetings involving upper management, agents, lawyers, and human resources at Bristol.

These are gatherings no one wants to attend. McAfee is fortunate to have avoided public discipline. However, ESPN can’t be surprised by a maverick acting like a maverick.

This is likely not the last time that something troubling will happen on his show. But it might be the last time that ESPN gives that much control to anyone.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant.