Dan Le Batard has never been afraid to call things as he sees them, even when that means bashing his own employer, and on Thursday he called out ESPN over one of the networks favorite tricks. Le Batard used his ESPN radio show to criticize ESPN’s “car wash” model and openly meditate over a programming decision on his ESPN television show.
On the radio show, Le Batard voiced a vociferous objection to the “unseemly” presence of Kentucky coach John Calipari across ESPN platforms, suggesting that the network was essentially offering a recruiting platform for the coach and his program. Calipari was going through the so-called “car wash,” in which ESPN invites someone (often a college coach) to appear on a variety of shows throughout the day. The coach gets a chance to sell his program, and ESPN gets seemingly unlimited interviews.
Le Batard’s issue, according to a transcription from College Spun, is that ESPN appears “in on the deal,” going above and beyond to promote one college program it’s supposed to cover objectively. Via College Spun, here’s what Le Batard had to say:
“This is unseemly. It is,” Le Batard said. “This is ESPN being in on the deal. And there’s no getting around this. I can moralize and gasbag all I want, but this is ESPN in on the deal. A texter writes in, ‘Dan, any thoughts on what ESPN is doing today with Calipari? It comes off like a gross recruiting tool for Kentucky. Calling moms of former players, letting him schmooze live on the air, does ESPN have any obligation to keep clear of this type of thing? Cal obviously eats it up as he should.’”
“It’s simply not right to give him the entire platform to be out recruiting by himself,” Le Batard said. “It’s not the coaches coming through the carwash. It’s one super famous coach who already has a recruiting advantage using all of our platforms to go into full salesman mode. ESPN is doing something wrong today as part of this transaction, and I’m right in on it.”
Though Le Batard is a bit off the mark in suggesting the car wash is specific to super-famous coaches, he’s got a point when it comes to the blurry line between journalism and PR, something ESPN constantly grapples with. In the car wash, ESPN offers coaches a ton of publicity in exchange for some softball interviews that drive ratings. There’s nothing all that pure about the endeavor.
But Le Batard’s objection is complicated by the fact that his afternoon television show is itself part of the car wash. In fact, Calipari is scheduled to appear on Highly Questionable on Thursday afternoon, though it sounds like Le Batard may try to pull the plug. Again via College Spun:
“I feel like I should take a moral stand and just cancel our interview on television with Calipari,” he said.
“Well you can’t say what you just said and (then) go interview Calipari later. I think you need to cancel,” his co-host, Jon Weiner, said.
“Yeah, I probably need to cancel (it),” Le Batard said. “But that one feels a bit like grandstanding, too. Like it’s hard. I don’t know how to do that one.”
“Why don’t you have a conversation with him about this, what you’re feeling?” the show’s executive producer, Mike Ryan, said.
“I mean, this is gross. Like, what’s happening with Calipari at ESPN today is gross,” Le Batard said. “This is amateurism, all the stuff I’ve been complaining about. It’s Jim Harbaugh with a $10K/day jet, it’s Butch Jones driving around in a $220K car. And Calipari’s got the platform to himself today. Usually we bring all the coaches in, but he’s got, this is sort of like, you know how in politics with fair and balanced and equal time – this isn’t equal time. He’s wandering around the premises on every platform selling himself and selling the program.”
“I don’t blame him, I blame us.”
This isn’t the first time Le Batard has publicly criticized ESPN, but it could be his most defiant stand against his employer. In March, he objected to the network’s participation in MLB’s return to Cuba, in a column that was published on ESPN.com as well as the Miami Herald, but that was a thoughtful rumination on a personal issue. This is basically calling his bosses shady ratings-grabbers. And he’s even threatening some civil disobedience by talking about pulling Calipari off Highly Questionable.
HQ airs at 4:30 Eastern Time, so we’ll soon see if Le Batard walks the walk when on his objections to the car wash.