Pat McAfee talks to Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on "All The Smoke." Pat McAfee talks to Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on “All The Smoke.” (“All The Smoke” on YouTube.)

One of the most remarkable sports media stories of 2024 to date happened in the first week of the year, where Pat McAfee called ESPN head of event and studio production Norby Williamson “a rat” and accused him of “sabotage” during McAfee’s show’s broadcast on ESPN platforms. That led to a lot of immediate discussion, but there’s still some of it that hasn’t been fully examined. And McAfee went into much more detail on just what happened there in an appearance on All The Smoke with Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes that was published Thursday.

There’s a wide-ranging conversation here, and a lot of it is notable. But the stuff on Williamson (who isn’t mentioned by name, but McAfee makes it clear it’s him) is perhaps the most interesting. Early in the episode, there’s a little discussion of ESPN “suits,” with McAfee saying “I’m a f****** a****** to those suits, too. They do not like me.” And he then talks about his show getting to ESPN, and brings up “middle management people” who initially turned him down.

“We had to go through the Barstool route, but we kept our own company in Indiana. Learned a lot about the internet through them, that was like a university of how digital works. So then, as I kind of realized, and our boys, we realized ‘We can do this ourselves, we don’t need them.’

“And now we’re kind of coming back to the point where I’m negotiating with like Amazon, I’m negotiating with NBC, I’m negotiating with Apple, I’m negotiating with ESPN, it’s like all those same middle management people five years ago who said ‘We got nothing for you,’ and I remember that, and I’m never going to forget that.”

Jackson asks him if he “kept receipts,” and McAfee says “Yeah. I think I have the right level of pettiness.” Barnes asks “Mixed with intelligence?” and McAfee responds by saying that’s not always the case, but he’s not too worried if things don’t work out.

“Uh…[laughs]. There’s some unintelligent s*** I’ve said that I shouldn’t in these negotiations. But I’ve also got the crew around me where I have a safety net if a deal falls through.”

That leads into a discussion of Aaron Rodgers-Jimmy Kimmel fight, and we’ll get back to that, but the Williamson stuff stands out more. Much of the episode is about McAfee’s time as an athlete and path to this point, but around the 44-minute mark, McAfee gets into a discussion of his show and its future. He talks about playing checkers rather than chess and how he’s focused on the immediate next move.

“Who knows what the media space looks like a year from now, who knows what the show looks like a year from now? Everyone talks about being a chess player, chess player, chess player. Like, I’m checkers, man. I’m just trying to get over you, get to the next one, and then king me, b****, right at the end, and I’m coming back.”

Jackson says “You’re helping dictate what this space is going to be” and Barnes says “You don’t realize it in the moment, you guys don’t realize it, we don’t realize it, but we are shaping what’s next.” McAfee says “Yes, you are,” Barnes says “You too,” and McAfee says “I should not be” with a laugh. He then has a more serious response, and one pointing out how he thinks a lot of sports media decisions aren’t logical.

“I appreciate that. And I do think that every decision that I make, and I’m not saying I’m making decisions for anyone else, I’m making decisions for our company to continue to survive, and hopefully other companies that are like ours in the future to be able to do it.

“That’s what the decisions are that are happening. But I also think that there’s a lot of things like if anyone else was in my spot, they’d be doing the same exact thing. Like, there’s a lot of common-sense s*** that just doesn’t make any sense that is happening in the sports media world.”

That gets into discussions of “idiot” executives, with McAfee even saying he “tried to extend an olive branch to the olds.

“People that are in positions of power in a lot of businesses, more specifically for this particular conversation, the sports media world, there are a lot of idiots that are making a lot of decisions. And those idiots made a lot of money for a long time doing something in one particular fashion.

“So they’re going to hang onto that for as long as they possibly can. And there is other stuff happening very quickly, and tomorrow is meeting today at a rate that we’re all inspecting.

“I think there’s a relationship between what used to be and the future that can still coexist, and I think from my standpoint, I have tried to extend an olive branch to the olds, like ‘Hey, this is what we’ve seen be a success.’ But what they have done in return is not the case.

“So whenever we do break through on something, I can take a lot of pride in the fact that somebody else is probably going to be able to say that this is how it should be because now there’s a precedent.”

McAfee then credited others like Joe Rogan and Mike Florio for blazing trails before him.

“But obviously I’m not the only one that has done this. Like, obviously, Joe Rogan’s deal with Spotify, that was huge, fantastic. Even like Mike Florio with Pro Football Talk, he’s sold his company like two different times, both to ESPN and then to NBC. Barstool Sports, what they’ve been able to do and what they’ve been able to run, there’s a lot of people before me.

“So when people are like ‘Hey, you’re doing this, you’re doing that,’ I’m like, ‘Hey, I appreciate that,’ and I do feel like I’ve made some gains in some places that needed it, but it is inevitable. It is inevitable. And we’re lucky to be here.”

Around the 50-minute mark, McAfee talks about why he went to ESPN, and how he worked with current ESPN chair Jimmy Pitaro and current Disney CEO Bob Iger to get there, but throws a shot at “middle management.”

“I just kind of got up to a point where I think we all were sick of doing all the b*******, so we wanted a little bit of help. So we decided we wanted to take the show to a network, ended up getting a deal done with Jimmy Pitaro and Bob Iger, licensed the show to them, and they’ve helped out immensely.

“The access, and the production; we were live in like 10 different college towns, that would have cost me, I don’t know, like 40 f****** hours of work, but ESPN just kind of took care of it. They’ve made my life easier, they’ve made my access a lot easier. I still retain 100 percent rights and creative freedom and ownership on my show, but they’re an incredible partner and I’m lucky to be here. There’s a lot of middle management, though, that does not love us.”

Barnes follows that up with a specific question about McAfee calling out Williamson [without naming him], and asks about backlash.

“You have a lot of respect, but you got even more respect for doing that. Has there been any backlash, any conversation? Because there is a give and take and a tug between people who have put their hats on for a lot of years and made a lot of money and what is coming and what’s going to be.”

And that sees McAfee really go into detail on that mess, and question those who covered it as “McAfee calls out his boss.”

“I don’t know. I don’t know if there was any conversations that happened behind the scenes. I thought that was a warning shot to that guy, I didn’t think that was…”

Barnes asks “A direct hit?” and McAfee replies “Yeah. Because 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].”

McAfee again calls his “rat” line on Williamson “a warning shot” and says he thought Williamson “was at the same level.” He also brings up how Williamson not only rejected him, but no-showed him in the past.

“So that was just a warning shot to a person who I thought was at the same level, which is hilarious, because I guess he’s the former president of the place, a lot of people have a lot of fear of him. I did not. I did not. That guy left me sitting in his office for 45 minutes, no-showed me when I was supposed to have a meeting with him, five years ago, six years ago.”

Barnes asks “And you remember that?”

And McAfee responds by saying he remembers all that, and that Williamson was also behind the infamous ban of ESPN talent from McAfee’s show back in its pre-ESPN days (which, oddly enough, led to McAfee’s first interaction with Pitaro).

“This thing’s a f****** elephant brain, buddy. I’ve got everybody’s…he also banned all my friends from coming on my show. There was a ban of ESPN talent on my show on YouTube that came directly from him, so much so that I started a hashtag, #ESPNStinks, the day that everybody got banned from my show. It trended for like eight, nine hours, something like that.

“And then the next day is when I met Jimmy Pitaro. Jimmy Pitaro called me like, ‘Hey, how do we, what’s the deal?’ and I told him ‘You guys are banning my friends from coming on my show,’ Matt Hasselbeck worked at ESPN, Jeff Passan worked at ESPN, Dan Orlovsky worked at ESPN, all these people that I’ve known since before they worked at ESPN, they’re not even allowed to come on my podcast or whatever, my YouTube show, you guys banned it. So, like, that guy was not a fan of me or our operation for a long time.”

McAfee said Williamson’s responsibilities with SportsCenter also gave him a grudge against what was taking its noon ET timeslot. But McAfee wasn’t expecting pushback from ESPN figures.

“So then when ESPN signs us, and he runs SportsCenter, and our show is now in place of SportsCenter at noon…I’m a fan of SportsCenter, we all watch SportsCenter, I grew up on [theme music], but there became like a war almost from behind the scenes from SportsCenter people and people that had been at ESPN a long time against us coming in and ‘taking their jobs’ and all this other s***. And I didn’t see it like that. We were, like, pumped that we made it to the big leagues, like ‘Hey, I’m pumped that we’re on the Worldwide Leader.’ That’s how I viewed it.

“And this what I’m talking about, being a checkers player, like, get the ESPN deal done, like, ‘This is awesome, we’ve joined the ESPN team, we’re lucky to be here, we get access.’ And then immediately it’s like ‘This guy sucks, this guy’s ruining ESPN.’ And it’s not coming from people outside ESPN, it was coming from people with ESPN. So then I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m in war. If that’s what’s what we’re doing, then we’re in war.'”

He said that these execs were “trying to kill me.”

“And then once you start learning about how s***’s going behind the scenes, things that are being said to people, things that are being leaked, the timing in which they’re being leaked, it’s like ‘Oh, they’re trying to kill me. They’re trying to make our show impossible to advertise with, they’re trying to make sure people don’t watch our show.’

“So as I start learning that, I’m like ‘All right, I don’t know how this has gone in the past with other people, but this particular white trash kid from Pittsburgh is like ‘Hey, suits, this is not how this is going to go.'”

McAfee then emphasized that he could have been much harsher on Williamson, and that he’s heard from others who had similar issues and discussed Williamson’s involvement there.

“So that was just a warning shot. That wasn’t even supposed to be, and then obviously it goes big. And I heard from, this is no lie, I heard from like 40 people who have worked at ESPN or used to work at ESPN and they’re like ‘Thank you for saying what you said.’  And I was like ‘Well, if I had really crafted a statement about that, I could have said something much better.'”

But he said he regrets the blowback it drew for his ESPN allies.

“But I also did not appreciate…the thing I didn’t think about, once again, checkers player, I did not expect the backlash afterwards. Like, Burke Magnus just became the president of content at ESPN, I think he has a great vision for what the future of sports media should look like, he was a big part of us joining ESPN, people were attacking Burke because it made him look sloppy, because it’s inside the building. People were attacking Jimmy because it looked sloppy.

“And that’s something I did not think about, that I was very apologetic about, because I didn’t mean to take down my allies in the whole thing, but I genuinely did not mean for it to get as big as it did because I didn’t think I said anything that was like that crazy.

“I’m a pretty good talker, I’m a pretty good promo-cutter, if I really wanted to saw a m*********** down, I could have done it in a much bigger way. And I did not, so I was actually like, ‘Look at me, I’m an adult.’ And then it got loud. It got real loud.”

The other thing of particular note here is what McAfee says in defense of his continued interviews of Rodgers where he doesn’t challenge him much. That comes back around the nine-minute mark.

“Like, people are thinking we’re going to get kicked off of ESPN this year already, people are assuming it’s not going to work, it’s not going to last, because Aaron started a war with Jimmy Kimmel on our show, Jimmy Kimmel, obviously ABC. And on the COVID stuff, calling out Fauci on our show, it was a lot. The block got real hot for about three weeks.”

McAfee discusses talking to Shannon Sharpe around this after seeing Sharpe’s interview with Katt Williams and the blowback Sharpe got for not pushing back. McAfee says he had some uncertainty about talking with Rodgers on fields where he doesn’t know everything, but ultimately decided that was worthwhile.

“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 says there he thinks his show will be useful for those making documentaries on Rodgers in the future, and defends it as journalism from that standpoint.

“Whenever there’s documentaries made about Aaron Rodgers later in life, which will happen, they’re going to use so much of our show. Is that not journalism? So it’s like although there are wars that we get into, and Aaron will defend himself, he’s a friend of ours, he does his thing, I mean, I’m vaccinated, and in the middle of this, I was getting sworn at in like 30 different languages and people were saying that I was the worst human on earth.

“I think we’re just a different style of programming; we’re a conversationalist, we have no idea where we’re headed, we don’t have scheduled questions, I don’t prep anybody when they’re coming on, I don’t have a list of questions. I’m just having a conversation with people. And boy, it has certainly got us into some s***, but it has also got us some magic that not a lot of other places have. So it’s a weird dynamic, that’s for sure.”

The All The Smoke episode here is live on YouTube now, and will premiere on the DraftKings Network at 6 p.m. ET Thursday.

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.