Reimer: ESPN president John Skipper's sudden resignation invites skepticism

Alex Reimer
December 18, 2017 - 3:19 pm

USA Today Sports

ESPN president John Skipper’s decision to resign from the company and cite substance abuse is curious. Skipper had just inked a three-year extension with ESPN last month and issued a companywide address last week to the network’s talent about topics ranging from sexual harassment to political bias. Despite a tumultuous year at the WorldWide Leader, Skipper appeared more entrenched than ever. 

Plus, many employees take leaves of absences to combat substance abuse. Stepping away entirely is extreme. 

The sudden announcement surprised nearly everybody at ESPN, according to Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch. Dan Le Batard cried on his radio show when he heard the news, lauding Skipper’s leadership.

“This person has created everything that exists here at ESPN, for us,” Le Batard said. “And he did it because of how he cares about minorities and their causes. And so every success that we’ve had –– I didn’t want to work for ESPN, I wanted to work for this man.”

It’s been an exhausting string of headlines for ESPN. The company has lost $1 billion in revenue after shedding 13 million subscribers in six years. Cable television is facing a dire reality, thanks to cord-cutting and streaming. ESPN’s suffocating rights agreements for live sporting events, which are also experiencing downturns in viewership, force the company to charge cable providers even more money for distribution. The price for ESPN is increasing, at a time when demand for its programming is declining. 

It’s a disastrous equation. ESPN has conducted three widespread layoffs over the last two years, slicing at least 550 employees during that time frame.

But yet, Disney CEO Bob Iger continued to support Skipper’s vision. His influence is all over the network, where he served as the executive vice president of content from 2005 to 2012. Deitch says ESPN’s elevation of women and minority opinion voices, including Doris Burke, Jessica Mendoza, Jemele Hill and Michael Smith, is Skipper’s doing. ESPN has also launched a vertical that focuses on the intersection of race and sports, The Undefeated, in recent years.

ESPN’s declining revenue, combined with its perceived liberal bias, has turned the company into a frequent right-wing target –– much like the New York Times and CNN. In September, the White House called for Hill’s firing, after she compared President Donald Trump to a white supremacist on Twitter. 

Hill was later suspended for supposedly violating the company’s social media policy when she suggested Cowboys fans could boycott the team’s sponsors over owner Jerry Jones’ insistence on players standing for the anthem. 

Skipper is not responsible for all of those negative headlines, and even some of the declining ratings and lost business. The landscape is bleak for cable TV and the country is polarized. In those regards, ESPN is largely a victim of circumstance 

But there have also been self-inflicted wounds, such as the demotion of an announcer named “Robert Lee” from calling a Virginia Tech football game following the Charlottesville riots. The sudden cancellation of Barstool Sports’ “Van Talk” after just one episode prompted widespread backlash, too, and resulted in the revisiting of ESPN’s history with sexual misconduct. Last week, the Boston Globe reported on a sexual harassment lawsuit that names anchor John Buccigross and fantasy analyst Matthew Berry. The company took the bold step and published seemingly consensual text messages between Buccigross and his accuser, in order to defend its high-profile employee.

All of that means there were plenty of reasons for the embattled Skipper to leave his position at ESPN. His recent contract extension and speech last week, however, indicates a suddenness to this life-altering decision. Multibillion-dollar corporations like Disney and high-powered executives like Skipper don’t often act rashly. 

This isn’t meant to dismiss Skipper’s admitted battle with substance abuse. But the bizarre timing of his departure invites skepticism. Plenty of turbulence has been gathering at ESPN for an extended period of time. It seems like there must be more to come.

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