As it morphs from a television company into a streaming company, ESPN is undergoing rapid transformation. But if the extraordinary events of the past week are any indication, the transformation of its corporate culture is just as seismic.
For decades, the biggest star at ESPN was ESPN. A long list of its best-known employees — like Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons and Dan Le Batard — clashed with executives, and the story always ended the same way: Those employees left, and ESPN kept right on rolling.
But last week Pat McAfee, the Indianapolis Colts punter turned new-media shock jock and ESPN star, directly criticized a powerful executive at the Disney-owned network by name, calling him a “rat.” Not only was Mr. McAfee not fired, he seemingly was not punished at all, shocking current and former ESPN executives and employees.
“We know there is no more offensive crime in the universe of ESPN and Disney than host-on-host crime, or talent-on-talent crime,” Jemele Hill, a former “SportsCenter” host who left ESPN in 2018 after sparring with executives, said last week.
To complicate matters even further, days earlier, Aaron Rodgers, the New York Jets quarterback and a regular paid guest on Mr. McAfee’s daily afternoon talk show, said during an appearance that a lot of people, “including Jimmy Kimmel,” were hoping a court would not make public a list of the associates of Jeffrey Epstein, the disgraced financier and registered sex offender.
Mr. Kimmel’s late-night talk show is broadcast on ABC, which Disney also owns.
It used to be that executives at ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., considered publicly criticizing a colleague practically the worst thing an employee could do.
Tony Kornheiser was removed from the air for two weeks for remarking on Hannah Storm’s clothing. Mr. Simmons was twice suspended from social media, once for feuding with an ESPN-owned radio station and another time for criticizing the network’s popular show “First Take.” Mr. Olbermann was suspended for going on Comedy Central and calling Bristol a “God-forsaken place.”
But Mr. McAfee’s great escape has shined a light on his unusual arrangement with ESPN, which licenses but does not own his show. It also illustrates the bind that ESPN’s executives are in by empowering Mr. McAfee when the company is transitioning from the cable era it dominated into the streaming and social media era it has so far entered with less success.
Mr. McAfee is both an ESPN employee who appears on some of its college football and National Football League shows, as well as a contractor who produces “The Pat McAfee Show,” which is shown for several hours on both the ESPN cable channel and the ESPN+ streaming service.
Mr. McAfee previously worked for the Barstool Sports media company, the FanDuel sports betting company and World Wrestling Entertainment, and arrived at ESPN with a large and loyal audience. His show is a freewheeling shoutfest reminiscent of Don Imus or Howard Stern, with a recurring cast of characters and far more swearing than ESPN allows most shows.
Last week he called Norby Williamson, who has worked at ESPN since 1985 and is officially the executive editor and head of event and studio production, a “rat.” Mr. McAfee also accused him of leaking unflattering ratings data for his show to The New York Post.
“There are some people actively trying to sabotage us from within ESPN,” Mr. McAfee said on the air. “More specifically, I believe Norby Williamson is the guy attempting to sabotage our program.”
In a statement over the weekend, ESPN said positive things about both men, adding that the company would “handle this matter internally and have no further comment.” Mr. McAfee and Mr. Williamson did not respond to messages requesting comment, and ESPN declined to make them or any executives available for an interview.
Then there is Mr. Rodgers, whose weekly appearances on Mr. McAfee’s show sometimes feature anti-vaccine diatribes and have become increasingly unpredictable. After Mr. Kimmel — whose name was not on the Epstein list released by the court — threatened to sue Mr. Rodgers, Mr. McAfee apologized on his behalf, sort of, saying he thought Mr. Rodgers was just trying to rile up Mr. Kimmel as part of a small feud between the two. Mr. Rodgers did not offer an apology when he appeared on the show on Tuesday, instead saying ESPN executives and others in the news media misinterpreted his comments.
While Mr. McAfee seemed somewhat uncomfortable in the middle of a clash between Mr. Rodgers and Mr. Kimmel, he did not apologize for his own criticism of Mr. Williamson. In fact, he reiterated it.
“We love Burke Magnus,” Mr. McAfee said on his show on Monday, naming a parade of top ESPN and Disney executives who are more powerful than Mr. Williamson. “Love Burke Magnus. And also love Jimmy Pitaro. Love Bob Iger. But there is quite a transition era here between the old and the new. And the old don’t like what the new be doing.”
Speaking about Mr. Williamson, he added that he was not taking back “anything that I said about said person,” and that there were “just some old hags” that did not understand what the future looked like.
Mr. Williamson has long been a powerful but divisive figure within ESPN. “The joke was they couldn’t get rid of him, and now he has more power than ever,” Mr. Simmons said on his podcast in 2017, comparing Mr. Williamson to Littlefinger, a power-hungry and Machiavellian character from “Game of Thrones.”
Mr. Williamson’s domain has long been “SportsCenter,” which he obsessively promotes within ESPN. While other top executives focus on big-picture issues, Mr. Williamson is known to send out emails focusing on the smallest tweaks to shows, and has a reputation for liking a traditional, meat-and-potatoes version of “SportsCenter” focused on highlights.
It is not clear where the dispute between Mr. Williamson and Mr. McAfee may have begun. Mr. McAfee’s arrival at the company did relegate the noon showing of “SportsCenter” to ESPN2 from ESPN, but otherwise the two operate in separate domains.
It may be that the fight is part of a larger struggle regarding power within the network, and whether it should rest more squarely with on-air talent or with executives.
Mr. McAfee is in the first year of a five-year agreement that reportedly pays him a total of $85 million. ESPN would not want to deal with the fallout of ending that contract prematurely, especially when Mr. McAfee is one of its star personalities and occupies hours of television time daily.
One possible reason Mr. McAfee escaped punishment is that, while Mr. Williamson had never been criticized by an ESPN employee so publicly, it wasn’t the first time someone at the network clashed with him and believed he was being undermining.
“These people did this to us at the end, with a series of strategic, orchestrated leaks,” Mr. Le Batard said Monday on his podcast, referring to his battles with Mr. Williamson and others, and his eventual departure from ESPN three years ago.
Mr. Le Batard once had a stark warning for employees, like himself, who chafed at ESPN’s strictures. “Do not leave ESPN, man,” he said on the radio in 2016. “ESPN is a monster platform that is responsible for all of our successes.”
But in 2023, at least as it relates to Mr. McAfee, his opinion has changed.
“This is a guy who has got all his own power and is renting to them,” Mr. Le Batard said on his show. “He will be bigger the moment that he leaves there, because he was too hot for Disney to handle, than he was at any point before that. He has nothing to fear here, and that has to scare the hell out of them.”