Bruce Feldman's Suspension, ESPN, And An Order For Watermelons All Around

Bruce Feldman's suspension from ESPN has nothing to do with Craig James' godlike powers, and everything to do with giant infants in business suits.

During World War II, General Joseph Stilwell had to fight a war in China without troops, supplies, or help from his allies. It was bound to happen: a war machine is a big thing to run, and eventually some lonely department is going to fall into a hole of bureaucratic neglect. That vacuum of oversight will be filled by someone, and in most cases that vacuum will be filled by someone completely insane and incompetent.

Case in point: Stilwell had to answer to Chiang Kai-Shek, a morphine-addicted lecher who would go on after the war to offload the entire Bank of China onto a boat, go to Taiwan, and slaughter tens of thousands of native islanders. Like many people who love power, he was completely crazy. During the middle of one battle, as Stilwell and his troops fought for survival in Burma, as the entire campaign was "crashing down around his ears," Stilwell was pulled to the back lines for a very, very important message from Chiang. In a perfect world this would have been a promise of reinforcements, supplies, or at the very least, encouragement from his only real ally.

Instead, the telegram ordered the issue of one watermelon for every four men immediately.


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Never assume the adults are in charge. They are not. If adults were in charge, we wouldn't have battlefield orders for watermelon snacks, and we would not have college football writer Bruce Feldman suspended by ESPN for doing his job. Feldman, as easygoing, fair, methodical, and exacting a reporter as there exists in covering college football, was suspended for his work editing the new book by former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, Swing Your Sword, despite apparently being given full permission beforehand from ESPN to do so. (This story just gave me another excuse to link the Amazon page, and make you aware of its existence. Leach's literary agent and publishing house thank you for your free advertisement, ESPN.)

I read the book on the plane Thursday night, and unlike every other piece of evidence cited by ESPN in their coverage of Leach's firing from Texas Tech, Leach's claims are documented. It's all right there in a series of emails included in an appendix, and in the sworn testimony collected from depositions. Like a good reporter or litigator, Leach builds his case, a case heard on CBSSports.com, CNNSI.com, SBNation.com, and a hundred other sites. One of those sites not listed is ESPN.com.

There are reasons for this. ESPN is excoriated in the book for shoddy reporting, particularly Joe Schad, the on-air personality who regurgitated whole chunks of the narrative offered by Spaeth Communications -- the PR company Craig James hired -- without scrutiny or suspicion. The ethical conflicts within ESPN regarding Leach's case have been beaten to death elsewhere, and reheating them here is not the point.

The point is larger than the network's boggling loyalty to Craig James, who admittedly comes across as the worst kind of person: an idiot too stupid to recognize his own malice, too weak to fight his own battles in public without the help of an odious PR agency, and too hambrained to avoid contradicting himself on the stand while "making a face like an infant messing his diaper," in Leach's words. He is arguably despicable, but he likely had little to do with the suspension of Feldman.

Feldman's suspension -- and this is purely guesswork -- came about out of the sheer incompetence and breakneck ignorance an organization as big as ESPN/Disney/Matsumoto Fishing Concern produces. By structure, ESPN as a whole owes nothing to journalism, or even the act of stating fact, an inherent tension between the "E" in their name and the news it presents. When the two come into conflict, the one attached to cable subscriptions and the pipeline of cash wins, and everything else is thrown into a snowbank of indifference.

By scale, it is impossible for one arm of the company to have full knowledge of what the other is doing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the company's divided television and news branches. TV brings in money, but online their staff breaks much of the actual news, news which should, by dollar and organizational birthright, go on television first. If you wonder why an online writer is paying for the sins of a television commentator, this schism is why. Online will always lose the fight between the two because watching is easier than reading.

To make things worse, the adults are not in charge. The oral history of ESPN is full of examples of corporate omerta squelching anything resembling an original voice excepting Bill Simmons, who is too huge for them to control at this point. If the adults were in charge, they would have known what an employee with an existing book agreement with Leach meant. They would have either compensated him for the busted deal, or simply allowed this to proceed.

Instead, some fussy Babbitt up the corporate ladder became enraged when he, not understanding exactly what this meant or completely ignorant of the potential, read the spiciest excerpts from the book. Who knows whether they even know Craig James, or like him, or make sweet love to a picture of him rushing for one yard in Super Bowl 20 against the Chicago Bears. That does not matter here. All you need for explanation is an angry whippet in an office barking at a dog walking by its window without its explicit permission, and the suspension is complete.

It is atrocious PR, horrendous management, and yes, antithetical to everything you would consider journalism. Don't sanctify journalism, mind you: it has its own collection of infants with Blackberries, just like any other profession. But while you're at it, don't forget to deal in shades of petty evil. There are brilliant people at ESPN, and there are those ticks who have been on the dog so long they think they're the ones you're saying "Good boy!" to after a successful fetch.

Meanwhile, Leach's book is up to number four on Amazon's list of best-selling sports books, two spots above...These Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN. Watermelons all around, manbabies, and that is an order.


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