Bruce Feldman and ESPN: It’s Beyond Unfair. It’s An Outrage

Full disclosure: Yesterday, I planned on writing about the ESPY’s. My outline was done, the jokes were written, my thoughts on Erin Andrews (stunning), Blake Griffin (hysterical) and Justin Bieber (poor kid, he’s definitely headed to an upscale drug rehab at some point) ready to roll. All I had to do was put pen to paper.

I couldn’t do it.

The truth was, the more I watched the show, the more that one sentiment continued to come back to me: I’d never seen a more self-aggrandizing, self-promotional, smug 150 minutes of TV in my life. Not only did it bore me to tears, it basically made me sick to my stomach. Quite frankly, I didn’t understand how anyone who didn’t work for the company could possibly find the whole thing even remotely entertaining.

So I decided to scrap the column.

Understand that I’m not one of these people who gets a sick thrill out of bashing ESPN. Granted, I don’t agree with everything they do, but think that for the most part, they put out more than enough quality content to keep me satisfied. Overall, the company has good programming, entertaining personalities, and for the most part, is really good at what they do. Who am I to criticize them? Especially since I wasn’t sure if I was the only one who felt the way I did about the ESPY’s. So in the end, I decided to keep my mouth shut. After all, I didn’t want to be one of those “snarky,” bloggers that everyone is always talking about.

Well apparently, I was a day early in my ESPN bashing. But today, I won’t keep my mouth shut. Sure my voice may be small, and this article might not be read by anyone outside the handful of you who are regular visitors to the site. But I’ve got to say something.

What’s the news that has me so upset? It’s ESPN’s suspension of star college football reporter Bruce Feldman. And if the facts in the case are true, it’s nothing short of distgusting.

For those of you who haven’t heard, let me give you a quick rundown of what we know.

As things stand right now, Feldman has been suspended indefinitely from the company. He cannot appear on radio or TV, in his regular role at ESPN The Magazine, or in any promotional appearances for his new book Swing Your Sword, which he helped former Texas Tech head football coach Mike Leach write.

As to why Feldman was suspended? That’s where it gets interesting.

According to a report by the very popular and well-respected Sports By Brooks, Feldman was suspended for for his role in helping Leach write his book. You may remember of course that Leach is persona non grata at ESPN, after he was fired at Texas Tech for his involvement with wide receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN college football analyst Craig James. With the school, Leach and James family still in the midst of a legal battle two years later, ESPN has obviously sided with its employee James, while the legal process takes its course. That is certainly their prerogative.

Either way, according to Brooks’ report, Feldman’s suspension is the direct result of working with Leach on the book, a book which obviously doesn’t have the kindest of words for Craig James and his family. The kicker is that even before starting the project, Feldman- sensing a potential conflict of interest down the road- asked the company for approval to work with Leach, and they gave it to him. And now he’s suspended.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned here is that we have only heard one side of this story. As well respected as Brooks is, he only gives Feldman’s take, and his sources on the subject apparently don’t include Feldman himself. Being a fair journalist, it’s important to note that there may be more sides to this story that we don’t know about.

Of course it doesn’t help that ESPN is also mum on this issue. Brett McMurphy of CBS Sports and Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch both reached out to the company late last night, and got a strict, “no comment,” in return.

It also doesn’t help ESPN’s case that Feldman is one of the most well respected journalists in the field. That was evidenced by the outpouring of support he received from his peers on Thursday night.

Amongst the many who spoke up, here is just a brief overview of what was said on Twitter:

Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel: One of the finest writers in the profession was suspended today because of a company’s own irresponsible journalism. #freebruce

Mandel’s colleague at SI, Andy Staples: Loving the outpouring of support for @BFeldmanESPN (Feldman’s Twitter handle). He’s one of the truly good guys in the biz. He deserves better.

Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel: Bruce Feldman is humble, hardworking and talented. Complete respect for him. Craig James once worked for Yahoo. Nothing to say about him

The Daily’s Dan Wolken: ESPN has employed multiple plagiarists and they draw the line at Bruce Feldman? Nice work, WWL

Eventually, even the non-college football writers got involved:

CBS Sports college basketball writer Gary Parrish said: I’m late on this, but what happened to Bruce Feldman is troubling. He’s a good friend and great journalist. He deserves better.

Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock added: If you have a pair, stand up for Bruce Feldman! He was suspended by ESPN for being a journalist.

On and on it went, with each writer sending their support of Feldman, and in many cases adding personal anecdotes. All in all, the whole thing was quite heart-warming.

Of course all of the outrage stemmed from the ethics of the whole situation. ESPN has long toed the line of acceptable journalistic practices, the most egregious example likely when their Ombudsmen had to give a long and impassioned defense of last summer’s “The Decision.” When it happened, many outside the company wondered if the program was trying to report “news,” or had simply become an entertainment avenue. Really, after partnering with LeBron James on “The Decision,” could they then go back to covering him impartially?

For the record, I enjoyed The Decision, and for the most part didn’t see a lot wrong it. Some, yes. But at the same time, it was the biggest news story of the summer, and it was ESPN’s job to cover the news. Granted, that the whole charade was done on LeBron James’ terms with his people hand-picking the interviewer, Jim Gray. I’ve often wondered (and I’m sure I’m not alone), if the sole reason Gray was selected, was because LeBron’s camp knew they could control the questions he asked. If that’s true, than ESPN should’ve given said no to broadcasting the event. Simply put, that’s not “sharing the message.” It’s controlling it.

Still, I enjoyed The Decision. However, I began to swing the other way on ESPN more recently, when they partnered with the University of Texas on The Longhorn Network.

For those of you who don’t know (which I’m pretty sure is next to no one still reading this article), the monolith that is the University of Texas Athletics Department has started their own television network, with the sole intent of exclusively broadcasting their own sports. It’s going to make boatloads of money for the school. And ESPN decided to partner with them on it. To which many, (including myself) wondered: How ESPN could possibly cover the University of Texas with objectivity, when the company basically has a stake in the school’s success? What happens if the school is investigated by the NCAA or players run afoul with the law? Will the Longhorn Network or ESPN report it? After all, isn’t bad news at Texas, bad news for ESPN? How will it all impact their coverage?

Away from Texas, it’s been much of the same this summer.

Have you noticed how as Yahoo continues to hit it out of the park, as Dan Wetzel and Charles Robinson continue to take down college football programs one by one, ESPN has been painfully slow to report these stories? Not only is the supposed “Worldwide Leader in Sports,” getting beat to the scoop by their biggest rivals, they’re taking hours and sometimes days to even mention the most bare bone details on some of these stories. And it’s because of that, another question has to be asked: Is ESPN moving slowly because Yahoo’s reporters are simply outworking theirs? Or with billions at stake with TV contracts, are they trying to slow the news cycle, or remove it all together? Honestly, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. But it’s still not a good look for the company either way.

And finally, this all comes back to Feldman. From the best I can tell, the outpouring for him last night happened for two reasons. The first is that by all accounts, he is a really good guy. You simply can’t find anyone in the business who has a bad word to say about him. I’ve only had one interaction with him personally, but even then, he was about as nice as could be.

Of course at the same time, being a good guy only takes you so far.

What is really alarming, what’s really got everyone so upset, is that if the facts of this case are true (and again, ESPN hasn’t denied them), than simply put, what the company has done to Feldman is censorship in the truest form. Plain and simple. No different than what happens in third world countries and dictatorships. As a buddy mentioned to me when I told him this story, “Are we in Soviet Russia?” If all the facts hold up, we aren’t too far off here.

Speaking of which, if the facts do hold up, I think it’s time for ESPN to make a decision of their own: Do they want to be a news outlet? Or an entertainment company? Because you can’t be both.

Quite frankly, it seems like they’ve been better at the latter for a long time now. I find that more often than not, I’m getting my sports news from CBS and Yahoo much more than I do the “worldwide leader.” Those companies simply have better reporters and reporting. Or at the very least a better chain of command to get the news to the consumer as fast as possible.

Ultimately, I suspect that Feldman will be back on the beat, sooner rather than later. He’s too good at what he does, and there is too much sentiment for him to be away for too long. Of course I’m not sure if the timing really matters anymore though. The damage has been done. ESPN has made their bed, and now they’ve got to sleep in it. For lack of a better term, the company has screwed up. Big time.

Understand that I say that as someone who not only appreciates anyone who works hard at their craft, but someone who has an especially soft spot for good writing and more importantly, good journalism.

After all, we all learned the simplest credo in at J-School, “Seek the truth and report it.” Feldman did just that, and now he’s suspended from his job.

To which I’ve got to ask, what the hell kind of company does this poor guy work for?

Picture Courtesy of BruceFeldman.com

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree with something Aaron said? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com.

Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.