July 15, 2011
When Bruce Feldman signed on to write a book with Mike Leach in 2009, he probably knew it was a coup — Feldman had produced a pair of successful college football books already, and Leach had more than proven himself as one of the most intriguing characters in the sport even before proving himself as the most successful coach in Texas Tech history. But he couldn't have known just how fateful this particular project would eventually prove, on both sides of the coin.
Initially, it was lucky: Leach's bizarre, high-profile ouster from Tech that winter and subsequent court battle against his former employers guaranteed interest beyond the coach's cult of oddball admirers. Thursday, however, Feldman's luck appeared to turn when he was reportedly suspended indefinitely from his day job as a reporter for ESPN, barring him from writing, tweeting, appearing on television or radio or otherwise comporting himself under the network banner.
The network hasn't issued an official statement, but the radio silence from Feldman's usually active Twitter feed in the face of an overwhelming response from his colleagues (the ones who don't work at ESPN, anyway) tells the tale. So does the timing: The decision to put Feldman on ice comes just days after the Leach book, "Swing Your Sword," hit the shelves, and multiple excerpts began appearing on the web, including on Yahoo! Sports' online magazine, ThePostGame — every single one of them quoting Leach's scathing rebuke to ESPN for favoring the narrative pushed by its employee, Craig James.
It was James who initially appealed to (or, depending on your perspective, conspired with) Texas Tech officials with complaints that Leach mistreated his son, sophomore wide receiver Adam James, after Adam suffered a concussion in practices for the 2010 Alamo Bowl. In multiple on-air interviews, Craig James presented himself as a parent concerned about his son's safety under an unhinged coach. Leach called the younger James spoiled, lazy and entitled, and his father a meddlesome "Little League dad" who offered university officials the opportunity to attack Leach they had been looking for since a round of contentious contract talks earlier that year. The coach accused ESPN's coverage of skewing too heavily toward the former perspective, and his book pulls no punches:
From the moment Tech suspended me to the time my firing was announced, there was a flood of media reports revealing all these "details" about things I'd supposedly done. ESPN's Joe Schad was just spewing this stuff that Craig James and Spaeth Communications [a PR firm hired by James] were feeding him: "Alleged electrical closet" ... "Alleged electrical closet" ... "YouTube video of Adam James in the alleged electrical closet is available" ... "I'm told the alleged electrical closet is approximately 4 x 10 feet."
Then "SportsCenter" showed Adam's YouTube video from the electrical closet. Too bad they never said Adam went in that electrical closet after he was specifically told not to go in there. […]
On top of that, you had all these analysts, who were colleagues of Craig James, weighing in on ESPN. They had no knowledge of the facts. Obviously, they weren't even concerned about the facts. They just took everything that Craig James, through Spaeth Communications, was feeding them, and kept repeating it over and over, during every pre-game show, every halftime show, every post-game show, and during "SportsCenter." This went on for days.
There were a number of exchanges between my agents and ESPN. But ESPN was more interested in presenting the fantastical story by Spaeth Communications. They weren't just showing one side of the story, they were perpetuating falsehoods.
There were statements out there from Adam James's two position coaches, Dana Holgorsen and Lincoln Riley. There was a statement from the strength coach, Bennie Wylie. There were statements from three of James's teammates -- players that had been successful in the program and had witnessed Adam's behavior, as well as mine. CBSSports.com and other media outlets chose to run those statements. ESPN, which also had them, chose not to. When one of my agents asked Joe Schad, the ESPN reporter, why they neglected to report those statements, he said he didn't see how they were relevant to the story. But when Craig James gave Schad Adam's cell number so he could hand the phone over to his roommate Chris Perry, a back-up lineman whom we'd suspended twice, his statement was considered relevant.
Those words belong to Leach, not Feldman, who acted as a filter for his subject with his boss' explicit permission. They're not surprising, considering Leach has been pursuing a libel suit against the network on the same grounds since last November. They're also not very far removed from the conclusion of ESPN's own ombudsman, Don Ohlmeyer, who chided the network's broadcast of the 2010 Alamo Bowl for operating on "the premise that Adam James was an innocent bystander" and "basically ignor[ing]" Leach's side of the story.
This time, though, they seem to have struck a raw nerve. Feldman, a widely respected mainstay at ESPN.com from its inception 15 years ago, now faces an uncertain future at the company he helped put on the map as a journalistic entity, apparently for the sin of practicing inconvenient journalism.
Meanwhile, the widely disliked Craig James will remain on your television this fall on a weekly basis, whooping over big hits, collapsing after workouts with Jesse Palmer and grasping for reasons to drop Boise State in the polls. That is, unless he decides to run for senator.
Unfortunately for ESPN, there's one other inconvenient fact that is always certain: Journalists rallying to the defense of other journalists. Feldman's name quickly became a trending topic overnight on Twitter, where all of his non-ESPN colleagues — that is, his competitors — huddled under the #FreeBruce hashtag to stand in the corner of a guy they consider one of the most humble, personable and professional in the business. Their protests and small-scale boycotts may or may not mean anything in boardrooms and other dank executive lairs. But if the puppet masters at the "Worldwide Leader" thought they could deflect negative publicity by punishing an attack on the brand, they have badly miscalculated.
[UPDATE, 11:43 a.m. ET: Craig James responded to the mounting outrage this morning with a tweet from his own account, @craigjames32, disclaiming responsibility for the suspension: "Respected colleague & friend of Feldman since early 90's. Surprised! Saw this in news like y'all"]
[UPDATE, 3:44 p.m. ET: ESPN has issued an official statement this afternoon reporting that "Bruce has resumed his assignments."]
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.
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