Norby Williamson Exits ESPN After Nearly Four Decades

Norby Williamson, the ESPN veteran who has managed everything from NFL coverage to “SportsCenter,” is leaving the Disney sports-media giant abruptly just weeks after being called out on camera in a surprise and unprecedented outburst by daytime host Pat McAfee.

The McAfee contretemps is not at the root of Williamson’s departure, according to a person familiar with the matter, but rather disagreements between the executive and the longer-term strategy being devised by Burke Magnus, who was handed oversight of content and news production in March of last year.

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“Almost 40 years ago in 1985, I was so very fortunate to be offered an opportunity at ESPN,: Williamson said in a statement that was issued in a memo to staffers Friday. “Due to the exceptional hard work, creativity and commitment of the people of ESPN, and to a much lesser extent my contributions, I’d like to think we’ve left our great company in a far better place than we found it.”

ESPN intends to conduct a search for a new senior content executive, Magnus said. Williamson’s responsibilities included supervising not only “SportsCenter,” but ESPN Radio, ESPN’s features and investigative units, its newsgathering, and sponsorships. He had been in his current role since September of 2017.

While well-known to sports-media aficionados, Williamson may not be the top name bandied about by the average sports fan. That changed in January when McAfee, a relatively new hire at ESPN who already had established himself as a popular sports commentator on YouTube, was given new daytime duties on ESPN2. The raucous host gave a spotlight to conspiracy theories from NFL player Aaron Rodgers and spent time calling out Williamson for what McAfee said were leaks to media outlets about the ratings performance of his program. ESPN has paid millions to license the property for its own schedule

Williamson was known to be an exacting producer who was not shy about confronting talent about how to proceed on camera. He was focused on giving ESPN viewers the basics, and tended not to favor programing that tried to move outside the lines. It was Williamson who was said to have differed with a version of the 6 p.m. “SportsCenter” that featured co-anchors Jemele Hill and Michael Smith talking about more than stats and game results. And he was involved in a decision to remove Michelle Beadle from the morning program “Get Up” after it faced headwinds during its 2018 launch.

“We know she’s a great TV presence,” Williamson said of Beadle in a 2020 interview with Variety, but “you sign up for certain things, and when those things change a little, you have to ask yourself as an individual, and we have to ask ourselves as running a business, ‘Do we have the right players in the right place?

In an era when more fans of sports and news are gravitating to less varnished presentations from influencers on YouTube or other social media outlets, however, there is new pressure to give hosts on established networks more leeway to act less formally. MSNBC recently allowed many of its best-known hosts, including Joy Reid, Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski, Rachel Maddow and Nicolle Wallace, to vehemently disagree with an NBC News decision to hire Ronna McDaniel, the former Republican National Committee chairperson, as a political analyst.

Williamson isn’t the only ESPN veteran who has departed in unexpected fashion in the recent past. Rob King, who directly supervised much of the company’s sports journalism, exited abruptly in March of last year.

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