Monday, January 4, 2010

ESPN. The New Mafia?

ESPN did something that no other major media outlet has been able to do in the history of modern sports coverage -- they essentially fired a coach for a collegiate program.

On Wednesday, Texas Tech University fired head coach Mike Leach a day after suspending him for the Valero Alamo Bowl amidst rumors that he confined WR Adam James, the son of ESPN analyst Craig James, to a utility closet after Adam James was diagnosed with a concussion.

First of all, Leach's actions, if true, were shameful, irresponsible, and cruel and deserved to be repremanded strongly. No player should be subjected to such cruel, unusual and embarassing punishment, especially if such behavior was a form of punishment for being unwilling or unable to practice due to injury. Leach's actions warranted not only his dismissal from the program but also the dismissal of any coaches and players complicit in his dispicable actions.

The one question that I have is, if the student athlete in question was not Adam James, son of ESPN analyst Craig James, who was himself a star running back at Southern Methodist University and in the NFL, who has become fabulously rich as a college football analyst for arguably the largest and most powerful sports conglomerate in the world, would this story have received the air time that it has enjoyed over the past 5 or so days?

If Adam James was a kid from the ghettoes of Baltimore or Washington, D.C. or the slums of Virginia Beach or Compton without the benefit of a well-to-do parent that happens to work for a media magnate, would ESPN have bothered to recount the story on every new edition of Sportscenter and in every ESPN News update?

In fairness to ESPN, when the reports surrounding the allegations of verbal abuse by former Kansas football coach Mike Mangino towards some of his players emerged, ESPN pursued them with equal veracity.

There just seems to be something different about the way the whole Mike Leach/Adam James saga is being played out in the public arena - mostly on ESPN and the ESPN "family of networks". Even that self-characterization of ESPN affiliates paints the picture that the mega network is more than a conglomerate, it's a media mafioso and Mike Leach is being told in no uncertain terms that "if you mess with one of ours, we're gonna mess with you".

Leach cited in one of his recent interviews that he suspected that part of the reasoning behind the peculiar timing of his firing was the fact that he was owed an $800,000 bonus by the university if he was still the head coach on January 1st. The fact that Texas Tech had previously paid Leach several million dollars places this assertion firmly in the conjecture column.

However, I wonder how much Texas Tech would've stood to lose if there were any "complications" in the media contract between Texas Tech, Valero, and ESPN - the network that televised the Valero Alamo Bowl between Texas Tech and Michigan State? I'm guessing substantially more than the $800,000 that the university owed Leach and significantly more than the amount that Leach and Texas Tech will ultimately settle on when both parties come to terms on a buyout.

I've written all of this to say that it is amazing how much power major media outlets wield - power that allows them to not only create, manipulate, and direct public opinion on any given subject (essentially creating culture) but also potentially affect institutions financially by pulling sponsorship dollars or choosing not to run certain advertisements in their lucrative television and radio spots. No one has accused ESPN of such actions in the case of Texas Tech and Mike Leach but they have the means and the potential is there if they chose to exercise it.

Mike Leach will land on his feet. He has plenty of money in the bank and, more importantly, coaching capital under his belt that should land him at another up-and-coming football program, if not at a major program.

I just wonder if the God Fathers at ESPN, having caught wind of a major program courting Mike Leach, would make an offer to said program that they couldn't possibly refuse.

I guess we'll have to tune in to ESPN and the ESPN family of networks to see how this made-for-tv drama plays out.

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