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Why ESPN Could Have Been Pissed at Bruce Feldman Over Mike Leach's Book

Very quickly, #FreeBruce went the way of Free Darko — its work on this planet apparently done, it made a clean departure. The supposed suspension of one of ESPN’s top college football writers, reportedly over his above-board involvement in former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach’s autobiography, was over less than a day after it supposedly began. The Interwebs flipped out in rare, unanimous support of Feldman, and the Worldwide Leader assured us that in fact no such thing had taken place.

Let’s take ESPN at its word: Bruce Feldman was never suspended (it’s quite a simple mistake to make, really— how many of us haven’t, at one time or another, been under the mistaken impression that we were suspended from our place of employ?) and the announcement that he “has resumed his assignments” was referring, perhaps, to the conclusion of a routine smoke break by Feldman. Fine. But what if ESPN were to take umbrage with something in the Leach book? Could we comb through Swing the Sword and try to surmise what, in this alternate reality, ESPN might have found objectionable?

In his book, Leach contends, credibly, that Texas Tech administrators exaggerated a contretemps between Leach and player Adam James to push Leach out of his job. After quite a successful decade coaching Tech, Leach had become expensive; the axe fell, he notes, just days before he’d be due an $800,000 bonus that he’d worked toward for six years. James made a handy cudgel because his father, ESPN analyst Craig James, not only disapproved of how little his son had played at Tech, he had ready access to tools of influence at ESPN and was friendly with Tech’s chancellor, Kent Hance, whom Leach contends, again credibly, is something of a weasel himself.

OK, so. Scene set. What are the money quotes?

Tech’s solution came in the form of player Adam James, who had become known amongst his teammates and coaches for his unjustified sense of entitlement and bad attitude. He was the son of former SMU football player and ESPN announcer Craig James, the ultimate little-league dad. … My staff and I received more phone calls from Craig James regarding his son’s playing time than from all our other players’ parents combined.

At one point, a teammate took Adam James aside to try and talk some work ethic into the kid. Leach writes,

James stormed out of the office. He shouted, “Fuck this!” in our lobby full of secretaries and players. He rammed his way through the door of the football office so hard that the door split and came off the hinges. It cost us $1,100 to fix. … With Adam James, we were trying to figure out a way to move him beyond being a spoiled child and get some cooperation out of him.

Anyway, once word gets out that Adam spent time in an electrical closet while recovering from a concussion (despite, Leach asserts, Adam being told specifically not to hang out in the closet) the story swells, driven largely by ESPN.

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 agency Craig James hired] were feeding him … [Y]ou 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. …

The other outlets had portrayed things more accurately, but they were overshadowed by the magnitude of ESPN. NBC had it right. CBS had it right. The New York Times had it right. Fox had it right. As much as irresponsible reporting was a problem, the bigger issue was Texas Tech and ESPN’s refusal to reign in Craig James. It was insane.

There’s nothing here to justify threatening a reporter’s job. The characterization is unflattering for ESPN, but it’s far from shocking that a media planet the size of ESPN harbors some mammoth egos and could slant coverage in the direction of spoonfeeding from a PR agency. Craig James comes out looking like a vindictive announcing-booth Napoleon, sure, and I doubt many viewers are going to look at him the same way again after this fiasco — but he’s hoist by his own petard, not by Feldman’s.

Truly the biggest issue for ESPN when it comes to Feldman’s involvement is that his reputation makes Leach’s account all the more solid. No one can impugn Leach’s words without doing the same to Feldman’s integrity, because Feldman’s tacit word suggests this isn’t just Leach spouting off. Instead the story carries the imprimatur of journalism. So anyone wanting to send the hounds after Leach now has to contend with the word of a reputable reporter, as well.

Incidentally, the highlight of Leach’s book comes well before the chapter where he loses his job. When Leach was about 12, he was getting some trouble from a neighborhood Golden Lab named Pepe who used to terrorize him. One night Leach and a friend set up a tent in his backyard to play Daniel Boone overnight, and when Leach wasn’t looking, the dog pissed all over the tent. When Leach went inside to get some cleaner, he found that Pepe had pissed all over his sleeping bag. And then did it again after Leach cleaned it.

Leach went into his house and got some meat. He enticed Pepe close enough to grab the dog’s collar and drag him to a vacant lot. Then,

I proceeded to pee all over his head and face. I aimed for the eyeballs, nostrils and mouth. Any orifice I could find, I wanted to soak. I drenched his whole face. Pepe struggled frantically until he broke free and ran off. He never messed with me or my stuff ever again.

The lesson here: When confronted with a territorial pisser, you gotta piss right back.

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