Last month, ESPN announced it was eliminating its bi-coastal, 25-person Content Development department, which was responsible for the network's 30 for 30 series, among other things. The head of the group, Keith Clinkscales, ESPN's senior vice president for content, development, and enterprise, left the company to become an independent producer. "This is a more efficient and better model," ESPN's executive vice president for content, John Skipper, told Sports Business Journal.
But shortly before ESPN's announcement, we received an email from the spouse of an upper-level Content Development executive who is leaving ESPN. "This place is a shit show," our tipster wrote. The group, he wrote, had been dissolved to "get rid of" Clinkscales—whose transgressions, we'd learn in subsequent conversations with the tipster and his wife, allegedly included a physical altercation with a co-worker and an incident of masturbation in front of sideline reporter and peeping victim Erin Andrews. Top-level ESPN personnel knew of these incidents, these sources said, but nevertheless kept them quiet.
And this is where things got weird. Clinkscales is now suing the woman he believes to be our source. Just to be clear: A former ESPN senior vice president is suing another former ESPN executive on the grounds that she defamed him in a story that we hadn't written yet. That we're now publishing. What follows is the story of how the shit show spread to us.
Clinkscales launched the department in 2007. He had a well-established pedigree in editorial management from his time at Vibe magazine (though his tenure there ended with some mixed reviews), and he counted among his friends some of the most prominent entertainers and businessmen in the black community—Spike Lee, Quincy Jones, and others. Clinkscales, the highest-ranking African-American executive at ESPN, was a transformative and progressive hire for a generally hidebound company, tasked with overseeing some of ESPN's top programming. He had a keen eye for scouting new African-American talent, notably Sage Steele and Jemele Hill, and maybe most importantly he had a good relationship with John Skipper, with whom he'd become friendly during their magazine days (Skipper had worked at Rolling Stone) and who had lobbied ESPN to hire Clinkscales.
Under Clinkscales's leadership, the group developed 30 for 30, Rise Up, SportsNation, and Rick Reilly's Homecoming. Clinkscales was also one of the key dealmakers involved in LeBron James's Decision, which, despite all the public ridicule, was reckoned a triumph by ESPN suits thanks to its astronomical ratings. Clinkscales was also instrumental in creating ESPN The Magazine's notorious Body issue.
But his successes apparently weren't enough. By this past summer, Clinkscales's time in Bristol was coming to an end. His résumé appeared online as early as June, we're told. Something was in the works.
His content development group was feeling some strain as well. Back in spring, a portion of the department was moved out to Los Angeles to develop sitcoms in partnership with ABC. Two of those projects—a sitcom about Boston fans and a family-friendly comedy based on the life of ESPN anchor Sage Steele—were picked up by ABC and fast-tracked into development. With the group spread from Los Angeles to Bristol to New York, some of the members became fiercely territorial about their individual projects. Growth and relocation hassles had bred some internal resentment toward Keith from those who still officially worked under him.
Among the disgruntled was the former content development executive (the wife of our initial tipster), who asked that we not use her name though she fully expected to be identified by her former colleagues at ESPN. We'll call her Connie. According to Connie, senior members of the group had pushed for Clinkscales's ouster, with Connie advocating as much to both Skipper and ESPN Executive Vice President and Executive Editor John Walsh. (According to other sources at ESPN, the executive-level water-cooler talk around Bristol was that Clinkscales was untouchable—the company's top black executive, after all, not to mention a man with plenty of supporters.) We tried to speak with other members of the content development group who Connie said could corroborate her account—among them Vinnie Malhotra, Jim Kaufman, and Anne Powell—without any luck. In fact, a person close to ESPN executives says the radio silence surrounding the fate of Clinkscales and the content development group has been deafening. "It's weird," the source says.
But according to Connie, the complaints about Clinkscales were all over the place. Some complained about his creative input and his lousy show ideas. Some bitched that he was an incompetent manager and was stretched too thin to be effective. Some reported that he was a selective bully with rage issues and often said inappropriate things. Once, according to Connie, he openly fantasized about slitting the throat of ESPYs producer Maura Mandt, making a slashing gesture across his throat.
Other of Connie's allegations were more serious. Connie says she had a heated disagreement with Clinkscales during the production of ESPN's Red Bull: New Year No Limits. This was New Year's Eve 2007, when Australian stunt man Robbie Maddison broke the world motorcycle jumping record. After Maddison completed his first, record-breaking jump, Connie says, he rode back toward the ramp for a second jump. The order from Clinkscales was to "go black" before he made his way up the ramp. Connie disagreed and pushed to air it, since it was a live show and there was time left before the credit-roll to pull it off. An argument ensued, and Clinkscales "threatened to kill" Connie. He grabbed her by the arm, dragged her outside, and threw her to the ground while Red Bull staff and other members of the staff looked on (among them Anne Powell, according to Connie). While outside, Clinkscales continued to verbally assault Connie, then he fired her.
It should be noted that the remote truck is one of the more stressful production environments in all of television. The unpredictable nature of live TV, the time constraints, and the cramped quarters conspire to bring out the most politically incorrect and abrasive sides of its weary human inhabitants. But Connie was humiliated and angry and felt Clinkscales had taken things too far. She spoke about the incident with ESPN's vice president of human resources and employee relations, Douglas Adkins.
The internal investigation was derailed, though, after Connie received a phone call from Skipper. Skipper commended Connie on her work on the Red Bull event (bigger ratings than expected!) and asked her about her experience working with Clinkscales. She told him how it went. She told him he fired her. She told him she had gone to HR. Skipper calmed her down. He told her there was no need to file a formal report because Skipper would speak with Clinkscales and handle the situation himself. Human resources never formally investigated the matter. Adkins did not return a request for comment. Adkins forwarded our request to an ESPN vice president for public relations, who called me and offered to provide "context" for whatever story I was working on. I declined comment.
Earlier this year, Clinkscales traveled to Los Angeles with Erin Andrews for a work-related event. Andrews sat in the middle, while Clinkscales was on the aisle. It was in either first or business class. What happened next was related by Andrews herself to both Connie, her husband, and ESPN anchor Sage Steele. At some point during the trip, Andrews saw Clinkscales masturbating in his seat, beneath his iPad. When he realized he had been caught, Andrews told Connie, Clinkscales panicked and muttered, "You know, I'm one of your bosses." Andrews, still scarred from the very public peephole stalking incident, was angry but conflicted, Connie tells me. She shared the incident with a handful of people at the network, but refused Connie's suggestion that she go to HR. "Do it anonymously then," Connie advised. Erin declined. She just wanted it to go away.
Andrews did not respond to email requests or text messages from me for comment. A call to one of her attorneys, Scott Carr, was not returned. Another source not connected to Connie recently asked Andrews if Clinkscales had jerked off in front of her. Andrews acknowledged that it had happened, according to the source.
Connie's job was dissolved along with the group. She says that Skipper knew some of the problems she'd encountered under Keith over the years and that Skipper had thanked her on several occasions for "not suing us three or four times." On Tuesday, she met with John Walsh. Word had gotten out that we were working on a story. Connie was still mum about where the information had come from but that she was aware that people were talking. Something was bound to come out.
Said Walsh: "That would be bad."
I spoke with Clinkscales last week. He denied the Andrews incident and further denied having any physical altercations with his ESPN co-workers, but he would not comment further. On Tuesday, I reached out to Keith again and he once again denied the allegations. "Do you have an attorney?" I asked. He didn't have one.
Hours later he referred all of my follow-up questions to his newly appointed attorney, Judd Burstein. He and Clinkscales thought they had figured out who our source was. On the phone, Burstein began to recite, with almost theatrical bravado, this lengthy statement on behalf of Keith:
"This allegation is completely, 100% false. Human Resources never received a complaint about this incident and Erin Andrews never made that claim. Keith has in his possession email conversations with Erin after they traveled together and those conversations show no mention of this incident and the emails and the phone conversations Keith had with Erin after the trip were completely friendly..."
I interrupted: "I didn't say that the Andrews incident was reported to HR. I specifically told Keith it wasn't reported to them by her because I was told that she was still rattled by the peephole incident."
"Right!" Burstein replied. "Nothing to HR. Then where's the proof? These allegations are unconfirmed and completely fictional. And whoever's telling you this story—and we're pretty sure we know who that person is—she better be prepared for a lawsuit if this story comes out."
At 1:24 p.m. today, more than four hours before this story had come out, Burstein called to say Clinkscales was suing a woman he believed to be the anonymous source of our story—which, to remind you, we hadn't published yet.
Hours later, we had in our hands a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, which detailed in public the allegations that we had not yet decided to publish. In the suit, Clinkscales and his lawyers write that "an embittered, soon-to-be unemployed ESPN executive has outrageously defamed an innocent supervisor out of spite and racial animus." The defendant, according to the complaint, "believed that she should have been promoted to the position to which Plaintiff was appointed," and was "routinely insubordinate" and "at times incompetent."
The suit accuses the defendant of starting a "smear campaign" and seeks compensatory damages of "in no event less than $75,000," along with unspecified punitive damages and "such other and further relief as deemed just and proper." Here's how it addresses the claims raised by Connie (in a story that, at the time of the lawsuit's filing, we had yet to publish). We've redacted the name of the person the suit supposes is our anonymous source.
On information and belief, in or about late October of 2011, [DEFENDANT] spoke with A.J. Daulerio, the Editor in Chief of www.deadspin.com, on one or more occasions and made three intentionally false and defamatory claims about Plaintiff to Mr. Daulerio
First, [DEFENDANT] claimed that in February of 2011, Plaintiff sat next to Erin Andrews, an ESPN reporter, on a commercial flight from New York to Los Angeles. According to [DEFENDANT], who was not present on the flight, Plaintiff supposedly masturbated while sitting next to Ms. Andrews. This is a lie. Although Plaintiff and Ms. Andrews did sit next to each other on the flight and had a pleasant conversation about business, the "masturbation claim" is a flat-out lie.
The lawsuit then quotes an email from Andrews to Clinkscales, sent after the trip, in which she mentions the flight and invites him to "talk upcoming projects and ideas" on the phone.
Second, [DEFENDANT] falsely stated that Plaintiff threatened Andrews with retaliation if she revealed what transpired on the plane. This story of a threat makes no sense because Plaintiff was not Ms. Andrews's superior. Moreover, the unsolicited email sent by Ms. Andrews is inconsistent with the false story about Plaintiff masturbating on the plane.
Third, [DEFENDANT] stated that Plaintiff physically assaulted her in a production trailer on December 31, 2007. This claim is also entirely false. In fact, all that happened was that Plaintiff verbally reprimanded [DEFENDANT] for her incompetence with respect to the production of a highly dangerous daredevil stunt—incompetence that created a real risk of a fatality on-air.