So Jim Rome is going from ESPN to CBS Sports Network even though the Worldwide Leader had offered him a multi-year extension for Rome Is Burning. According to a source, Rome wanted out at least in part because of comments made by an ESPN executive in Those Guys Have All The Fun, the oral history published last year.
According to the book, a pair of ESPN executives had a dispute over whether to give Rome his own show on ESPN2 as the new channel prepared to launch on Oct. 1, 1993. At the time, Rome had his own sports-talk show in San Diego that was about to be syndicated nationally on the radio. John Lack, ESPN's executive vice president of marketing and programming, wanted to bring him on, thinking he would attract a younger audience. But John Walsh, the network's executive vice president, was against it. The following passage, which is attributed to Lack, is taken from pages 250-251 of the book:
"[Rome] was brash and young, and his dream was to be on someplace like ESPN. He wasn't a great TV personality at the time—he was kind of awkward—but he had that great voice, a great mind, and he had the respect early of the trash-talking black and Hispanic audience. I thought he was good-looking enough to be an eventual star on television.
So I told Walsh, 'Look, he is by far the best available, and he doesn't have to quit his radio show, so it won't cost us a lot of money. We can get him part-time, we'll sign him to thirteen weeks, and if he doesn't work out, we can always get rid of him.' John looked at the tapes and went gaga; he thought this was going to be Waterloo, and he was going to fight this one because he thought it flew in the face of the journalistic ethics of ESPN. I kept saying, 'It's not about journalism, it's about young people, and getting involved in what they care about.' He didn't buy any of that psychological shit. All he cared about was, 'This guy is too controversial and I don't think that he's smart enough.' And I said, 'Look, he's definitely smart enough.' We went back and forth, I auditioned Rome, then sent him a contract, and all the time John is just boiling. One day, I got a call from Steve [Bornstein, the chairman of ESPN at the time]. He said, 'You better get in here because John's going nuts and he says if you hire Rome, he's going to quit.' Okay, whatever.
We schedule a meeting for the next morning. John comes, looks at me, and says, 'You're going to ruin the journalistic integrity of this network, which we've built up all these years. We're finally getting to a point where we are the real deal in sports journalism, and this guy's going to blow it all in a week on the air.'
And I said, 'We're not impinging on the journalistic values of ESPN, the mother ship; this guy's not going to appear on ESPN, he's going to do a show in the afternoon on ESPN2, where our audience is very young—the main audience I want.' Now Steve agreed with me as a programmer, but John was getting so heated about it, Steve doesn't know what to do. So the meeting ends, Steve asks me to stick around, and says to me, 'Can't we just find some other guy? It's not worth this fight with John.' I said, 'This is a guy who's going to cost us fifteen or twenty grand who could do a point-three or point-four rating, which means we could make a couple of hundred thousand dollars on this show alone.' So he says, 'Okay, I'll tell John.' I was told by Vince Doria, who was with Steve at the time, that Walsh said, 'If Rome comes here, and Lack has the right to do that, then I'm quitting.'"
In 1994, Rome did have an on-air confrontation with former Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jim Everett in which Rome baited Everett into attacking him physically. The video can be seen here:
On pages 300-301 of the book, Walsh recounts his reaction to the episode:
"I thought it was a complete embarrassment. Exactly what I was worried about with this guy. Mark Shapiro [then a production assistant who would eventually become ESPN's executive vice president for programming] called and got me out of my fantasy baseball draft in New York to tell me what happened. He just said, 'Hey, you should know this happened. He walked off the set. There was confrontation. It was physical. The whole works. We gotta get PR in the room. What are we going to say? What are we going to do?' I don't think he was elated. I think he was nervous. This was a new experience for him, and he was a young guy, so he was kind of looking for what's the best direction here. We all got together and talked with Bornstein, and we decided we weren't going to suspend or fire him. I'm not going to give you what my opinion was on that."
Walsh, of course, is still at ESPN. Lack left in December 1995.