ESPN Insider: Suspensions Creating "Minefield" For Shout Show Hosts

Education reformers often cite reducing suspensions in our nation's schools as a top priority. Lots of recent studies show that this form of punishment does more harm than good.

They might do well to read some of those studies over at ESPN's Bristol campus, where the lords of discipline are now handing out suspensions at a rate that would make even an old school junior high principal wobble. Pundits tasked with discussing controversial topics on cue—and, above all, inspiring a reaction—are now worried not just about doing their jobs, but about not saying the wrong thing, even if no one knows what exactly that is. According to one ESPN insider, on-air talent at the network are highly aware that they're now navigating a "minefield" whenever they open their mouths.

A recap of the spate of heavy-handedness:

On Friday, word got out that Max Kellerman had been suspended from hosting duties on SportsNation and ESPNLA radio. He'd gone on another Los Angeles radio show and used the Ray Rice drama as an excuse to confess to a sin that was by now decades old: During a night of drinking in college, the story goes, he'd smacked his girlfriend. The punchline, so to speak, came with Kellerman's disclosure that she later became his wife, to whom he remains married to this day. Happy ending notwithstanding, Kellerman's confession earned him an unrequested one-week vacation.

Kellerman's punishment came a day after Dan Le Batard was bounced off his ESPN TV and radio shows.

The Miami-based Le Batard had bought billboard space in Akron, Ohio, to needle homeward bound LeBron James: The Le Batard-commissioned outdoor ads, which ran on six billboards, had the phrase "You're Welcome LeBron. Love, Miami" alongside an illustration of the two NBA championship rings James won with the Miami Heat. ESPN gave Le Batard a day off for each bauble. (The Cleveland Plain Dealer boasted that it had rejected an earlier full-page ad-buy request from Le Batard's show.)

News of Le Batard's sit-down, meanwhile, came just a day after Stephen A. Smith returned from his unrequested seven-day staycation, the byproduct of his on-screen victim-shaming of Ray Rice's wife on First Take and, perhaps more importantly, his several subsequent bungled apologies.

Getting anybody at Bristol to talk about the network's banishment binge is a chore. ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz politely refused via email to answer questions dealing with the impact of so many suspensions and all the attention they're getting of late.

Le Batard likewise graciously declined to be interviewed by Deadspin for this story, citing "bad timing." But he did address the matter directly in a Monday post. Le Batard wrote that he's OK with the sentence he received because he "hadn't checked with [his] supervisors" before launching the stunt, and "was insubordinate" after the bosses found out and tried to get him to call it all off.

Even before Le Batard's overly guilt-ridden post was published, an ESPN insider who was willing to talk—though only anonymously, out of a reasonable concern that anybody who talks openly about the suspensions will garner one—told me staffers understand that particular suspension.

"On the face of it, there's no reason for punishment," said the insider. "The language on the billboard wasn't offensive, it was funny. It didn't offend the NBA, and nobody got hurt. But, getting punished for it anyway? That was a protocol thing: ESPN as a corporation does not like to be surprised."

Kellerman's punishment, though, isn't being taken so well by his colleagues. Along with the delayed penalty call on Smith, it's seen as evidence that when it comes to disciplinary matters, the post-gaffe chatter carries more weight with higher-ups than the gaffe itself.

"It's not the offense that gets you suspended, it's the reaction," said the insider. "The length of time that it takes to suspend gives you an indication if that's what happened. Here, Kellerman says what he said last Monday? And then you sit him down [on Friday]? You can bet that means they started to hear brushback."

According to the insider, there was no company-wide directive prohibiting on-air discussion of Ray Rice in the wake of Smith's suspension. A primer on domestic violence in the U.S., including crime stats and acceptable terms to use when the subject comes up on air, was recently distributed to staffers. Nothing Kellerman said, we're told, obviously went against that memo.

So inside the building, Kellerman is considered collateral damage from the Smith brouhaha.

"The Kellerman thing was like, 'Oh, we did Stephen A.! Guess we gotta do this one too!'" said the insider. "And I'm sure somebody made some sort of racial angle to it:' You suspend Stephen A., but you don't suspend a white guy who actually said he hit his wife?'"

The sanctioning spree has "put the on-air talent in a bad position."

"They want you to toe the line as far as saying something controversial, but you can't go too far, and because it's based on reaction, you don't know what is too far," said the insider. "You want a reaction, but it's the reaction that will get you in trouble. So you have to know your public, and it seems like the line is always moving as far as what will get you [suspended]. I think 'minefield' is the appropriate word."

Unless things change, a day with no new suspensions will soon be as newsworthy as one with.

"This is a sensitive time around here," said the insider. "Looking back now, I'm amazed that we got through Michael Sam without anybody getting in trouble."

Hearing anything interesting in the halls of Bristol? Get at us at dave.mckenna@deadspin.com or at tips@deadspin.com.

Image by Jim Cooke