One of the most influential men in sports pawing women in a hotel bar in front of a couple enemies with old scores to settle—and much of it surreptitiously captured on video? It sounds like the stuff of an investigation carried out by one of ESPN's harder-charging journalistic franchises. Instead, it's one night in the life of the man who built them.
The video, shot in January 2012 at the bar in the Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., and recently obtained by Deadspin, shows John Walsh, the 69-year-old godfather of ESPN's news operation, chatting up strangers while looking besotted and confused. As a camera catches Walsh stumblin' and bumblin', Jay Mariotti and Sean Salisbury—then-jobless miscreants who'd both been cast off by ESPN and who by total coincidence just happened to be in the same establishment—provide color commentary in which they reflect on their ruined careers and generally make bitter sport of their old boss. The scene makes for a low-wattage ESPN version of Boulevard of Broken Dreams. The general air of hopelessness is greatly enhanced by a serendipitously sublime soundtrack. As Walsh puts his head in his hands, the song on the stereo is a remixed version of "Time of My Life."
Walsh's conduct doesn't approach the aggressive misogyny that derailed Salisbury's and Mariotti's careers. Patrons on the tape seem more amused or annoyed by Walsh than threatened or offended, even when he starts to get a little handsy. But accounts from sources familiar with the situation—and emails from Salisbury to John Skipper, ESPN president and Disney Media Networks co-chairman—make clear that both of the exiles used Walsh's night out to their advantage. And as a result, Skipper's network, which once upon a time wanted nothing to do with either Salisbury or Mariotti, wound up helping both of them try to get their careers back on track.
On May 22, ESPN held an open house at their Bristol campus for favored media organizations, showing off the future-proof new buildings and digital gizmos that would soon make SportsCenter the shiniest toy in broadcasting. The event could have been a tribute to the career of John Walsh, who as much as anyone is responsible for creating the modern ESPN. Skipper has lauded him as a "partner" and "guide," and called him "the guy who made [ESPN] a serious journalism enterprise." More than that, Skipper credits Walsh—whose fingerprints are all over such worthy projects as Outside the Lines and ESPN The Magazine—as one of the few people in the massive enterprise who can claim personal ownership of any piece of its programming.
"John Walsh reinvented SportsCenter when he first got here," Skipper has said. "So he owns that."
Originally, Walsh tied on with ESPN as an outside consultant with a top-shelf résumé—a year as managing editor of Rolling Stone and a stint at the Washington Post complementing his tenure atop Inside Sports, a magazine that in the early 1980s enjoyed a brief run as a legitimate alternative to Sports Illustrated. That print credibility, and a long memo detailing everything wrong with SportsCenter, convinced ESPN not only to bring him on full-time in 1988, but to put all news programs under his control. He quickly made his mark, urging higher-ups to make SportsCenter into a hybrid of reportage and entertainment—it was his idea to hold off on giving scores until the end of a highlight package—and lobbying for all sorts of smart talent to be brought to the network. If you ever enjoyed watching Peter Gammons or Keith Olbermann, if you ever learned some new piece of information from Chris Mortensen, you owe Walsh a debt of gratitude.
This was good business, too. In the days before ESPN became a broadcast-rights-gobbling behemoth, a strong newsroom and a flagship news program gave people a reason to watch the network, even if the big events were being broadcast elsewhere. That's why former Disney chief executive Michael Eisner has called Walsh's hiring a turning point for ESPN.
Walsh was always protective of what he'd built. Olbermann has said that the beginning of the first end for him at ESPN came when Walsh feared that he and Dan Patrick were becoming bigger than SportsCenter. Legend holds that Walsh threatened to quit in 1993 over the network's hiring of Jim Rome, fearing that the yakker's shtick would—in the words of then-executive vice president of marketing and programming John Lack—"ruin the journalistic integrity" of the operation. And former ESPN honcho Mark Shapiro told Jim Miller and Tom Shales, authors ofThose Guys Have All The Fun: Inside the World of ESPN, that Walsh rejected Shapiro's vision for a Pardon the Interruption-style shoutfest because of his belief that such a vehicle would diminish the credibility of the network's news reporting.
In addition to waging, if not always winning, those battles over the journalistic soul of the network, Walsh has often been the heavy when it comes to disciplining staffers who do anything to tarnish the brand, at times deeming such minor offenses as publicly mocking the town of Bristol to be worthy of suspension. (Olbermann found that out in 1997.) When Bill Simmons wanted to make a Chris Berman joke in his Book of Basketball, Walsh talked him out of it. When Gregg Easterbrook was fired over a bizarre tirade about "Jewish executives [who] worship money above all else," Walsh was there. When PTI co-host Tony Kornheiser was summoned to ESPN headquarters and suspended in 2010 for busting on his ESPN colleague Hannah Storm's outfit, Walsh was in the room—much to the annoyance of his old friend Kornheiser, whom he'd edited at Inside Sports.
Walsh, who is married and has two children, doesn't tolerate boozy behavior from his employees, either. In 2011, a rumor went around Bristol that popular ESPN host Michelle Beadle had gotten tipsy at an ESPYs afterparty and told Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, "I just wanna get fucked." Beadle, who denied saying that, later told Deadspin that Walsh had sicced another VP on her , Marcia Keegan, to investigate the incident.
In company lore, Walsh emerges as a sort of corporate true north, the man who has long upheld certain starchy notions of propriety, both in ESPN's product and its workplace. People who appreciate his intellectual and ethical rigor talk about his Jesuit background; people who think he instilled a prudishness in the company that he alone enforced, in his behind-closed-doors way, allude darkly to the Vatican. (Despite the rep for probity and rectitude, he is also known among colleagues as an eager collector and purveyor of office scuttlebutt. It was Walsh the gossip and not Walsh the Jesuit, for instance, who once dished to a college journalism class that Deadspin's persistent coverage of a serial plagiarist at ESPN was the result of a love triangle . This was false.)
While Walsh was instrumental in dismantling the ESPN frat house and installing women in key positions, he was also reportedly something of a squish when it came to the company's rampant sexism. Things were bad enough around the time Walsh arrived that at one point SportsCenter anchor Karie Ross stood up in the cafeteria and made a speech about the sexual predation going on around her. That was in 1989. Little changed, at least not immediately. Between that year and 1993, according to Mike Freeman's ESPN: The Uncensored History, the network averaged seven to eight formal complaints a year from a pool of around two dozen women working in production. Walsh told Freeman that the number of complaints is "not unusual for a male-dominated company."
Punishment was doled out unevenly, if it was doled out at all. Rank was a factor, according to Freeman. One notable example: In the early 1990s, Mike Tirico was given a three-month suspension when a female producer went to Walsh to accuse the rising on-air star of harassing her and five other female staffers, with the sexual misdeeds ranging from inappropriate touching and pillow talk to following one producer home and making drunken advances away from the shop. Walsh was told that Tirico had behaved similarly with five other women on staff. Around the same time Tirico was ordered to go on hiatus and cool his heels, Freeman wrote, an unnamed male production assistant was caught sending a note over an in-house messaging system to another male P.A. They were talking about a female production assistant. "She couldn't handle our seventeen-inch dicks," the message read, according to Freeman. Walsh called the sender to his office and fired him.
The double standard in Bristol was plain enough that even outsiders took notice. "ESPN basically has to have one of their talent talk about Hitler," former NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol told Miller and Shales, "or put a picture of their dick on a phone—which is what that Salisbury guy did—before they'll do anything about any of these various crazies, because they don't have to. Nobody can touch them."
That "Salisbury guy" is Sean Salisbury, a former NFL quarterback who parlayed his experience into a gig as an analyst on SportsCenter. By the time he and Jay Mariotti had arrived in Bristol, ESPN was a different company in a lot of ways—more Disneyfied and quicker to act on displays of misogyny, even, on occasion, when high-priced talent was involved.
In Salisbury's case, he was done in by his behavior at a staff party at a bar near headquarters, wherein he asked numerous women if they'd like to see a photo of his "baby"—the dick alluded to by Ebersol—and treating those who didn't turn and run to a selfie featuring his genitalia . In 2008, ESPN declined to renew his contract. (Salisbury sued Deadspin over its reporting of this incident and his dismissal in 2009 from a Dallas radio station. He eventually dropped the case, and later copped to the first incident. "A sophomoric mistake," he called it.)
Mariotti, for his part, was a columnist with the Chicago Sun-Times when ESPN brought him in as a panelist for its shout show, Around the Horn. He bailed on the newspaper in 2008, whereupon former co-worker Roger Ebert wrote a column titled "Jay the Rat" about how little anybody in the newsroom would miss him. (Mariotti and this website have also had a number of differences over the years. ) In 2010, he was arrested after a fight with his girlfriend, which the L.A. Times said began when Mariotti accused her of flirting with a club patron during a night on the town. An ESPN spokesman said a few weeks later, "We have no plans to use him at this time." In 2011, Mariotti was arrested again, this time on suspicion of stalking and assaulting the same woman. He pleaded no contest to a series of reduced charges, but later maintained his innocence in an e-book he wrote called The System: A Manual on Surviving Liars, Loons, Law, Life.