"I don't know your personal life," ESPN vice president and executive editor John Walsh told me, on the phone. "I wouldn't comment on anyone's personal life."
Earlier today, on Twitter, two different journalism students had written otherwise: that Walsh—the living, beating heart of ESPN's newsgathering operation—told their class that Deadspin's coverage of ESPN's serial plagiarist Lynn Hoppes was a vendetta caused by Hoppes having stolen my girlfriend. Not by Hoppes having blatantly copied and pasted material from Wikipedia in his work for ESPN. A "romantic rivalry." A love triangle.
All along, the defining feature of the Hoppes case has been ESPN's shamelessness. There was the weird obviousness of the plagiarism itself, right under the nose of Walsh, who'd brought impeccable credentials—managing editor of Rolling Stone in its heyday, founding editor of Inside Sports—to the network's news operation. And then came the weird stonewalling, as ESPN's news division simply refused to correct or publicly punish what would have been retraction-and-firing stuff in most major news organizations.
And now here was ESPN's news honcho allegedly spreading unsourced rumors about romantic entanglements to a classroom of journalists in training. How did it come to this?
Walsh was a guest at a University of Maryland class taught by former ESPN ombudsman George Solomon. According to Maryland senior Mark Sanchez, who was in the class, the students were permitted to ask two questions apiece: one related to something they liked about ESPN, and another related to something they didn't like.
"I was very annoyed," Sanchez told me, "because a lot of it was, like, 'I love 30 for 30,' or, 'I love X about ESPN.'"
So, Sanchez decided to take a different tack: He asked about Lynn Hoppes. Hoppes, in case you're unfamiliar, is the ESPN.com senior writer who plagiarized from Wikipedia at least a dozen times. Months after our initial posts about the plagiarism, his stories remained unchanged. So we asked three respected media critics—Jack Shafer, Dan Okrent, and David Carr—to weigh in as well. "If I were them," Okrent told us, "I would be embarrassed."
Back to Sanchez: "I was actually the last person to ask a question, so there wasn't much time left," he told me. "And I brought you up and Deadspin and said, 'What response do you have to this?' He cut me off in the middle and said the whole Hoppes-and-you situation revolved around a girlfriend dispute—that Hoppes had apparently stolen your girlfriend a while back. And all the Hoppes information you guys posted about was months and months old and it only resurfaced because of that controversy."
My … girlfriend? Well, about that. I've never had a girlfriend. I am gay, gay, gay. So gay. Don't believe me? Ask my real-life human-being boyfriend!
But obviously Walsh was joking, right? "There was a zero percent chance he was joking about it," Sanchez said. The room had gone silent, according to the student, and Walsh seemed "physically annoyed" by the line of questioning.
Wait, are we sure he wasn't joking? We are talking about John Walsh, after all—one of the most important figures in ESPN history, and one of the great journalists of our time.
"He said that the articles had been up there for months," Sanchez said, "and it only resurfaced because of the girlfriend dispute."
So, what the hell was Walsh talking about? A few hours after this hit Twitter, I heard from ESPN's PR guy, Josh Krulewitz. He said Walsh wanted to talk to me. We spoke for a few minutes off the record, and then he was cool with moving things back on the record. So … what romantic dispute?
"I said there had been a rumor about a potential romantic rivalry potentially being a motivation for this story," Walsh told me. "I didn't say it was a Deadspin staffer. I didn't say it was your name. I didn't say it was anybody's name."
Right, OK. Wait, huh?
"I raised the issue, 'Why did somebody decide that this topic was relevant several months after the story had been gone through and dealt with, et cetera,'" he continued. "I said I heard a rumor that the motivation for that might have been steeped in a romantic rivalry."
(Sanchez later disputed this, and so did several other students he checked with. He was certain Walsh mentioned me by name.)
Tell us more. What's this romantic rivalry?
"That's all I heard," he said. "I didn't hear anything more than that. It was a passing reference. It wasn't worth my time to say, 'Oh yeah, well, what's the dish here?' I'm not that kind of person."
But then why bring it up in a college class? He said something about social media that I didn't quite follow.
Maybe, I wondered, Walsh got his details crossed up. After all, Deadspin's editor, Tommy Craggs, was all set to leave the site for ESPN's Grantland last year. Well, he was until he wrote something mean about Hoppes. Walsh and Craggs met for a chat, ostensibly to smooth things over. A pink gorilla got involved. Craggs soon pulled out of negotiations. Maybe the love triangle was an elaborate metaphor that picked up static in its game-of-telephone passage from Walsh to the classroom to Twitter?
"That has nothing to do with any of that," Walsh said. "Nothing at all. Nothing at all. Please. I still have fond memories of the pink-gorilla stuff."
And that's when he assured me he wouldn't comment on anyone's personal life, least of all mine.
Let's return to intrepid cub reporter, Mr. Sanchez, and his dialogue with Walsh.
"So then I said, 'Putting that aside, what about [the Hoppes plagiarism examples]?'" Sanchez said. "He said that they had scrapped all the articles that found to be plagiarized."
Not true. The stories had not been updated. When he talked to me, Walsh claimed he hadn't said that.
"I said I didn't really know," he said. "I thought they might have been scrapped. I wasn't familiar with all those decisions being made."
According to Sanchez, Walsh also told the class that Deadspin had never broken any news. Walsh denied that. ("I didn't say that. No, I did not say that").
In the classroom, Sanchez continued to press Walsh.
"And then I asked how about the reports about the ESPN anchors taking verbatim reports from Yahoo Sports or wherever they came from," he said. "He said that was not plagiarism—which I took issue with—but that it was just lazy reporting and that they've been talked to and it wasn't plagiarism. I then said, 'If you take words verbatim from another source it's plagiarism.' And then Solomon, I think, sensed that it was getting a bit too tense and said, 'Well, that's about all we'll have for today.'"
What's the upshot of all this? Krulewitz, the ESPN spokesman, called me to say that Hoppes's plagiarized items will now be updated. His statement:
We stand by our original comments which suggested that even though multiple legitimate news sources were used to gather background information, we should always recite even the most basic facts in an original voice. Given that the level of attention to these posts has now significantly exceeded the relative importance of those items to our site's archives, we will be removing or amending them in the near future and moving on.
That's all it took.
UPDATE, 10:58 a.m.: The Hoppes stories have been updated.
Also, I've heard from two other people who were at the Walsh class. Adam Gutekunst, a junior, told me in an email: "I can confirm that Walsh said specifically that Hoppes had stolen your girlfriend." Maryland junior Josh Axelrod told me, "I am pretty sure Walsh directly referenced your name in class. If he didn't say your name, he was definitely referring to you (because Mark asked about you and Hoppes specifically)." This backs up what Sanchez told us yesterday. In my conversation with Walsh, he insisted that when he mentioned a "romantic rivalry" rumor, he wasn't referring to anyone specific.