If you’re wondering what ESPN is planning to do with Craig James this college football season, it appears we have our answer.
Richard Deitsch of SI.com has a Q & A this week with ESPN’s vice president of production Norby Williamson that illuminates the cable network’s stand on the college football analyst standing accused of unduly influencing the termination of Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach.
Last month James called the Alabama spring game and remains part of the regular rotation for ESPN’s College Football Live. Williamson told SI.com that he anticipates James will have a “similar schedule” to last year.
I’ve snipped some additional excerpts below from the the interview but I suggest you check out Deitsch’s entire story on the subject.
Deitsch: How involved should James be with Big 12 games next season?
This thing will play out more. But if you are putting me on the spot right now and saying, “Am I confident from what I know of the situation, and from what Craig has told me on the investigation, and from what I have read and everything that I have done, am I confident that Craig James can do a Big 12 game where there is not an overarching issue regarding Texas Tech,” at this time, yes, I am. We believe Craig still has a connection with coaches and players and there is a trust element there.
Deitsch: Will Craig’s involvement in the Leach case affect his assignments heading forward?
His primary responsibility has been working games, working some studio and some radio. Clearly, right now you have an investigation and a situation that is still ongoing. Obviously, he cannot have any connection to Texas Tech. That goes to games, and it goes to commentary about Texas Tech.
Anywhere in that genre, he has to recuse himself of that and we would not put him in a position to comment about that. Number two is we have to be transparent with the viewers. While this is a well-known situation, it is not unbelievably well known.
There are different levels of this. It is our obligation to be transparent with the viewers, even if he is on a show where there is a discussion going on that could involve Texas Tech or elements of the Big 12 or things like that.
Deitsch: Are you comfortable with Craig being on a studio broadcast where the Big 12 conference is discussed?
I will tell you based on right now and everything we know, from talking to Craig extensively and what has been out there publicly and with the backdrop, that this thing is an ongoing thing.
Craig’s track record with us, his college football knowledge and TV experience, right now we are comfortable with Craig’s ability to serve as a professional college football analyst and an objective college football analyst with the caveats of Texas Tech and certain targeted things that could be within the Big 12.
Deitsch: Why are you confident that ESPN can cover the ongoing legal case while Craig is still employed with you?
I think this place is a big enterprise and we have our track record with journalism. I will not sit here and tell you that we have never made mistakes but I think we have a great track record. We do a lot of journalism and hardcore journalism with people we have rights agreement with.
Our news-gathering apparatus is separate from the event production team. I think fans understand that and they understand there is credibility with ESPN. There are checks and balances that we have here in the infrastructure that allow us to parse things out. The fact that Craig is employed here, you have to take some steps such as no Texas Tech games, but I am very confident in the people who are making those day-in, day-out decisions.
I have to hand it to James in this situation. He obviously has an extremely good personal relationship with Williamson and perhaps other members of ESPN’s management. Otherwise ESPN would not consider keeping James on the air under the circumstances.
If James were to do games not involving Texas Tech, or Tech opponents, or any team in the Big 12 conference, perhaps you could make a case that the appearance of a conflict of interest is mitigated. But so long as James is calling or commenting on anything as it pertains to the Big 12, the ESPN standard of journalism and objectivity Williamson cites so enthusiastically diminishes considerably.
Let’s say the same week James works an ESPN Big 12 telecast not involving Texas Tech, the Red Raiders also happen to be 7-0 and atop the conference. Based on his response to Deitsch, ESPN’s Williamson is asking the play-by-player announcer working with James to make sure that he doesn’t mention Texas Tech on the telecast. (At least as it pertains to color analyst partner, whose only job is to take such questions.)
So are we to assume there will be no look at the standings during the telecast? Future schedules? What if one of the teams James is covering that night plays Tech the next week? What if Tech upsets #1 Texas at the same time James is working as an analyst for another Big 12 telecast? No analysis from James?
What do you think viewers will be thinking if an ESPN telecast which James is working flashes the Big 12 standings and James has no comment?
What if James is working as an ESPN studio analyst and Texas Tech is one of the Top 5 teams in the country at that time - will he just skip over the Red Raiders and move on to analyzing the other four teams?
It’s embarrassing that ESPN would think that having James involved in a Big 12 game of any kind wouldn’t represent a conflict of interest. It’s also unreasonable for ESPN to ask James’ broadcast partners to ignore certain facets of college football to protect the integrity of the telecast.
Most importantly, it’s unfair to viewers who lose out on the best possible broadcast by having a color analyst hamstrung by what he can and cannot say.
It’s impossible for ESPN to maintain the appearance of objective, national college football coverage, objectivity Williamson claims his network is so mindful of, if it puts James back on the air before we know what his absolute role was in Leach’s departure.