Deeper Dive—The eerie parallels between ex-ESPN chief John Skipper and Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph Hazelwood

ESPN President John Skipper
Former ESPN President John Skipper. (ESPN)

For those of you old enough to remember, one of the greatest environmental catastrophes in history occurred 29 years ago this month, shortly after an allegedly inebriated Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez, retired to his quarters at about 11 p.m. He left his third mate to steer the ship, loaded with 53 million gallons of crude oil, through pristine but rocky Prince William Sound. Things went south from there. 

As former ESPN President John Skipper provided sketchy details in the Hollywood Reporter this week of the cocaine problem that spurred his abrupt exit from the network in December, a parallel struck me—was one of the greatest disaster’s in modern media-telecom history, the stunning collapse of ESPN, partly caused by one man’s substance abuse issues?

I have no will to take glib shots at either Skipper or Hazelwood, who have battled very human issues of addiction that, in one way or another, have impacted us all. And it should be noted that Skipper vehemently claims to have kept his drug use separate from his work. But after reading the THR story, and the executive’s description of a cocaine deal that led to an extortion threat, I don’t know how one could compartmentalize the man’s grave judgment errors as just personal mistakes. 

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And I think it’s worth asking, in an era in which confidence has steadily eroded in the business model for the crown jewel of the pay TV ecosystem, how much of that is really about the underpinnings of the bundle? And how much of it has been about the leader of the erstwhile Worldwide Leader being impaired?

RELATED: ESPN’s Skipper steps down, Bodenheimer to fill in

From 2012 to 2017, ESPN lost 13 million subscribers. That just so happens to have been Skipper’s entire tenure as president. Am I saying that the linear programming bundle that has been ESPN's linchpin for so long hasn’t faced erosive over-the-top competition? Noooo. Am I wondering if some of the decision-making and responses over Skipper’s tenure can now be called into question?

Why not. 

For example, in kicking the tires on whether the $1.9 billion-a-season price tag for “Monday Night Football” was too high for ESPN—or the pay TV ecosystem in general—to support, we never considered that the man leading the negotiation for that deal might also be too high. 

I don't think that occurred to Bob Iger, who chairs ESPN’s parent company, Disney. Would Iger have given Skipper an extension to 2021 just a month before his fateful resignation if he knew the ESPN president had a drug issue serious enough to warrant a stint in rehab? And if he didn't know—which seems likely—might that have influenced his corporate decision-making? Iger viewed ESPN through the lens we all did; it wasn't management, it was the system

We have been so convinced it’s about the model. It may have been about the man all along, or at least partly about the man. And even his boss didn’t even know it.  

RELATED: Disney renews ESPN chief Skipper contract through 2021: report

Also this week, Sports Business Daily reported that the relationship between ESPN and the NFL had deteriorated so badly under Skipper that the executive was no longer willing to meet with league Commissioner Roger Goodell. 

George Bodenheimer, who was leading the network in the interim before new ESPN President John Pitaro took over, reportedly said he’d never seen things turn so “sour” between ESPN and the NFL.

Resentments reportedly “festered,” with ESPN executives becoming resentful of deals the NFL was making with 21st Century Fox. Of course, with its affections spread across the media spectrum, a marriage to the NFL can’t be easy. But a red light might have come on for Iger when his top ESPN lieutenant let things get so bad with its most important programming partner that they weren’t even on speaking terms. This suggests impulsive decision-making, not sound business management at a crucial time, when ratings and subscribers were both declining. 

Of course, lots of other mayhem was occurring in ESPN's Bristol, Connecticut, headquarters right before Skipper left. There were several well-reported rounds of layoffs in 2017, and numerous complaints from female staffers about a “locker room culture” rife with harassment. 

For his part, Skipper denies being tied to any of it. 

“There were no such incidents at work during my entire tenure, including no allegations,” he told THR. “I did not traffic in that kind of activity. The company is not engaged in any actions on my behalf and never has been. There were no affairs or inappropriate relationships at work nor indiscretions other than what I have disclosed. My behavior relative to women at ESPN was always respectful. I did not touch anybody inappropriately. I did not tell off-color jokes. I treated everybody with respect. The principle reason I chose to write the statement I wrote—to disclose substance abuse—was to make it clear that this didn’t have anything to do with harassment, settled lawsuits or any internal indiscretions. I never had any relationships, even consensual adult relationships, with anybody at work. And as far as I know, there was never a single claim of one.”

To me, this all strains the credibility of a man who seems decidedly intent on damage control. Really? Thirteen million lost subscribers. Layoffs. Possible rampant cultural and harassment issues. And the captain of the ship has nothing to do with it?

Maybe, as the large, powerful pay TV business faced a situation requiring its most careful navigation, it was Skipper who retired to his quarters. 

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