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Witten’s failed hiring and Virk’s firing among ESPN’s recent errors

Thomson200 | Wikimedia Commons

After the announcement of a new three-man booth at the beginning of the 2019 NFL season for Monday Night Football, Jason Witten has departed ESPN for a 16th season with the Dallas Cowboys after only a few months as the lead color commentator.

It was the second high-profile departure after ESPN terminated Adnan Virk, the versatile Canadian sportscaster, after he leaked information about ESPN’s baseball talk show, Baseball Tonight.

These two events laid out the two defining cultural problems of the sports broadcasting giant.

Toward its on-air experiments, ESPN is unreasonably hopeful. Regarding punishment, the company is flippant.

In May 2018, ESPN announced that Witten, Booger McFarland and Joe Tessitore would be announcing the games, with McFarland sitting on a mobile machine as the field analyst.

Although it was reported that major networks were in contention for Witten’s appearance on their respective airwaves, it was strange to see a recently retired player with virtually no real-time broadcasting experience getting a job with a network’s No. 1 broadcast team.

Witten, via the Cowboys, said that “the fire inside of me to compete and play this game is just burning too strong.”

It makes one wonder if, with the intention to return to the game when the offer comes, Witten was ever in a position to perform at a professional level.

Defenders of the move will argue that Tony Romo was beyond impressive in his first year as the lead analyst for CBS Sports’ coverage of the NFL — and his second, especially when he predicted a sequence of plays in the AFC Championship Game. But Romo’s brilliance, with no prior broadcasting experience, is more likely a rarity rather than a regular occurrence with retired NFL players.

The Emmy-winning sports broadcaster Cris Collinsworth took years to hone his craft by appearing on radio and studio shows before even getting a position at the commentary booth.

Super Bowl-winning quarterback Troy Aikman might have gotten an easier way to the booth, but he also worked under the tutelage of Collinsworth before becoming the lead analyst for Fox NFL broadcasts.

Furthermore, ESPN underwent a seemingly painstaking process of auditioning a dozen people, including sports media veterans Kurt Warner and ESPN’s own Louis Riddick, who is known for his candidness.

Warner, a Super Bowl MVP, has work experience at NFL Network and Fox Sports and is now the commentator for Westwood One’s Monday Night Football broadcast.

Riddick had worked for the Philadelphia Eagles in the front office and often added management insights that were different from other pundits on air.

Although Jon Gruden, currently the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, had a relatively uncontroversial tenure at ESPN, he always seemed reluctant to criticize any players, perhaps because he always intended to go back to coaching and wanted to avoid having a tenuous relationship with any players in the future.

For any commentator with long-time employment at a sports media company, the views given through that particular channel can be seen as compromised because viewers are not getting an honest analysis.

This personnel change, apparently without a coordination with ESPN management, came just a few weeks after the draconian termination of Virk, who had been one of the regular hosts of the network’s baseball and college football telecasts.

ESPN cited that Virk had confirmed to Awful Announcing a change to Baseball Tonight, its baseball highlights program, on the background using his company phone. It seems ironic that a media outlet that partly depends on its sourcing in sports had fired an employee on the grounds that the person was providing relatively insignificant information as a source. 

The punishment does not fit the crime. At most, the offense warranted a warning, given the commitment almost every employee of ESPN had to make before getting on board — moving to a town that is basically just ESPN.

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