I’ve hosted a talk show for over a decade. That’s roughly 4 hours a day for the last 10 years and 6 months of my professional life. Counting vacation and not counting secondary shows, games I’ve called and separate podcasts, that’s 10,500 hours of LIVE broadcasting. In all of that time, I’ve never said a single thing into a microphone that’s gotten myself or my company sued. I’ve yet to receive even the threat of a lawsuit. I tell you this, not to brag or argue for the Edward R. Murrow Award. I tell you this to provide the baseline for the question at the root of this column. How and why is it possible that ESPN College Baseball analyst Troy Eklund dropped this bomb in the lap of ESPN in the 7th inning of Friday’s Oklahoma-State-Missouri State game in Stillwater?
Troy Eklund is a former All-American baseball player at the University of Arkansas and currently holds a side gig as a color commentator for ESPN. I say “currently” because I won’t be stunned if he doesn’t continue to call games for the Worldwide Leader after he falsely claimed that Tennessee star Evan Russell tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and added that the entire Tennessee team would be subjected to testing implying that their eligibility in the NCAA Tourney was up in the air. I don’t write this to pile on Troy or call for his job. Although, optics get even worse when you do a quick google search of the bad blood between Arkansas and Tennessee in baseball. That gives this the appearance of a homer broadcaster with an axe to grind against a rival and using the gigantic megaphone of a national sports network to do so. The more likely scenario is that the 55-year-old, Ecklund, with 710 twitter followers isn’t good with social media and read the “report” of some troll account as fact. He didn’t have the common sense to double, and triple check the “report” before launching into his on-air diatribe. I don’t write this to pile on Troy or say that he should be fired by ESPN. I’m rarely on the side of unemployment for what I deem to be an honest mistake. Troy apologized on-air on Saturday and posted the following on his twitter account that same day.
But it’s still important to note the severity of this mistake. This was a broadcaster on BIG ESPN falsely accusing a college athlete of testing positive for an illegal PED and going on to say the ENTIRE Tennessee team would face further testing implying their season was in jeopardy because of a completely fake scandal. Jason Russell (Evan’s father) clarified the situation on Saturday morning on social media claiming Evan Russell actually missed Friday night’s game because of “anxiety, stress and pressure.” Oh brother. This further complicates matters for ESPN given their aggressive stance on protecting “mental health” above all else. Imagine if an ESPN broadcaster falsely accused Simone Biles of testing positive for a banned substance and being removed from competition because of the failed test, when she actually withdrew from competition because of “mental health” concerns during the Tokyo Games in 2021. Imagine that same broadcaster claiming the entire US Womens’ Gymnastics Team would face further testing and implying that their future in the Olympics was in jeopardy. Would that broadcaster remain employed? Given ESPN’s history of punishment, Troy Eklund may be spared from ESPN’s wrath for three reasons: The aggrieved party is Tennessee’s Evan Russell. He is A) White, B) Male and C) plays College Baseball (which is still a relatively niche sport and not a once every 4-year global phenomenon like Women’s Gymnastics). And again, I’m not advocating for Ecklund to be fired. I want to be clear on that point. I’m simply highlighting how different the same honest mistake would have been handled if it happened at the expense of someone else. It’s also important to note that ESPN has yet to apologize for anything. They’ve let their employee do all of the apologizing.
Speaking of employees, ESPN would be horrified to know that I’ve called games for them before. Any association with the evil OutKick empire is one they don’t want. I would probably have to remind ESPN that I’ve called games for them before because ESPN has too many games. I’m not anti-ESPN. I’ve long argued that they produce game broadcasts as well as anyone. They veer off the course of what their consumer wants when they veer away from the games themselves. But when you have a piece of almost every sport in the world, you are bound to spread yourself too thin and leave yourself in a position where a broadcaster on your main channel isn’t good enough to know whether or not he should read an inflammatory rumor spread by “@HogFan1981” on-air. ESPN should do a better job of training their broadcasters on how to avoid disaster, but it’s also easy to see how things can fall through the cracks in the pursuit of just getting their contractual obligations on-air.
ESPN has always been at its best when it focuses on sports and their top-notch production of sporting events. Part of that production level is making sure those on mic are good at their jobs. My first response to hearing the audio of Eklund falsely dragging a college player’s name through the mud wasn’t shock because of what was being said. It was bewilderment at listening to someone that bad at their job given a microphone to call a game on ESPN. Maybe I’m naïve to think there should be a baseline standard for in-game broadcasts at a company that big and influential, but by any metric, that was not good enough. So, while ESPN prepares their lawyers for possible litigation, maybe they should also spend time and money to prep their Talent Acquisition Department to make their broadcasts sound more like a professional production and less like the Fayetteville High School A/V Club. Actually, apologies to the FHS A/V Club. They may have better color analysts than Troy Eklund. The question isn’t “How did Troy Eklund screw up so royally?” The bigger question is “Why is Troy Eklund given a microphone to make that mistake in the first place?” The next question is “Who is training him and why can’t the Worldwide Leader in Sports do better?” If ESPN looks in the mirror and starts answering those questions honestly, they can get back to “sticking to sports” successfully and no longer feeling the tug to produce content that provides OutKick with its next best-selling t-shirt.