A ’Herd of pricey talent is chased out of ESPN

Alan Truex

LLANO, Texas — Colin Cowherd, a popular and highly paid sports talker, was expounding on the complexities of football compared to the simpleton’s game of baseball.  He prefers football because it’s complicated enough to engage his energetic and well-trained mind,

Unfortunately, somewhere between his busy brain and busier mouth was a navigational malfunction.  For a few lamentable seconds last Thursday, he drifted into the never-never land of Don Imus, who eight years ago referred to Rutgers’ national champion women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed ho’s.”   A few days later he was fired by his network.

In those unsteady footsteps followed Cowherd, on ESPN radio/TV:  “I’ve never bought into that ‘Baseball is just too complex.’  Really?  A third of the sport is from the Dominican Republic.” 

Jose Bautista, Dominican All-Star of the Toronto Blue Jays, was quick on the twitter: “Colin, before I rip you a new one I would like you to explain what you meant to say about baseball and Dominicans, please.”

Cowherd’s rewrite the next day sounded worse than the original rant:  “The Dominican Republic has not been known in my lifetime for having world-class academic abilities.  A lot of those kids come from rough backgrounds and have not had opportunities academically that kids from other countries have.”

His choice of the word “abilities” was especially ill chosen, suggesting that not only do Dominicans lack world-class education, their minds are lacking in abilities.  

This insight surprised those of us who’ve conversed with Felipe Alou, Juan Marichal and Pedro Martinez, if you’re looking for three exceptions to Colin’s Rule.  Martinez was at Cooperstown, N.Y., Sunday for his enshrinement as a baseball immortal.  When asked about Cowherd he said, “I’m sorry.  He needs to get to my level to answer him.  I’m in the Hall of Fame.”

Marichal, also a Hall of Famer, said, “People don’t believe how hard we worked to get to this country to become what we are.  I don’t think you can do that without a brain.”

On ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, Dan LeBatard, who’s Hispanic, forgave the 53-year-old Cowherd, believing the offensive words were intended to bring attention to educational and cultural hurdles Dominicans must surmount to reach the big leagues.

LeBatard of Miami is, along with Austin’s Milton Jamail, in the forefront of journalism pertaining to Caribbean baseball.  LeBatard cited Dominican star Vladimir Guerrero’s angst over his fifth-grade education as an example of what Cowherd meant.

It may be in LeBatard’s interest to sound gracious.  SI.Com reported before the Dominican flap occurred that he’s the choice to succeed Cowherd, who already had committed to Fox Sports starting this fall.  Cowherd’s musings on baseball’s unintelligence expedited his departure by only a week or two.

Fox, which agreed in principle to pay close to $6 million for Cowherd, may be having buyer’s remorse.  The New York Times contacted Fox executives to ask if this – should we call it Dominican-gate? — impacts his position at their network.  The response was a perhaps telling “no comment.”

Most of the national media were not as forgiving as LeBatard.  ESPN’s Izzy Gutierrez, a Dominican-American who’s almost a neighbor of LeBatard, said, bluntly, “I am offended.”

As a point of fact, the Dominican Republic has a literacy rate of 91.8 percent, which is higher than that of some of our states.  And not just the southern ones.  One of these laggards in literacy is Oregon, where Cowherd formerly lived and once praised for its “wonderful people, mostly white, who drink a lot of beer and wine.”

Cowherd’s ego won’t let him see when he says something stupid, something so demeaning that he should immediately retract and retreat, apologizing every stumbling step of the way.

Alas, regret for his Dominican dumbness came only in a tweet – perhaps prodded by Fox Sports, which hopes to link him to baseball, its main revenue engine.  “I realize my choice of words was poor and not reflective of who I am,” Cowherd tweeted, so belatedly.  “I am sorry.”

Like the I-Man, Cowherd was slow and clumsy at cleanup.  I get the impression he still thinks Dominicans are dumber than, say, your average Texan.  Speaking of educational handicaps, I live in a state that downsized Jefferson in the history books for not being religious enough.  And raised the scientists of Genesis to parity with Darwin.  I wonder what those poor, and academically malnourished, Dominican schoolkids are being taught.

For most people, living or dead, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  Cowherd’s faux pas has made him a household name, one of the few that, as some of his listeners have let him know, rhymes with turd.

He faces a rehabilitation project, and believe it or not, I hope he succeeds.  This website two years ago advocated more prominence for one of the most creative thinkers on the airwaves.  Colin’s New Football Show was, if I may damn it with faint praise, the most interesting of all the NFL pregame efforts.  I never heard a racist word on it.  I can hardly believe those stupid suits decided months ago to cancel it.  And hey, they don’t even have the excuse of being Dominican.

ESPN does not improve with Cowherd’s exit, which is not the only recent one of note.  In order to save $10 million – among other reasons – the No. 1 sports network jettisoned such marquee names as Keith Olbermann, Bill Simmons and Bob Knight.

The parent company, Walt Disney, is unhappy with the cash flow of its sports division.  The Wall Street Journal reported ESPN subscriptions falling 7.2 percent since 2011, due in part to unbundled viewing options like Netflix.  ESPN bills the cable and satellite companies $6.61 per month per household, so this decline amounts to many millions of dollars per year.  Meanwhile, the fees the pro and college leagues charge the networks are skyrocketing.

So Disney ordered ESPN to slash $100 million from next year’s budget and $250 mil by 2017.  The cutbacks actually began in the last basketball season, when 47 college games were covered by play-by-play announcers sitting in a studio in Bristol, Conn., instead of in the arena.

Cowherd wanted to move from Bristol to Hollywood, for so much more access to celebrities, lifeblood of his show.  But new austerity nixed that, about the time Colin’s New Football Show died in infancy.

So Cowherd began negotiating with Fox.

While ESPN until last week did not want to lose Cowherd, the network deemed Olbermann and Simmons to be more trouble and cost than they’re worth.  They were done in by subpar ratings and commentaries scathingly critical of NFL commish Roger Goodell, whose approval may be essential to the network’s survival at Disney.

Simmons feuded publicly with ESPN, which thought he was too edgy for its general audience.  He will have a sports show next year on HBO, refuge for Bill Maher and the politically incorrect.  Olbermann has not yet landed a new job.  He joked that his next gig “will be as Donald Trump’s campaign manager.”   Actually, that would be a better place for Cowherd.

As for Knight, 74, he’s been a grumpy old man since he was 29.  He was in typical form when he twice shouted at fans obstructing his view of a basketball game last season at SMU.

“Hey, boys, have a seat,” he yelled during the broadcast.  The offending fans sat down, and Knight took pleasure that they were “back on their butts where they belong.”  But soon they were standing again, as fans are wont to do.  “Hey, son! . . .  Either take my seat, or sit down.”

ESPN hired Knight in 2008, and for at least two years there have been rumors he was about to leave.  Some say good riddance.  Few say he wasn’t interesting.  Network commentators must be controversial to attract viewership.  But if they offend too many viewers – or the wrong one — they lose their jobs.  Be edgy.  Just don’t go off the edge.  Wherever it may be.

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