Posted by Adam Jacobi
Earlier this year, Texas and ESPN announced the formation of the Longhorn Network, a University of Texas-themed, third-tier sports channel designed to give viewers an all-inclusive Texas Longhorns experience. All-inclusive except for first- and second-tier games, which will still be covered by the Big XII's conference TV deals, of course, but other than that they're still good.
Being that this is a Texas-run channel for Texas fans, there's obviously going to be an expectation of some, shall we say, preferential editorial treatment by the on-air talent. Seems only fair. But even though this is ESPN's network, according to the Austin American-Statesman, it's going to be Texas who decides if the announcers are staying on the straight and narrow, and with massive consequences if they're not:
According to the contract, "in the event that UT reasonably determines that any on-air talent does not reflect the quality and reputation desired by UT for the Network based on inappropriate statements made or actions taken by such talent and so notifies ESPN, ESPN will cause such talent to be promptly replaced (and will in any event no longer allow them on air following such notice)."
On Tuesday, ESPN spokesman Josh Krulewitz explained in an email, "This is not common in ESPN agreements because this UT network is so unique/new for us ...The provision does not allow for random replacement of commentators or reaction to critical comments... it's more about potential situations where a commentator makes completely inappropriate comments or gets involved in inappropriate actions."
In response, blogger Ben Maller wondered aloud if the provision meant that the announcers would have to wear Texas cheerleading outfits. He was clearly joking, and Krulewitz's statement should be enough to reassure viewers that the announcers still have some leeway as far as making critical statements.
And yet, there's still a problem here. Texas' top priority, one would hope, is Texas. The Longhorn Network's top priority, one would hope, is professionalism. So between those two entities, who should be in charge of determining the announcers' professionalism and deciding whether to take them off the air or not?
It remains to be seen, of course, whether and how often UT actually exercises these firing rights, and presumably, the school understands that even one such firing will be a PR nightmare, to say nothing of several (especially if they're indiscriminate or capricious). But what if Texas -- who, let's recall, has zero equity stake in the network -- doesn't have a problem with dropping the axe over one bad statement? What if ESPN grants this type of a deal to a different school with a pathologically vindictive athletic department? What sort of precedent is being set here?