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Feud Between Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Kimmel Puts Disney/ESPN in a Bind

  • Disney's leadership faces tough decisions as battle between top talents escalates.
  • Kimmel's legal challenge raises questions about freedom of speech and humor.
Jimmy Kimmel
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Kimmel’s scorched earth response to Aaron Rodgers’s latest appearance on The Pat McAfee Show has opened up “a big can of worms” inside ESPN, sources tell Front Office Sports.

On Wednesday, ESPN executives were still figuring out how to respond to Kimmel’s threat to sue Rodgers after the Jets’ quarterback suggested that the host of Jimmy Kimmel Live! would be on the list of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein’s associates.

“Dear [expletive]: for the record, I’ve not met, flown with, visited, or had any contact whatsoever with Epstein, nor will you find my name on any ‘list’ other than the clearly-phony nonsense that soft-brained wackos like yourself can’t seem to distinguish from reality,” the ABC star posted Tuesday on X (formerly known as Twitter). “Your reckless words put my family in danger. Keep it up and we will debate the facts further in court.”

Kimmel’s legal threat raises the possibility of internecine warfare inside the Walt Disney Co.—and a feud between two of its highest-paid talents. 

The Mouse House owns both the ABC broadcast network and ESPN. Kimmel earns an estimated $15 million per year to host ABC’s late-night talk show, which he launched in 2003. And McAfee signed a five-year deal worth $15 million per year to license his eponymous weekday show to ESPN, where it follows Stephen A. Smith’s First Take at noon ET.

“This is a big can of worms for the new PR boss at ESPN [Josh Krulewitz], and for Disney/ABC. McAfee’s show is dangerous—but it gets viewers and makes money,” warns one ESPN source. “Rodgers has a deal with McAfee’s show that would be tough to void. Both Rodgers and McAfee don’t care about repercussions.”

So far, ESPN is letting its new star handle the controversy. McAfee addressed Kimmel’s threat at the top of his Wednesday show, and the former NFL punter said he understood Kimmel’s anger at being linked to the notorious pedophile. (Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in 2019 while awaiting trial for sex trafficking.)

“I can see exactly why Jimmy Kimmel felt the way he felt, especially with his position,” McAfee said. “But I think Aaron was just trying to talk s—. Now, did it go too far? Jimmy Kimmel certainly said that was the case.” McAfee also apologized for his show’s role in the controversy and said he hoped the feuding celebrities would “settle” it on their own. “We shall move on,” he said.

But what if Kimmel doesn’t move on? Even if Rodgers apologizes, Kimmel could take his complaints straight to Disney chairman Bob Iger and ESPN boss Jimmy Pitaro and force them to decide whether they want to continue putting Rodgers on the air. Part of that calculus, for Pitaro at least: Rodgers’s weekly interviews are one of McAfee’s biggest attractions. Losing Rodgers would hurt McAfee’s show as he tries to maintain Smith’s audiences.

Iger has been reluctant to insert himself into ESPN management affairs, and a second source close to the sports network told Front Office Sports that it’s unlikely Pitaro will seek to change how PMS operates, unless there’s pressure from Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif. “If there’s going to be any decision, it’ll be made by McAfee,” the same source says. “If McAfee thinks his boss might like the decision to quietly discontinue the relationship with Rodgers, that can be a smart long-term play for Pat.”

McAfee took heat inside and outside ESPN for his big-money contract, which was signed while ESPN and Disney laid off 7,000 employees. The Rodgers incident could fuel suspicions that McAfee’s brash, mercurial personality is a bad fit for ESPN.

So far, Pitaro has given McAfee and his team the freedom to push the envelope creatively. But McAfee is hyper-sensitive to criticism. By his own admission, he gets bored easily and is always looking for the next opportunity. “It’s good that Pat addressed [Rodgers’s comments]. But I’d be nervous because Pat’s mouth is faster than his brain sometimes,” says a source. 

Meanwhile, ESPN’s normally proactive communications machine declined to comment. The dustup presents a challenge for Krulewitz, the comms boss who recently succeeded Chris LaPlaca. The early word inside ESPN is that the strategy will be to try to ride out the Kimmel storm and hope it blows over. “ESPN will probably do nothing unless this gets bigger. PR often lets things fade. Management, too. If they get to the football weekend without more to this story… they’ll look at that as a win,” says another ESPN source. “However, do they talk to McAfee and his team about avoiding the topic with Rodgers next week? My guess is yes.”

As far as any legal liability for Rodgers, The Pat McAfee Show, or ESPN, two defamation lawyers tell FOS that Kimmel would have a tough case. “[McAfee] and others immediately chuckled and groaned at the comment, as if Rodgers had made a bad joke,” says Lee E. Berlik, founder of the Virginia-based BerlikLaw. “Jokes are usually not supposed to be interpreted literally and, as such, typically will not support an action for slander.”

But Berlik added that Kimmel “has every right to pursue a court case” if “a substantial number of people interpreted Rodgers’s comment as a literal assertion that Kimmel had a relationship of some sort with Jeffrey Epstein.”

Since Kimmel is a public figure, he would have to prove that Rodgers acted in actual malice for the lawsuit to survive. But California—where Kimmel resides, and where his show and Disney is based—does allow defamation by implication lawsuits. That means: Even though Rodgers didn’t outright claim that Kimmel was on Epstein’s list, Rodgers’s statements could still be actionable. 

“One of the defenses that Rodgers could come out with is: I was just saying he’d be embarrassed if there was a list that came out, not that he was necessarily on it,” says Andrew Stebbins, a partner at Buckingham, Doolittle, and Burroughs. “Any time you are dealing with two public figures like this, to make a claim for defamation you are going to have to claim that Rodgers meant—and the vast majority of the public knew he meant—Kimmel was on the list.”

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