Wednesday September 27, 2023

Welcome to ESPN: Pat McAfee Now Judged By Stricter Standard

  • McAfee was surprised by criticism of his tasteless Larry Nassar tweet.
  • But he shouldn't be. ESPN talent like Stephen A. Smith get more scrutiny.
Pat McAfee at Disney Upfront
Disney General Entertainment/Jennifer Pottheiser
Front Office Sports Today

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September 27, 2023 | Podcast
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Welcome to ESPN, Pat McAfee.

ESPN’s $85 million man won’t officially move his YouTube show to the network’s weekday lineup until this fall.

But McAfee got a baptism of fire Sunday night when social media erupted with criticism over his tasteless tweet about notorious rapist Dr. Larry Nassar. 

Responding to a tweet showing Michigan State’s alternate uniforms, McAfee tweeted: “I think Nassar was on the design team, actually.”

McAfee’s joke about a convicted sexual abuser who assaulted over 250 women and girls went over like a lead balloon on social media. 

Awful Announcing called the tweet “tasteless and reprehensible.” When some Twitter users called on McAfee to take it down, he responded with a GIF of Stephen A. Smith, asking: “For what?”

On Monday, McAfee had a change of heart.

He apologized to those offended by the tweet. But he explained he was just “talking shit” to a friend.

“I want to let everybody know who’s coming after me. We believe Larry Nassar a terrible human. Worst human. Disgusting human.”

McAfee expressed surprise that his joking reply sparked an “all-out onslaught” of criticism.  

“It was an eye-opener,” he admitted.


As one of the highest-paid talents in sports media, McAfee can’t be this naive.

He’s used to being his own man with his own company. But McAfee should know that as soon as he agreed to license his show to ESPN, he would be judged by a different, stricter standard.

ESPN will pay McAfee $85 million over five years to bring his popular show to ESPN’s weekday TV lineup. 

He’s not just the wacky football analyst jumping into a lake on “College GameDay.” 

The often foul-mouthed McAfee now represents ESPN and the Walt Disney Co. That’s a different ballgame.

Love them or hate them, ESPN is the New York Yankees of sports media. No entity gets more attention and more criticism. Yes, McAfee will get the biggest spotlight. But with it comes the most scrutiny.

Just ask Smith, who was suspended for his comments about domestic violence. Or former ESPN stars like Jemele Hill, Colin Cowherd, Bill Simmons, Dan Le Batard and Michelle Beadle, whose tweets or comments got them in hot water with the brass in Bristol. 

Now he will report to Dave Roberts, ESPN’s no-nonsense head of event and studio production. I know Roberts. He’s helped Smith and Molly Qerim build “First Take” into a juggernaut. But he doesn’t take any guff either. Can McAfee be a team player?

McAfee and his crew should also realize they’re prime clickbait. Anything they say, or tweet, can and will be moved into fodder by websites (including Front Office Sports), newspapers, etc. So the just replying to a friend defense won’t wash.

Maybe McAfee thinks he can forge the same operating freedom within ESPN as Stephen A., who operates by his own rules. 

Who knows? 

He might be right.  

After all, by Smith’s own admission, McAfee will be making more money on Day One than the featured commentator and executive producer of top-rated “First Take.”

McAfee is on a first-name basis with ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro and Disney chairman Bob Iger. So ESPN’s likely to give him plenty of runway before it clamps down on him.

Tellingly, ESPN declined to comment on McAfee’s Nassar blunder. That’s a far cry from when ESPN publicly discussed the assorted suspensions and punishments dished out to Hill and Simmons a few years ago. Or publicly apologized for their comments.

McAfee has recently risen from an NFL punter to the highest-paid personality in sports media. His problem is he can’t seem to take criticism.

The sports personality and sometimes WWE personality has been used to universal praise. 

The thin-skinned McAfee seemed genuinely hurt when fans branded him a “sellout” for joining forces with ESPN. If he thinks the negative headlines about Nassar were an “onslaught,” he’s in for a rude awakening.

McAfee has a history of leaving sports media partners before his contract ends. ESPN and Disney will give him plenty of rope. 

But wake up Pat. ESPN isn’t Barstool Sports, Sirius XM, or FanDuel. There comes a time when ESPN will refuse to clean up a talent’s mess, especially if it hurts Disney’s family-friendly image.

ESPN star Mike Greenberg previously told Front Office Sports he’s confident McAfee will skate right up to the line – without going over it. 

My take is McAfee won’t make the same mistakes again this fall when his show officially moves to the four letters.

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