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Longhorns TV Deal: Texas Can Fire ESPN Broadcasters

The licensing agreement between ESPN and the University of Texas (through rightsholder IMG College) for the soon-to-launch Longhorn Network specifies that while ESPN will make decisions with respect to the hiring of on-air talent, the University of Texas retains the rights to fire them.

From a copy of the agreement obtained by the Austin American-Statesman:

"[I]n 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)."

Does this mean that the University could fire a broadcaster for saying, on-air, that "Garrett Gilbert looked really lost on the field this afternoon"? 

Probably not. For the contract specifies a two-part test: First, UT must determine that the on-air talent's statements were inappropriate and, as such, did not reflect the quality and reputation desired by UT for the Network. But second, such determination must be reasonable.

In other words, expect to read a lot of whiny comments from fans at other schools who misconstrue this provision as giving UT the right to fire any on-air broadcaster who offers honest, fairly held criticism. UT is not authorized to fire such persons, nor would it.  (Whether ESPN winds up hiring for this work commentators who are going to offer much fairly held criticism is another matter.)

An ESPN spokesman explained: "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." 

What this clause is really about is ensuring that UT gets to draw the line between what is and is not appropriate, a sensible request considering the different interests of the two entities. The University's charter is different from that of Disney's, such that there potentially exist on-air statements or behavior that would not necessarily cross the line to being a fireable offense for a corporation, but would for a university.  

In practice, it is likely that the gulf between the two entities' standards isn't particularly wide. For the most part, a statement or action that prompts UT to remove the broadcaster likely would have resulted in the same action being taken by ESPN, as well.  Think, for example, of a broadcaster who is arrested for soliciting prostitution.

Where UT is protecting itself is in cases such as the 2009 on-air incident involving ESPN broadcaster Bob Griese. As you may recall, during a telecast of a game between Minnesota and Ohio State, the commentators began discussing a graphic displaying the top five drivers in the NASCAR points standings. When fellow broadcaster Chris Spielman asked where Juan Montoya (a Colombian) was, Griese replied that Montoya was "out having a taco."

Griese would later apologize for the remark, first later on during the same broadcast, then again during halftime of a different game broadcast on the network.  ESPN released a statement calling the remark "inappropriate," but did not take any further action. Griese continues to broadcast games for ESPN.

Now imagine if Griese had made that insensitive remark during a telecast on the Longhorn Network. While it is possible UT would conclude that an apology was sufficient to conclude the matter, it might well feel that Griese's remark made him untenable as, in effect, a representative of the University. 

And that last part is the key: ESPN won the rights to broadcast the Longhorn Network, but it is, still, the Longhorn Network.  The talent they hire to broadcast shows and events will be representing the Longhorn Network -- which is to say the University.  As such, the University is reserving the right to remove such broadcasters should it reasonably determine that their statements or actions unacceptably represent the quality and reputation the University is committed to upholding.

It may well be the case that the broadcasters who are hired cheerlead to some extent (which would diminish the quality of the broadcast, in my opinion), but it will not be the case that broadcasters will be fired for offering fairly held criticisms of Texas athletics.