ESPN drops the ball with Kornheiser suspension

Let me begin by stating that I am a big fan of both Hannah Storm and Tony Kornheiser. My appreciation for Storm dates back to 1992 when she was hired at NBC, where she was involved in pretty much every sporting event that could define a sports childhood in the 90’s — the NBA, the Olympic Games, the NFL and major league baseball, just to name a few. She did a wonderful job whether it was in NBC’s studio or on the sideline, interviewing athletes or conversing with an analyst on set. She’s always been a top-notch television personality, and there’s a reason why she landed a gig on The Early Show later on CBS. She’s one of the best at her craft, and ESPN choosing her to co-anchor the morning SportsCenter was a home run.

My obsession with Kornheiser began with his morning talk show in the early days of ESPN Radio, when I would be able to catch it while staying home from school for being “sick.” His sarcastic nature, his witty banter with guests and rotating co-hosts, and his ability to break down sports without ever really attending games was fascinating to me. He was and is the best. And whether or not you liked him during his stint on Monday Night Football — chances are you hated his guts — I miss his presence in the booth during the football season.

But luckily for me, I still get to see Tony K. on PTI and I’m able to get my weekday radio fix every morning while listening to his show on ESPN 980 in Washington, a station owned by Red Zebra Broadcasting, which is operated by the Redskins’ Dan Snyder.

If you aren’t a frequent listener or viewer of either his radio show or PTI, or you aren’t familiar with Kornheiser’s personality, he’s a bit of a grumpy man. He’s a simple man with exquisite taste, which means he’s often perturbed by the smallest disturbances. A big part of why Kornheiser has been involved in so many cross-sections of sports media throughout his career — besides being a great journalist — is because of the hilarity that ensues when he is near a microphone or a camera. He often pokes fun at others, but he’s always self-deprecating and eager to let the world know about his neuroses.

In other words, his career has been built on a lot of give and take with his various audiences and media cohorts.

On his radio show, Kornheiser has been increasingly known for deconstructing and analyzing certain individuals’ attire, specifically television personalities like Today co-host Hoda Kotb. His affection for doing so possibly goes back to his time working for the Style section of The Washington Post. This is well-known to all of his listeners, and Kotb’s attire has been almost a daily subject on his show.

Perhaps it will end with his comments about Storm.

Last week on the show, Kornheiser critiqued the SportsCenter co-anchor’s outfit — not the first time he has done so, as perhaps only Kotb has been more of a recipient of his rants since his newly formed show debuted last year.

On Tuesday, ESPN suspended Kornheiser from PTI for two weeks after making the following comments about Storm’s wardrobe on the air last week:

Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt…way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now...She's got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body…I know she's very good, and I'm not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won't…but Hannah Storm…come on now! Stop! What are you doing?…She's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.

According to ESPN executive vice president of content John Skipper, “Kornheiser's comments about Hannah Storm were entirely inappropriate. Hurtful and personal comments such as these are not acceptable and have significant consequences. Tony has been suspended from PTI for two weeks. Hannah is a respected colleague who has been an integral part of the success of our morning SportsCenter.”

Let me begin by saying that Kornheiser’s comments were not unlike any other opinion he would express on any given morning. And it’s also very important to point out that his critiquing is not limited to women. I also subscribe to his show’s podcast, and on the December 17 episode (yes, I listen to archived episodes), Kornheiser said this about ESPN NBA analyst and former Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson:

Avery Johnson on television today wearing a white suit. This is why he’s not coaching in the league. Because he has no fashion sense. He has no fashion sense whatsoever. It is the middle of December. You cannot wear a white suit in Bristol, Connecticut. You look like a fool. And any [NBA] owner out there…He looks ridiculous…He’s on the screen…He looks ridiculous and he’ll never get a job in the NBA like that.

So obviously Kornheiser has no problem dishing out heat, no matter the gender or race. He also has no problem critiquing fellow ESPN employees. Where was Kornheiser’s two-week suspension for that rant against Johnson?

The only reason I could possibly see the four-letter network taking action this time is for the Holden Caulfield comment. Now I admit that the reference flew over my head on first read, but if I’m not mistaken — and I haven’t read Catcher in awhile — there’s a decent chance that Kornheiser was implying Storm looked like a “woman in the night” if you know what I mean (Caulfield seeks out a prostitute in one of the chapters of the novel).

If that’s the reference Kornheiser was going for, keep in mind that he studied English as an undergraduate at Binghamton University. I’m not saying that what he said wasn’t inappropriate, but also remember that much of Kornheiser’s success in the mediums of radio and television has been because of his humor — the same humor that’s been attractive to ESPN execs all of these years.

Kornheiser apologized for the remarks on his radio show last Friday, and he also reportedly apologized to Storm in person. That really should have been enough, in my opinion, but maybe if Kornheiser was given a few days of “paid vacation,” I wouldn’t be so upset. But two weeks?

I could cite the First Amendment and argue about freedom of speech, but I won’t only because I believe that media personalities should be held to a higher standard. I will say, however, that ESPN can’t have it both ways. They can’t pay the guy big bucks for his opinions and expect not to get the entire Tony Kornheiser experience. Even if they argue that the opinions were out of line because they were not sports-related, there are daily non-sports segments on PTI, so employing that logic is irrational. Even more important, they certainly shouldn’t be able to intervene when these comments occurred on his radio show — ESPN affiliation or not. Besides, his employers have known for years that he’s never been one to suck up to the bosses in Bristol anyway.

One question does come to mind, though, if we have to expect more courtesy from opinionated sports personalities in today’s world. When is Jim Rome going to be suspended for his shtick? Isn’t what he does on a daily basis offensive? Or is it okay because that’s within the parameters of his show?

I’ve heard many people suggest that Storm brought this controversy upon herself. Now I won’t go there, but I should also be fo rthright in saying that I wholeheartedly never take offense to Hannah Storm’s outfits. I mean, I’m a guy who appreciates a woman in knee-high boots.

However, as a female veteran sports anchor that must have fought like hell throughout her career to be taken seriously in a male-dominated world, she should think twice about her wardrobe every morning in the future before stepping in front of a camera.

Should a sports savvy and intelligent woman still be taken seriously even when she wants to dress sexy? Of course she should be, but I also wish I was a millionaire. We all know that life isn’t fair, and Storm knows the stereotypes that female sports journalists must deal with every day.

Kornheiser’s comments — whether you agree, disagree or are ambivalent toward — and his subsequent suspension just underscore that gender inequality is still a major issue in the workplace. However, the decision made by ESPN on Tuesday doesn’t do anything in the slightest to help the cause. In fact, it makes it worse.

Follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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