Once again, out of bounds at ESPN

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 4, 2011; C01

ESPN, the sports network where male announcers have repeatedly faced disciplinary action in high-profile episodes of sexist behavior, has benched yet another host for his remarks to a female colleague.

The network acknowledged Monday that it yanked one of its announcers, Ron Franklin, from covering the Fiesta Bowl college football game Saturday, reportedly after Franklin made belittling comments to sideline reporter Jeannine Edwards.

Franklin, 68, allegedly called Edwards an insulting seven-letter word after she objected to being called "sweet baby" by Franklin during a conversation that took place at a pregame production meeting Friday, hours before the pair were to cover another football game for ESPN.

The incident is the latest in a long string of episodes in which ESPN hosts have demeaned or engaged in sexual-harassing behavior toward the Disney-owned network's female employees.

Baseball analyst Harold Reynolds was fired in 2006 after being accused of harassment by a female employee. Steve Phillips, another baseball analyst, lost his job in 2009 as a result of an affair with a much-younger production assistant who disclosed the relationship to Phillips's wife after he sought to break it off. In 2007, a makeup artist working on the since-canceled show "Cold Pizza" sued the program's co-hosts, alleging they groped and harassed her. (The suit was thrown out.)

Last year, former Washington Post sports columnist Tony Kornheiser, co-star of the popular ESPN show "Pardon the Interruption," was suspended for critical comments he made on his local radio program about "SportsCenter" host Hannah Storm's clothes.

Franklin, a veteran ESPN announcer, reportedly addressed another sideline reporter, Holly Rowe, as "sweetheart" during a 2005 broadcast. He later apologized to Rowe.

The run-in prompted ESPN ombudsman George Solomon to observe at the time: "Play-by-play commentators need to take sideline reporters - many of whom are women - more seriously. So does ESPN, which needs to give these reporters more airtime and more serious issues to address."

ESPN declined to comment in detail on the latest episode. It issued a statement saying, "We're not going to get into specifics other than to say adhering to our personal-conduct policies and showing respect for colleagues are of the utmost importance to our company and we take them extremely seriously."

The network also issued a statement from Franklin saying: "I said some things I shouldn't have and am sorry. I deserved to be taken off the Fiesta Bowl."

ESPN dealt with dozens of sexual harassment incidents in the two decades after its founding in 1979, according to "ESPN: The Uncensored History," a book by New York Times sportswriter Mike Freeman that was published in 2000. Among those disciplined, according to the book, was "Monday Night Football" announcer Mike Tirico, who in 1992 was suspended for unwelcome advances toward another employee.

Despite its track record, ESPN is no more hospitable to harassing behavior than other male-dominated workplaces, said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Sport in Society program at Northeastern University.

"I hate to single out ESPN for having a dysfunctional culture," Lebowitz said. "It just mimics an inherent ill in our society. It's more a reflection of overall societal behavior where women are mistreated in the workplace. Whether it's the investment industry or the entertainment industry or something else, it's across the board. It just seems more sensational at ESPN because they're a very public entity."

Added Lebowitz, "There's still an awful long way to go in terms of teachable moments for men to understand proper workplace conduct and to treat women as equals."

At the very least, he said, ESPN "has sent a message" that such conduct won't be tolerated by firing or suspending employees whose behavior crossed the line.

The Franklin-Edwards exchange came during a staff meeting Friday before the Florida State-South Carolina game. Franklin was talking with two fellow announcers, Rod Gilmore and Ed Cunningham, about Gilmore's wife, Marie, who was elected mayor of Alameda, Calif., in November.

When Edwards tried to join the conversation, Franklin allegedly responded, "Why don't you leave this to the boys, sweet cakes?," according to the Web site SportsbyBrooks, which first reported the incident. (Edwards later told USA Today that Franklin used the term "sweet baby.")

When Edwards objected to Franklin's comment, Franklin allegedly responded, "Okay then, [expletive]."

After Edwards reported the comments to senior executives, ESPN tried to pull Franklin off the game but couldn't find a replacement for him in time. He and Edwards worked together that night without apparent incident. He was replaced the next night on the radio broadcast of a second college game.

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