NEW YORK — On the afternoon of Feb. 1, Adnan Virk drove home from ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. It was a familiar trip. Virk, 40, had worked at the network for nine years — he was a studio host on “Baseball Tonight” and for the network’s college football and college basketball coverage.
That morning, though, his contract had been terminated after ESPN determined that he had divulged what it considered proprietary information about the network’s baseball coverage to a sports media writer. Virk was on his way to face his wife and four boys — ages 10, 7, 2 and 4 months.
“You’re driving home and you think there must be people in my position who just drive straight off the road,” Virk said over lunch last week in his first interview since his firing. “It’s intense. Married, four kids, it’s like, ‘My god, what am I going to do?’ ”
It took Virk two more days to call his parents to tell them he was unemployed. That night, Super Bowl Sunday, a report appeared in the New York Post about his firing, saying Virk was accused of leaking information to reporters on multiple occasions. “You read that you’re some kind of serial leaker,” Virk said. “And it’s like, ‘No!’ This was a one-time thing.”
Still, Virk couldn’t help but feel some relief that the report had been explicit about why he was fired. “This is the #MeToo era,” he said. “I didn’t want anyone to think I was like Louis C.K.”
In the days and weeks that followed, Virk — a devout Muslim who went straight to his mosque for Friday prayers after he was fired — turned to the Koran. One particular passage lifted him: “And seek help with patience and prayer; and this is indeed hard except for the humble in spirit."
He grew a beard, spoke to a therapist and contemplated his legal options. This month, he and ESPN settled their differences. Virk would not bring a lawsuit; instead, he would take a new job at DAZN, a new streaming service whose North American operation is headed by John Skipper, the former president of ESPN. Beginning Opening Day, Virk will host a nightly baseball show.
Over a bowl of spaghetti last week, he talked about his new beginning but also his attempt to find closure.
“I know that I made a mistake,” Virk said. “I would have thought that everything I’d done for the company would count for something. Whatever happens in life you say: ‘What’s the action? What’s the result of the action? Who’s the person? And how important are they to the company?’ Ultimately, I’m hurt that I was that replaceable for doing something I thought was relatively benign.”
He added, “I feel like they wanted to make an example of me.”
ESPN declined to comment.
Virk rose to prominence at ESPN after growing up in the Canadian town of Morven, Ontario, two hours east of Toronto, with a population of around 500. His parents emigrated from Pakistan in 1972; his father worked as a computer programmer and the family ran a convenience store, where a teenage Virk used to sell baseball and hockey cards to other kids.
After broadcasting school at Ryerson University in Toronto, Virk’s first on-camera job was hosting a movie-themed show in Toronto called Bollywood Boulevard. He transitioned to sports, working at a couple of networks in Canada before auditioning for ESPN.
“Honestly, my dream was never as big as ESPN,” he said. “I thought if I could be in a major market and make six figures, that was all I wanted. So for nine years, I felt like I out-kicked my coverage.”
Virk signed a two-year contract extension last year and had a growing presence at ESPN, on and off the screen. He had been slated to host a women’s leadership event in February and was considered a budding network star. Then came a Jan. 28 story on Awful Announcing, a blog that covers sports and sports media. Following up on a 2018 report that ESPN was considering adding episodes of “Baseball Tonight” to its programming slate, reporter Ben Koo wrote that ESPN would not expand the number of shows for the upcoming baseball season. The story also included details about ESPN’s contractual obligations concerning the Sunday start time for the show and how often it has to run.
Virk, who signed a separation agreement with ESPN, declined to speak about the specific events of his firing, but according to sources with knowledge of the events, Virk had asked an ESPN producer a series of questions after a conference call about the network’s baseball coverage. Some of the information they discussed matched what appeared in the Awful Announcing report.
When approached by supervisors about the story, Virk denied speaking to Koo, on whose podcast he had previously appeared. After human resources asked him to turn over his company phone, Virk later admitted that he had talked to Koo. Because Virk had been in touch with Koo about “Baseball Tonight” before the conference call, ESPN considered the leak premeditated.
Following an internal investigation, Virk was summoned to ESPN’s campus, where he was ushered into a room with an HR representative and a speaker phone. Over the phone, ESPN Vice President Norby Williamson informed Virk that his contract was being terminated. A security guard then accompanied him to his desk so he could collect photos of his wife and children.
“What I can say is that I was a good corporate citizen and I was proud of that,” Virk said, noting that he had never previously passed ESPN information to any reporter. “I loved working at ESPN. I used to get made fun of for going to every town hall.” He added, “I know the difference between important information and something trivial, and in my mind this was so trivial that it wasn’t a huge deal.”
Asked if he thought ESPN had leaked the story of his firing, Virk declined to comment.
Virk grew up wanting to be a film director, the next Martin Scorsese as he put it, and after his firing he crafted a list of movies to watch. There was “Memento,” the thriller about a man with short-term memory loss trying to avenge his wife’s murder; “Doubt,” about a murky relationship between a priest and a young boy; and Akira Kurosawa’s “Rashomon,” a 1950 film that tells one story from four different viewpoints.
“I learned it’s very fascinating to know what the relative nature of truth is,” Virk said. “Everybody understands a story differently."
Soon after he left his old network, he met with representatives from DAZN, a streaming platform based in London that is looking to expand in the United States. Last year, DAZN struck a deal with Major League Baseball to air a daily whip-around show broadcasting highlights and the most dramatic moments from around the sport in real time, reminiscent of the NFL’s RedZone channel.
During his initial meeting with DAZN in late February, Virk said he explained his ESPN exit, but no one pressed him on it. And Skipper’s involvement, in particular, was fitting. The executive had abruptly resigned from ESPN in 2017, later explaining that it was because he had been extorted by a drug dealer over his cocaine addiction.
“Who would understand redemption better than John Skipper?” Virk said.
Skipper said of Virk: “My general reaction to his exit was delight because of his availability. He brings us credibility, and nothing about his behavior gives me pause.”
For Virk, the initial weeks after his firing were marked by crippling self-doubt and regret. But the new job, and being back in the studio for rehearsals, has allowed him a chance to reflect.
“In the first couple weeks, you ask every question, think about every regret,” he said. “I wish I had done this, or what else could I have done? But I wanted to do a baseball show and here I am, so I feel like I won the lottery. Even a turbulent end doesn’t deter from my fondness for ESPN for everything they did for me."
During his time between jobs, Virk enjoyed what was likely his final ESPN perk. He and his family visited Disneyland and used passes to the park he had previously been given, courtesy of ESPN, which is owned by Disney.
“I told them: ‘Here you go, kids; this is the last time you’ll get these,' " he said. “Because now it’s time to move on.”
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