John Skipper joined ESPN and Disney (ESPN’s parent company) in 1997, starting out as senior vice president and general manager of ESPN The Magazine. After several years of establishing himself as one of the most recognizable figures in sports and media, he was promoted to president of ESPN in January of 2012. Recently, Skipper extended his contract with ESPN and was expected to have secured this position through to 2021. However, this didn’t turn out to be the case. A few weeks ago on December 18, 2017, Skipper submitted his resignation in a shocking public announcement that took thousands of people by surprise: he was leaving ESPN to seek addiction treatment.
Skipper’s Statements Regarding his Resignation
After almost six full years as the head of ESPN, Skipper stepped down as president with these parting words to his colleagues and the public:
“I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem. I have disclosed that decision to the company, and we mutually agreed that it was appropriate that I resign. I will always appreciate the human understanding and warmth that Bob displayed here and always. I come to this public disclosure with embarrassment, trepidation and a feeling of having let others I care about down. As I deal with this issue and what it means to me and my family, I ask for appropriate privacy and a little understanding. To my colleagues at ESPN, it has been a privilege. I take great pride in your accomplishments and have complete confidence in your collective ability to continue ESPN’s success.”
Although Skipper has made it clear that he resigned to focus on addiction recovery, no further details about his condition have been brought to light. However, Skipper did reveal in a mass email to employees that he has “struggled for many years with [his] substance addiction.”
The Response from Colleagues and Friends
George Bodenheimer, the former president of ESPN from 1998 to 2011, is stepping in as the acting chairman for the next 90 days to help Disney chairman and chief executive officer Bob Iger find a replacement for Skipper. When asked about Skipper’s decision to step down as president of ESPN, Bodenheimer had this to say:
“I have great respect for John’s leadership, and I applaud the courage he’s demonstrating by addressing his challenge head on. The most important thing right now for John and his family is that he conquers his addiction, and the entire ESPN family is behind him. I’ve stayed in close contact with John, and I believe in the direction he’s taking ESPN. He’s assembled an outstanding leadership team – many of whom I know very well – and I am extremely confident we will work together effectively to move ESPN forward during this transition.”
Similarly, Iger made the following statement:
“I join John Skipper’s many friends and colleagues across the company in wishing him well during this challenging time. I respect his candor and support his decision to focus on his health and his family.”
Skipper’s Influence and ESPN’s Uncertain Future
In the years leading up to 2012, ESPN was going through something of a rough patch with subscription losses and other revenue concerns. As president, Skipper played a critical role in helping the company move forward and grow. Acquiring certain television rights and drawing up long-term contracts with the MLB, the NBA, the WNBA and other organization were just a few of his accomplishments. Under Skipper’s leadership, ESPN grew into multi-billion dollar universal brand. Still, it wasn’t all smooth sailing with Skipper at the helm.
This past year, operations at ESPN have been hectic. Rights fees have increased, the launch of the ACC Network in 2019 is demanding a lot of attention, and the recent Fox sale to Disney may very well impact ESPN’s content. Additionally, ESPN has faced a lot of criticism that some of its commentary has become “politicized”. With subscriptions once again in decline, the company’s solution was to terminate hundreds of employees— a controversial move that made the news for weeks.
Now, on top of addressing all these issues, facing public backlash, and traversing a rapidly changing market to rebuild profits, the executives at ESPN will have to find someone to fill Skipper’s shoes.
Miller’s Theory and Public Speculation
Skipper’s unexpected resignation has garnered a considerable amount of speculation and gossip. After his resignation, Skipper disclosed that his departure was “mutually agreed [on and deemed] appropriate” by the executives at Disney. Although Skipper has insisted that a substance addiction was his reason for leaving, the lack of information has the public questioning the legitimacy of this claim. Many people have begun to ask questions: If he is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, why didn’t he take a leave of absence to receive treatment instead of resigning? Why would ESPN and Disney let him leave so easily? Many consider these unanswered questions to be proof that there was more to the resignation.
James Andrew Miller, an author and columnist famous for his book Those Guys Have All the Fun, is one of the many who doesn’t believe Skipper’s resignation had anything to do with addiction. Miller’s main argument is that Skipper never exhibited any signs of substance addiction during his time as president of ESPN. He also argues that both Disney and ESPN would be more likely to grant Skipper time for treatment and let him return later instead of letting him go altogether. Many people inside and outside of both companies seem to agree with Miller. It could be that the substance abuse story was formed to cover up a scandal, but without any further information, it’s nothing more than a theory at this point. It is worth considering that many people high power people hide their addictions for a very long time before seeking help. The resourcefulness that is needed to manage addiction and continue to be highly functioning is the same resourcefulness that may let you climb the corporate ladder.
Counterarguments to Consider
Today, the topic and treatment of addiction have become a large part of public conversation— mainly because a debate broke out as to whether or not substance abuse disorders should be considered diseases. Most Americans don’t seem to think that addiction is a disease, and society’s stigmatizing treatment of people with substance use disorders makes this clear.
The American government has been pushing the notion that addiction is a disease for some time. Still, even government officials have openly labeled substance users as dropouts, criminals, thugs, and bums. These stereotypes add to the stigma that discourages those who are suffering from getting the help that they so desperately need.
Additionally, numerous studies over the past decade have shown that the stigma against addiction not only prevents people from seeking treatment but also affects everything from self-image to employment. In fact, a study in 2014 revealed that a staggering 64% of the 709 people surveyed firmly believed that employers should deny employment to people with substance abuse disorders.
So, with all this in mind, is it so impossible for Skipper to have left his position because of a substance abuse disorder? Why would someone as esteemed and popular as John Skipper lie about needing substance addiction treatment? Or, if there really is a cover-up at ESPN, why didn’t Skipper use a different, less stigmatized reason for his allegedly forced resignation?
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