Leach Incident Shows ESPN Ethics Stink

The whole mess at Texas Tech involving head coach Mike Leach and Adam James, son of ESPN college football analyst Craig James, is just sort of dark and odd.

We know Leach is quirky. We know he can be crude and sexist. It's much tougher to tell from news reports, secondhand anecdotes and a video that surfaced on ESPN but seems more appropriate for The Blair Witch Project, if he actually is a cruel sadist. Isolating a player -- even a malcontent -- with a legitimate injury is really poor judgment. And Tech officials seemed to rush through their investigation and Leach's firing in a way that looks shady, because it helped the school narrowly avoid paying Leach an $800,000 bonus.

But ESPN has some dirty laundry, too. The network owes its viewers, Tech and frankly the journalism profession a look at its own ethical guidelines. It also has to stop stonewalling new questions about Craig James' actions with flip denials from a corporate spokesman.

If allegations Leach made yesterday to The New York Times prove true, Craig James should face disciplinary action and possibly lose his job. If they don't, Leach needs to apologize publicly to the James family, drop his attempts to be reinstated and reconsider his future in college football.

In his first major interview since the incident, Leach told the Times:

Craig James called assistant coach Lincoln Riley so often to lobby for playing time, that they had a meeting with Adam James. They played him two of the messages and asked, "How would you feel if we went in there to the meeting room and we stuck speakers up and we played these two messages for the team?" ... After that, we didn't get any more phone calls from Craig, but he did proceed to call administrators.

That is a serious charge to anyone who has worked in journalism. This story isn't about Craig James, yet. But it could be real fast if Leach is telling the truth. No coach or university should have to live with a network media analyst who covers their school behaving like that. It would be a gross violation of journalistic ethics for any sports journalist to try and directly influence how any college football program is run. For it to happen where the journalist's son is on scholarship would be beyond the pale.

These allegations are easy to verify. ESPN and sports reporters should ask Riley directly if he ever recorded messages from Craig James, brought them to the school, and played them for Adam James in a meeting with other coaches. ESPN and sports reporters should ask Adam James directly if he ever attended a meeting where phone messages from his father were played. (If he says no, they should ask where he was at the time Leach says the meeting occurred.) One word answers will do.

Riley has a game to coach on Saturday. But he should come out publicly by Monday and verify in detail the content of the alleged calls. Leach should produce a signed letter by Riley and any other coach who attended the meeting that supports the story Leach told the Times. If the tapes still exist, Riley should play them for ESPN, the Times and other independent sports media.

That's how you verify a simple yet critical set of facts. If Leach's assistant coaches can't or won't verify the story he told the Times, something is very wrong with Leach and he doesn't deserve to work in major college sports. If they can and do, and if the tapes exist and support Leach's claims, then something is very wrong with Craig James, and he doesn't deserve to work in major sports broadcasting.

Everyone in journalism knows that credibility is a perception. That is why political reporters don't report on races involving their family members and why business reporters don't report on companies in which they own stock. ESPN could have avoided this whole situation by reassigning Craig James the minute his son signed with Texas Tech. The announcement that James would not be covering the Alamo Bowl -- like that is some big step by ESPN -- is so ridiculous it's offensive. It was absurd for him ever to have been near that game, Big 12 football and/or Tech athletics in the first place.

Craig James has every right to be a pestering football dad, as obnoxious as that may be. However, if he wants to exercise that right, he owes it to his network and the reputations of other reporters who work there to move into a job that doesn't have these ethical temptations or create the appearance of impropriety. News organizations routinely reassign reporters to avoid even slight impressions of conflict over work their family members do in government, business -- even sports. Why was Craig James any different?