ESPN addresses Sarah Phillips hiring, firing
ESPN executive vice president and executive editor John Walsh hosted an online chat Thursday and addressed the company’s decision to hire and later fire Sarah Phillips. Phillips was exposed this week by Deadspin as someone who was hired by ESPN to write for their “Page 2” section despite having very little writing background. She leveraged her position with ESPN, and combined with a friend/partner, to allegedly scam several people. Her aim was to gain money/and or promotion via social media from her victims.
Walsh was supposedly “asked” a question about Phillips during his chat. Based on the way it was phrased, the question seemed planted by ESPN (or specifically chosen by them) so that they could formulate a response that wouldn’t make them look too bad. Let’s look at Walsh’s response:
Robbie Crowley (Anaheim, CA)
Given the dustup over Sarah Phillips, what is ESPN’s policy as it relates to hiring prospective workers? And what’s the difference at ESPN between a freelancer and a fulltime columnist?
We need to remember she was a freelance contributor, not an employee or full-time staffer, or part-time staffer, or contractual contributor. As such, she was properly vetted for the normal hiring standards for per-piece contributors, which is common not just at ESPN, but throughout the media industry. For those unaware, there is a big difference in these job descriptions. As the name implies, freelancers without contracts are free to work anywhere, for anybody. There is no obligation on the part of the individual or the company to continue the working relationship. When she first started, she provided the information necessary to contribute to us (obviously, since then we were aware only of the contributions she was making to ESPN). This week, when we became aware of other information, we promptly ended our per-piece relationship with her. We are continuing to review this instance and examining our process for potential changes.
Walsh is doing his best to defend ESPN, but everything he’s saying is flat-out wrong. The distinction between full-time, part-time, freelance, or contract employees for ESPN does not matter to the public. Does ESPN tell us in a writer’s byline that the employee is only a freelancer, therefore we shouldn’t take their material as seriously? Of course not.
The public trusts that if ESPN has hired someone to write for its website — or any position for that matter — that the person is credible. Likewise, the person then gets to use ESPN’s name in their Twitter bio and resume, giving them instant credibility. The person becomes a representative of ESPN, who is then trading off that respectable name.
ESPN can’t simply excuse their mistake by saying that the person was only a freelancer. They were extremely careless with their hire, and many people were allegedly hurt in a number of ways — monetarily and emotionally — because ESPN hired Phillips. If you read the stories from people who claim they were scammed by Phillips, they almost all mention that ESPN was a huge factor in trusting, believing, and dealing with Phillips. I would even think they could be liable for damages if they were sued.
One distinction I want to make is that it’s extremely difficult to find ESPN, or any company for that matter, responsible for what its employees do when they’re not at work. If one of their writers gets a DUI, it reflects poorly on the company by association, but it would be hard to blame them unless the person was coming from a company function.
In this case, it’s ESPN who hired Phillips and made her what she was, giving her the credibility to dupe people. Had they done proper research, they would have realized Phillips was an extremely sketchy character whose identity was uncertain, and they hopefully would not have hired her.