ESPN, Irvin leave many questions unanswered

Updated: December 1, 2005, 9:22 PM ET
By George Solomon | ESPN Ombudsman

Michael Irvin's appearance in his regular spot among the panelists on ESPN's "Monday Night Countdown" this week generated a number of responses from viewers surprised that it appeared to be business as usual for Irvin, despite his arrest last Friday on an outstanding warrant for a previous speeding violation and subsequent charge of possession of drug paraphernalia.

Thursday, ESPN decided it was not business as usual, reporting that Irvin "would not make his scheduled appearances on the 'Sunday' and 'Monday Night Countdown' shows on Dec. 4 and 5." According to the report posted on ESPN.com, the "former Cowboys wide receiver, who is in his third year as an analyst for the network, will resume his regular role on Sunday, Dec. 11."

The report said ESPN was not made aware of Irvin's arrest until about 48 hours after it had occurred. It made no mention of whether or not the action taken Thursday was an official suspension, or if Irvin would be paid for the two days he would not be on air. Nor would anyone in ESPN management discuss why Irvin was allowed to proceed with his regularly scheduled "Monday Night Countdown" appearance Nov. 28.

An ESPN executive said it was the policy of the company not to discuss personnel matters.

"I understand I was wrong for not divulging the information on Friday," Irvin said in a statement Thursday. "I accept ESPN's decision and look forward to returning to my teammates next week."

Irvin's arrest at about 3:30 p.m. last Friday followed his being stopped on suspicion of speeding on the Dallas North Tollway. A check by police showed Irvin had an outstanding warrant for speeding in Irving, Texas, which resulted in a search of Irvin's car.

That search turned up a drug pipe Irvin said belonged to a friend, whom he'd invited to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. Irvin was taken to the police station in Plano, Texas, where he was charged with a misdemeanor that could lead to a fine of $500, as well as a ticket for speeding.

Irvin, 39, was released about an hour later, after paying the fine for the outstanding speeding ticket and posting bond for the misdemeanor. In 1996, Irvin pleaded no contest to felony cocaine possession and was sentenced to four years deferred probation. In 2000, after he'd retired from the Cowboys, Irvin was arrested for marijuana and cocaine possession in a North Dallas apartment. Charges were later dropped, but Irvin nevertheless lost his job with Fox Sports Net.

Irvin left Dallas on Saturday to travel to Bristol to prepare for his Sunday and Monday appearances. But in the period between his arrest and his trip to Bristol, he did not tell his employers at ESPN what happened Friday in Dallas.

ESPN learned about Irvin's arrest Sunday afternoon from a Dallas television station.

"I understand people have doubts, but I'm totally clean," Irvin told Dan Patrick on ESPN radio Monday. "I am going to do everything I can to clear my name."

Later, on "Monday Night Countdown," Irvin, responding to questions from ESPN's Stuart Scott, said he'd taken the pipe from a friend -- who he'd been helping cope with drug problems -- before the friend entered Irvin's home Thursday, and put it into his car instead of a trash receptacle outside his home "where people comb through his garbage."

"Monday Night Countdown" continued on, business as usual. But clearly questions remain, despite ESPN's actions Thursday, about what happened with Irvin last week.

Why didn't he give ESPN a heads-up about his situation, as any employee, contractual or otherwise, would be expected to do? Also, a number of viewers -- including me -- wonder why ESPN simply didn't put Irvin on the bench Monday until those questions were answered? I also wonder if ESPN's action is a result of Irvin not being forthcoming with his employer, or his current legal situation.

Irvin remains a high-profile performer. He has fans and detractors precisely because he is a lightning rod for controversy, someone with lots to say, such as when he observed recently that the Philadelphia Eagles would "be better off with Brett Favre" as their quarterback.

You know how that turned out.

ESPN needed to treat Irvin the same as it would any employee -- give him the benefit of the doubt with regards to his legal situation, but let Irvin know that he, too, has obligations. And they needed to let him know immediately. The viewers deserved better from Irvin -- and ESPN -- this week.

In addition, despite the company policy, ESPN needs to be more forthcoming in answering questions regarding this embarrassingly awkward situation.

Ombudsman George Solomon is the public's representative to ESPN, offering independent examination and analysis of ESPN's programming. The longtime Washington Post sports editor will critique ESPN's decision-making, coverage and presentation.