On a day when the social media landscape was overwhelmingly inundated with commentary on the final Harry Potter movie's release, ESPN senior writer Bruce Feldman was probably the only non-wizard to trend on Twitter.
After SportsbyBrooks reported ESPN had suspended Feldman indefinitely for co-authoring former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach's autobiography Swing Your Sword, journalists employed by other companies tweeted their outrage Thursday night and Friday morning.
"What have you done today to show support for Bruce Feldman?" FOXSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock posted. "I'm talking mostly to journalists. We can't let this stand. #freebruce"
"If you appreciate journalists who do their job professionally and with respect... then boycott ESPN," Sports Illustrated's Stewart Mandel posted.
In response to the backlash, ESPN posted a statement on its ESPN Media Zone website Friday night, claiming Feldman had never been suspended in the first place.
"There was never any suspension or any other form of disciplinary action," the statement said. "We took the time to review his upcoming work assignments in light of the book to which he contributed and will manage any conflicts or other issues as needed. Bruce has resumed his assignments."
Feldman, who had posted daily on Twitter for several months, has yet to post on Twitter since July 13, and has not issued any public comment on his status with ESPN. While the online community continues to speculate on the truthfulness of ESPN's statement on Feldman, Leach's autobiography continues to receive more and more attention.
Swing Your Sword proves itself to be more than worthy of the attention it is receiving. The book provides fascinating insight into Leach's psyche and thoroughly documents serious allegations of misconduct by Texas Tech officials and ESPN commentator Craig James.
The beginning of the book provides an interesting look into what makes Leach tick, and documents his impressive climb up the coaching ladder, and is an entertaining read. However, a nationwide interest in Leach's upbringing and employment history isn't what has propelled the book to the top of Amazon's list of best-selling sports books.
Readers are buying Swing Your Sword in droves because they want to hear Leach's side of the story behind his firing from Texas Tech. Although he does not discuss the subject until the end of the book, Leach uses a story about winning a dispute with an unfair teacher in the first chapter to hint early on at the tone he'll later take in the book to his former employers.
"The situation with that math teacher was the first time in my life I ever experienced how adults, just like kids, could be immature and petty," Leach wrote. "I learned that they can screw you over if they feel like it. Or if you find yourself sideways to their agenda, right and wrong may not play into the equation."
While weaving an interesting narrative and giving insight into one of the most unique minds in college football, the first half of Swing Your Sword gives readers the sense Leach will pull no punches when he gets around to discussing his controversial firing. In an anecdote sure to attract PETA's ire, he tells the shocking tale of urinating on a neighborhood dog to teach it not to relieve itself on Leach's possessions.
A little later in the book, Leach declares he was obsessed with Melvin Belli, a lawyer known as the "King of Torts" who once unnerved jurors by bringing a leg-shaped package into the courtroom while suing on behalf of a woman who lost her leg in a trolley accident. Through such stories of chutzpah and unconventional behavior Leach makes it clear pushing buttons is something he always practiced and admired.
"If there was a frog in the middle of the road, I'd get a stick and poke him in the ass just to see how far he'd jump," Leach wrote of his personality as a child. "I wasn't trying to hurt anybody. I just wanted to see what they did and how they'd respond."
By the time Swing Your Sword makes its way to the end of Leach's tenure at Texas Tech, the numerous tales of refusal to think and act within typical expectations have built a palpable sense of anticipation for what the "Pirate Coach" has to say about his firing. Leach delivers more than satisfactorily, and his trademark refusal to mince words serves him well.
In his typical no-holds-barred fashion, Leach describes Texas Tech chancellor Kent Hance as "the Wizard of Oz," explaining "If you pulled back the curtain, you'd realize there was only this little man pulling levers." Leach calls Craig James "the ultimate little-league dad," and publishes a scathing statement from former Texas Tech Graham Harrell calling Adam James "a selfish player on and off the field that was counter-productive for our team and would be for any other team."
Leach saves his best vitriol for Craig James' ESPN coworkers, who he accuses of "perpetuating falsehoods" spread by Spaeth Communications, the public relations firm the elder James had hired. Leach said ESPN's coverage of the story was "worse than hypocrisy. It was malicious."
They had no knowledge of the facts," Leach wrote. "Obviously, they weren't even concerned about the facts. They just took everything that Craig James, through Spaeth Communications, was feeding them, and kept repeating it over and over, during every pre-game show, every halftime show, every post-game show, and during SportsCenter. This went on for days. There were a number of exchanges between my agents and ESPN. But ESPN was more interested in presenting the fantastical story by Spaeth Communications."
The verbal jabs are entertaining, but the true gems of this book come in the form of the hard evidence Leach uses to support his statements. With the support of emails obtained by various media outlets and his attorney Ted Liggett, Leach meticulously documents plans for his firing that were in the works long before Adam James' treatment became an issue.
One email sent from a man described in Swing Your Sword as "one of Tech's biggest boosters" to Hance and Texas Tech athletics director Gerald Myers during Leach's 2008 contract renegotiations told Myers and Hance "you should sign a contract that would not cost us too much to fire him." Less than two weeks later, after Leach and Tech had agreed in principle to a new contract, the same booster sent an email to Hance, saying "I hope he doesn't sign, that gives us a full year to find another coach after we fire him after next season."
Leach presents an email from Jerry Turner, vice president of Texas Tech's board of regents to two other regents, suggesting if the university fired Leach before the end of the 2009 season, the university could avoid paying a $800,000 completion bonus in Leach's contract. Another email shows a regent telling Hance "not to close this matter concerning Adam James" because it would "eliminate our ability to use this to our advantage should we determine to use it to terminate Leach."
Leach also shows evidence the alleged mistreatment of Adam James was grossly misconstrued. The James family claimed Leach ordered team doctors to put James, who had a concussion, in an electrical closet in the team's equipment garage. Through a spokesperson, the James family called Leach's discipline of James "actions and treatment not consistent with common sense rules for safety and health."
Swing Your Sword paints a different picture, claiming James was put in an equipment garage and specifically ordered not to enter the electrical closet, and Leach presents a statement from team physician Michael Phy declaring "no additional risks or harm were imposed on Adam by what he was asked to do."
Additionally, the book's notes include testimony from Adam James's deposition in which James said he and his father "thought it was funny" when Leach had James placed in the equipment garage. Along with email evidence of misconduct by Texas Tech officials and court testimony that calls the James family's account of events into question, Leach also chronicles the developments of Spaeth Communications' campaign to publicize the James family's side of the story as widely as possible.
In the emails presented in Swing Your Sword, Spaeth executives discuss attempts to get witnesses who provided statements supporting Leach to retract or modify their statements. Spaeth executives also talk in the emails about using pseudonyms to post anti-Leach comments on blogs, and they formulate plans to promote a YouTube video Adam James filmed while in the electrical closet.
Most damning of all is an email from Spaeth Communications' vice president Rebecca Shaw to Craig James. The email updates James on the progress and plans of Spaeth's public relations campaign, and discusses sending Texas Tech players' contact information to someone named Joe -- presumably ESPN college football reporter Joe Schad, who Leach said in Swing Your Sword "was just spewing this stuff that Craig James and Spaeth Communications were feeding him."
'"Craig -- Merrie's (Spaeth Communications founder Merrie Spaeth) position -- and I agree -- is that the story has been put to bed tonight," Shaw wrote. "Let's take a look at the coverage first thing in the morning and make a decision then if we want to forward the players' names and numbers exclusively to Joe, whether we want to include the AP reporter, or if we want to hold off a day to see if the university makes a statement."
Shaw's email also reveals she wrote a statement for James to make on the network that employs him as a commentator.
"I'll be up early checking the coverage," Shaw wrote. "Merrie's good with the statement that I drafted for you for ESPN. Would you like it circulated to Kevin and Jim or do you want to noodle on it awhile?"
Whether telling the story of his path to coaching Texas Tech, or detailing the firestorm of controversy surrounding his departure, Leach is both engaging and blunt throughout his swashbuckling memoir. The style with which Leach narrates his autobiography, as well as the abundance of concrete evidence used to support his claims, makes his side of the story incredibly compelling.
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