Mike Leach vs. ESPN: The Swiftboating of a Pirate Captain

Henry BallSenior Analyst INovember 27, 2010

Leach, a proven Winner at Texas Tech
Leach, a proven Winner at Texas TechSam Greenwood/Getty Images

ESPN and Spaeth Communications, a public relations firm hired by ESPN Analyst Craig James, are being sued for libel and slander by former Texas Tech Head Coach Mike Leach.

The lawsuit, filed in a Texas district court, claims ESPN’s coverage of Leach's suspension and then firing last year was "willful and negligent defamation" and that it failed to "retract false and damaging statements" it made from "misinformation" provided to ESPN by Craig James and Spaeth Communications.

"Mike Leach wants his name cleared. His reputation has been tarnished," said Leach’s attorney Ted Liggett.

Indeed, according to initial reports, Mike Leach put Adam James, a very unaccomplished Texas Tech WR—and son of Craig James—through Vietcong-era torture sessions.

'Blair Witch' style video was released of the tortured James being held captive in a dark cave-like ‘electrical closet,’ and the outrage against Leach was as fever pitched as it seemed justified.

Leach—proclaiming his innocence all along—sought, as he is seeking now, a hearing in a court of law, if not the court of public opinion.

Leach—who is Tech’s all-time best coach in any sport—may have been out of his league in the battle for public opinion.

Not only was he up against the monolithic behemoth of the sports world, ESPN, but James the elder—an aspiring political figure with many high-level connections—obtained the services of the PR firm famous for the ‘Swift Boat’ campaign that helped defeat Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 Presidential campaign.

It was Spaeth, according to public records, that suggested recording and disseminating the famous ‘electrical closet’ video.

In the video, James the younger records his terrifying experience confined in a dark electrical room—which it was later revealed he was specifically told NOT to enter—adjacent to the spacious, air conditioned and sufficiently lit media room where he was at no time locked in.

With the video and ESPN’s non-stop coverage of the ‘abuse case’—which included the broadcast team covering the Alamo Bowl with Texas Tech facing Michigan State—The Pirate Captain never stood a chance.

In June, the Honorable William C. Sowder, District Court Judge, ruled that Texas Tech waived its claim to sovereign immunity, basically its only defense in the case. 

Judge Sowder also ruled that Leach could continue to seek relief against James, though he did dismiss Chancellor Hance and other Texas Tech officials personally.

The University and James have appealed the Judges' ruling, hoping to stop Leach dead in his tracks.  However, the new complaint may complicate things significantly for James.

If the appeal fails, Texas Tech will likely try to settle.  What is more, Leach has already reached an agreement with the Tech officials involved, not to pursue further lawsuits against them personally.

ESPN Ombudsman Don Ohlmeyer agreed in large part with Leach that ESPN’s coverage was one-sided and unfair, even citing the same false and defaming Alamo Bowl Coverage that Leach attorney Liggett enumerates in the complaint.

This means James, and his swift boat PR firm might be up their own creek without ESPN’s oars.

Rebecca Shaw, a Spaeth Communications spokeswoman, said in a statement "This lawsuit is the predictable strategy of a man who is desperate to avoid accountability for his own behavior."

Indeed, the lawsuit was predictable, but Leach may not be the individual desperate to avoid accountability. 

In fact, he seems perfectly willing to have all the facts heard in a fair and public hearing. Why doesn’t everyone involved want the same?

Information from the Associated Press, Double T Nation and Other published media was used in this report.