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ESPN used fake names to secure Emmys for ‘College GameDay’ stars

In March 2023, Shelley Smith, who worked 26 years as an on-air reporter for ESPN, received a call from Stephanie Druley, then the network’s head of studio and event production. Druley said she wanted to talk about something “serious” that needed to stay between the two of them, Smith recalled. She then told Smith that Smith needed to return two sports Emmy statuettes that she had been given more than a decade earlier.

That request was one of many ESPN made of some of its biggest stars last year after the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS), the organization that administers the Emmys, uncovered a scheme that the network used to acquire more than 30 of the coveted statuettes for on-air talent ineligible to receive them. Since at least 2010, ESPN inserted fake names in Emmy entries, then took the awards won by some of those imaginary individuals, had them re-engraved and gave them to on-air personalities.

Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Samantha Ponder, among others, were given the ill-gotten Emmys, according to a source briefed on the matter, who was granted anonymity because the individual is not authorized to discuss it publicly. There is no evidence that the on-air individuals were aware the Emmys given to them were improperly obtained.

“I think it was really crummy what they did to me and others,” said Smith, who worked at ESPN from 1997 until her contract expired last July.

The fraud was discovered by NATAS, which prompted an investigation by that organization and later by ESPN. Those probes resulted in sanctions beyond the return of the trophies. While it is not known who orchestrated the scheme, Craig Lazarus, vice president and executive producer of original content and features, and Lee Fitting, a senior vice president of production who oversaw “College GameDay” and other properties, were among the ESPN employees NATAS ruled ineligible from future participation in the Emmys.

In a statement, ESPN said: “Some members of our team were clearly wrong in submitting certain names that may go back to 1997 in Emmy categories where they were not eligible for recognition or statuettes. This was a misguided attempt to recognize on-air individuals who were important members of our production team. Once current leadership was made aware, we apologized to NATAS for violating guidelines and worked closely with them to completely overhaul our submission process to safeguard against anything like this happening again.

“We brought in outside counsel to conduct a full and thorough investigation and individuals found to be responsible were disciplined by ESPN.”

Adam Sharp, of NATAS, said in an email: “NATAS identified a number of fictitious credits submitted by ESPN to multiple Sports Emmys competitions. When brought to the attention of ESPN senior management, the network took steps to take responsibility for the actions of its personnel, to investigate thoroughly, and to course correct. These steps have included the return by ESPN of statuettes issued to fictitious individuals and commitments to implement further internal accountability and procedural changes at the network.”

An ESPN spokesperson said Lazarus declined to comment, and Lazarus didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. Fitting was let go by ESPN in August after 25 years at the company. He did not respond to voice and text messages.

The nexus of the scheme was “College GameDay,” the show that Fitting helped turn into a cultural phenomenon and a revenue machine. From 2008-18, it nabbed eight Emmys for outstanding weekly studio show. But on-air talent was, until 2023, prohibited by NATAS guidelines from being included in a credit list in that category. Hosts, analysts and reporters on “College GameDay” could win individual awards, such as outstanding host, studio analyst or emerging on-air talent, and they could win for an individual feature. But they were not eligible to take home a trophy for a win by the show. That rule was meant to prevent front-facing talent from winning two awards for the same work (termed “double-dipping” in the NATAS rulebook).

ESPN circumvented the rule by inserting fake names into the credit list it submitted to NATAS for “College GameDay.” The Athletic reviewed the credit lists for the years the show won: 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018. In each one of those seven years, names similar to the names of on-air personalities – and with identical initials – were listed all under the title of “associate producers.”

Kirk Henry (Kirk Herbstreit), Lee Clark (Lee Corso), Dirk Howard (Desmond Howard), and Tim Richard (Tom Rinaldi) appeared in all seven years. Steven Ponder (Sam Ponder) and Gene Wilson (Gene Wojciechowski) appeared in five from 2014-18. Chris Fulton (Chris Fowler) appeared in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015. Shelley Saunders (Shelley Smith) appeared in the 2010 credit list. Smith was also given an Emmy for the show’s win in 2008, though it is unclear how that statuette was obtained; Shelley Saunders was not listed in the 2008 credit list viewed by The Athletic. However, networks are allowed to modify a credit list after a show is announced as a winner.

While reviewing the 2010 and 2011 credit lists, The Athletic found three additional names that could not be verified that also closely resemble the names of “College GameDay” talent: Erik Andrews (Erin Andrews) in 2011; Wendy Nickson (Wendi Nix) and Jenn Brownsmith (Jenn Brown) in 2010. Nix confirmed that she was given an Emmy around 2010 and said she had no idea it was improperly obtained; it just arrived in the mail one day. She was not contacted about returning it before or after she left ESPN in August 2023. Brown, who left ESPN in 2013, confirmed she also was given one and didn’t know it was ill-gotten. She said: “This is all news to me and kind of unfortunate because you’ve got people who believe they rightfully had one. There are rules for a reason … it’s unfortunate (those were) abused and for so many years, too.” Brown said she has not been contacted by ESPN about returning it. Andrews, who left ESPN in 2012, declined to comment through a spokesperson.

When asked why people at the network would scheme to secure trophies for on-air talent, one person involved in the ESPN Emmy submission process in recent years said: “You have to remember that those personalities are so important, and they have egos.” Smith, for one, pushed back at that and remarked how some executives lined their office shelves with statuettes. One executive interviewed during ESPN’s probe said that some company leaders were obsessed with the Emmys, using the numbers of wins each year to prove their dominance over competitors: “It’s very important to the people who go (to the ceremony) and the old-school television guys.” Additionally, many at ESPN thought the rule preventing on-air personalities from getting statuettes for a win by the show was stupid. They may have just decided to do something about it, the rules be damned.

NATAS strengthened its credit verification process in 2022, and sometime in that year ESPN was asked to verify certain names. The network eventually admitted they were bogus. In its 2022 transparency report, NATAS referenced the scheme: During credit vetting, Sports Administration identified one network’s use of fabricated identities in association with one or more submissions. The matter was referred to counsel.

Fake names appeared in ESPN’s Emmy submission for “College GameDay” as recently as 2020 – a year the show did not win – but were not in the 2022 entry. (The Athletic does not have access to the show’s 2021 credit list.)

“College GameDay” on-air-personalities may not have been the only ones to have been given statuettes they were ineligible to receive. In November 2023, Linda Cohn, a “SportsCenter” anchor since 1992, posted a photo on Instagram of four Emmy awards and wrote: “My Fab 4. The latest delivered today. Still grateful.” In the foreground of the photo is an Emmy for outstanding daily studio show from 2023. Because of the rule change, Cohn was eligible to receive that award. She is listed under “host” in the credit list and that word is engraved on the statuette’s base. As for the three Emmys in the background of the photo, one reads:

STUDIO SHOWS
ESPN SPORTSCENTER
LINDA COHN

The two others read:

OUTSTANDING STUDIO SHOW – DAILY
“SPORTSCENTER”
ESPN
LINDA COHN

Under NATAS rules, Cohn was ineligible to receive a statuette as an on-air personality for any “SportsCenter” wins in the category of daily studio show before 2023, and NATAS confirmed Cohn has won only one Emmy. Cohn referred all questions to an ESPN spokesperson.

According to a recent version of the Emmys rulebook, credit fabrication can result in a disqualification and the required return of trophies. According to NATAS, 37 ill-gotten trophies have been returned thus far. Smith gave back the 2008 award but not the one from 2010, which she had gifted to a relative. Wojciechowski, who exited ESPN last summer, declined an interview request. Rinaldi, who left ESPN for Fox in 2020, was contacted on Wednesday but said he did not have time to talk. He then didn’t respond to multiple text messages.

Fitting, Lazarus and Drew Gallagher, a coordinating producer on “College GameDay,” were ruled ineligible from future Emmy participation. Druley was not ruled ineligible for future Emmys; she won a 2023 Emmy as an executive producer for “Monday Night Football.” But she was replaced on an Emmy steering committee by another ESPN executive.

Gallagher and Druley declined to comment through an ESPN spokesperson.

The names of Lazarus, Fitting and Gallagher were absent from the credit lists published in the program for the 44th Annual Sports Emmys ceremony, held on May 22, 2023 in New York. A year earlier, Lazarus’ name had appeared in various show credits, as an executive producer eight times and as a supervising producer once. Fitting was listed as an executive producer nominee six times. Drew Gallagher was listed as a coordinating producer twice. One year later, they were not listed at all.

“College GameDay’s” credit list for the 2023 awards also did not include credits for executive producers, senior coordinating producers or coordinating producers. “Among the sanctions resulting from the investigation was a one-year disqualification from statuette eligibility for the senior leadership of ‘College GameDay,’” NATAS said in an email.

Shortly after Smith’s call with Druley last March, a courier arrived at her California home, wrapped the 2008 statuette in a white plastic bag and took it away. But Smith still has the Emmy she won in 2018 for a story for the program “E:60.”

“I was happy to win the (2018) one,” Smith said. “But the other times (the trophy) would just show up and I wouldn’t even know I was supposed to get one.”

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic, photos: Cooper Neill, Ronald Martinez, Michael Buckner / Getty Images; headshot photos: Getty Images)

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