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John Skipper Details His ESPN Exit and a Cocaine Extortion Plot

The former network chief goes public in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter about the real reason behind his abrupt departure from Disney after 27 years, a .confession to Bob Iger and his hope to work in sports media again.

On Dec. 18, 2017, John Skipper suddenly resigned as president of ESPN and co-chairman of Disney Media Networks, citing his desire to seek treatment for what he called a “substance addiction.” The announcement shocked employees at ESPN and its parent company, and was met with disbelief and confusion throughout the sports and media worlds.

Skipper, 62, the married father of two sons, was raised in North Carolina and had worked at Disney for 27 years. He became president of ESPN in January of 2012 and spearheaded the company’s aggressive campaign to secure long-term rights deals for live sporting events from the NBA, college football and many other sports. But cord-cutting, rising programming costs and other challenges during Skipper’s presidency resulted in several rounds of layoffs and skepticism from Wall Street about ESPN’s future. Prior to his departure, Skipper had been orchestrating a multipronged strategy to combat the negativity and project an optimistic and ambitious trajectory for the company in the years ahead. 

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Over the course of several hours during the first two weeks of March, Skipper was interviewed for the first time since his departure by ESPN historian, journalist and Hollywood Reporter contributor James Andrew Miller. The following is excerpted from those in-person conversations:

JAM: How are you?

Skipper: I’m doing well.

JAM: In your resignation statement, you wrote, “I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction. I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem.” Do you feel like you’ve done that, or at least begun the process?

Skipper: I did get some therapy. I did go through treatment. I thought the best thing to do was to take the time to check myself into a facility, and I was able to understand a bit more about substance use and to think about how it intersected with my life. Therapy isn’t easy, particularly for a Southerner tightly wound with traditional values. I have not necessarily been comfortable reflecting and being self-reflective.

I’ve grown to learn that taking care of yourself is a continuous, lifelong process. What I’ve done is taken some time for reflection. I’ve had an opportunity to not use for a long period of time, and I have resources to help me now, which are ongoing.

JAM: Let’s talk about the nature of the substance abuse, please.

Skipper: The statement I released was accurate. I had a substance abuse problem. I grew up wanting to be countercultural. I worked at Rolling Stone for the first 10 years of my professional life. I had a point of view that recreational drugs were recreational, that they weren’t dangerous. That they could be used without repercussions.

JAM: So, we aren’t talking about alcohol.

Skipper: No, I’ve been a social drinker my whole life. I enjoy a martini, I enjoy a bottle of wine with friends for dinner. I’ve never had an issue with alcohol. You know, I’m an old hippie, and then an old New Yorker from the ’80s.

JAM: Am I safe to assume then that your substance addiction was cocaine?

Skipper: It’d be safe to assume that.

JAM: Any heroin?

Skipper: Never.

JAM: Opioids?

Skipper: I don’t use opioids. I have never put a needle in my arm. I’m not interested in fentanyl.

JAM: Did your cocaine use ever get in the way of your work?

Skipper: Never. At ESPN I did not use at work, nor with anyone at work, or with anyone I did business with. I never allowed it to interfere with my work, other than a missed plane and a few canceled morning appointments. I’ve never been a daily user. My use over the past two decades has, in fact, been quite infrequent. I judge that I did a very good job and that it did not get in the way of my work. I worked hard, I worked smart. I worked all the time.

JAM: You were, however, dealing with an illegal substance. Throughout your years of use, were you worried about getting caught?

Skipper: It turns out I was more than unusually clever in devising ways to separate my professional life from my personal life.

JAM: Clever as in one wouldn’t have seen the president of ESPN walking around Central Park at night in search of coke?

Skipper: Not at all. Let’s just say I was careful.

JAM: Did you resign as president of ESPN?

Skipper: Yes.

JAM: Were you asked to resign by Disney CEO Bob Iger?

Skipper: It was clear to me that I put Bob in an untenable position.

JAM: Your resignation statement was released on a Monday. The previous Wednesday you addressed a large community of ESPN employees and gave a rather impassioned speech about the company’s future. On that day, when you gave that speech, did you have any thought about resigning?

Skipper: No, I did not.

JAM: Well, we spoke the next day, Thursday, and made plans to get together the following week for a long-promised interview about ESPN. When did the conversation with Bob take place?

Skipper: That discussion occurred on Friday afternoon, before I resigned on Monday.

JAM: Then that leaves us with Friday, Dec. 15, evidently being one of the most critical days of your professional life.

Skipper: Yes, it does, but I want to stress that until that Friday conversation occurred, I worked with complete conviction with colleagues I loved and for a company I loved. But I hurt my family, particularly my wife, and I forfeited a great job.

JAM: Since Friday was so significant, can you unpack it for us, please?

Skipper: I understand why you need to ask that question, but I’m not sure how much I want to get into that, Jim.

JAM: Well, John, with all due respect, I’m a bit confused. There seems to be a big piece missing to this story. I’m looking at my notes: First, you’ve shared that you were an infrequent user of cocaine — something that could be true of others in the entertainment and media business. I’m not an expert in this area, but I’m not sure some would even call that an addiction. Second, you’ve stated categorically that your use never got in the way of your work. And third, you’ve admitted that on the days leading up to your decision to resign, you had no thoughts of resigning. None of that seems to explain why you reached the decision you had to resign.

I know this is difficult, John. I hope you understand why I’m pushing a bit here.

Skipper: In December, someone from whom I bought cocaine attempted to extort me.

JAM: Someone you had had dealings with in the past?

Skipper: No.

JAM: Again, respectfully, didn’t you just say you were careful about your dealings in this area?

Skipper: Not this time. It turned out I wasn’t careful this time.

JAM: What did they say?

Skipper: They threatened me, and I understood immediately that threat put me and my family at risk, and this exposure would put my professional life at risk as well. I foreclosed that possibility by disclosing the details to my family, and then when I discussed it with Bob, he and I agreed that I had placed the company in an untenable position and as a result, I should resign.

JAM: Did you agree to resign because you understood that Bob couldn’t allow the company, by extension, to be threatened by whoever was extorting you?

Skipper: I did understand that.

JAM: Were you also concerned that the company might wind up being in a position of having to defend your actions, or any behavior that accompanied or resulted from your drug use?

Skipper: That did occur to me. Look, it was inappropriate for the president of ESPN and an officer of The Walt Disney Co. to be associated in any way with any of this. I do want to make it clear, however, that anything I did in this regard, and anything else resulting from this, was a personal problem. My drug use never had any professional repercussions, but I still have profound regret. I accept that the consequences of my actions are my responsibility and have been appropriate. I also have to accept that I used very poor judgment.

JAM: Poor judgment, meaning that it sounds like on a particular night, you couldn’t rely on the secret world you had created and threw caution out the window by buying from a strange source.

Skipper: That, and of course the usage itself.

JAM: Was this the moment then that made you realize you had a substance abuse problem, because you were willing to act so dangerously in order to obtain some coke that night?

Skipper: Yes, I believe that’s true. I knew then I had a problem I needed to address.

JAM: I guess this also explains why you had never before thought about resigning.

Skipper: I acted very foolishly. It made me want to seek help and get this out of my life.

JAM: Forgive me, John, but I can’t help thinking now about when someone was attempting to extort David Letterman with information that he had had an affair with a staff member. Dave took the step of going on the air and disclosing that it was indeed true, adding that in doing so he was hoping to protect his job. When you found out you were being threatened, was there a part of you that wanted to go to Bob and say, “Look, I’m being threatened concerning a purchase of cocaine. I’m going to tell you right now, I did buy cocaine. I do not use it at work, I’ve never been affected by it at work, and this has forced me to admit I have a problem. I love my job, this company, and its employees, and I respectfully ask for a leave to seek treatment and I will return as soon as possible.”

Skipper: I wish that had been the outcome. I didn’t ask for that outcome, though. I was overwhelmed by the circumstance. I simply just disclosed the facts, and it became clear in my conversation with Bob what I needed to do. Everything happened very quickly.

JAM: John, perhaps unavoidably in a post-Weinstein world, there has been speculation about work-related issues involving female colleagues contributing to your exit. Is there truth to any of this?

Skipper: Those rumors and speculations are categorically and definitively untrue. There were no such incidents at work during my entire tenure, including no allegations. I did not traffic in that kind of activity. The company is not engaged in any actions on my behalf and never has been. There were no affairs or inappropriate relationships at work nor indiscretions other than what I have disclosed. My behavior relative to women at ESPN was always respectful. I did not touch anybody inappropriately. I did not tell off-color jokes. I treated everybody with respect. The principle reason I chose to write the statement I wrote — to disclose substance abuse — was to make it clear that this didn’t have anything to do with harassment, settled lawsuits or any internal indiscretions. I never had any relationships, even consensual adult relationships, with anybody at work. And as far as I know, there was never a single claim of one.

JAM: And if someone were to claim that?

Skipper: It would be categorically mendacious.

I had a personal problem with an illegal substance, and any issues around it were and are personal. There is nothing that will come out that will contradict what I have said here.

JAM: Take us inside the 48 hours from Friday to Sunday, when you wrote your resignation statement. Was there a part of you that all of the sudden woke up Saturday morning and said, “Wait a second. I love this job, I love these people. I gotta shove some toothpaste back in the tube. This is too difficult.”

Skipper: It was an agonizing weekend. I don’t think I ate for the 48 hours. I was filled with great regret and tension. My stomach was churning. I wasn’t sleeping. I was despondent. I was panicked. But, no, I never thought about trying to reverse course.

JAM: And what was it like for you the day after your resignation was announced?

Skipper: That’s the day, of course, that there is no turning back; it’s done, it’s gone, it’s public. It was miserable. I spent it mostly by myself in New York City. I cry sentimentally at movies, but I never cry personally. That’s the only day that I cried. And I cried because I realized the profundity of what I’d done to myself, to my family, and that I’d given up the best job in sports on the planet.

And, look, I wrote in the press release that I said I regretted letting people down. On Tuesday, that was the day that was most crushing. I thought about all these people I love, that worked with me, and we’d done great things with —

JAM: Many who came to the company because of you.

Skipper: Yes, there were people I hired away from good jobs. Who got promoted, who stayed at the company, came back to the company because we wanted to work together. And I realized that day that I had severed all those relationships. And that most people heard about it in a press release. But my greatest disappointment was letting people I care about, my family and people I work with, down — all of whom told me I didn’t have to worry about that, I needed to take care of myself. And that makes you feel a little better. But that doesn’t make it happen inside your gut.

JAM: Let’s deconstruct this a bit more, please. Because you never used at work, because people at work didn’t see any of the vestiges of this issue, were you able to then further compartmentalize your behavior? As opposed to if it had manifested itself at work, then you might have had to adopt a totally different approach to it. Like, you had somehow been able to separate and rationalize the usage because you still felt like you were doing your job?

Skipper: (Laughs.) That, my friend, is an astute question, and the answer is yes. In order to do what I did you have to be a master of compartmentalization. Which is why people are going, “I don’t understand this.” Because they have the belief that they can recognize someone who has a problem. Because it “has to” manifest itself. And I did a very good job of not letting it manifest itself, with the exception — and this part is another piece of the part that I let myself down and I did not hold myself to the standard I should have, which is, in order to compartmentalize you have to deceive yourself and deceive other people. And that’s not who I want to be, and I think that has to be part of my rehabilitation.

JAM: Going back to the big meeting with employees that Wednesday, how much of your optimism about the future of ESPN that day was reality-based versus sheer hope?

Skipper: I believed very strongly that a year later, two years later, the narrative was going to be very different. It was going to be that ESPN had maintained its preeminence in sports media and navigated into having what was still the strongest portion of a video bundle, along with having a strong subscription product and robust ad sales. And that we would be in a much better place. And I wanted to have that be the cap to my tenure. Not to leave in what I regarded as the middle of what was going to be a successful transition.

JAM: There is never a good time to go through such a painful exit, but believing in such a favorable course ahead must have made your departure all the more difficult. 

Skipper: It was, though of course at the time the issue itself was so overwhelming I didn’t have time to navigate the nuance of what it meant relative to legacy. And of course, one of the things I don’t like about this is that I had 27 really constructive, positive, wonderful years at Walt Disney. I thought I was going to be able to put a cap on all of it. But now that opportunity is gone.

JAM: One might guess that you don’t have to go out and punch a clock right now. What are you thinking about in terms of your own future? Are you in a “fold my tent and quietly go away” mood? Or are you in a “I can’t wait to get back in the arena” state of mind?

Skipper: The Walt Disney Co. was very good to me. They changed my life. Right now, I enjoy the great luxury of time and being able to only do things I want to do, with people I want to do them with. But I find myself impatient. I’d like to get back in and do some things that matter. I’d like to work with some people who are doing exciting things. I think, when you step back, I was in the maelstrom of a day-to-day job in which I was concerned about trying to get things done every minute, and it was an extraordinarily large job. Now, as I take time to look at the world of sports and media and things I care about —basketball and soccer and culture and media — there are a lot of really fun things to do. I’m actually quite excited. In some ways I have no choice but to make the best of it. And I do intend to make the best of it. I’ve been meeting with people, and that has gotten me even more excited. I’m healthy, and I’m ready to plunge back in. I don’t know exactly what form that will take. I don’t think it will take the form of a large corporate job, managing a lot of people and running a big company. I think it will take the form of helping a few smart people; people I like and respect and who do things that matter.

JAM: Any thoughts you’d like to share about Jimmy Pitaro being named to the job you used to have?

Skipper: Yeah, of course it has a certain pang to it. Because it has a sort of definitive finality, that OK, somebody new is going to be in charge. The good news is that Jimmy Pitaro is a good guy; I like Jimmy very much. He’s a good, smart executive. His style will work at ESPN. I wish him well, and (laughs) I hope he does better than the last guy!