ESPN earned 30+ Emmys using fake names for on-air talent

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Updated Jan. 12: According to a report by the New York Post, ESPN’s former senior vice president of production Lee Fitting’s dismissal was directly tied to the fake-name Emmy scheme.

Why did Jemele Hill leave ESPN?

Fitting, who was one of the three people barred from future Emmy participation, was let go by ESPN this past summer. The Post’s Andrew Marchand reported that the Emmy trophy name-changing scandal was “a factor” in his dismissal. Fitting was named the WWE’s head of media production on Tuesday. 

ESPN used aliases for its on-air College GameDay talent so its on-air personalities could win Emmy awards they were ineligible for, according to a new report.

The scheme — uncovered by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) and reported by The Athletic — involved the Worldwide Leader inserting the fake names into entries, then having the trophies re-engraved and awarded to the hosts. This practice has gone on since at least 2010, with fake names appearing as recently as 2020, according to NATAS.

Kirk Herbstreit (Kirk Henry), Lee Corso (Lee Clark), Chris Fowler (Chris Fulton), Desmond Howard (Dirk Howard), Samantha Ponder (Steven Ponder), Tom Rinaldi (Tim Richard), Gene Wojciechowski (Gene Wilson), Chris F0wler (Chris Fulton) and Shelley Smith (Shelly Saunders) were all allegedly given pseudonyms with the same initials as their real names, according to the report.

College GameDay won eight Emmys for outstanding weekly studio show between 2008 and 2018. However, on-air talent was prohibited from NATAS guidelines from inclusion in the credit list for that specific category. While the show’s analysts and hosts could win individual awards – i.e. outstanding host, studio analyst, emerging on-air talent, etc., or accolades for individual works – they could not take home trophies for a show’s collective award.

“NATAS identified a number of fictitious credits submitted by ESPN to multiple Sports Emmys competitions,” Adam Sharp, the org’s president and CEO, wrote in an email to The Athletic. “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.”

The Athletic also found additional fake names that closely resembled on-air talent – Erik Andrews (Erin Andrews), Wendy Nickson (Wendi Nix), and Jenn Brownsmith (Jenn Brown) – but these names could not be verified as direct pseudonyms. Nix did confirm she received an Emmy around the same time her Nickson alias appeared on an Emmy credit list, claiming she had no idea it was improperly obtained and that it just arrived in the main one day.

As for why ESPN would pull this ruse, “You have to remember that those personalities are so important, and they have egos,” a person involved in the ESPN Emmy submission process in recent years said, via The Athletic.

While 37 fraudulent trophies have been returned, there is an indication that ESPN may have extended this practice beyond College GameDay. When SportsCenter anchor Linda Cohn posted her outstanding daily studio show award on Instagram, it featured three additional trophies in the background. 2023 was the first year Cohn was eligible to receive an Emmy in this category before, and NATAS confirmed to The Athletic that Cohn has only won a single Emmy.

“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,” ESPN wrote in a statement to The Athletic. “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.”

Credit fabrication is punishable by disqualification and the required return of trophies. Senior leadership on College GameDay received a one-year disqualification from Emmy eligibility, according to NATAS. VP and executive producer of original content and features Craig Lazarus, SVP of production Lee Fitting, and “College GameDay” coordinating producer Drew Gallagher were also ruled ineligible from future Emmy participation.

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