The 2014 FIFA World Cup has been a thrilling affair, to say the least. Jurgen Klinsmann-led Team USA’s advancing to the Round of 16. Messi’s miraculous left foot. Brazil squeaking past Chile on penalty kicks. Robben’s dive seen ’round the world.
Off the pitch and in the ABC/ESPN studio, however, is a bastion of gasconade and ineptitude populated by a cast of peculiar characters that go together like oil and water. Behold Alexi Lalas, the ginger footie-hippie turned corporate shill who seems to see himself as a cross between Pele and Al Michaels; Michael Ballack, who’s blessed with Terminator-like charisma; and ex-Manchester United stud Ruud van Nistelrooy, who’s clearly a few beers short of a sixer and gets his jollies visiting children’s hospitals dressed in blackface. Occasionally, soul-crushed correspondent Landon Donovan, who was cut from the U.S. squad and looks like he’s about to go SERENITY NOW! on everyone’s asses at any given moment, beams in for some narcoleptic commentary.
The onus is on one man to hold this wacky goulash of punditry together: Mike Tirico.
Tirico, who’s co-anchoring this year’s World Cup with ESPN’s longest-tenured talking head, Bob Ley, is serving as the soccer tourney’s de facto master of ceremonies, presiding over much of the halftime, pre-match, and post-match analyses. And he’s great at what he does. The jack-of-all-trades serves as the play-by-play commentator for cash cow Monday Night Football, rapped his way through the NBA playoffs, covers NCAA men’s college basketball, and is ESPN’s main man for all things golf and tennis.
And the chrome-domed 47-year-old has been a sports commentating dynamo from Jump Street. In 1987, he was the first-ever recipient of the Bob Costas Scholarship, granted to an outstanding broadcast journalism student, and served as a play-by-play announcer for Syracuse basketball, football, lacrosse, and volleyball games while attending the university. As a junior in college, he was hired by the local CBS affiliate WTVH-TV, and in 1991, ESPN’s SportsCenter scooped him up right after he collected his diploma.
Then things got sketchy. Though the diminutive, oft-smiling, and bespectacled Tirico strikes viewers as a paragon of congeniality, during his early days at ESPN he was reportedly anything but. During the early-to-mid ’90s, ESPN was a notorious boys club, with “no fewer than fifty cases of sexual harassment reported by women on the staff to ESPN management through the first half of the 1990s,” according to Those Guys Have All the Fun, James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales’ oral history of ESPN. “One of the most notorious cases to arise,” they wrote, “was that of Mike Tirico, who became very unpopular with some of the women on staff.”
The “notorious” case is explored in greater detail in Michael Freeman’s tome ESPN: The Uncensored History. According to the book, at a house party in the fall of 1992, a little over a year after he’d been hired by the network, Tirico—then considered a rising star—approached a young female production assistant.
Without introduction, he reportedly told her, “You’re the most beautiful woman in here.” The woman ignored him and walked away, but for the next several minutes, Tirico trailed her around the party—until she finally snapped. “Why don’t you fuck off?” she said, according to the book. “Get away from me.” Tirico stood there dumbfounded, and the woman turned and left the soiree.
As she pulled her car out of the driveway, Tirico allegedly materialized in front of the woman’s car and signaled her to stop. He walked to the driver’s side door, and the woman reluctantly rolled the window down, saying, “Get out of the way… I don’t want to hit you with my car.” As the woman began rolling up the window, he reportedly “reached into the car and attempted to put one of his hands between her thighs.” She screamed, and Tirico headed back to the party. The incident was, according to the book, corroborated by a current ESPN producer, as well as “other current and former ESPN officials.”
It wasn’t the only disturbing episode, according to Freeman’s book. Another woman, who produced the afternoon SportsCenter that featured Tirico, and who became friends with him and his fiancée (and future wife) Debbie, claimed she began receiving a series of emails from the anchor “in which he confided that he wanted to sleep with her.” Then, on a late night in March following the NCAA’s March Madness selection show, the hoops team headed to a bar in Bristol. Tirico reportedly confronted the producer as she was walking to the bar and allegedly said, “I wish I was single. If I was, I would throw you on the table right here and fuck your brains out.” She claims he added, “I know you want to screw me…so let’s leave.” She told him to stop, and then joined a group of ESPN colleagues who were on the way to Denny’s. She soon left, got in her car, and drove home on Interstate 84.
“Suddenly [she] noticed a car pulling up on her left. She peered indifferent at its driver, then froze, realizing it was Tirico,” said the book. “Tirico was waving his hand in a motion that she interpreted to mean he wanted her to pull over. Instead, she continued driving, increasing her speed significantly. Tirico increased his speed as well, staying alongside her.” The woman allegedly decided to hit her brakes suddenly and veer toward an exit, losing Tirico.
Later, Tirico allegedly approached the female producer just minutes before the show aired and tried to apologize, but she said, “If you ever do that again, I’ll kick your ass.”
According to the book, word soon spread throughout the newsroom of the Tirico incident with his producer, and “other women came to her with their own horror stories about Tirico,” complaining that he “made references to their physical features, touched them inappropriately, or expressed his desire to have sex with them.”
The book claims that six women eventually came forward, and Tirico “was suspended for three months and ordered to seek counseling.”
According to the book, then ESPN executive John Walsh "implied that Tirico's mistakes were a result of his youth and he has become a different person. 'Michael was twenty-four years old then,' Walsh said. 'He has [since] been beyond perfect. He goes out of his way in terms of friendship. He goes out of his way in terms of being good to people. And in fact, he has relationships with many women in the workplace.'"
In addition to the numerous sexual harassment allegations, Those Guys Have All the Fun also details how Tirico was “subtly undermining” Tony Kornheiser when he came on as a Monday Night Football analyst in 2006.
“If I was [Kornheiser]…and I had this guy with me who was subtly undermining me, changing the subject on me and greeting my jokes with dead silence, I would eventually strangle this person on live TV,” said fellow ESPN broadcaster Bill Simmons in the book. “Five minutes into their first regular-season Monday night game, Tirico had already laughed at more [Jon] Gruden jokes than he did for three years of Kornheiser. I never thought he wanted Tony in the booth, and that became obvious…He failed Kornheiser.”
And then there’s Tirico’s racial confusion—a more puzzling aspect of the ace sportscaster’s history, as opposed to a mark of shame of any kind.
Michael Todd Tirico grew up in a middle-class Italian-American family in Queens, N.Y. He was an only child raised by his mother, Maria Tirico, after his father, Donald, left when he was 4. He’s since lost all contact with his father’s side of the family.
According to a 1990 profile of Tirico in the Syracuse Post-Standard, “because of his dark skin and ethnic features, Tirico says, most people assume he’s black. But he’s seen pictures of his father, his father’s mother, and his father’s sister, all of whom are white.”
“The only contact I had growing up was with my mom’s side of the family,” Tirico told the paper. “And they are all as white as the refrigerator I’m standing in front of right now.” He further explained, “I know the story sounds like a lot of bull, but it’s the truth. Does it matter to me? Yeah. I’d like to find out the truth at some point, so I can answer questions for my kids. But me? I’m living, I’m working, I’m leading an upstanding life. I don’t worry about it.”