It’s a dismal May morning in the City of Angels—closer to Heat’s icy-blue hellscape than the sun-soaked playground of Entourage—and the pall cast over the nation’s yoga and Botox capital has extended to the hallways of ESPN.
Earlier that day, the news broke that the self-anointed “Worldwide Leader in Sports” had decided to part ways with its resident rabble-rouser, Bill Simmons, closing the door on a rocky 15-year relationship. And the timing was curious, with the Grantland EIC, podcast host, and commentator getting canned just one day after ripping into NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, repeating an apparent offense that had earned him a three-week suspension last year.
As fate would have it, I’m in L.A. to profile Simmons’s ESPN compadre, Michelle Beadle, who shakes her head despondently when I bring up the Simmons situation. “I’m super bummed out about it,” she says.
“I don’t know… I love Bill, there’s no secret about that, and wherever he ends up I hope it’s awesome. Whenever things like this happen, I always think it’s down to money. It’s a business, and it’s probably somebody asking for too much. The Goodell stuff is an easy way to justify it, but I think Bill is more valuable than a few thoughts he has about Roger Goodell.”
She predicts a mass exodus from Grantland, the ESPN-owned online publication created and run by Simmons (Beadle hosts a podcast called Beadlemania at Grantland). “Those Grantland kids love Bill, and they stand by Bill. It will be interesting to see how that unfolds. It’s going to be like a Jerry Maguire situation, and they’re gonna go—because they’re loyal to him.” She pauses. “But I think having someone like Bill is good for the network; you need someone who’s polarizing and not afraid to speak their mind.”
Thankfully, ESPN still has the brash Beadle, who isn’t afraid to speak her mind—corporate politics be damned.
When I greet the brassy blonde at a coffee house in Los Feliz, she’s seated outside, dressed casually in a black leather jacket. Her rolled-up sleeve reveals a tattoo of a blue flower on her right wrist that says “Amore”—the nickname her Italian mother used to call her. She looks more rocker than buttoned-up talking head, and Beadle is just as fast-talking and unfiltered as her on-air persona and gleefully unhinged Twitter handle suggests.
The 39-year-old co-host of SportsNation has ripped into Kim Kardashian over her bodacious, headline-grabbing Paper magazine cover (“giant, greasy poo-maker,” she called it), makes a hilarious crack to me about Jon Hamm’s “giant wiener,” and was, like Simmons before her, reprimanded by the corporate brass at ESPN over a series of tweets she’d made last July excoriating colleague Stephen A. Smith over his boneheaded comments in defense of noted woman-beater (and NFL star) Ray Rice, insinuating that after she was uppercut in an elevator, which was all caught on camera, his then-fiancée Janay had somehow “provoked” the pummeling.
“I’m not a reporter, so I get to say whatever—and then I’ll get called into the office. I’ve learned that you can’t really call other people out,” Beadle says of ESPN. “But with that, I didn’t really call the person out, it was his words. I don’t regret that. The words were wrong, and somebody had to say something. His words sometimes are very… it’s somethin’ else.”
She’s not done. “It was insulting to me, as a woman. There’s a freaking video, for god’s sake. I felt so angry. I didn’t like that we were being lied to. It’s like, ‘You don’t have that video?’ Come on. You’re the most powerful league in the entire world and can have whatever you want. I’m a woman and a fan of the NFL, and I felt like they were slapping us all in the faces by even entertaining the idea that this was not a big deal.”
Beadle also calls ESPN’s coverage of the Ray Rice affair “abysmally depressing,” confessing, “Every time I looked up, I saw men talking about it. Men were talking about Ray Rice and domestic violence, and saying strange things.”
Her tweets calling out the caricature that is Stephen A. Smith for his asinine comments on domestic violence made Beadle one of the precious few people at ESPN to speak candidly about the epidemic of domestic violence in sports. And she continued the crusade in late April, firing off a series of tweets to her 1.1 million Twitter followers criticizing boxer Floyd Mayweather for his disturbing history of violence against women—a total of seven arrests or citations against five different female victims.The tweets came on the eve of Mayweather’s much-ballyhooed championship bout against Manny Pacquiao. Beadle had been covering the lead-up to the event for HBO Sports’ The Fight Game, and was out in Vegas covering the preamble on behalf of ESPN. On Friday, she was set to commence part two of her HBO series and was credentialed for the weigh-in, but you needed a separate credential for the fight on Saturday, May 2.According to Beadle, on Friday afternoon during SportsNation HBO boxing commentator Jim Lampley came in and took her aside. “Hey, have you heard what’s going on with you and your camera?” he asked her. She had no idea. “First off, they’re not letting your camera in, and there’s also something going on with your credential,” added Lampley.Beadle texted her agent and producer, and then went about her day. “I thought, ‘If this is how it’s going to go down, I just want a heads-up,’” she recalls. “I don’t want to stick around this place. Contrary to what people believe, not everyone wanted to go to that fight.”
She sat down with friends to a hearty meal at Carnevino, Mario Batali’s steakhouse at The Palazzo hotel, and kept one eye on her phone. Then she got an email informing her that her credential had been pulled. “It was not valid, and it was Mayweather’s camp that pulled it,” she says. “The producers said, ‘You’re free to go home; there’s nothing more you can do here.’” So Beadle hit the hay, and the following morning she fired off a tweet about the credential-denial drama—as did CNN’s Rachel Nichols, who was also denied a credential to cover the fight by the Mayweather camp thanks to a tense interview she conducted with the pugilist last fall where she took him to task for his history of domestic abuse. The two agreed to tweet about it to avoid a scenario where the Mayweather camp claimed it was all chalked up to a “misunderstanding”—which, of course, is, she says, “the story they eventually tried to sell.”
“Media doesn’t like when other media gets their credentials pulled—that’s not OK,” says a fired-up Beadle. “She and I were talking that morning and we decided we’d tweet it together for the sake of unity. At the end of the day, we knew we were in the right because there were suits on these emails saying, ‘No, these people are not credentialed.’ It’s insane.”
“As we now know, he controls the media,” she complains about Mayweather, who earned an estimated $230 million from the event. “He’s a money tree for the entire City of Las Vegas, and the networks. In no other sport can one individual pull that nonsense. Boxing is like the Wild West. There are no rules. It’s horrible. Why are people defending that? He beats women. I will never understand it. It makes no sense to me. And I’m glad it happened, because at least people now know that’s what they do over there.”
It even caught the attention of George Clooney.
Just the other day, Beadle was covering the junket for Tomorrowland on behalf of ESPN. She walked in the room and they said, “Well, this is Michelle from ESPN,” and Clooney had his back to her, fixing himself a drink. Suddenly, he swiveled around and joked, “Oh, no, no, no—get her outta here! I’m gonna pull a Mayweather!” Beadle’s jaw hit the floor.
Beadle’s always had a passion for justice. Perhaps it comes from her Italian mother, Serenella, whom she describes as being a “super-hippie in the ’70s” who once handcuffed herself to the American embassy in Rome. Her father Bob, a former exec at Valero Energy, was the polar opposite—a Texan conservative. As a liberal child growing up in the small Texan towns Roanoke and Boerne, Beadle would butt heads with students and teachers on everything from social issues to the Persian Gulf War. She remembers angering her father when she spent time cold-calling people on behalf of the Clinton presidential campaign.
She eventually enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin as a pre-law major, even going so far as joining a pre-law fraternity on campus. During that time, Beadle also worked at the Texas State Capitol in Austin as a page. “I thought I was going to go into politics, but that became disheartening. You see that a lot of stuff doesn’t get done, people walk around all self-important, and it’s just depressing,” she says.
In addition to politics, Beadle was turned off by the other kids at her pre-law frat—relentlessly competitive go-getters obsessed with how much money they were going to make after college. So she stopped attending classes until her GPA dropped down to 0.7. And then she left. Adios.
“I was dating someone—but not really. He played minor league hockey for five minutes. We just got in my car and drove,” she says. “We drove to Florida, then Canada, and I was in San Antonio for a bit in the middle waiting tables. After about three years of doing nothing with my life, I decided to go home. I took a Greyhound bus as far as Dallas, got off there, called my Dad and said, ‘Dad, I need help… can you fly me home on Southwest?’”
Her father was pals with Lawrence Payne, an executive with the hometown San Antonio Spurs basketball team, so he arranged a meeting between the two. Beadle walked into Payne’s office and was met with a vicious scolding: What the hell are you doing with your life? You’re smart? What are you doing?!” he yelled at her.
“It was my Dad’s way of saying what he wanted to say to me, except he got Lawrence to say it. I loved that team, so to be chewed out like that by someone like that really got to me,” she recalls.
It was the kick in the ass she needed. Beadle nagged Payne until he granted her an internship with the Spurs, then she enrolled back in school at UT San Antonio. While she was still finishing up school, she nabbed a job at TNN as a sideline reporter for the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) tour.
In fact, the day she finished college she was in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and spotted bull rider Ty Murray sitting at a cowboy bar slugging Jack Daniels. “I walked up there and was like, ‘Hey, nobody knows this, but I graduated from college finally,” she says. “And I drank so much Jack Daniels that night that I can’t even look at it anymore.” She laughs. “What business I had thinking I could outdrink a cowboy with Jack Daniels is beyond me. Idiot!” A slew of different hosting gigs followed, including at the Travel Channel, YES Network, Animal Planet, and many different jobs as an on-air contributor for People magazine, including red carpet coverage of the Grammys, Golden Globes, and Tony Awards.
Then, in 2009, her big break came.
“My agent at the time told me that ESPN wanted me to audition for a new show,” she says. “At that point I’d been on a million auditions, and they’d told me no every time. Even for Slamball.”
Beadle has also met with ESPN seven years prior, back in 2002, and they shut her down. “You’re not ready,” they said. But her time had finally come. She was one of the last out of 142 people to read for the co-hosting gig on a new show, SportsNation—a lively mix of fan questions and riffage. She had great chemistry with the main host, Colin Cowherd, and nailed her audition. The show premiered on July 6, 2009, and the following year, she was named as co-host—along with ex-NFL star Marcellus Wiley—of the ABC program Winners Bracket.
She was fast becoming a star at ESPN, growing to the bona fide equal of Cowherd on SportsNation and even getting trotted out by the network for its upfront presentation and serving as a red carpet host for the ESPYs.
Suddenly, the other shoe dropped. It was late July 2011 and, after hitting some ESPYs after-parties, Beadle was hauled into the office of her boss, Vice President of Content Integration and Strategic Planning Marcia Keegan, at the behest of her superior, Executive Vice President John Walsh. According to Beadle, Keegan told her that her co-workers had accused of her of being drunk and using drugs at an ESPYs after-party—and also hitting on Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers. She was incensed.
“I saw and talked to Aaron the first night I was there,” Beadle later told Deadspin. “I don’t know the guy or anything, but we [she and her girlfriends] were hanging out with him. But Marcia told me that she heard I had apparently blurted out in front of him, ‘I just wanna get fucked’ very loudly.”
Someone at ESPN had been spreading nasty rumors about Beadle.
“Here I was caught in this dumb scandal of words that was completely made up,” Beadle tells me. “It came from people in a camp that didn’t like me. What bothered me about it was, A) it was completely false, and B) anyone who knows me knows I use the F-word left and right, but never in that context. And most importantly, I haven’t been able to shake it. I got a Bridgestone campaign, and there was a time where they almost didn’t hire me because to Google my name would bring you that story.”
Indeed, it’s still the fourth item that comes up when you Google Beadle’s name.“I was so angry and no one was defending me, so I went to Deadspin and said, ‘To hell with it, I need to defend myself here. I will get even one day,” she adds, before unleashing a fake-ghoulish laugh.
Coincidentally—or not—just a couple months earlier, the word had spread that Beadle gave a frank interview as part of ESPN’s oral history, admitting to watching the infamous peephole video featuring a nude Erin Andrews. And Andrews had also been linked to Rodgers. So all of a sudden, it became a Beadle vs. Andrews showdown between the network’s two fetching blondes.
“We do totally different things, but they turned it into a catfighting thing,” Beadle recalls. “We’re not friends. We never will be friends. But I’m OK with that. I get asked about it and I’m honest, while other people get asked about it and they’re not, so it makes it seem like I’m the one who has the problem, when in reality that’s not the case. I just don’t care. I don’t know her. But I was the new chick there, and she had been there for a while, so it was weird. It bummed me out.”
About 10 months after the reprimanding, Beadle left ESPN for a sweetheart deal with NBC. “We call these ‘the dark years,’” she says with a chuckle.
Beadle maintains that the move had nothing to do with the reprimanding—rather, she was given an offer she couldn’t refuse that “sounded so sexy at the time,” including sideline reporting for NBC Sports, covering the Olympics, and doing entertainment reporting for Access Hollywood.
But all that glitters at the Peacock isn’t gold. Her NBC Sports show, The Crossover with Beadle and Briggs—opposite Dave Briggs—premiered on January 28, 2013. By May, Briggs was out and it was rebranded The Crossover with Michelle Beadle. In September, it was canceled altogether.
“It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned: You can’t trust anyone,” she says of her time at NBC. “There were people I thought were on my side who screwed me over. People make promises that don’t come true, and there’s pettiness. No matter how high up a suit might be, if for whatever reason they don’t like you, you’re screwed.”
I ask her if she cares to elaborate.
“I butted heads with people there,” she adds. “I made comments about how the hockey coverage wasn’t good, because we don’t sell the guys! There are great hockey stories in the NHL—great-looking men with great stories and families, and we don’t sell that. So, here’s this sport that nobody’s watching and nobody’s selling its stars. I said something about it in an interview, and they stuck me with a guy [Briggs] who I had zero chemistry with—and who wasn’t even a nice person. I was getting paid nicely, but I was miserable. I buried myself in my apartment and didn’t show up to my last assignment. My agents were scrambling to get me out of that deal. I left a year on my contract at NBC. I couldn’t have gotten out of there faster.”
Beadle returned to ESPN on March 3, 2014, resuming her post as co-host of SportsNation—this time opposite Wiley and Max Kellerman.
“I’d left on good terms,” she says of her ESPN return. “The weirdest thing about coming back was that I thought I was admitting to failure—and I still get assholes telling me that I ‘couldn’t make it.’ Yeah, it didn’t work, but I’m happy to be back, living in L.A., and getting to do more things.”
The great equalizer for Beadle—and the forum that’s really let her personality shine—is Twitter. Yes, she’s outspoken on SportsNation, but on Twitter, she’s completely, amusingly unfettered, dishing on everything from Caitlyn Jenner solidarity to her desire to be BFFs with Amy Schumer.
“It’s so funny to observe how differently people use The Twitter,” she says. “There’s no plan for me. I just tweet whatever’s in my brain, and try no to do it all the time, because otherwise I’d get fired in a week. It’s a cool place to just empty out your brain. I could do it on the show, but I share that with two other people. The Twitter is just mine—and mine alone.”
She also spends a great deal of time publicly shaming her misogynistic legion of MRA-type haters through retweets.
“They come up with the most ridiculous analogies,” Beadle says. “It reminds me of Married with Children when Al came up with the group called ‘NO MA’AM.’ I just think of that all the time. I don’t get it.”
A veritable horde of male trolls has taken to harassing Beadle because of her outspoken criticism of domestic violence perpetrators like Ray Rice, Floyd Mayweather, and others. They’ve even accused her of harboring a racially-motivated vendetta against black athletes—a claim that makes Beadle laugh out loud.
“What bummed me out the most is it became a race thing. I’ve been called a racist more in the last year than I think any time in my life,” she says. “Between Ray Rice and Floyd Mayweather, apparently my goal in life is to ‘bring down the black athlete.’ Really? Is that what you got from that? Those guys could have been purple, or yellow, or red, I don’t care. Beating women is wrong.”
The topic of the NFL is a complicated one for Beadle—as it is for all sports fans. The 2015-2016 NFL season will see abusers Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson return, as well as No. 1 draft pick (and accused rapist) Jameis Winston strut his stuff as QB of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
So, I ask her: Has it become difficult to cover—and be a fan of—the NFL in light of all its domestic violence problems?
“Yeah, I think it is,” she says. “People will say, ‘Oh, you’re a hypocrite because you follow the NFL,’ and people are right in a way. It’s getting harder and harder. We have a handful of names in a league of thousands of people and we focus on that, but there are a lot of good guys out there, too. What I wish is that the good guys in the league would start to speak up more. If you’re an NFL player who’s a good dude and normal human being, I’d be pissed by now. I’d be like, ‘Enough with all of this.’ So it bums me out that that’s not happening.”
“I’m in a weird place where I’m not—not burnt out on sports, but just depressed. It’s just a bummer,” she adds.
The NFL aside, Beadle says she’s enjoying her flexibility with ESPN, and her online freedom with Twitter. And she’ll once again be working the ESPYs on July 15—an event that should garner major fanfare since it will mark the first public appearance of Caitlyn Jenner, who will be the recipient of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
“I have an opinion on basically everything. Whether it’s valid or needs to be heard, that’s not my concern,” she says. “So, I just say what’s on my mind and think, ‘Well, if no one’s stopping me, I’ll just keep doin’ it.’”