In March 2023, Shelley Smith, who has worked for 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 had been given to her more than a decade earlier.
That request was one of many that ESPN made to 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 used by the network to acquire more than 30 of the Emmys. Coveted statuettes for on-air talent not eligible to receive them. Since at least 2010, ESPN has inserted fake names into Emmy entries, then taken the awards won by some of those fictional individuals, had them re-recorded, and given them to on-air personalities.
Kirk Herbstreit, Lee Corso, Chris Fowler, Desmond Howard and Samantha Ponder, among others, received illicit Emmys, according to a source familiar with the matter, who was granted anonymity because the individual is not authorized to discuss it publicly . There is no evidence that people on the air were aware that the Emmys awarded to them were obtained improperly.
“I think what they did to me and others was really poor,” said Smith, who worked at ESPN from 1997 until his contract expired last July.
The fraud was discovered by NATAS, which prompted an investigation by that organization and subsequently by ESPN. Those investigations resulted in fines in addition to the return of the trophies. While it is not known who orchestrated the project, Craig Lazarus, vice president and executive producer of original content and features, and Lee Fitting, senior vice president of production who oversaw “College GameDay” and other properties, were among the employees ESPN NATAS reported not eligible for future Emmy participation.
In a statement, ESPN said: “Some members of our team were clearly in the wrong to submit some names that may date back to 1997 in Emmy categories where they were not eligible for recognition or statuettes. This was a misguided attempt to recognize people on air who were important members of our production team. Once current leadership was notified, we apologized to NATAS for violating the guidelines and worked closely with them to completely review our submission process to safeguard against something similar happening again.
“We brought in outside counsel to conduct a full and thorough investigation, and those found responsible have been disciplined by ESPN.”
Adam Sharp, of NATAS, said in an email: “NATAS has identified a number of fictitious credits submitted by ESPN to multiple Sports Emmy competitions. When brought to the attention of ESPN’s senior management, the network took steps to take responsibility for the actions of its staff, to investigate thoroughly and to course correct. These steps included ESPN returning statuettes issued to fictitious individuals and committing to implementing additional internal accountability and procedural changes at the network.”
An ESPN spokesperson said Lazarus declined to comment, and Lazarus did not respond to an email seeking comment. Editing was fired by ESPN in August after 25 years at the company. He did not respond to voice and text messages.
The centerpiece of the project was “College GameDay,” the show that Fitting helped turn into a cultural phenomenon and revenue machine. From 2008 to 2018, she won eight Emmys for Outstanding Weekly Studio Show. But until 2023, NATAS guidelines prohibited on-air talent from being included in a credit list in that category. “College GameDay” hosts, analysts and reporters could win individual awards, such as outstanding host, studio analyst or emerging on-air talent, and could win for individual reporting. But they were not entitled to take home a trophy for a win on the show. That rule was intended to prevent frontline talent from winning two awards for the same work (called “double-dipping” in the NATAS regulations).
ESPN circumvented the rule by placing fake names on the credit list submitted to NATAS for “College GameDay.” Atletico looked at the credit lists for the years the show won: 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. In each of those seven years, names similar to the names of on-air personalities — and with identical initials — are they were all listed under the title of “associated 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 episodes from 2014 to 2018. Chris Fulton (Chris Fowler) appeared in 2010, 2011, 2014 and 2015. Shelley Saunders (Shelley Smith) appeared in the list of the 2010 credits. Smith also received an Emmy for winning the show in 2008, though it’s unclear how that statuette was achieved; Shelley Saunders was not listed in the 2008 credit list viewed by Atletico. However, networks can change a credit list after a show is announced as a winner.
While reviewing the 2010 and 2011 credit lists, Atletico I found three other names that could not be verified and that closely resemble the names of the “College GameDay” talents: Erik Andrews (Erin Andrews) in 2011; Wendy Nickson (Wendi Nix) and Jenn Brownsmith (Jenn Brown) in 2010. Nix confirmed that she received an Emmy around 2010 and said that she had no idea that it had been obtained improperly; she just arrived in the mail one day. She was not contacted about returning it before or after leaving ESPN in August 2023. Brown, who left ESPN in 2013, confirmed that she was also given one of her own and did not know it was illicit. She said: “This is all news to me and a bit unfortunate because there are people who believe they have rightfully had one. There are rules for a reason… it’s a shame they’ve been abused and for so many years.” 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 plan to secure trophies for on-air talent, one person involved in ESPN’s Emmy submission process in recent years said, “You have to remember that those personalities are so important and they have egos.” . Smith, for example, rebelled and noticed how some executives filled their office shelves with statuettes. One executive interviewed during ESPN’s investigation said that some business leaders were obsessed with the Emmys, using the number of wins each year to demonstrate their dominance over competitors: “It’s very important for the people who go (to the ceremony) and for the old school “TV Guys.” Also, many on ESPN thought the rule preventing on-air personalities from getting statuettes for a win on the show was stupid. They may have just decided to do something about it, rules be damned.
NATAS strengthened its credit verification process in 2022, and ESPN was asked to verify some names that year. The network eventually admitted they were fake. In its 2022 transparency report, NATAS referred to the scheme: During the credit review, the sports administration identified the network’s use of fictitious identities in association with one or more proposals. The matter has been referred to counsel and remains pending.
Fake names appeared in ESPN’s Emmy submission for “College GameDay” as recently as 2020 — a year the show didn’t win — but were not in the 2022 entry. (Atletico does not have access to the credit list of the 2021 show.)
The “College GameDay” on-air personalities may not have been the only ones to receive statuettes they were ineligible to receive. In November 2023, Linda Cohn, host of “SportsCenter” since 1992, posted a photo on Instagram of four Emmy awards and wrote, “My Fab 4. Last one handed out today. Still grateful. In the foreground of the photo is an Emmy for Outstanding Daily Studio Show of 2023. Because of the rule change, Cohn was eligible to receive that award. She is listed under “guest” in the credit list and that word is engraved on the base of the figurine. As for the three Emmys in the background of the photo, it reads:
ESPN SPORTS CENTER
The other two read:
EXCEPTIONAL STUDIO ENTERTAINMENT – EVERY DAY
Under NATAS rules, Cohn was ineligible to receive an on-air personality statuette for any “SportsCenter” win in the daily studio show category before 2023, and NATAS confirmed that Cohn has won only one Emmy. Cohn referred all questions to an ESPN spokesperson.
According to a recent version of the Emmy rules, fabricating credits can result in disqualification and required return of trophies. According to NATAS, 37 illicit trophies have been returned so far. Smith returned the 2008 award but not the 2010 one, which she had given to a relative. Wojciechowski, who was released by ESPN last summer, declined an interview request. Rinaldi, who left ESPN for Fox in 2020, was contacted Wednesday but said he had no time to talk. Then he didn’t respond to multiple text messages.
Fitting, Lazarus and Drew Gallagher, a coordinating producer on “College GameDay,” were ruled ineligible for future Emmy participation. Druley was not ruled ineligible for future Emmys; she won an Emmy in 2023 as an executive producer for “Monday Night Football.” But she was replaced on the 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 posted 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 television credits, as executive producer eight times and as supervising producer once. Fitting has been named executive producer six times. Drew Gallagher has twice been listed as coordinating producer. A year later, they weren’t listed at all.
Additionally, the “College GameDay” credit list for the 2023 awards 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 eligibility for the ‘College GameDay’ senior leadership statuette,” NATAS said in an email.
Shortly after Smith’s phone call with Druley last March, a courier arrived at his California home, wrapped the 2008 figurine in a white plastic bag and took it away. But Smith still has the Emmy he won in 2018 for a story for the program “E:60.”
“I was happy to win that (2018),” Smith said. “But the other times (the trophy) came and I didn’t even know I was supposed to win it.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic, photo: Cooper Neill, Ronald Martinez, Michael Buckner / Getty Images; headshot: Getty Images)