The explanation for John Skipper’s shock departure from ESPN is stranger than anyone suspected.
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, the former ESPN head said he stepped down abruptly in December because a person from whom he purchased cocaine attempted to extort him.
“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,” Skipper recalled. “I foreclosed that possibility by disclosing the details to my family, and then when I discussed it with [Disney CEO] Bob [Iger], he and I agreed that I had placed the company in an untenable position and as a result, I should resign.”
According to Skipper, his departure from the major sports network occurred rapidly. On Friday, Dec. 15, the executive received word of the extortion effort, and met with Iger the same day.
On Monday, Dec. 18, Skipper announced his resignation.
“I have struggled for many years with a substance addiction,” his resignation statement read. “I have decided that the most important thing I can do right now is to take care of my problem.”
Skipper, who claimed to have undergone therapy since leaving ESPN, said he used cocaine recreationally for decades and was very “careful” about protecting his reputation.
“It turns out I was more than unusually clever in devising ways to separate my professional life from my personal life,” he explained.
When asked if cocaine use interfered with his work, Skipper answered: “Never. At ESPN I did not use at work, nor with anyone at work, or with anyone I did business with. … I’ve never been a daily user. My use over the past two decades has, in fact, been quite infrequent.”
He acknowledged that his substance abuse problem led him to buy cocaine from a different source than usual one night, a decision that resulted in his professional downfall.
“It turned out I wasn’t careful this time.”
Of the days between his meeting with Disney CEO Bob Iger and his resignation announcement, Skipper said:
“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.”
Skipper responded to a question about whether he considered going public with his drug use and the extortion attempt in a manner similar to late night host David Letterman’s on-air confession in 2009.
In that case, Letterman was able to salvage his job with CBS.
“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.”
He also denied rumors that he was involved in a sex scandal, which some people speculated when news of his departure broke.
“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.”
Skipper was since replaced as ESPN president with James Pitaro, the former head of Disney’s consumer products.