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Deadspin Examines The Failure of “The Undefeated”

Jason Barrett

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Last month, The Atlantic published an 18,000-word article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It was the second epic piece in what appears to be a series in which Coates examines the toll of white supremacy as American policy on black life in the United States. The article was every bit as harrowing, illuminating, and infuriating as its famous predecessor, “The Case For Reparations,” which investigates the damage dealt to blacks through this country’s long tradition of housing discrimination.

Coates is one of the great social writers of our time, and singularly qualified to do work of this scale and ambition, which changes how Americans view their own history and how they view themselves. The Atlantic, for its part, is nearly singular in its willingness and ability to approve, finance, and publish this kind of work. As beautiful a writer as he is, what makes Coates’s writing so powerful and so radicalizing is his reporting and research. His telling of history is nauseating precisely because it amounts to no more than the arresting arrangement of iron facts. Even in a piece like “Reparations,” there is very little that can be described as controversial in his pieces. The only controversy comes in how Americans react to them.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve reported on what’s now known as The Undefeated, the black-interest site ESPN gifted to Jason Whitlock in August 2013, which still has yet to get off the ground. Pitched as a “Black Grantland,” The Undefeated was conceived in large part as a place where ESPN could address race in America with work like Coates’s. For 18 months, multiple ESPNers close to the site have excitedly or regretfully described an alternate reality or series of events in which Coates, employed by The Undefeated, would write something like “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” and publish it on ESPN.com. When Whitlock took over as editor in chief, he attempted to poach Coates from The Atlantic as a statement of intent, offering to triple his salary and “make [him] a star.” Coates, of course, declined.

After we published a story in April detailing Whitlock’s nightmarish, comical reign as the head of the site, Whitlock was removed, and I was told, again, that Coates was, again, an option to join the team. This has always struck me as no more than a delusion, because Coates’s sober writing on race is confrontational and uncompromising and unlike anything that ever has been or can be published at the Worldwide Leader. Coates’s work would never appear at The Undefeated for the same reason Whitlock was chosen to run the site in the first place, and for the same reason that even with him now out of the picture, The Undefeated remains a dead letter. From the day Whitlock was hired, the site has been at odds with itself, its actions belying its own premise and purpose. The Undefeated, like the Worldwide Leader itself, was not designed to engage with the truth.

To understand how badly Jason Whitlock failed ESPN and his handpicked team at The Undefeated, consider this: he was removed as editor of The Undefeated in June and the site is still a smoldering heap, no more than a single webpage with links to 19 articles written by the staff over the last 27 months. No women have published a piece; no one on staff under 45 has published more than three. There are talented young writers and editors at the site who have had their careers stifled—potentially even ruined—by Whitlock. Undefeated articles that appear on ESPN.com do so without any announcement, and there is no continuity between them that would suggest an ethos, an identity, or a point of view.

“They’re just putting out branded content,” an ESPNer close to the site says. “Just some stories about black people.”

It’s worse once you consider how important this year was for black people, and for black history. March marked the 50th anniversary of the protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In early April, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. Two weeks later, Freddie Gray died after his spine was nearly severed while in police custody. In June, Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shot nine people to death in the name of white supremacy. Sandra Bland died in police custody in July. Eric Garner was choked to death in July 2o14, and Michael Brown was shot dead a month later. The Watts Riots took place 50 years ago, from Aug. 11-17. Late August marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There’s Serena, Bernie, #BlackLivesMatter, and Viola Davis. This year was the perfect time for a well-funded black-interest site written and edited by blacks, and yet no site exists.

“This is a colossal missed opportunity,” says a source.

The only news to break about The Undefeated since Whitlock left came in late July, when we reported that ESPN wanted Howard Bryant to oversee the site’s reboot in an “editor-at-large” role. There was immediate interest from black personalities within ESPN who wanted to be part of a black project but wanted nothing to do with Whitlock.

There was outside interest, as well. Names Deadspin heard linked to the Bryant reboot included Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Jamil Smith, Spike Lee, and—speculatively—Coates.

These are legitimate stars, but there’s a world of difference between names coming up and anything happening, and for now, nothing is happening. Leon Carter—The Undefeated’s interim editor and Whitlock’s former right hand—will almost surely get booted. Bryant wants the gig and seemed an obvious pick, but won’t get a shot. There has been almost no communication between ESPN executives and Bryant regarding the site in months. The little momentum the site had after cutting Whitlock out has died out.

One theory is that Whitlock’s failure is to blame for Bryant’s misfortune. In order to make a splash, ESPN appointed Whitlock as editor-in-chief. Whitlock has spent his entire career alone, though, churning out 800-word columns from the comfort of his own home. He’s never been anyone’s boss; he’s never managed anyone; and due to his personality and nearly two decades of writing in isolation, he is breathtakingly paranoid. He saw enemies—challengers to his authority who would steal his legacy from under him—in the very faces of the staff he hired. Whitlock was more concerned with keeping power than utilizing it. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

Over time, ESPN president John Skipper has learned that writing is a vastly different skill than editing, which is completely removed from managing people. Whitlock was ousted a month after Skipper publicly executed Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Simmons, a writer, was a great and beloved boss who could manage people, and knew enough to hire a capable team of editors around him and let them do their work. But as an ESPN employee, he was notoriously petulant and needy. Grantland has an enormous budget, and many in its staff of over 50 writers, editors, and contributors have comically lucrative salaries relative to industry norms, all without Grantland making a profit or boasting a very large readership. Still, in an interview with Re/Code, Simmons said he needed more.

“The problem with Bill was Bill asked for the world,” an ESPN employee says. “He always needed more after they gave him everything. Pulitzer Prize winners, Charlie Pierce, everything.”

As EICs, Simmons and Whitlock were polar opposites, but both of their problems stemmed from hubris. They were both writers—what ESPN calls “talent”—and so Skipper decreed that ESPN would no longer permit talent to run Grantland or The Undefeated. Bryant is a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine—talent—and so he’s disqualified from the EIC post regardless of his potential. (Multiple sources have told Deadspin that one man Skipper is pursuing for the role is Kevin Merida, managing editor ofThe Washington Post. Merida is interested; he met with Skipper in Los Angeles last month, and according to a source, he’s been quietly asking if some of his favorite Post employees would be open to following him to ESPN.)

A second prevailing theory, though, is much simpler.

It’s easy to say now that Whitlock was destined to fail at The Undefeated, but that’s a harsh reading of events. Whitlock is an unsophisticated thinker on race who wrote his belief in black pathology into the The Undefeated’s DNA, and whose ideas about respectability politics bled into each piece he edited before he was tossed aside. His ideology was formed over 20 years of writing opinions on race that were largely inaccurate, but, more importantly, firmly aligned with the opinions of many whites. Though he’d alienated many blacks along the way, including talented ESPN colleagues, his readings of American history were agreeable to an enormous portion of ESPN’s audience. He was decidedly safe and unchallenging. Through this lens, Whitlock was, in theory at least, theperfect choice to run the site.

To read the rest of this fascinating article visit Deadspin where it was originally published

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ACC Network Adds Justin Walters as Host

“I’m grateful to ESPN and ACC Network for this opportunity and thrilled to be a part of the team. I’m ready to put in the work!”

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A photo of Justin Walters at the Super Bowl
(Photo: Justin Walters)

Justin Walters is the latest member of the ACC Network and its roster of hosts, ESPN has announced.

Walters previously worked for PIX11 News in New York City and served as a college football and basketball reporter for CBS Sports over the past three years. Walters will debut on Wednesday, Dec. 6 anchoring halftime coverage of the ACC Network’s men’s college basketball doubleheader. He will also host the network’s signature basketball show Nothing But Net.

“We’re excited to add Justin to our ACC Network team. He is both talented and versatile, an ideal combination for this role, which will include hosting shows in studio and on the road, as well as reporting and conducting interviews in the field,” said ESPN Senior Vice President of Production Michael Shiffman.  

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Mount Vernon, N.Y., Walters graduated from La Salle University with a Bachelor of Arts in broadcast journalism. He is an active member of The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) and Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. 

Prior to PIX11, Walters was the sports director and anchor for WRNN-TV/Fios1 News in the greater New York City area, where he covered both high school and professional teams throughout the tri-state area. His most memorable assignments included the Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Conor McGregor fight in Las Vegas and Mariano Rivera’s unanimous Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y. He started his career in 2013 with WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee.

“Joining ESPN is truly a dream come true,” Walters said. “Growing up watching some of the greatest and recreating a broadcast as a kid…this is a full circle moment. I’m grateful to ESPN and ACC Network for this opportunity and thrilled to be a part of the team. I’m ready to put in the work!”

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ESPN Officially Re-Signs Mina Kimes to Multi-Year Contract

Kimes originally joined ESPN in 2014, where she has since made her stamp on the company in multiple disciplines.

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Mina Kimes

Get ready for more Mina Kimes on your ESPN airwaves. The company officially announced it re-signed its star NFL correspondent to a multi-year deal, shattering the hopes of Dan LeBatard Show fans everywhere.

Kimes originally joined ESPN in 2014, where she has since made her stamp on the company in multiple disciplines. She started as a writer for ESPN The Magazine and various ESPN websites before moving to an on-air personality for NFL Live, Around the Horn, and First Take. Kimes also hosts a podcast that also recently launched a YouTube channel to provide video content.

2023 has been a busy one for Mina. Earlier this year, Kimes agreed to terms with Meadowlark Media, LeBatard’s media company, to make sporadic appearances on his weekly podcast, while also agreeing to a new deal with ESPN. There’s been no word whether that deal is the same one that is being announced now or involves something different for Kimes.

Mina Kimes also allegedly turned down a lucrative offer from NFL Network to stay at ESPN, albeit on new terms. She also announced the birth of her first child, a son, fittingly during a Monday Night Football contest between her beloved Seattle Seahawks and the New York Giants.

Kimes said the familiarity with ESPN personalities was a key factor in her decision to stick around at the Worldwide Leader. “The biggest reason is I just really love the people that I work with, especially my family on NFL Live,” Kimes told Awful Announcing.

“It’s a little cliche to call them family, but they really are to me. They’re not only wonderful human beings and amazing to work with every day, but they challenge me, we push each other, and we make what I believe is one of the best shows on television. So just for me, probably the biggest appeal was just working with the people that I love so much there in particular.”

Mina Kimes also returns to ESPN today following her maternity leave.

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Greg Olsen: I’m Not Chasing an NFL Head Coaching Job

“This is not something I’m actively pursuing. I would call the A game at FOX for 30 years if that was what was in the cards.”

Ricky Keeler

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Greg Olsen
Courtesy: FOX Sports

With his former team, the Carolina Panthers, in search of a new head coach this offseason, there was a report last week from Joseph Person of The Athletic that the man who was the Panther tight end for 9 years and current FOX broadcaster Greg Olsen would be interested in the position if he was approached for it.

Olsen was a guest on The Rich Eisen Show on Thursday and he told Eisen that being a coach is not something that he is actively trying to pursue at this time.

“This is not something I’m chasing. This is not something I’m actively pursuing. I would call the A game at FOX for 30 years if that was what was in the cards. We all know how this world works. People come and go. Opportunities come and go. I’m never a believer in slamming the door on anything that you love.”

“That became kind of a big story this week. Obviously, there’s a lot of speculation and rumor and whatnot. I think the best thing I would say is ‘Who wouldn’t?’ This is a city that I love,” Greg Olsen admitted. “This is a team that I played the bulk of my career for. I want to see them have success. I live here, my kids are here.”

He continued by noting that he would listen to the offer if approached, despite not angling for the job.

“I would be crazy to entertain and take that conversation. This is a game I love. This is a game that I have been involved in my entire life. How that all plays out, I don’t know.

“I love doing what I do now. Calling games, studying games, I love doing this. How that future unfolds, a lot of this is out of any of our control.”

Greg Olsen took that question and used it to bring out a larger conversation as to why people overreact if a former player without as much coaching experience gets immediately dismissed as an idea for an open spot such as what happened when Jeff Saturday went from ESPN to being the interim coach of the Colts last year.

“What I will say is a larger conversation that has nothing to do with me, we saw it last year with Jeff Saturday taking over. I think there is an instant reaction that unless you have lived the NFL lifestyle in that ladder, you can’t be successful. I think we have to be careful saying experience leads to competence in all industries.

“Look at John Lynch. John Lynch had no experience in personnel and I’d say he has done a good job. We have to be careful thinking experience is the only prerequisite to be good at anything, coaching, broadcasting. Why do we just dismiss that as a pathway? Other sports don’t dismiss it. I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s an interesting conversation.”

As for answering the question itself, Eisen thought it was great because it showed how genuine Olsen is without trying to dismiss the question the second it was asked to him despite how difficult it is to answer. 

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