Who needs Joe Exotic as a badass when we have Adam Schefter, winning what should be a lifetime award for Best Commentary During a Pandemic by a Media Professional? Not once but twice on ESPN, Schefter lambasted the NFL for continuing its multi-billion-dollar business machine amid the coronavirus “carnage’’ — his word — as if the horror wasn’t real and dead bodies weren’t being placed in parking-lot freezers. Scared, proud and nobody’s corporate puppet, Schefter spoke for many of us appalled by the league’s hubris and audacity during an apocalyptic lockdown.
This might be the end of the world as we know it. But before our collective societal demise, as the death toll soars and cloth masks become life-or-death necessities, Roger Goodell still must conduct his NFL Draft this month.
“The draft is happening only through the sheer force and determination and lack of foresight from the NFL, frankly. They are determined to put this on while there is carnage in the streets!’’ raged Schefter, ESPN’s NFL insider, biting the hand of the league that feeds him information and risking the wrath of the employer that pays him handsomely.
It’s a shame President Trump wasn’t listening. For he, too, has returned to the same delusional rabbit hole, recklessly suggesting sports could resume, with fans in stadiums and arenas, as soon as August. This only creates false and baseless hope for major commissioners — and ailing sports media — that games and events will be played “sooner than later.’’ Just last week, Trump described the coronavirus as “the invisible enemy,’’ referring to the crisis as “the worst thing this country has probably ever seen.’’ Now he’s vacillating again, stating the NFL season should start as scheduled in September when anyone who hazards such guesses is lying.
America is losing lives, its economy, its soul. America is losing America.
Trump is ready for some football, baby, ignoring the massacre and misery. “They want to get back. They’ve got to get back. They can’t do this. Their sports weren’t designed for it,’’ he said of the leagues. “I want fans back in the arenas. I think it’s whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports.”
Never mind that coronavirus is the devil, a continuing venture into the lethal unknown, and that it’s absurd to think Americans suddenly will cram into mass gatherings and competitive spaces anytime soon. Has Trump considered the infection dangers for athletes and fans — all unclear on who among them has tested positive, who is a silent asymptomatic carrier and whether another strain might arrive in the fall, as health experts have forecast? Has he thought about their families, the risk of transmissions and outbreaks? Trump has planted a seed for desperate leagues and sports media to embrace when, in any sane context, all parties should be assuming sports will be shut down for the long term. For commissioners such as Goodell and sports media companies adrift without live sports and relevance, Trump’s words are catnip — a fleeting tease. The voice of reason is California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who said bluntly, “I’m not anticipating that happening in this state.’’ If Newsom shuts down the home buildings of 18 major-league franchises in the state, well, the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL and MLS can’t resume play without them.
Trump wants to kickstart a broken economy, but he cannot do so at the expense of human fear and grim optics. This is what Schefter was pointing out, magnificently, about the NFL Draft. If only he’d continued to comment on ESPN, a co-conspirator with the league, for merrily agreeing to air the stink bomb over two networks. And while WWE isn’t a legitimate sport, Vince McMahon was borderline criminal in allowing half-naked humans to engage, slam, pounce and sweat on each other during a spectator-less WrestleMania 36. Fox and Fite TV were enablers, charging $59.99 with millions of Americans out of work.
It wasn’t his intention, but Schefter also was making a sweeping statement about his own wobbling and crumbling industry: This is the absolute worst time in history to be sticking to sports. As if trying to speak leagues and events back into existence when they might not return for a very long time, outlets ranging from TV networks to content verticals to talk radio carry on with the day’s usual sports ledger when THERE ARE NO SPORTS. Are they really pretending the coronavirus is someone else’s problem? Did I just hear ESPN’s Rex Ryan refer to Amari Cooper as “a turd?’’ The blinders-on approach is inappropriate and oblivious to the agony outside this false bubble, and it begs for urgent perspective: Stop retreating and surrendering, get out of the sports sandbox and use an extraordinary moment to showcase intelligence and expertise as journalists, voicing opinions and experiences that resonate among the frightened, isolated millions.
Now insignificant in and of itself, the already volatile world of sports media faces an existential crossroads that, much like America and Planet Earth, will leave things eerily unrecognizable when the devil finally lets us come up for air. I see a business that is lost and tanking, in the vernacular, without games and news to disseminate and dissect. The modus operandi is to hang on for dear life in a safe, nothing-but-sports editorial mode as companies plan layoffs, pay cuts, furloughs while hoping Trump is right. When it turns out he’s wrong, the shutdowns will begin. This is the ultimate price when media companies choose to be dependent on the bigger mechanism — the leagues and franchises with which they climb into bed — instead of maintaining a fiercely independent, versatile business model. When a media firm is strictly beholden to that mechanism, it goes down with the entire sports ship as a niche throwaway when coronavirus decides to swallow the planet.
Let’s hope, and maybe pray, that Schefter and other voices of his higher mindset are giving a dying industry some hits of oxygen — and a reminder of our mission. In times of crisis, we are not “sports media people’’ as much as thoughtful human beings, many skilled and resourceful, who should be seizing the pandemic as a tragic but unique opportunity to elevate as reporters, storytellers and robust commentators. All sports media should be covering this epic story en masse, not stepping back from it and lazily letting news networks handle it while filling airtime and sites with trite, useless, avoid-the-elephant fluff. You’d never know the world has stopped amid the uninterrupted coverage of athletes and teams. The movie and music industries no longer receive such attention, but how about those Chicago Bears, creating a competition between Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles?
And we certainly shouldn’t fantasize that the pandemic isn’t happening, as The Athletic has rationalized with content weakened by too many wishy-washy, denial-shaped offerings: “Greatest Game I Covered’’ … “2020 NBA Draft Big Board 4.0’’ … “What If Johnny Cueto didn’t pull his oblique in the 2012 playoffs?’’ … “Grading Bobby Boucher’s legendary tackling in `The Waterboy.’ ‘’ The site has a terrific enterprise reporter, Joe Vardon, who wrote one definitive piece about sports and the coronavirus. Turn him loose! I wish The Athletic, so impressive in breaking baseball’s sign-stealing scandal, was alone in this real-news bailout that treats readers like Santa Claus-robbed kids while insulting a gifted writing staff that should be encouraged to attack the health catastrophe of our lives. But it pretty much reflects the norm: sports outlets succumbing as mindless toy departments amid a global disaster, thinking they need to distract and divert.
This is no time for Dr. Feelgood or charlatans. This is no fairy tale, as the networks like to posit about sports. This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. This is the coronavirus. And if you’re running a sports media company, you might want to maximize audiences with raw, relevant and deeply human bandwidth, rather than planting wishful-thinking seeds about the resumption of sports. With stay-at-home orders tethering people to homes like never before, sports media have an opportunity to attract more eyeballs and ears with compelling content. But if advertising revenue continues to crash, this ultimately could be extinction time for sites, talk stations and what’s left of dinosaur newspapers.
Some sports media people, including executives, never leave the sandbox. Schefter, who has authored a book about personal loss, left the sandbox long ago. As ESPN’s lead NFL reporter, he’s a front-facing point man for a company that desperately needs Goodell and the billionaire owners for future survival and has been dedicated to repairing its once-prickly relationship with the league. With Disney Co. preparing a massive bid for a more prominent ABC/ESPN place in the NFL’s broadcast pecking order, ESPN chief Jimmy Pitaro wants nothing to interfere with high-stakes negotiations that evidently will proceed hell or high water in the not-distant future.
Did Schefter sabotage his own company’s dealings with Goodell and the owners? By excoriating the league for moving forward with the draft, did he jeopardize ABC/ESPN’s audience potential for that event? And did he also risk losing some league sources valuable to him in his daily reporting?
That’s why he wins the lifetime award. Internal politics didn’t matter to him when a bigger message had to be sent, and he did so at a network where Pitaro — charged with cleaning up the social mess left by his fired predecessor — has warned on-air talent to stick to sports.
Fallout be damned, Schefter should be applauded as a sophisticated human being who refused to be a house man. Goodell has been guilty of tone-deafness throughout his tenure, but his current business-as-usual stance establishes shameful lows. He lives and works in virus-ravaged New York City. Has he not noticed the dozens of mobile morgues, the emergency rooms desperate for ventilators and masks and beds, a muscular world capital reduced to panic and rampant life-risk? America is gutted — physically, financially, spiritually — and 240,000 could die. Yet the NFL is staging its draft anyway. Assumes Goodell: “The draft can serve a very positive purpose for our clubs, our fans and the country at large.’’ Know what a positive purpose would be? Keep writing checks for coronavirus relief. Many owners have done so, including Bob Kraft, who used the New England Patriots’ plane to transport masks he purchased from China. The NFL, which so far has donated about $40 million to the cause, could add more zeroes and commas — say, $1 billion.
Why am I so fired up about Schefter? Because I’ve devoted much of my life to this profession — as a columnist for 25-plus years, a daily panelist for eight years in the peak period of ESPN’s “Around The Horn,’’ and a radio host and podcaster who has cringed as the business loses some of its edge, gravitas and credibility. On Sept. 10, 2001, I broke a story: Standing outside a gym on Chicago’s west side, Michael Jordan told me and the Associated Press’ Jim Litke that he was returning to basketball with the Washington Wizards. The next morning, TV trucks lined up outside our radio studios, and I answered questions about Jordan. Suddenly, as if I’d passed bad gas, the reporters and camera people vanished. I noticed a TV screen, saw the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan in flames and realized 9/10 and Jordan no longer mattered on 9/11.
Within minutes, it was time to do our national show. I joined Litke and Mike Mulligan, newspeople at heart, in covering the terror as it unfolded over TV screens. We described the scenes, took calls from petrified listeners, explained how this moment would alter our trust in humankind and provided familiar voices for people in need. The next day, we received praise from a media critic for, ahem, refusing to stick to sports. But not before our program director, Mark Gentzkow, won a fierce hallway argument with an advertising boss who wanted to send us home and flip to network news programming.
I’m the one who stuck around the Bay Area after the 1989 earthquake, a kid columnist who remained for days with like-minded colleagues. While many sportswriters flew home after the World Series was postponed, I covered a massive tragedy because I wanted to be more than “a sportswriter.’’ I’m the one who gave a wad of cash to a worker at an all-night Atlanta gas station so three of us had space to write in the wee hours, near Centennial Olympic Park, where a deadly bomb had exploded minutes earlier.
I’m the one who handed back a million dollars, guaranteed, to a Chicago newspaper that refused to overhaul an abysmal digital site. I’m the one who appeared 10 years ago on the HBO show, “Real Sports,’’ and said newspapers would collapse if they didn’t shift away from newsprint and embrace tech. Was I wrong?
So I’m the one who wants to run to the beach, violate California social-distancing rules and shout in celebration when Schefter raises hell. Or when Jerry Brewer of the Washington Post marvels at how stadiums have become medical facilities. Or when Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s college football analyst, says he’d be “shocked’’ if football was played this fall without a vaccine that, in in the best case, might be 18 months from development, approval, distribution and politicization — drawing the ire of clueless college coaches and athletic directors. Or when the Los Angeles Times’ Bill Plaschke spends a lost Opening Day at desolate Dodger Stadium and details why life suddenly can be rendered empty and joyless. Or when the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson probes the Milan soccer match that escalated Italy’s virus spread. Or when a San Francisco program director raves about the worldly tone of radio hosts who have ditched fun and games.
The good, smart stuff is out there. You just have to look hard for it, too hard.
Sports has been rendered frivolous, yes. That doesn’t mean sports media has to be frivolous. We only live once, and if we’re all dying tomorrow, I’d prefer not to catch up on Johnny Cueto’s oblique pull. Might someone opine on why the pariah-turned-TV-prince, Alex Rodriguez, was caught leaving a closed gym with Jennifer Lopez amid Florida’s stay-at-home order? Once a cheater, always a cheater?
Have at it, Ken Rosenthal. Dare ya.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of “Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Podbean, etc.). He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. He appears Wednesday nights on The Dino Costa Show, a segment billed as “The Rawest Hour in Sports Broadcasting.’’