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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

A weekly analysis of the best and worst in sports media from a multimedia content machine — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio programs and podcasts — who is neither a cardboard cutout nor a virtual fan.

Jay Mariotti

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THEY GET IT

Cris Collinsworth and Al Michaels, NBC — As leagues drool like pack dogs to embrace legalized gambling, it’s vital they don’t allow integrity breaches to explode into wretched scandals. Kudos to Collinsworth for using prime time to expose Doug Pederson. In what obviously was a tank job to climb into a higher draft spot, Pederson yanked dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in the fourth quarter of a tight game and inserted inept backup Nate Sudfeld, ensuring a stinker loss that pushed the 7-9 Washington Football Team ahead of the 6-10 Giants for a clownish NFC East title. Collinsworth echoed the raw disgust of bettors, Giants fans, some Eagles fans and sports purists alike when he said, “I simply could not have done it. You’ve got men out there that are fighting their guts out trying to win the game.’’ Chimed in partner Michaels, he of the wink-wink references about point spreads: “I agree, under the circumstances, absolutely. (If) they are getting blown out, yeah. And we mentioned, yesterday Doug said he wanted to get Sudfeld into the game. But in this circumstance? Come on.” The NFL does not want two prominent broadcasters on “Sunday Night Football,’’ the league’s showcase weekly event, delving into competitive ethics — a discussion many other paycheck-protectors would have avoided. As for Pederson, his nose grew longer than the Walt Whitman Bridge when he claimed he was “coaching to win.’’ Win what, the No. 6 pick?

The Athletic — In attack mode at last, the site has used its deep pool of reporters to break stories at a recent high clip. My usual complaint about The Athletic — a lack of critical edge — isn’t as glaring when each day brings more scoops. The churn is embarrassing ESPN, which, in turn, embarrasses itself by resorting to familiar bigfoot fakery. When The Athletic or another site breaks news, ESPN takes hocus-pocus credit with a line in an opening paragraph — such as, “sources tell ESPN’’ — while hoping the reader doesn’t notice an acknowledgment in a much later paragraph that the story first was reported elsewhere. It happened when ESPN insider Jeff Passan, writing about the trade of Blake Snell to the Padres and the names of prospects acquired by the Rays, ended his opening paragraph with a credit grab: “… sources familiar with the agreement told ESPN.’’ The story then waited six graphs to mention, “The Athletic was first to report the players going to the Rays in the deal.’’ Same goes for NBA insider Brian Windhorst, who said “sources told ESPN’’ that the Heat were not pursuing James Harden, then waited until his final graph to mention, “The South Florida Sun-Sentinel first reported the Heat’s decision to end the trade talks.’’ The Athletic was out front as the Cubs were peddling Yu Darvish to the Padres — by the way, San Diego hasn’t been this relevant since the Ron Burgundy days — but ESPN, playing catch-up again, didn’t even bother crediting the news-breaker, instead citing “sources familiar with the deal.’’ It was Chip Brown at Horns 24/7 who first tweeted Steve Sarkisian “is expected to be the new coach at Texas’’ — and minutes later, without a mention of Brown’s report, ESPN was reporting that sources were “telling ESPN’s Chris Low that the Longhorns have zeroed in’’ on Sarkisian. And when Saints star Alvin Kamara tested positive for COVID-19? We initially were led to believe “a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter’’ first when, in the final graph of the story, we learned “NewOrleans.Football was first to report Kamara tested positive.’’ ESPN is conveniently omitting that it is simply CONFIRMING what others have broken, which The Athletic did when reporter Scott Burnside “confirmed’’ the NHL is playing two outdoor games at Lake Tahoe, quickly noting “Sportsnet was first to report the NHL’s plans.’’ The practice is dirty and unethical, with executives and editors to blame for not stepping in, but the industry is afraid to call out the “Worldwide Leader.’’ I’m not — and how fitting that ESPN’s news desk recklessly posted a false story from a fake Schefter account Monday, forcing the network to issue a correction. It’s still an annoying topic for me, having once broken Michael Jordan’s return to basketball in the Chicago Sun-Times (with the Associated Press), only to see a beaten Sam Smith at the rival Tribune credit the AP and, um, an unnamed newspaper. This isn’t gamesmanship. It’s weasel-ism.

Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN — From his home studio in Nashville, he showed how to responsibly stay on the job and do it well after a positive COVID-19 test. You never would have known he was in isolation while breaking down the Herbie Bowl, and while his allegiances to Ohio State (as a former player) and Clemson (his sons play there) again suggest a collegiate conflict of interest that hasten a bump-up to the “Monday Night Football’’ booth, his insights and commentary remained airtight. He mauled Mississippi State’s Mike Leach for his players’ roles in a sickening New Year’s Eve brawl, saying, “Mike Leach should be embarrassed. His postgame interview and what he said, `Hey, it’s football. Hey, it’s physical. It’s going to happen’ — are you kidding me, Mike? You should be embarrassed about your program and what it did. This is a black eye for the sport. Maybe you don’t care about the sport, dude. It’s as bad as it could be for people that are sitting around watching college football and that breaks out.’’ I couldn’t have said it better, dude, though the only reason Leach’s team was playing Tulsa in yet another needless game — the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl — is because it’s one of 17 bowls owned and operated by ESPN Events. I’d be even more impressed if Herbstreit had popped his bosses for overlooking a blatant detail in their desperation to air such shlock: Mississippi State came in at 3-7. The takeaway is this: Whereas Tony (the $180 million man) Romo missed his CBS assignment Sunday, due to COVID protocols, Herbstreit showed up and won the weekend.

Tom Rinaldi, Fox Sports — His ballyhooed move from ESPN doesn’t require much dissection. As a sentimental storyteller and interviewer, Rinaldi realized Fox is ensconced in the sacred Super Bowl rotation (unlike ESPN), carries the NFC championship game every year (unlike ESPN), televises the World Series every year (unlike ESPN) and has soccer’s World Cup in 2022 (unlike ESPN). He also is being paid appreciably more at Fox than at ESPN, where Disney has tightened pursestrings once yanked wide open for leading talent. He also has bosses who value his dramatic deliveries — OK, melodramatic — even more than they did at ESPN, which now can let foul-mouthed rappers set scenes with musical collages. “The biggest events on Fox just got bigger because of Tom,’’ said Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks, who describes Rinaldi as “one of the all-time great people in this business and a generational storyteller.’’ Indeed, Rinaldi is a happy and upbeat fellow, and he’ll be very happy painting pictures of hope, inspiration and kindness at Fox. Sometimes it’s as simple as a guy still believing sports is all about fairy tales and wanting to maximize his glee.

Mike Valenti, Detroit talk host — How refreshing to see a harsh critic of a rancid sports franchise gain the support of his corporate superiors … and ultimately win a political tug-of-war. Valenti was so scathing in his attacks on the Detroit Lions — and rightfully so — that they fled his station, 97.1 The Ticket, and took their broadcast rights to another outlet five years ago. In an uncommon step for sports radio, CBS Radio backed Valenti in the standoff, and last month, the Lions returned to The Ticket (now owned by Entercom) with their tail between their legs. How uncomfortable did the team make it for him at the time? Valenti said the senior vice president of communications, Bill Keenist, tried to have him fired and called him frequently during commercial breaks, disputing points he’d expressed on the air. Keenist has denied this, but I happened to be on the same college newspaper staff as Bill, and, yes, he can be a rah-rah shill who thinks he’s a media-controlling sheriff. Of course, I have my own experiences in this regard: a Chicago sports owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, leading a charge to run me off ESPN 1000 despite my stellar ratings. If someone with the stones of Valenti’s corporate backer, Chris Oliviero, had run my station back then, I’d still be ruling sports radio there. This time, content won and manipulation lost.

Dave Portnoy, Barstool Sports — This is the second straight “Five Who Get It’’ where I flunk math and count to six. But I am astonished — gobsmacked, actually — that the clown prince of sports media has raised more than $16 million for small businesses via The Barstool Fund. Of course, Portnoy could raise billions and not make us forget his racist and sexist rants and the creepy way he got started in the industry: publishing a photo of Tom Brady’s naked, then-toddler son. Consider this a healthy step forward … though, chances are, he’ll eventually step back into the same sewage.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Dan Le Batard, Free Agent — I commend him for a classy, grateful farewell show, with nothing but love for his father and colleagues on his final “Highly Questionable.’’ Still, it was awkward to see the host yapping on ESPN’s TV and radio platforms weeks after parting with a network he has napalmed for years. If ESPN is trying to expunge the Le Batard memory and move on, it shouldn’t have brought him back for a final day of shows in 2021. A bigger question for ESPN boss Norby Williamson, centrally involved in the divorce proceedings: What ultimately happens to Le Batard’s stable of loyal friends who remain on his former TV program? Ratings for the network’s afternoon talk block aren’t wowing anyone these days, and after the “High Noon’’ flop, the network should push creator Erik Rydholm to develop a fresher realm of programming. That is: less cartoonish humor and more viewer-connective substance. A note to Le Batard, 52, and his radio gang: The longer you stay idle with no major gig — Spotify? Sirius XM? — the less impact you’ll make in the future. “We approach this scary cliff together to take quite the leap of faith. Are you ready to jump with us?’’ Le Batard asked his radio fans. “If you’ve paid close attention, we’ve been ready to take this leap for awhile. We know the strength of the army that stands at attention at our back. I promise you, we’re going to show you how much we don’t take that for granted. I can’t wait to take you on this fight, and this flight, with us.” Are they doing radio? Or going to war?

Sports Betting Executives — Has someone stolen Chad Millman’s identity? Or was he always diabolical, even as editor-in-chief at ESPN.com, in hoping gambling sites disrupt the future of legitimate sports journalism? Now a top boss at the Action Network, Millman was asked by the Washington Post if betting companies will “save or swallow’’ sports media. “Why does it have to be one or the other? Can’t it be both?’’ he shot back. Does Millman not realize these are two disparate universes a zillion miles apart in moral purpose and intent? Does he actually think a game that bottomed into a rout an hour earlier can be connected in any ethical or realistic way to the phony game — driven by point spreads, over-unders and fantasy teams — still going on in the final minutes? It’s the latest comment that portends an alarming new reality: Authentic and responsible sports coverage will be devoured by brands, including those in mainstream media, chasing the casino money. Then there’s Brian Musburger, CEO of the Vegas Stats & Information Network. In a stunning statement that might interest the FBI, among others, Musburger sees hiring professional journalists and using inside information culled from sources and locker rooms to feed tips to bettors. WTF? Referring to Teddy Greenstein, the college football and golf writer who left the Chicago Tribune to join something called PointsBet Sportsbook, Musburger told the Post, “There is a long history of guys looking for an edge. It’s harder to have that now because information happens so fast. But guys like Teddy, who have their ear to the ground and have covered a beat — whether they know it or not, they have information important to sports bettors.” Excuse me while I take three showers. If leagues and teams begin to credential writers from such operations — not impossible as partnerships between sports and gambling interests blossom — hell, why not just stop writing about games and athletes and turn all reporters into dirtbags, tweeting every eavesdropped tip he or she unearths so some loser in Jersey City can lay down a phone wager? Said Musburger, nephew of media legend (and one-time crack journalist) Brent Musburger, who hosts a radio show for VSIN: “The places that have the money to hire the best writers right now are the folks that are serving the gambling audience. So it’s interesting.” No, it’s frightening — consider the scandals that await in sports and media when strategies like his exist. Unlike some writers, I’m fortunate I don’t have to work for these sites. But be damned sure I’ll be watchdogging them.

Charles Barkley, TNT — Don’t say I didn’t warn Barkley if he ends up in the craphole again. The man-child who once admitted to a gambling addiction that cost him at least $10 million — $2.5 million in six hours alone — somehow was allowed by the network (and parent AT&T) to place $100,000 on the Portland Trail Blazers to win the Western Conference. This actually happened during “Inside The NBA,’’ via league partner FanDuel, which suggests Barkley has slipped into dangerous old habits while NBA commissioner Adam Silver has lost his moral compass. I don’t care if Barkley ends up broke, but I do care if young people vulnerable to gambling illnesses now think it’s cool to bet on sports because Charles did so on TV. Of course, legal bets now can be made in numerous states over cellphones, many of which have accounts with … AT&T. Wait, I’m not through with Barkley. After Kevin Durant replied to post-game questions from the “Inside The NBA’’ crew with short answers — Barkley is a frequent critic of Durant — Barkley not only ridiculed Durant but brushed aside Kenny Smith’s subsequent question about whether it still bothers Charles that he never won a championship ring. He went into a sideways rant about idiot media people, not realizing he can be one himself.

Scott Van Pelt, ESPN — I’m thankful when anyone returns from the clutches of COVID-19, including the “SportsCenter’’ anchor. Perhaps he regrets his foolish comments of last spring. In the early stages of the pandemic, with sports on pause and trying to figure out responsible steps forward, Van Pelt callously argued one night that athletes — the strongest and ablest among us, he said — should be allowed to immediately resume games. Never mind the death toll in the real world. Never mind that ESPN had a vested interest in live events. Van Pelt spoke from an empty mind, not realizing that “One Big Thing’’ would become “One Real Big Thing’’ in his life come December. An idea: How about a segment where he lists the number of sports people infected since he opined so irresponsibly? People ask why I don’t like Van Pelt. It’s not about liking him … I just don’t respect him. Can we see more Neil Everett in that time slot, please?

Vince Doria, ex-ESPN executive — Not sure what possessed him to sit on the story of Manti Te’o’s imaginary girlfriend in 2013, or why he let Te’o’s high-powered agent influence him in the matter. But Doria, an editor who launched many legendary news careers, lost respect when his former employer shamed him this week on a “Backstory’’ episode. He preferred to negotiate with agent Tom Condon for a face-to-face interview with the humiliated linebacker rather than immediately publish the news ESPN already had gathered, allowing a few rubes at since-deadspun Deadspin to finally get a story right after farcically botching so many others (oh, the lies they’ve told about me and anyone else who criticizes them). What’s interesting is how they’ve all since faded away — Doria into retirement, Te’o to the Chicago Bears’ practice squad and the ex-Deadspinners to menial jobs where they evidently can’t afford to wear better clothes on “Backstory.’’ When asked by ESPN reporter Don Van Natta Jr. if, in hindsight, he’d rather have the scoop or interview, Doria admitted, “Probably the scoop.’’ This is what happens, I suspect, when newspaper editors become TV bosses. They think ratings first, journalism second.

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BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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Media Noise: What Does The Return of Bob Iger Mean to ESPN?

Demetri Ravanos

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Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.

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Media Noise: What Is Realistic For FOX at the World Cup?

Demetri Ravanos

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On this special holiday edition of Media Noise, Demetri Ravanos dives into the controversy and criticism surrounding FOX’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.

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