Fri. Feb 26th, 2021

Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t

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

THEY GET IT

Chris Fowler, ESPN — Who knew that his nightly voice, taken for granted in the Buck/Michaels/Nantz triad, would help America through its double whammy of a deep freeze and continuing pandemic? As he lays down the narrative for a compelling Australian Open from his Bristol cocoon — yet sounding like he’s at Melbourne Park in capturing Serena Williams’ landmark loss to Naomi Osaka — Fowler also might be positioned to ascend into the industry pantheon of elite event callers. Hear me out. Disney Co. is bidding high to add “Thursday Night Football” to its “Monday Night Football” package, which would guarantee ABC/ESPN a spot in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation. That means a lead NFL play-by-player would be installed on Thursday nights. Fair-to-middling Steve Levy, likely returning as the “MNF” voice, isn’t that guy. Nor is Jim Nantz, who won’t be so pigheaded to ditch his sweet CBS gig even he must accept fewer millions than the Romonster he groomed, Tony Romo. That leaves Fowler, who has prospered on the highest-profile college football and tennis telecasts and finally could be a missing bullet in Bristol’s artillery: an ESPN lifer, groomed in house, turned loose on signature NFL programming. Now, if only Fowler would urge analyst Chris Evert to stop addressing partner Cliff Drysdale as “Cliffy.”

Major League Baseball — They dawdled for decades in their old boys’ caves, a period spanning six commissioners and eight U.S. Presidents. But finally, the powers-that-be in a cobwebbed, stuck-in-the-1990s industry have established a code of conduct forbidding team personnel from sexually harassing women reporters and intimidating media members of all genders. Inspired by a new “chief people and culture officer” named Michele Meyer-Shipp — how’s that for a forced and awkward corporate title? — so-called commissioner Rob Manfred has taken measures that respected American companies adopted years ago: requiring training for top club executives, installing an anonymous third-party hotline where violations can be reported and hanging “MLB Speak Up” posters in clubhouses and press boxes. “Depending on the severity of the situation, remedial action may take the form of a warning, a suspension, termination of employment, or any other measures available to a Club or the Commissioner,” the poster reads. The core question: Is MLB sincere about enforcing the code? Or is this mere damage control as urged by the legal department? We’ll know more when we see the penalties handed down for Mickey Callaway, accused by five female sports reporters of inappropriate behavior. And MLB should realize more ugly stories are coming, including yet another Mets story — three female club employees accused hitting performance coordinator Ryan Ellis of sexual harassment, prompting his Jan. 22 firing. Alanna Rizzo, who resigned from her post in January as Dodgers reporter for SportsNet LA, told the Orange County Register that her first season on the job included an inappropriate photo from a player, another player “constantly” inviting her to his room and a third who wouldn’t stop asking her to dinner. When the Callaway allegations surfaced, Rizzo tweeted: “Every single woman working in sports has to deal with this garbage.” I’ve never trusted the baseball lords. But I guess, in their white-male bubble, that a long-overdue conduct code qualifies as incremental progress.

Phil Mickelson, TV analyst — No one had to shout “Fore!” to see this one coming. Tiger Woods might be the U.S. Ryder Cup captain in 2022 and a future caddy for son Charlie, but just as Charles Barkley one-upped Michael Jordan in relevance and popularity after their NBA playing careers, Mickelson could rule the golf airwaves. His personality, heightened by a late-blooming social media presence, could make him the sport’s answer to Tony Romo. Lefty’s business partner, Steve Loy, tells Front Office Sports, “It wouldn’t surprise me if in the next 12 to 24 months, you might see more of Phil on the air.” The one issue: Mickelson’s gambling history. With the golf industry hellbent on seizing the legal-wagering boom, his insights could be a plus … as long as he doesn’t bet on specific players, which exposes him to scandal.

Jay Williams, ESPN — Playing bad cop when the basketball crimes of Kyrie Irving are evident to all, Williams used technology to illustrate the wretched defensive lapses of the flaky NBA star. He stopped a play digitally and circled Irving as he stood by the free-throw line, having quit on the possession and let his man explode by him. All of which was forgotten an hour later, when the ESPN good cops couldn’t stop gushing about Irving during the game telecast, with Mike Breen actually quoting former NBA guard Rod Strickland as calling Irving the most talented basketball player … EVER!!! Strickland, like Kyrie, also must think the world is flat. The Nets will continue to sway erratically, even in a winnable Eastern Conference, as long as Irving is a statue and James Harden uses the fast-food drive-thru lane as a training table. Glad someone is saying it.

Bell Media — Let this be a warning to all-sports radio stations in the U.S.: Improve your programming game or die. The Canadian media company has dumped the sports format in three significant markets, with Vancouver and Winnipeg flipping to comedy and Hamilton to business. How many American companies will follow suit? The only major adjustment I’ve heard during the pandemic is an emphasis on gambling advertising, often suffocatingly so, which only narrows the audience to male bettors when demographics across the spectrum can be lured to good sports conversations between interesting, emboldened hosts. Gone are the days when I needed my two or three go-to shows daily. The medium is struggling, too dependent on leagues and local franchises for survival, which translates to dull, safe shows. If not for Dan Patrick and Colin Cowherd, sports talk might already be dead. Considering Patrick is 64 and Cowherd is 57, what does that say about the new generation of sports hosts? And the bosses who won’t turn them loose on the air because they’re protecting their own livelihoods?

Column Responders — Yes, a sixth “Five Who Get It.” Good to hear from two subjects I’ve commented on recently, wanting to connect and keep open the communication lines. It got me thinking: Rather than pelting me with Twitter detritus via a burner account or contacting a site editor to air grievances, one should take the less weaselly approach and complain to me directly. The DMs always are operating on my Twitter feed — @mariottisports — and my social-media guard dog is poised to deflect trolls to the blocked zone, meaning I won’t see crazed rants so I can focus on worthy human beings. This isn’t a media column for the faint of heart; it’s not a Richard Deitsch soft-pedal or Rudy Martzke retro. I tell stories I’m not supposed to tell, recalibrate media myths, call out skunks, keep entrepreneurs honest and — horrors — mock Jim Nantz. Nor do I play favorites because I want access. But I strive for fairness. The weekly “Five Who Get It” component means I’m seeking the best content in the profession — and for those who think I’m holding professional grudges or other such bunk, note that this is the resumption of a column I began as a 21-year-old out of college, when an editor in Detroit made me one of the country’s first sports media writers. I do it not for money — I donate pay to journalism-related charities — but because an ever-incestuous industry warrants closer scrutiny than ever. The Barrett site is one of the few that allows a critic to sling arrows in a soft, anxious media business of “storytelling,” which is a nice word for promoting a sports world that should be watchdogged intensely. Mostly, I opine about sports, but hacing written 7,500 columns, done 1,700-something TV debate shows and hosted hundreds of radio programs and podcasts, I know something about sports media because I’ve been immersed in it like few others. I just don’t suffer cowards who try to go up the ladder on me — a Chicago thing — instead of contacting me directly. Now, you can.

THEY DON’T GET IT

Disney Co. — Sometimes I wonder how media executives sleep at night. Team Mickey threw its full, rightful backing behind Lucasfilm, a subsidiary of Disney Studios, when Gina Carano was fired from “The Mandalorian” series after her anti-Semitic posts. But Disney issued not even the slightest rebuke of UFC chief Dana White after his abhorrent defense of the former MMA fighter — which included a shameful shot at a longtime nemesis, ESPN’s Ariel Helwani, who is Jewish. Why? Oh, White is a vital business partner who makes a bunch of money for ESPN. Said Dana the Dirtball: “Leave Gina alone. Listen, we make mistakes. We all make mistakes. For everybody to go in on her — I love how Ariel Helwani made it all about him. It was all about him. Such a douche.” The best Disney could do was a statement supporting Helwani, via ESPN, three days later: “Ariel is a valued colleague and an exceptional MMA reporter. His record speaks for itself.” How cowardly. In White’s world, there always is a disconnect between show-business b.s. and real-world gravitas. Does he not realize Helwani draws a Disney salary? Or does he know Disney will protect him no matter what? In that White’s creepy kick-and-blood club is owned by Endeavor — in Hollywood, where many power titans are Jewish — it’s time company bosses Ari Emanuel, Patrick Whitesell and Mark Shapiro replace him with a more respected, less volatile public face. Today would be a good day.

NFL Films — I don’t want to think the worst of Tom Brady, who must have a God complex as the world fawns over him. But until the league’s production company releases audio of the exchange between Brady and Tyrann Mathieu — so flagrant, evidently, that Mathieu referenced it as “something I won’t repeat” while shocked he’d never seen “that side of Tom Brady” — then we’ll continue to wonder if Brady peppered him with a slur in Super Bowl LV. If this is a lot of nothing, the league could do Brady a major image favor by clearing him. But Pro Football Talk reports no release is forthcoming based on league policy that “typically does not reveal the audio of such squabbles between players.” Thus, suspicions remain that Brady is not The Perfect Human Being. If he were, of course, he would have walked on that river in Tampa instead of throwing the Vince Lombardi Trophy across the water to the Rob Gronkowski boat.

Jason Whitlock, free-agent drifter — In my new fantasy, Whitlock takes his notoriously acidic commentary mouth and aims it at his own career miscues. Then we watch him melt in career self-sabotage. Here’s the latest: Whitlock, who’s 53 and not 23, apparently didn’t secure in writing an alleged agreement that Savage Ventures — or Savage Vultures, in his legal view — was investing a $500,000 equity stake into the OutKick sports website, the lure that Whitlock says persuaded him to join the operation. More likely, he was in such a hurry to cover his ass after Fox Sports 1 didn’t renew his contract — as the network wisely eyed the Emmanuel Acho upgrade for the vacant “Speak For Yourself” chair — that he didn’t inspect the contractual fine print. “It was a bad business deal,” Whitlock told Front Office Sports, “a byproduct of my failure to properly vet my business partners.” So what we have is the next media grudge match — Whitlock vs. Clay Travis — and I’m not liking Whitlock’s chances in the legal sparring or an actual Octagon fight. The man is a desperado, having blown up opportunities at ESPN and Fox and now claiming he’s possibly headed to Blaze Media, whatever that is. He was so much better when he was writing about Kansas City sports and not trying to lean wide right, like a missed field goal, all the way into oblivion. At some point, very soon, we’re going to stop caring.

NBCUniversal — Commenting recently on the unprofessional treatment of working reporters, I wrote, “The time has come, I’d say, for all of us in sports media to unpack our grisly stories about the business. Because we all have them, women and men alike, weighed down by rough tales that don’t have to involve sex to constitute harassment and intimidation. I have mine, and I’ve dutifully endured them for decades — along with too many published lies about my career and personal life — within some inexplicable survivalist reflex that this is the reality I signed up for.” I proceeded to list stories in which I’ve been harassed, intimidated and lied about, for the record. While grasping that Jared Porter’s sexting episodes, which drove a female journalist out of the business, are more incendiary and relevant than some of my stories — such as, Ozzie Guillen calling me a “f—ing fag” and, years before, positioning himself behind me and simulating a sex act in a Baltimore clubhouse — I think most sensible folks consider all of these events to be reprehensible. Yet how does a stinkpot like Guillen continue to work in baseball, as an analyst at White Sox-owned NBC Sports Chicago? Didn’t NBCUniversal, at the national level, fire hockey analysts Jeremy Roenick and Mike Milbury for insensitive comments about women? So the same corporation, which owns 25 percent of the channel, doesn’t care about homophobic slurs? Or is this all about the true colors of White Sox/Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who controls a 50 percent majority interest and won’t let NBCUniversal tell him what to do editorially? I conclude the latter. As long as Guillen is working in the majors and Thom Brennaman is not — and he shouldn’t be, after his Guillen-like gay slur last summer ended his long run with the Cincinnati Reds — I’ll be watching this discrepancy closely. Because Guillen WILL do something regrettable this season, especially if the White Sox finally contend for hardware and he is in the spotlight. MLB can’t continue to allow double standards, as Manfred’s new “chief people and culture officer” will remind him.

Ian Casselberry, Awful Announcing — I don’t know Ian, but I do wish to offer career advice. He says his media site and others “strive to reach” a “bar” set by long-since-deadspun Deadspin. Does Ian realize that the Deadspinner who prompted Hulk Hogan to sue the company out of existence was a hard-core drug addict — admittedly lost and out of control? That Deadspin writers and editors, wherever they went, never will have long, meaningful careers or make good salaries? That some of them told so many lies about successful media people, a lawyer once advised me, “Don’t waste your money. It’s like suing a homeless person for yelling at you on the sidewalk.” Every so often, they’d stumble into a story because some creep fed it to them, knowing no respected site would run it without due diligence. At least Casselberry’s site tries to get stuff right, which sets a much higher bar.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, epidemiological waffler — Indulge me in a sixth entry. Knowing the Biden administration contacted MLB and the players’ union about the 2021 season, the New York Times asked the rock star if he recommended the baseball season be delayed. Rather than issue the responsible take — hell, yes — Fauci muted himself. “I was not recommending one way versus the other because it was very clear that there was tension between the Major League Baseball leadership and the Players Association — that the players wanted to get the season going on schedule and there was some concern about whether or not they should delay it, which would have salary and other implications. I couldn’t get involved in that,” said Fauci, who now thinks the timeline for non-prioritized vaccine groups — say, MLB players — will extend well into June. Sounds like a guy who wants another chance to throw out a first pitch after choking last year at Nationals Park. And a health expert who, by not getting involved, might have ensured weeks of outbreaks throughout the majors.

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