THEY GET IT
ESPN — When the company plays God in matters of high-profile firings, I’m known to shift into defense attorney mode. Not this time. Rarely has an on-air personality flouted his public figuredom like Paul Pierce, who exposed his inner party animal by posting Instagram Live videos showing him flanked by female strippers — twerking and all — and smoking a joint. Pierce was nicknamed The Truth during his outstanding NBA career, but this kind of self-candor won’t fly in any workplace, much less the antiseptic world of the Walt Disney Company. Originally handed a promising role as a studio analyst, Pierce tanked in recent appearances, even misidentifying which team won. He seems undaunted in his new ignominy, tweeting in a video, “Big Things coming soon stay tuned make sure u smile.” Beyond work on a porn channel, I can’t imagine Pierce has a future in television; keep an eye on Dave Portnoy, who would give Pierce a 24/7 party cam at Barstool Sports. Let’s just hope he sobers up before his speech at the Basketball Hall of Fame, where he’s expected to be inducted in September … unless he brings the twerking dancers to Springfield.
Aaron Rodgers, “Jeopardy!” host — It’s a tease, right? Don’t be so sure. Always a step ahead in any intellectual game, Rodgers is using his two-week run as the show’s guest host to lobby for the permanent gig. Is Rodgers so fed up with the Packers that he’d ditch his legendary football career to become Alex Trebek’s successor? Maybe not quite yet, but he’s already plotting a way to moonlight on “Jeopardy!” while still quarterbacking. “It’s definitely a dream job for me,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “They film 46 days a year. I worked about six months out of the year this last year. I worked 187 days this year in Green Bay, which gives me another 178 or 179 days to film 46 episodes. … If the shows turn out well and there’s some momentum, I’d be honored to be in the mix to take the job for sure.” In his debut, Rodgers was a natural, playing along when contestant Scott Shewfelt had fun with him: Whose idea was it to kick the field goal in the NFC title game, a strategic blunder that cost Green Bay a possible Super Bowl berth? Rodgers could have stolen the show by wise-cracking, “Who is Matt LaFleur?” — but he already has made his point to Packers management. Any more screwups by the head coach or front office might lead him to a new day job, even if they make him shave the scholarly beard and mustache. And if the show producers want him to work full-time now, without the risk of injuries, well, Rodgers could retire knowing he has won a Super Bowl and a Hall of Fame blazer. Wouldn’t “Jeopardy!” be the ultimate … daily double?
Andrew Beaton, Wall Street Journal — The translucent commissioner, Rob Manfred, never has looked more naked. Since his decision to yank baseball’s All-Star Game out of Georgia as a consequence of the state’s new voting law, he has faced high heat about hypocrisy — such as, why cut a streaming deal with a Chinese tech company if politics suddenly matter to MLB? Beaton took another poke, wondering if Manfred will flip-flop again and travel to Georgia this week for the Masters. Will his exclusive membership at Augusta National take precedence over concerns that the revised law will make it more difficult for Blacks to vote? When Beaton inquired about Manfred’s itinerary, an MLB spokesman declined comment. Memo to Rob: There aren’t many places to hide amid the azaleas and dogwoods, especially when the number of patrons on the course is limited by the pandemic. If he’s spotted on Georgia soil, the earth will scorch from criticism by politicos and media alike. There are times to take advantage of a prized job perk. This is not one of them.
Holly Rowe, ESPN — If some people took offense when Arizona coach Adia Barnes flipped a middle finger after an upset victory over favored Connecticut, even a rockhead would understand why she was late arriving on the court for the national title game. Back in the locker room, Barnes was feeding her 6-month-old daughter with breast milk. “For those of you who think this is too much information, let’s normalize working mothers and all they have to do,” said Rowe, the network veteran. It isn’t usually a sideline reporter’s place to deliver incisive commentaries about life, but in this instance, Rowe’s words were refreshing and spot-on.
Meadowlark Media — I’m not sure what can be accomplished with $12.6 million in a 2021 media world, but at least the new company of Dan Le Batard and John Skipper can pay an electric bill or two. They’ve raised startup money from investors including Venezuelan fashion entrepreneur Carmen Busquets, described by Sportico as “Skipper’s partner.” Since his forced 2017 exit from the ESPN presidency, which he blamed on an extortion attempt by a cocaine dealer, Skipper, 65, has been the most flamboyant executive in sports media. How does a boss with such baggage continue to flit around the industry and raise millions? That is a compelling story for the Washington Post or New York Times but probably not for the Athletic, which, oddly, published a glowing profile last week of Le Batard’s father, Papi. Asserting that his goofy on-air presence with his son “changed sports TV” on “Highly Questionable,” the story neglected to mention the show’s lukewarm ratings and how ESPN couldn’t wait to rub the Dan-Papi tag team off the air. It’s obvious Skipper and Le Batard are trying to gang up against their ex-employer, and with a newly announced Hank Azaria podcast, at least there’s a hint of a foundation. If I once thought Meadowlark would be a lemon, the vehicle has been jumpstarted and is officially bigger now than the original Meadowlark Media, an event videographer specializing in weddings from its base in Fargo, N.D.
Michael Strahan, prankster — His everyman appeal always has been linked to the dental flaw when he smiles: He has a gap in his front teeth wider than an open path to a quarterback. We appreciate Strahan because he never has dipped into his fortune to fix it, but there he was, posting a video of what appeared to be a new set of crater-free choppers. Why now? April Fools! “I appreciate all the comments. I was surprised, to be honest with you, at how many people were like, `No! Don’t get rid of the gap, it’s your signature!,’ ” the multimedia star said in a video. “I didn’t know so many people really cared. I appreciate all the love for the gap. C’mon man! The gap is here to stay. Not going anywhere anytime soon … My mama likes it.” I like it, too, enough to anoint Strahan as a sixth entry who gets it.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Dan Orlovsky, ESPN — Introducing the latest hotshot NFL analyst who fails in basic journalism principles. Amid more smoke than a freshman dorm hall, Orlovsky should carefully differentiate between authentic, pre-draft info and lies spread by agents to enhance their clients’ status. His ran blindly with such a smear job when discussing Justin Fields, one of five quarterbacks jockeying for megamillions, calling him a “last guy in, first guy out” slacker. “Like, not the maniacal work ethic,” Orlovsky said. “I’ve even heard it compared to Justin Herbert, where it was like, dude, when Justin Herbert showed up, he was like a psychopath when it came to working and getting ready for the draft. Or even at school, like, `Give me more; I want to work nonstop.’ And I’ve heard that there are issues with Justin Fields’ work ethic.” This didn’t go over well with his ESPN colleague, Kirk Herbstreit, who, like Fields, is a former Ohio State quarterback and a well-established protector of All Things Buckeyes. With three crying emojis, Herbstreit directly responded to Orlovsky, writing, “Absolutely RIDICULOUS. Even if YOU aren’t saying it… to pass that along from “people in the know” is reckless and absurd!! Embarrassing!!” The ESPN bosses had to step in and speak to both, but there was only one villain here. In one thoughtless swoop, Orlovsky was exposed as professionally shoddy while incurring the wrath of a star teammate. Next time, make a second, third and fourth phone call, Dan.
Turner Sports — When Pierce is fired for tokes and twerks, it reminds us how often Charles Barkley has been disgracefully protected by his corporate bosses. In 2008, when he was arrested at 1:26 a.m. in Arizona and charged with drunk driving, Barkley famously told police, “You want the truth? I was gonna drive around the corner and get a blow job.” He added that the same woman had pleasured him a week earlier, in what Barkley called “the best one I ever had in my life.” Does someone want to explain how Barkley kept his TNT gig? And why Turner executives always have looked the other way, even when Barkley was making recklessly sexist and racist comments — “The big ass women in San Antonio,” as he likes to say — while battling public gambling and drinking problems? Don’t tell me Barkley is worthy of a double standard. In the early days, Turner knew his popularity would grow, like that of a debauched rock star, with every new episode of misbehavior. The network’s tolerance gave him enough runway to grow up, clean up and even become a social commentator, with Barkley using a Final Four platform for a racial injustice rant: “I think most White people and Black people are great people. I really believe that in my heart. The system is set up to where our politicians, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, are designed to make us not like each other so they can keep their grasp of money and power.” He shouldn’t protest too much. If anyone knows how to milk a rigged system, it’s Barkley.
ESPN — I cringed when cameras showed an anguished Aliyah Boston, who sobbed uncontrollably after her missed putback cost South Carolina a spot in the national title game. And I continued to cringe because ESPN’s creatives in the production truck WOULD NOT STOP SHOWING HER — returning to the tearful well again and again, prioritizing her suffering over Stanford’s victory. Thankfully, Hall of Famer Lisa Leslie tweeted this to Boston: “Keep your head up #aa_boston. I missed a game winner my sophomore year and thought it was the end… only to find out…it was only the beginning! Beast Mode! See you back on top Champ.” I’ve seen it all in sports. If I’m bothered by the exploitation of personal grief, let’s assume most of the audience shares my concern.
Seth Davis, CBS — As a prominent studio commentator and lead editor of the Athletic’s college basketball coverage, Davis should distance himself from the gambling element and let DraftKings and the sleaze crowd pick games against spreads. Yet there was Davis, touting it up as he broke down Final Four games. In the middle of his written analysis for the Athletic, this popped up: “All Lines via BetMGM as of Friday evening. Want a free year subscription to The Athletic? Bet $1 on any game tonight and win $100 in free bets if your team advances. (use this link). If you’re already a subscriber, your subscription will be extended for a year for free.” Officially, the dirtiest of sports is directly attached to the stench of gambling media.
Bruce Drennan, Cleveland sportscaster — Drennan was the original Craig Carton, serving five months in federal prison in 2006 after failing to pay taxes on gambling winnings. I’ve always wondered why he was hired immediately by a TV network owned by the Indians. Now I know: He’s a cartoonish homer. When a fan joined a call-in show after the first of many losses this season, Drennan shot him down by calling him an “idiot” five times, tossing in an “ignoramus” for good measure. Naturally, he now works for one of the 19 regional networks branded by Bally, the gaming company. MLB allows those networks to hold the rights to 14 franchises, yet Manfred won’t even consider lifting Pete Rose’s lifetime ban for gambling. You can tell I think less of this baseball commissioner than the last one, which is some accomplishment.
Greg Norman, golf analyst — Known these days for risque images of his private parts, Norman is back in the broadcasting game, calling the Masters for SiriusXM. You’d hope he learned from his mistakes as a rookie Fox analyst at the 2015 U.S. Open, such a farce that it started a downward spiral that led the network to give up golf. But when asked by Front Office Sports if he got a fair shake from Fox, Norman whined away: “No, I did not, to be honest with you. I felt like I got rolled under the bus. I’m not going to mention names or point fingers at other people. But I definitely fairly and squarely got hammered with that. Pretty hard, unfairly.” I tried very hard to stay with five who don’t get it this week, but Norman’s double bogey on 18 changed things.