THEY GET IT
Those Who Didn’t Stick To Sports — As church bells tolled in Minneapolis, near the courthouse where a killer cop was convicted, I thought of media professionals who broke free from traditional job descriptions and challenged systemic racism. Colin Kaepernick would kneel and LeBron James would tweet — and perspective quickly followed in the words of Michael Wilbon, Jerry Brewer, Stephen A. Smith, Maria Taylor, LZ Granderson and numerous sports journalists who used platforms to protest and educate. They were slammed as overly woke — at times, the commentary bordered on activism — but, in their own way, they contributed to the jury conviction of Derek Chauvin on all three counts. They can’t bring back George Floyd. They won’t stop racism. But they’ve elevated an industry too consumed these days with the legal gambling craze, no-conscience traffic clicks and survivalist desperation. Said Wilbon, the ESPN commentator: “I’m grateful to the men and women who’ve used their voices in the arena, in and around sports, to use their leverage. We talk about shining a light on something — I am relieved. This is the only just verdict, the only just outcome. I’m relieved, but I am not hopeful. Yet. Sorry.’’
Sam Amico, Outkick — Is The Athletic, the purported last-gasp savior of sportswriting, about to free-fall into a spiral of mass layoffs and dramatic strategy changes? While Outkick kingpin Clay Travis has much to gain from publishing the story, we have no reason to doubt the reporting of the reputable Amico, who quotes unidentified Athletic investors who say the pay site is “on shaky ground’’ with “subscriptions plummeting and renewal rates suffering.’’ From the start — and I was there in 2016, lunching repeatedly with founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann during San Francisco job discussions at the Four Seasons — The Athletic has underestimated the industry and overshot its wad, so to speak, forgoing my suggestion to hire a compact collection of well-known, high-traffic opinionists in markets with major pro and college sports. Instead, the duo blew megamillions — what happened to the $140 million in seed money? — while believing they could hire hundreds of analysts and beat writers for every conceivable league and team in a sports journalism takeover, with Mather infamously telling the New York Times in 2017, “We will wait every local paper out and let them continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing. We will suck them dry of their best talent at every moment. We will make business extremely difficult for them.” Instead, The Athletic joined every other newspaper site and sports digital project — beyond ESPN — in a jungle where no one thrives and many won’t survive long-term. Mather misread the willingness of readers to spend $59 a year on subscriptions, which became a no-go for many during a pandemic that pummeled finances and lessened the priority of sports. Having never pursued advertising revenue, the site inevitably was going to bleed, despite the eager investments of Quicken Loans chairman/Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and venture capitalists. Mather and Hansmann came from the Silicon Valley world and didn’t understand why the American sports empire and sports media coverage must be separated. For every powerful investigative story and timely scoop, The Athletic infuriates me with content (see below) straight out of a team’s public-relations department. Not that ESPN doesn’t have similar conflict-of-interest issues with leagues, but the sheer girth of coverage on its free and paid streaming sites — breaking news, live games, analysis, TV shows, documentaries — blows away The Athletic at the same price point. If, as Amico reports, Plan B is to downsize into a national-only site and dump most local content providers, Mather and Hansmann will have done more damage to sports journalism than good. Just think: hundreds of capable writers left on the street in a dried-up industry.
Joe Davis, Dodgers broadcaster — Vin who? OK, I’m not ridiculous enough to go there, but four years after assuming the most daunting assignment in the history of sportscasting — replacing the god of all play-by-play gods — Davis has settled into a comfortable, entertaining mode in which L.A. audiences somehow don’t yearn for the legendary Vin Scully. Considering few gave him a chance to succeed, it’s a staggering accomplishment for Davis, who now mixes fun, knowledgeable banter with partner Orel Hershiser and produced his best work during a gripping Dodgers-Padres series. He even tells stories, as Scully did, and those only will enrich through time. From his small-town Michigan upbringing to the way he was discovered in his mid-20s by ESPN — working a handful of games for the Montgomery Biscuits in Double-A ball — Davis has a charming tale that suggests impending greatness. Just 33, he’s positioned to be the next commanding sports voice of his generation. And he has reached this level by following the advice of Scully, who told the Los Angeles Times in 2017: “My prayer for him, for anyone, is maybe the hardest thing — be yourself. For the 100 years he might be there, the big thing is to be yourself.” Davis won’t be there 100 years, but Dodgers fans have accepted him enough that 40 years is a possibility in the booth. Unless …
Joe Buck, “Jeopardy!’’ host — Like Aaron Rodgers, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and half the free world, Buck has harbored a lifelong dream of hosting the game show. He’ll get his chance this summer, reports the New York Post. Given his entertainment chops and prominence in TV, the permanent gig might be his if he wants it. If so, Buck could remain in his primary roles as Fox’s lead NFL and Major League Baseball game-caller; as Rodgers recently pointed out in stumping for the job, “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.’’ An NFL quarterback couldn’t make the logistics work, but Buck could if he gave up some duties in what has been a monstrously elaborate Fox schedule. See what I’m thinking here? Davis inherits those duties and slowly is groomed by the network as the next Buck, as Buck becomes the next Alex Trebek. Remember, Buck has had vocal cord issues and shouldn’t be overdoing his workload in his 50s. If you think this is me being crazy, check back at a future date.
Marc Silverman, ESPN Chicago — My former radio partner returned to the WMVP studios last week for the first time in 370 days. To no one’s surprise, knowing his positive grasp of life, he has taken the lead in an ongoing battle against a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Our uncommon talk-show pairing — he’s a passionate fan of Chicago sports; I’m a hard-core commentator who covers sports as an industry worth hundreds of billions — produced some of the station’s best ratings of the last two decades. The hope, Silverman told the Chicago Tribune, is that “in five years, I’ll be `cured.’ ‘’ A lot of people in that city are rooting for Silvy, just as he’ll keep rooting for the Cubs … and torching them when they stage a painful fire sale this summer.
Dan Dakich, realist — This item is worthy of bonus coverage. If he must be a misogynist and woke-basher, at least Dakich remains loyal to his personal life code. He knows ESPN will be dumping him as a college basketball analyst after an unfortunate Twitter beef with a female professor, but he’s not whining or protesting. Actually, he doesn’t care. Paraphrasing gonzo author Hunter S. Thompson, who once worked for ESPN.com and was allowed to write what he wanted, Dakich told the Indianapolis Star: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming `Wow! What a Ride!’ Continuing, he said, “Stand up. Stand up and stand out. If you have no enemies, you never stood for … I’ve got a ton of enemies and I love it.’’ He still has his afternoon show on an Indianapolis radio station … for now.
THEY DON’T GET IT
ESPN — So much for the perception — among fans, anyway — that insiders such as Adrian Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter are 24/7 gumshoe attack dogs, working and hyperventilating to make calls and break stories. Do you realize how many calls and texts come to them by design? Woodward and Bernstein, they are not. As industry people know, exclusives often are the result of wink-wink agreements between high-profile reporters and player agents, league/team executives and local beat-writing servants who pass along what they hear. ESPN blew its cover by voicing disappointment to a business partner, baseball analyst Alex Rodriguez, that he didn’t hand-deliver Wojnarowski a major scoop first reported by The Athletic: A-Rod and e-commerce titan Marc Lore have a tentative, $1.5-billion agreement to purchase the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. After Rodriguez was informed of the network’s dismay before a “Sunday Night Baseball’’ assignment, his representative sent a group e-mail to the A-Rod team, according to the New York Post: “Hi guys — we should save something for ESPN (instead of giving it to The) Athletic. ESPN mentioned to AR they wish Woj had the story — obviously not our call but next round it should be.” So, moving forward, The Athletic, the Minnesota media and other outlets have no chance when Team A-Rod persists in, say, quickly funneling the story to Wojnarowski when the sale is finalized. I’ll be impressed if The Athletic’s Jon Krawczynski, who cracked the original story via his own sources, cuts through the Weasel Curtain and breaks more news on this topic. How petty of anyone at ESPN to whine through political channels instead of calling its stud NBA reporter with the truth: You got beat, Woj.
Shaquille O’Neal, TNT — If society is officiating inappropriate behavior in the 21st century, the rules should apply to all. What had been a heartwarming segment on “Inside the NBA’’ — an interview with WNBA hopeful DiDi Richards, who returned to basketball after suffering temporary paralysis in a collision with a Baylor teammate — spilled into a senseless interlude starring O’Neal in his own “Shaqtin’ a Fool’’ farce. When Richards’ mother, Ungeanetta, slipped behind her daughter to smile on camera, Shaq said, “I’ve got a new website called, `Damn yo mama fine.’ ‘’ If this was uttered in an office by a baseball executive, he’d be fired on the spot … yet O’Neal is allowed to hit on Richards’ mother on live TV amid laughter and no repercussions. Consider it another double standard in an ex-jock world.
The Athletic — In its precarious state, the site cannot afford journalistic lapses. As reporters Katie Strang and Brittany Ghiroli expose new layers of sexual harassment sins in Major League Baseball — specifically, within the management ranks of the New York Mets — the culture of the Chicago Cubs continues to be ignored. Again, is the site protecting The Great Theo Epstein? Strang and Ghiroli have framed since-dismissed general manager Jared Porter as part of the Mets debacle, but his transgression took place while working for the Cubs in 2016, when he sent lewd photographs to a female reporter. If The Athletic insists on scrutinizing Mets executive Sandy Alderson, new owner Steve Cohen and former owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon, why not Epstein? Same goes for the Cleveland Indians — if the site is probing executive Chris Antonelli and owner Larry Dolan about harassment allegations targeting ex-pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who eventually became manager of the Mets, why bypass Epstein and Cubs owner Tom Ricketts? Is The Athletic intimidated by Epstein’s ample influence in baseball circles, where he could be headed to franchise ownership or the future commissionership? Is he being protected as the sacred cow who ended longstanding curses in Wrigleyville and Boston? I ask because Jon Greenberg, the site’s editor-in-chief and columnist in Chicago, recently wrote a lengthy piece about Epstein and his charity. If he was able to quote Epstein extensively, couldn’t he have asked about Porter and what Epstein knew about the missteps of a protege who’d followed him from Fenway Park to Wrigley Field? Why the selective investigations at The Athletic? And if a probe of the Cubs, past and present, found nothing more than one rogue employee five years ago, then report those findings. The Athletic does too much good work to leave itself half-ass exposed.
Tim Bontemps, ESPN — I’ve dealt with colleagues who were — how do I put this politely? — a little nutty. Every morning before our ESPN show taping, a Chicago Sun-Times news columnist, Neil Steinberg, would swing by the sports-office studio just to be annoying, which required the editor-in-chief to come by one day and lead him away. Then there was my radio producer, Cliff Saunders, who kept wanting to put an obscure baseball executive on our show — and would get upset when I said no, to the point he pulled a fire extinguisher off the hallway wall. Bontemps joins this select club after losing his cool with teammate Brian Windhorst on ESPN’s “Hoop Collective’’ podcast. We all know Windhorst is a LeBron James honk from way back — their Akron days, actually. So when he continued to support James’ MVP candidacy, despite an ankle injury that has sidelined him for weeks, Bontemps should have shrugged it off as one man’s biased opinion. Instead, he grew very agitated, having recently polled more than 100 media members who favored Nikola Jokic because James and Joel Embiid have been injured. After Windhorst declined Bontemps’ suggestion to conduct the poll in the future, Bontemps snapped back, “OK, well, then maybe you should actually listen to people because you’re being a jackass.’’ A global pandemic continues to rage. Racial tensions still run deep amid the Minneapolis guilty verdict. The homeless struggle to survive. And Bontemps is calling Windhorst “a jackass’’ about an MVP poll. As I’ve always said, the media business is great. It’s some of the people in it who suck.
Gary Sheffield, slacker — Consider this a warning to media companies that assume athletes are essential to sports broadcasts. The former major-league slugger, whose time as a TNT studio analyst ended last year, admits now that he never followed baseball’s regular seasons and didn’t pay attention until his postseason duties kicked in. Seems Sheffield has hated the sport for a long time. “I’ll tell the secret now: I never watched the games during the season. I would get educated on it when I got there,’’ he told CBS Sports Radio. “It’s not something that I could watch … because I’d be a complainer. This is the first time I’ve ever said that out loud, but I’m just truly disappointed with what I watch.” Meaning, he withheld his disgust for the game so he could draw a paycheck. That’s known as stealing money. Nice hire, Turner Sports.
Peyton Manning, booth-averse TV guy — In his latest project that does not involve “Monday Night Football,’’ Manning will host the revived quiz show “College Bowl’’ this summer on NBC. That’s great, but I’m confused. He’s willing to host the new show and his own ESPN series, “Peyton’s Places,’’ while goofing off with Brad Paisley on numerous insurance commercials — but he keeps rejecting ESPN’s advances to join a MNF booth that craves his starpower and charisma. It can’t be money — DIsney engaged CBS in a bidding war for Tony Romo that resulted in a $180 million deal for an ex-quarterback never on Manning’s level. It can’t be workload — he merrily has taken on countless TV ventures when an MNF commitment would be once a week in the fall and early winter, with a few days of at-home preparation. So what’s the holdup? Disney/ESPN, as a new member of the NFL’s premium broadcasting club, was awarded future Super Bowls for the first time. Would that interest Manning? Probably not. Yes, yes. I know, I know. This is a Sixth Who Doesn’t Get It, but I just can’t help myself, like a bettor on a DraftKings app or Dave Portnoy looking for his next booty call.
Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t
A weekly analysis of the best/worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows and podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts
THEY GET IT
Me — I’ve come to realize, in 18 months of writing media columns for Jason Barrett’s site, that the only people who care about sports media are sports media people. I think you grasp by now who gets it and who doesn’t get it from my perspective. And I get it by knowing when to step away and focus on my sports columns for Substack — after all, I am a career sports columnist at a time when a fading column-writing craft needs robust dissections of a $600 billion industry immersed in legal gambling, COVID-19 stadium ignorance and countless other self-interest compromises. It’s still fun to write about events and athletes, but I won’t contribute to elevating media people into the gods they are not. The best advice I can offer aspirants is to NEVER allow a media career to define your existence as a human being, because, chances are, industry people generally will fall short of your expectations and exploit this profession for all the wrong reasons and agendas. I hope I’ve been able to shed light on my experiences, correct misconceptions about me and help formulate playbooks for sports media’s murky future. I’d always assumed athletes owned the mega-egos, but based on burner-account feedback, the true megalomaniacs are inside studios and C-suite offices. I’m proud to have been the anti-Richard Deitsch — by that, I mean actually critiquing media with a razor’s edge instead of presiding ineffectually at The Athletic. In that vein, Phil Mushnick of the New York Post always gets it, while Deitsch and other imposters tend to curry the favor of network public-relations departments. Hey, they have paychecks to protect! As you know, I only curl my lips for loved ones.
Peyton Manning, ESPN — He’ll be calling an Omaha-like audible soon enough, slipping out the door of his Man Cave studio and ditching a TV world he doesn’t want. What Manning wants is to own a piece of an NFL franchise, and he’s well aware that the Denver Broncos will be sold to the highest bidder next year — good news for a man who is raising his kids in a 16,000-square-foot home about 20 minutes from Empower Field at Mile High. Imagine him as ownership’s public face, joining Jeff Bezos and Jay-Z as possible major investors in an expected $4 billion deal, as first reported by Front Office Sports. Had Manning really wanted to do “Monday Night Football,’’ he would have agreed to a lucrative, long-term contract in the on-site booth and not settled for an alternate gamecast, where he sits on a couch and kids brother Eli about childhood acne and pretends to be Jon Gruden in a headset and Raiders cap. As I watched, all I could think was: Why is Peyton, who would be a gamechanger on the perpetually underachieving “MNF’’ production, wasting his time and our time on ESPN2 and ESPN+? The idea is to give viewers a folksy option via America’s favorite football family, but people want to hear Manning do the game in the stadium — they don’t want the game as a background visual for two brothers shooting the hay with occasional contributions from the likes of Charles Barkley, who, of course, offered gambling tips via Zoom. Manning is a very smart man. He doesn’t want to analyze the action. He wants to be The Action.
John McEnroe, ESPN — If he never played nice with chair umpires as a player, he certainly won’t be teasing a network tennis audience to keep watching a U.S. Open final when a comeback looks impossible. Realizing Novak Djokovic was minutes from losing his Grand Slam bid, McEnroe bid adieu to his broadcast partners — brother Patrick and Chris Fowler — which had to mortify Bristol bosses praying for a miracle finish against competing NFL telecasts. “John, you’re rolling the credits,’’ said Fowler, somewhat aghast. But this is what you get when you hire an outspoken realist to analyze the Slams. Good for McEnroe, who repeatedly referred to Djokovic-slayer Daniil Medvedev as “this guy,’’ for staying true to his audience and not playing television’s b.s. game.
Allison Williams, ESPN — I’d have more respect for the company’s vaccination mandate for all employees if Bristol stopped a disturbing, contradictory practice — sweeping shots of maskless fans at sold-out football games, where students at Alabama, Auburn and other Southern COVID-iocy capitals chant “F—k Joe Biden!’’ But the veteran sideline reporter has a valid reason for rejecting the vaccine and stepping aside from job duties this season. As she wrote on Twitter: “While my work is incredibly important to me, the most important role I have is as a mother. Throughout family planning with our doctor, as well as a fertility specialist, I have decided not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time while my husband and I try for a second child. This was a deeply difficult decision to make and it’s not something I take lightly. I understand vaccines have been essential in the effort to end this pandemic, however taking the vaccine at this time is not in my best interest. After a lot of prayer and deliberation, I have decided I must put my family and personal health first.’’
Derek Jeter, scorekeeper — When a voting baseball writer possesses the gall — and stupidity — to leave Jeter off his Hall of Fame ballot, the least he can do is stop hiding and explain why he adversely impacted baseball history. The only “no’’ vote put Jeter’s total at 396, one shy of joining former Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera as the only first-ballot unanimous selections. The Captain took a well-deserved shot at the anonymous killjoy, saying during his induction speech, “Thank you to the baseball writers — all but one of you who voted for me.’’ It was his way of shaming the lone wolf, if only in his bathroom mirror. I understand the integrity of maintaining electoral privacy, but I, for one, wouldn’t mind if someone in the know leaks the identity of the rogue voter. Maybe it would deter the next wise-guy charlatan from poisoning the process.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Drew Brees, NBC — In any worthwhile School of Communication, a college student hears a professor utter this advice in the first class: “Be yourself!’’ No one at the network bothered to tell Brees, who showed up for his ballyhooed “Football Night In America’’ studio gig with a new Hair Club For Men hairline. As it is, large swaths of America don’t trust Brees after his anti-kneeling comments last year, in the charged aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when he said he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.’’ For some misguided reason, Brees thought it was a good idea to pin a piece of Superdome turf on what formerly was a large, shiny balding region. Between the wig, whiter teeth, a refreshed face and a thinner appearance, I haven’t seen a TV personality have so much work since Woody Paige discovered there are tanning booths in Denver. Brees was roasted on social media, which wasn’t the start NBC wanted when he inevitably will be compared to the gold standard of football analysts, the revered Tony Romo. On the set, Brees delivered what seemed a great line after a highlight reel of opening-day scoring passes by his successor in New Orleans, Jameis Winston, saying he was happy the Saints finally found someone to throw a deep ball. But even that moment turned sour when host Mike Tirico said Brees had stolen his line. It’s tough when, in the same week, you realize your old team doesn’t miss you and that memes are comparing your hairline to Stephen A. Smith’s.
Scott Van Pelt, ESPN — Having invested billions in major programming that conveniently feeds into its signature “SportsCenter’’ show, ESPN has squandered an opportunity to be a definitive, for-the-record platform by trotting out this overgrown frat-house president and schmooze-happy friend of all sports figures. What the time slot needs is a robust presence capable of perspective-loaded essays that interpret and celebrate what we’ve just witnessed. Van Pelt lacks the intellectual depth and heft — gravitas, they call it — to deliver. Why pay so much money for premium content when you can’t put a memorable, magnetic bow on it. This isn’t about catering to social media followers, bro-dude bettors on campuses or Tony the Tiger in cereal ads. This is about consistently providing a best-in-class panorama of why we’re watching and what it all means. Monday night, after ESPN aired a promo that announced “The Greatest Moments In Sports Happen Here,’’ Van Pelt quickly reminded the bro-dudes that “ ‘Bad Beats’ are on the way’’ — got to keep that gambling blood gurgling, you know — then followed a wild Raiders-Ravens game by telling analysts Brian Griese and Louis Riddick: “I’m struggling at the moment.’’ Never admit that you’re struggling to ask questions about an overtime thriller. Imagine Van Pelt doing a post-game show when Disney finally airs a Super Bowl.
Kenny Mayne, free agent — With more clarity about his ESPN departure, it’s obvious Mayne’s career wounds were self-inflicted. A reasonable person can’t blame management for monitoring his anti-Trump tweets, as he revealed in a profile in The Ringer, at a time when fellow Bristol personalities Jemele Hill and Dan Le Batard were falling out of favor for their own needlessly self-important political activism. What a shame that Mayne mistakenly thought his witticisms would fly beyond what he did well: delivering “SportsCenter’’ scripts about actual sports news. Who really cared what Kenny thought when a White House doctor said President Trump was in “excellent’’ overall health in 2018? Tweeted Mayne: “President’s doc just hand timed me in the 40 at 4.21 in Snoop Dogg slippers. Moderate wind. sports#’’ He recalls, “I got a Norby call on that one,’’ referring to stick-to-sports sheriff Norby Williamson. Like Le Batard and Hill, Mayne has seen his impact wane since leaving Bristol, and while he does commercials and hosted a Tokyo Olympics show for NBC’s Peacock streaming service, the Kenny Mayne we knew and enjoyed on ESPN no longer exists. I’m guessing he would have been offered a raise, not a massive pay cut, if he wasn’t another frustrated late-night comedian working on Middle Street in Bristol when he’d have preferred Hollywood Boulevard, Broadway or 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — Anyone who thought he might mellow after a year of professional disgrace — with no screwup worse than when he mocked Shohei Ohtani for using an interpreter, after which I wrote that his middle initial stands for Ass — is advised to avoid a radio interview where he explains why he purged partner Max Kellerman from “First Take.’’ Appearing on New York station Hot 97, Stephen A. said, “The rumors are accurate in terms of me wanting him off the show. Let’s get that out the way. It wasn’t really about asking him to be off the show, it was about the fact I knew that we, together, as far as I was concerned, was not a great partnership anymore and that was something that needed to change.’’ So far, with a revolving cast that includes volcanic Michael Irvin and beatitudinal Tim Tebow, those debating Smith haven’t improved the show. This is dangerous territory for ESPN, which pays him $12 million a year to maintain a level of content quality and ratings success.
John Barr, ESPN — Positioned as an investigative journalist, Barr should be using his platform on the long-forgotten “Outside The Lines’’ to unearth the down-and-dirty about the NFL’s newfound marriage with a gambling industry once designated taboo by the league. Instead, he delivered a promotional reel that had to thrill the league and his ESPN bosses, who have direct financial and programming stakes in the legal betting explosion. Barr told us that $12 billion will be wagered on NFL games this season — we already knew that — and he summoned the network’s Vegas-based betting analyst, Doug Kezirian, to add a little pro-casino buzz: “There’s an extra little umph going on right now, because this city is excited about sort of the indirect validation that the NFL brings.” Bob Ley, who once symbolized journalism at ESPN, wisely got out before newsgathering was swallowed up. The likes of Barr and Jeremy Schaap have stuck around and sold out.
5 Who Get It, 5 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 shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts
THEY GET IT
Journalists — Twenty years ago this week, three sportswriters walked into a radio studio in Chicago. We assumed our show would be dominated by the story I’d broken the night before — Michael Jordan returning to the NBA with the Washington Wizards — but just before airtime, the horrific images of 9/11 flashed across our monitors. We followed our instincts, Jim Litke and Mike Mulligan alongside me, and reported the details to network listeners, taking their grieving calls in our collective shock and anger. During a break, some advertising nitwit demanded coverage be flipped to a news channel, but the program director, Mark Gentzkow, valued our skills and kept us on the air. The next day, we were recognized in the national media as “sports guys’’ who crossed over and covered the news story of our lives. I mention this to remind today’s PDs, who seem frightened of the C-word, to please allow well-read hosts to discuss COVID-19 in depth and not run from it like cowardly sheep puppeteered by Big Sports. It’s embarrassing, in these complicated times, to hear sports radio dumbing-down on who’s gonna-win-the-NFC-West minutiae.
Tony Romo, CBS — As he rearranges his bank vault to accommodate $180 million in compensation, it would be convenient for Romo to tank. You know, shy from the predictions that helped make him the richest sportscaster ever. Instead, he keeps living dangerously, daring to forecast that rookie Zach Wilson will defy the NFL’s longstanding incurable disease — Jets Syndrome — and quickly attain the quarterbacking status of … Patrick Mahomes? “It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphere of a Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability,’’ Romo said. “So when you have a quarterback like that, I think there’s no telling how good you can be. He can make up for a lot of weaknesses in a lot of areas for a football team. I think Zach Wilson is going to be in the discussion as one of the top three to five quarterbacks very quickly. Within the next couple of years, I think you’re going to see him rise. I think he’s unbelievable. His ceiling is so high.” As soon as Sunday, Romo could be forced to eat his bold words — or, in New York, a more odorous substance — but give him credit for audacity. He risks credibility for the sake of spirited, made-to-rewind conversation.
Bomani Jones, HBO — It’s time to commission a study: How much do intelligence quotients increase when sports commentators escape ESPN’s Silly Squares? That’s what I call the caged silhouettes that define quick-hit debate programs — I was locked inside one myself for eight years and 1,700 shows — and Jones, perceptive and streetwise as it is, comes off as doubly illuminating on Bob Costas’ new series, “Back On The Record.’’ He delivered a powerful and timely commentary on why the NFL isn’t punishing Deshaun Watson, despite 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from message therapists (think money), then swung harder in a roundtable discussion that underlined the evils of legal gambling for leagues and media companies. This is the one premier production, in a vast sports media wasteland, that covers and scrutinizes a $600 billion industry rather than promoting and ass-kissing — and ESPN and Fox Sports would be wise to acknowledge middling-to-low ratings on Silly Square TV and adopt HBO’s sophisticated approach. To say Jones is a thinking man’s Stephen A. Smith is understating matters.
Plaxico Burress, redemptive soul — How fascinating to see Burress firing football opinions instead of shooting himself in the thigh region. He served 20 months in prison for that nightclub accident, having violated New York’s gun laws, but the one-time Super Bowl hero is back on a Fox Sports Radio weekend gig with two other former NFL players, LaVar Arrington and TJ Houshmandzadeh. Burress stated what others were reluctant to say about the New England quarterbacking situation: “Bill Belichick cut Cam Newton because he was not vaccinated. That is the absolute truth. He will never be able to come out and say it publicly, but he was released because he was not vaccinated, you can’t depend on him, and he would be unreliable going forward as the starting quarterback.’’ Sing it, Plaxico: “Don’t you … forget about me.’’
T.J. Quinn, ESPN — This surely isn’t his romantic ideal of participatory journalism: chronicling his long-haul bout with the coronavirus. But the investigative reporter tells a chilling tale, melding his plight with that of Justin Foster. Of the Clemson defensive lineman, Quinn writes that he’s still “missing a sense of smell, still struck by occasional shortness of breath or pains in his chest, still prone to brain fog when he’s tired (and) has intense reactions to any bug bites.’’ Then, at 52, Quinn ponders his own fate: “You spend your life running into limits and defining yourself by how you react to them. Then long-haul COVID hits you with limits that you don’t know how to deal with, or didn’t expect to deal with for years. And no one can tell you whether it will be one more week of this or the rest of your life.’’
61,825 — Sad to say, this isn’t the seating capacity at Soldier Field. In response to readers who inquired about Chicago Sun-Times circulation, following my piece about the demise of that city’s once-robust newspaper culture, I e-mailed interim editor-in-chief Steve Warmbir. He didn’t respond — and now I know why (see: the number above). A London-based media site that gets it, Press Gazette, analyzed data from the Alliance for Audited Media about the declining readership of American papers. The Sun-Times plunged 18 percent in Monday-through-Friday print-copy averages since the start of the pandemic and sells half the haul of the Chicago Tribune, which owns a still-profitable Sunday market. It’s a bleak report overall, with only the Wall Street Journal and New York Times topping 200,000 in weekday print circulation, and it further underscores the long-ago importance of launching a paywall-worthy digital presentation — which only the Journal, Times and Washington Post can boast at present. USA Today, which used to give away copies at hotels, has lost 62 percent of print circulation in 18 months and has gone to a paywall. And to think I was ripped throughout the industry, after leaving the Sun-Times of my own volition, for predicting on HBO’s “Real Sports’’ that papers without robust websites would fade away. Paid weekday circulation when I departed: 325,000. Just saying … as a worthy sixth item.
Lyndsey Gough, Georgia TV reporter — Jerk behavior is on the rise in stadiums, no doubt fueled by pandemic angst. Gough deserves a medal and a raise for exposing this unruly element on Twitter. Attempting to tape a segment inside a concourse during the Georgia-Clemson game, the WTOC 11 sports director was repeatedly harassed by fans of both teams. “Please don’t touch me,’’ she told one yahoo before allowing the tape to roll for a sick minute. “So uncomfortable. Can we please respect people’s space?’’ she wrote. A tip for Gough: Next time, avoid the concourse. The game is what matters, not idiot fans — a proverb built for Item No. 7.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Fox Sports — You almost could see the sinister spikes from the COVID-19 photo illustrations, red and gray and imported from Wuhan, creeping through the maskless thousands inside Camp Randall Stadium. There was a college football game to play, you see, and before the fourth quarter, there was a tradition to observe. It’s called “Jump Around,’’ the mob scene where entire sections of Wisconsin students do just that, jumping and jamming to the House of Pain beat. This should not have been allowed to happen, with mask-wearing “strongly encouraged’’ in the stadium if not mandated, yet “Jump Around’’ went off the first time in 651 days with few, if any, jumpers masked up. And Fox was right there to celebrate it all, irresponsibly and blindly, panning the capacity crowd of 76,832 fans for several minutes and even participating — sideline reporter Jenny Taft jumping and spinning, play-by-play man Gus Johnson bopping his head. Do I need to remind Eric Shanks, CEO of Fox Sports, that America remains in the ravages of COVID and the Delta variant? That parents are petrified when they see such madness at packed venues? In the network’s fervor to drive ratings, promote the sport, appease Big Ten partners and borrow political rhetoric from Fox News — you know, make money — Fox wants viewers to think the pandemic is over. This goes for all sports networks moving forward: Stop enabling superspreads by glorifying large, rowdy, maskless crowds. If Shanks cares, he’ll check for COVID case-load numbers in Madison this week and inquire about Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal, who tested positive before kickoff. Oh, did I mention that Johnson, while hyping “Jump Around,’’ was reading a promo for the Fox Bet app? Ain’t that America, for you and me.
John Smoltz, MLB Network — Which leads to another Fox conundrum: what to do with Smoltz in the upcoming postseason when he refuses to be vaccinated. As the network’s top baseball analyst, he’ll be expected to join Joe Buck for the major American League showdowns — which could include large markets in New York, Chicago, Houston and Boston — and the World Series. But will Fox follow the lead of the MLB Network, which banned anti-vaxxers Smoltz and Al Leiter from in-studio appearances? For all concerned, Smoltz should arrange for two jabs and not jeopardize the health of Buck and other Fox personnel. Besides, no one wants Alex Rodriguez anywhere near the main booth if Smoltz isn’t available.
Joel Klatt, Fox Sports — Camp Shanks is in disarray this week. When not mocking COVID, the Madison production included a troubling observation from the football analyst. In a safety-minded era, it’s a near-consensus view that players — especially those in college — should be protected from killer hits. The officials did their job, ejecting Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks for targeting Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz with a vicious shot. Said Klatt, who should know better as a former college QB: “I just hate the ejection. This is a problem with this rule. Hey, college football, at some point you gotta measure intent. The guy’s not out there head-hunting. He’s playing fast. It’s a violent sport. This is a really good player. He’s the heart and soul of this defense. He shouldn’t be ejected from the game. You wanna throw a flag? Throw a flag. Eject a guy from the game? You’ve gotta fix this in college football. Disgrace.” Actually, we’ve gotta fix Klatt. Disgrace.
Social media chasers — At some point, legitimate sports media will stop allowing social media to dictate coverage. I just don’t know which decade that will happen. Obviously, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wasn’t advocating mass murder when he borrowed John McKay’s ancient quip on execution and football. “I’m in favor of execution. Maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn’t execute very well,’’ Kelly said after beating Florida State in overtime. With nothing better to do on a holiday weekend, the trolls exploded — and Kelly was forced to explain himself. “I was kidding. It was tongue-in-cheek. It wasn’t funny? I was talking and making a joke about it. It was taken serious? Are you people crazy?’’ he said. “I was stealing one of (McKay’s) old quotes and being funny, because nobody likes to be funny anymore. If you want to take me to town on that, please do.’’ I prefer to address the trolls: When will you do something with your lives? No one cares about your opinions, your selfies or you. The same applies to those speculating recklessly about the sideline appearance of ESPN football analyst Todd McShay, who acknowledged health issues in announcing he’ll be stepping away from work for the short term. Signing up for a Twitter account isn’t a license to slander.
“First Take,’’ ESPN — This is what happens when you let Stephen A. program the network. You have one new debate partner, Michael Irvin, who will duel Smith in high-decibel screaming rants on Mondays. And you have another debate partner, Tim Tebow, who will turn Fridays with Stephen A. into acts of religious blasphemy. With the ouster of Max Kellerman, the show needs continuity, not the sort of panelist roulette that has plunged the ratings of “Around The Horn.’’ Yet producer Antoine Lewis says Smith and moderator Molly Qerim will see a third chair rotated among Chiney Ogwumike, Jessica Mendoza, Mina Kimes, Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears and Damien Woody. So “FIrst Take’’ becomes just another musical-chairs stop for the same pundits seen on other daytime shows. Why not at least use Bomani Jones? The short answer: Stephen A. is afraid he’d be brain-shamed. Said Lewis: “Stephen A., Molly and a lineup of A-list guests will definitely continue to provide fans with all they’ve come to expect from ‘First Take’ and much more. We’re excited to get going!” Whee!
ESPN — A week doesn’t pass without another attacker taking down the Worldwide Leader In Dysfunction for its internal issues. It’s pretty bad when Paul Pierce, dumped by ESPN last spring after an Instagram video showed him zonked out with exotic dancers, calls out WWLID for its business conflicts of interest. “I was done with them anyway. It wasn’t a great fit,’’ Pierce told Sports Illustrated. “There’s a lot of stuff over there you can’t say. And you have to talk about LeBron all the time.’’ The Truth, who joins a conga line of stoned NBA greats in the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, always is worthy of an overtime period in “They Don’t Get It.’’
Jim Gray, schmoozer — I believe we have time for a seventh item. Once reviled for boldly peppering Pete Rose on live TV with tough questions about gambling, Gray softened in recent years to become an advocate of the elite athlete. Nothing like climbing into business bed with superstars to pad one’s income. Gray’s book — “Talking to GOATs,’’ now available in paperback — features intimate conversations with Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They’ve trusted him with certain topics and open up more than they might with other interviewers, but when it’s time for another Rose moment, Gray protects the GOATs rather than feed them nutrients for major exclusives. Baaaa!
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 shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts
THEY GET IT
Anish Shroff and Tom Luginbill, ESPN — Almost impossibly, the Worldwide Leader In Dysfunction humiliates itself more with each passing week. This time, no one in management bothered to vet the bogus, farcically unworthy opponents set up to play powerhouse IMG Academy in an ESPN-televised high school football game. The rogue outfit from “Bishop Sycamore’’ — an online-only creation — boasted top college prospects, but the claims were revealed as a scam early in a 58-0 crushing. Shroff and Luginbill might not have jobs for long, but they admirably served their audience by criticizing how this fiasco ever materialized. Said Shroff, noting how he’d attempted to verify Bishop Sycamore’s players: “They did not show up in our database; they did not show up in the databases of other recruiting services. So, OK, that’s what you’re telling us, fine, that’s how we take it in. From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a fair fight, and there’s got to be a point where you’re worried about health and safety.’’ Said Luginbill: “I think this could be potentially dangerous given the circumstances and the mismatch.’’ The only thing ESPN does well these days is pass the buck, blaming schedule-makers at Chicago-based Paragon Marketing Group. Tell me: How much longer will Jimmy Pitaro last as company president?
Erin Andrews, Fox Sports — As brave as she is candid, Andrews has been open about her many personal challenges. She spoke of her fear in battling cervical cancer. She spoke of her horror when a creep secretly filmed her changing clothes through a hotel-room peephole. Now, the veteran sideline reporter writes about her eight-year, seven-round experience with in vitro fertilization, vowing to be “vocal and honest’’ about a “time-consuming and emotionally draining process.’’ Writes Andrews in a Facebook Bulletin essay: “I’m now 43, so my body is kind of stacked against me. I have been trying to do IVF treatment for a while now, but sometimes it doesn’t go the way you want it. … When this happens, it really makes you question: is it the future of my family or is it my job? I work in an industry where I think women feel the need to keep things like this quiet. I decided that this time around, I would be open with my show producers.” As an Internet sensation early in her career, Andrews stayed strong through crude website and social-media behavior. Now, she’s leaving a legacy of courage and survival.
Maria Taylor, NBC — In some perverse way, she has benefited wildly from Rachel Nichols’ assessment that Taylor inherited the hosting role on ‘’NBA Countdown’’ as a diversity makeup call. Only weeks after fleeing the Bristol nuthouse, Taylor has landed as a co-host of the most-watched studio show on sports television, “Football Night In America.’’ The Sunday night platform will showcase Taylor as a rising star — and let’s hope she augments a strong telegenic presence with diligent NFL homework. Drew Brees also joins the program, biding his time on the lead desk with Mike Tirico until Al Michaels and, eventually, Cris Collinsworth are phased out in the booth. I would let Michaels and Collinsworth continue until they drop, but the network is fixed on a Tirico-Brees broadcast team that could be decidedly mediocre. Unlike Fox and CBS, which basically have stuck with the same studio lineups, at least NBC is experimenting with new faces.
Bob Nightengale, USA Today — While other baseball writers sit in press boxes and wait for Zoom interviews, Nightengale is found in the front row behind home plate at Dodger Stadium — in full view of the TV camera — as he chats up industry insider Dennis Gilbert. It’s part of a tireless, decades-long work ethic that continues to produce breaking stories and crackling columns, including a dead-on commentary titled, “MLB’s payroll disparity has become laughable, threatening the integrity of the sport.’’ He writes of the financial canyon between the Los Angeles Dodgers ($284 million) and Pittsburgh Pirates ($49.1 million): “It’s a monstrous and horrifying Great Divide that has long cast a shadow in Major League Baseball, but never before has the divide in team payroll between the haves and have-nots been so pronounced, and created such a deep impact in the standings. … The Dodgers are paying nearly as much money ($38 million) to starting pitcher Trevor Bauer, who has been on administrative leave since July 2, as the Pirates are paying to their entire 40-man roster. The Dodgers’ payroll is a whopping $200 million more than four teams.’’ In the mid-‘90s, Nightengale was the first to quote commissioner Bud Selig about steroids. It took almost 10 years for Bud Lite to fess up in front of Congress.
Joe Davis, Spectrum SportsNet LA — Rare is the baseball play-by-play voice who dares to knock the sport’s bosses for their ongoing debacle: games that average three hours and nine minutes, an increase of nine minutes since 2018. But when more than six minutes lapsed before the top of the eighth inning recently, as Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen was having the grounds crew manicure the mound, Davis’ annoyance was palpable. “That’s not good,’’ he said, “for a game that wants to be snappier.’’ His partner, Orel Hershiser, said nothing. More broadcasters should speak up.
Patrick Soon-Shiong, Los Angeles Times owner — Sounding like a sports owner tired of losing, Soon-Shiong challenged his struggling newspaper — I know, that’s a redundancy — to improve its underwhelming digital profile and “expand revenue.’’ Appearing on Kara Swisher’s “Sway’’ podcast, he said he has invested $650 million over three-plus years and wants to see an urgent turnaround under new executive editor Kevin Merida — or else. “I do mind losing money,’’ he said. It’s mind-blowing that the nation’s second-largest media market, home to 18 million potential readers, could exist without a flagship daily newspaper. But Soon-Shiong reminds us that the Times almost died three years ago, when the biotech billionaire rescued a wrecked ship from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing: “I got a call from Mike Ferro and that board, the current board, and (they) said, ‘We’re about to shut down the L.A. Times and push everything to Chicago. You have about 48 hours with no due diligence to buy the L.A. Times for $500 million.’ ’’ If the Times goes away, I honestly don’t know where southern California sports readers would turn. The Athletic isn’t a factor. ESPN no longer has a local shop and is trying to unload its L.A. radio station. The other papers are ghosts. Thus, as a SoCal resident, I’m pleased to see an ultimatum, which qualifies Soon-Shiong as a sixth who gets it this week.
Sports Illustrated — As The Athletic tries to maintain footing amid two failed mergers and stalled subscription numbers, quality appears to be one-upping hype. Quietly, the Sports Illustrated Media Group has more than 42 million monthly users, reports Front Office Sports, making it the fastest-growing property in sports media. There’s a paywall arms race between the rivals, and, at $69.99 annually, SI’s edgy content is a better buy than The Athletic’s bulk at $71.99. You even get the fabled magazine — I know, what’s a magazine? — but you ARE familiar with the swimsuit issue. SI sneaks into the seventh slot when I vowed to do only five this week.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Dave Roberts, ESPN — Pitaro isn’t the only culprit in Bristol. As Stephen A. Smith’s enabler and the executive who helped dilute the ESPN Radio lineup, Roberts is contributing to the messes at Dysfunction Junction. How does Smith get away with rambling constantly about “white privilege’’ while Nichols is booted for criticizing — again, in the supposed privacy of her hotel room — the company’s past issues in diversity hiring? How does Smith mock Shohei Ohtani’s use of an interpreter and somehow come to work, without even a disciplinary wrist slap, the next day? These are hard questions for Roberts, now tasked with re-re-re-revamping the network’s long-problematic NBA coverage. Already, reports have Smith teaming with Magic Johnson (Magic Johnson?) on a prominent show. Gee, Dave, why not just let Stephen A. do everything — host the prime-time “SportsCenter’’ at night and “Get Up’’ in the morning, take over the “Monday Night Football’’ booth, moonlight on “College GameDay,’’ do 10 hours of radio a day and anchor the tennis, golf and hockey coverage along with his current role on “First Take,’’ where he successfully ran Max Kellerman off the show? Is there a fishing program Stephen A. can do? Bowling? Cornhole, even?
Jason Whitlock, lunatic — I hesitate to go here because, at this stage of his very bizarre career, he’s just screaming for attention at an extreme right-leaning site. But Whitlock lost me when he said Pitaro “is engaged in a prolonged war with the Taliban, commonly referred to in sports media circles as the “BLM-LGBTQ+ Alphabet Mafia.” Worse, he wrote of Nichols’ fateful hotel-room phone conversation with influential public-relations advisor Adam Mendelsohn: “A year ago, Nichols, a white Jewish woman, gossiped with a male member of her tribe about ESPN management handing black colleague Maria Taylor a job that had been contractually promised to Nichols.’’ In the case of Taylor and Nichols, the black-white issue is relevant in a time when ESPN is dealing with ongoing in-house racial politics. But for Whitlock to drop the “tribe’’ line is just warped — and suggests Nichols was punished for being Jewish when, in fact, ESPN parent Disney has been run for years by Bob Iger, who happens to be Jewish. Can somebody please fit Whitlock with a straitjacket? Tell him to shut down social media, breathe some fresh air and enjoy life?
ESPN — It makes no sense to employ investigative reporters when the network is in bed with every sport, league and conference imaginable. As further evidence, ESPN is willing to cheapen its brand by licensing it to gambling companies, which would further distance Bristol from journalism that barely exists anyway. The bosses are eyeing more than $3 billion to slap their logo on major sportsbooks, and before long, I fear the lead story on “SportsCenter’’ won’t be who won a big game … but which team covered the spread.
Trey Wingo, desperado — Former ESPN sportscasters have to make a living somehow, I understand, but Wingo has fallen hard. Once a prime-time face of the network’s NFL coverage, he now looks unrecognizable and cheesy in a photo illustration announcing him as Caesars Sportsbook’s “chief trends officer and brand ambassador.’’ What that means exactly, I’m afraid to ask, but Wingo joins the cavalcade of media professionals shilling for casinos. “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy,’’ he tweeted about the move. Problem is, he’ll have to take three showers a day in that racket.
My ego — Yes, it runs amok sometimes. But here goes anyway: Unlike coaching trees with mixed results — the Belichick tree, the Krzyzewski tree — my kinda/sorta radio tree is surviving the test of time quite well. Not that they needed my help, but I’m happy to report that three enduring sports-talk careers started alongside me in the wayback days. Dan Bickley was just moved to morning drive in Phoenix. Mike Mulligan is a morning-drive rock in Chicago. And Anthony Gargano, who made his unforgettable radio debut after an all-night rager, is the renowned “Cuz’’ in his native Philadelphia. As for me, my last local program was scuttled — despite ratings that trounced my Chicago competition — because I refused an executive order to sign a document promising not to criticize the White Sox and Bulls. Know what’s crazier? The station was trying to appease a sports owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who wound up taking those teams to the other station anyway. Some of us sleep well at night. Others must not.
Dan Le Batard, M.I.A. in MIA — Predictably, the host has faded from the mainstream after leaving ESPN and launching his own podcast and company. Other than diehards, is anyone listening? How do you find him? No amount of DraftKings sponsorship money can compensate for the loss of buzz, which leads to fewer listeners and waning impact. He has his much-sought editorial freedom, but his old TV show — while grinding to an eventual halt — still trumps him in relevance. I know, this is Item No. 6.
ESPN — I tried to go for an ocean bike cruise, but the WWLID wouldn’t let me. So, this is Item No. 7. “Sources: Patriots cut Newton; Jones to start’’ blasted the headline atop the website, implying ESPN broke the story. You have to scroll to the bottom for this lonely paragraph: “The Boston Globe first reported Newton’s release.’’ Please stop playing these phony games, trying to take credit when readers see through the b.s.
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