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 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
“Ted Lasso,” Apple TV+ — If cancel culture is alive and not well, there also is an antithetical wave of groupthink culture — a groundswell of social-media obsession driven more by a cool-kid-copycat craze than reality. But here’s a “Rock Chalk, Jayhawk” shoutout anyway to Jason Sudeikis, the Kansas alumnus/fan who is riding a wildfire wave of 20 Emmy nominations and astounding popularity. Lasso, as you probably know, is an impossibly kind, upbeat, small-time U.S. football coach who relocates to England after a romantic breakup and coaches a professional soccer team — without a lick of experience. I’m liking the TV comedy more than loving it, so I’m assuming its success emanates from being the antithesis of dark, sinister pandemic programming. Yet this isn’t just some fad from the millennial/Gen Z genre. When Lasso is asked by his boss, “What would you say to a drink?” in a post-game invitation, he responds, “Oh, the same thing I’d say to Diane Sawyer if she ever asked me out on a date: Yes, please.” Sure enough, at age 75, the venerated ABC journalist responded with her first tweet in more than a year: “Dear Ted Lasso — I’m in. Your move.” When Diane Sawyer is watching, “Lasso” obviously is doing something right — except, perhaps, in the view of Olivia Wilde, who left Sudeikis in real life for younger dude Harry Styles. I only know that from reading the New York Post, a habit for which God never will forgive me.
Vaccinated media people — The coronavirus will be a predominant blight on American life until we reach some semblance of herd immunity. And that won’t happen when half the U.S. population isn’t fully vaccinated. Sports media represent a miniscule sample size, but if employers aren’t mandating double jabs, then sports leagues and teams are encouraged to intensify health protocols and ban anti-vax reporters. The NFL and college football are cracking down for the upcoming season, and expect all the rest to fall in line. In an industry with enough existential problems, no one should have to risk an intensive care visit because Joe Blowtorch from 106.9 The Sports Animal is an anti-vaxxer.
Malika Andrews, ESPN — Just as I respected Rachel Nichols because of her extensive sports journalism background, I view Andrews similarly. So if the network bosses insist on holding a professional grudge against Nichols because of her diversity-hire comments about since-departed Maria Taylor — a reminder: she was speaking from the privacy of her hotel room and was caught on tape by an ESPN remote camera, which still strikes me as a slam-dunk legal victory — why not award “NBA Countdown” hosting honors to Andrews? She has strong reporting chops that allow for a more authoritative presence on a show revolving around information and commentary. Cassidy Hubbarth is high on lists, too, but Andrews sparkled when interviewing Giannis Antetokounmpo and the champion Milwaukee Bucks during their trophy ceremony, prompting ESPN colleague Adam Schefter to text, “Very impressive to watch a 26-year-old interview the world-champion Milwaukee Bucks on national television, and handle it as smoothly and professionally as she has.” I predict a bigger future for Andrews than Taylor. Might as well push the start button, or also risk losing her.
Thom Brennaman, dues payer — Enough with the snide jokes from the likes of ESPN’s Sarah Spain, who never will have Brennaman’s career and has her own professional issues. He is trying to rebound from his income-halting gay slur — and subsequent pause to call a Nick Castellanos home run, which prompts the memes — by going back to his broadcasting roots. He’ll call Cincinnati high-school games on a website called Chatterbox Sports, whose president, Trace Fowler, explained: “We’re excited to allow him another opportunity to put a headset on again. And the biggest thing that I hope people take away from this is that we are not downplaying what was said, what people feel from that. More importantly, in my opinion, I hope we don’t live in a society where we’re essentially going to try to, I don’t want to use the word ‘cancel,’ but we’re not going to end people’s careers and think that’s going to solve any kind of problem.” As I’ve written, when Ozzie Guillen continues to work in a major-league studio with his history of slurs (such as “f—ing fag”), Brennaman certainly should get another shot in baseball. His father, legendary broadcaster Marty Brennaman, pointed out the double standard of Stephen A. Smith not being reprimanded by ESPN after insensitive comments about Shohei Ohtani, tweeting: “I only wish my son’s employers had been as forgiving as yours.” The Reds should rehire him. He has served his sentence.
Puckheads, everywhere — For the first time in eons, a traditional niche sport has legitimate momentum among the masses. That is especially true when juxtaposed against the hopeless old-man slog that is Major League Baseball, which drew just 509,000 viewers for a Cubs-Cardinals game — a longstanding rivalry — on ESPN. In the same evening, on ESPN2, the NHL expansion draft involving the Seattle Kraken drew 637,000 viewers. Don’t try to explain it away as a national baseball broadcast that doesn’t include regional network audiences from Chicago and St. Louis. The Kraken, in the middle of July, were bigger than the Cubs and Cardinals. Now, can Gary Bettman start acting like a real commissioner and continue to blast-market his sport as ESPN and Turner Sports take over coverage this fall?
“Hard Knocks,” HBO — Who knew a TV show could be more imposing than Aaron Donald, more dangerous than Patrick Mahomes and more mind-consuming than Tom Brady? Such is the enduring mystique of the “Hard Knocks” jinx, which, myth or otherwise, has seen every featured team fall short of the Super Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys are the latest to take up the gauntlet — and why not? If 25 years have passed since Jerry Jones won a championship, at least he can do what he does best and hog camera time. Fox Sports Radio host Colin Cowherd describes the Cowboys’ appearance as “a self-inflicted distraction,” but they aren’t challenging for a championship regardless. So I’d rather watch Dak Prescott and the embattled coach, Mike McCarthy, than the Broncos, Panthers, Giants and Cardinals — the other eligible NFL franchises. Honestly, if a team is that rattled by a reality series, it isn’t worthy of a title anyway. All of which speaks well for the show’s continuing interest level — and my decision to add a sixth entry to “They Get It.”
THEY DON’T GET IT
NBC — The network that gave us Matt Lauer’s desk button, the Harvey Weinstein whitewashing and a $7.7 billion dirty dance with the International Olympic Committee now shoves something called Peacock into our eyeballs. We knew the streaming platform would be introduced at the Tokyo Games; we didn’t know it would hold us hostage as the lone vehicle to watch live coverage of two troubling U.S. stories: Simone Biles and the U.S. basketball Scream Team. As it is, NBC will be remembered as a callous co-conspirator if the Olympics cause a coronavirus superspread in Japan. But by forcing people to buy a Peacock subscription to see Biles in the mornings — or wait 13-plus hours to see her at night in prime time — well, let’s just say Ronan Farrow should be summoned to investigate the network that didn’t want his Weinstein reporting. When Biles stepped away from the gymnastics team event in perhaps the biggest story of the Games, it happened when America was eating breakfast or waking up. But NBC intentionally didn’t air video of Biles, only showing still photos so viewers would be enticed to: (1) watch the prime-time show hours later; and (2) buy Peacock. Worse, the network reported Biles had a “physical injury” when she cited “mental health” for her exit. Those who have signed up for Peacock report issues ranging from streaming interruptions to a week-long wait for replays. Someone should call the Better Business Bureau when NBC charges money to watch the Scream Team lose to France. By the way, did anyone ask the iconic peafowl if it was OK to disparage his otherwise good name?
Pete Bevacqua, NBC Sports Group chairman — Continuing the wishful thinking of NBCUniversal chief executive Jeff Shell, who suggested Tokyo would be “the most profitable Olympics in the history of the company,” Bevacqua seemingly tried to brainwash Americans into watching. “I think the world right now needs an Olympics more than ever,” he said in a media session. “We’re going into this with a tremendous amount of optimism, and we really feel that it’s going to be something special.” The early averages, ranging between 16.8 million and 19.8 million, project as some of the lowest ratings ever for a Summer Games — massive drops from the London and Rio de Janeiro Games and, according to Sports Business Journal, markedly below every NFL postseason game this year and even the most recent Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. To be fair, NBC is dealing with daunting obstacles: a whopping time difference, no fans or energy at venues and fears that the Games will generate multiple virus outbreaks. But Shell and Bevacqua knew about these challenges long before the Opening Ceremony, reminding us that the b.s quotient for TV executives is uncommonly high.
Mike Tirico, NBC/IOC propagandist — If NBC could have created the face of its sports division in a laboratory, Tirico would have been the final product — safe, obedient, cheery and no controversial observations that upset IOC president Thomas Bach and the network’s almighty business partners in the Olympic movement. I am straining not to mention how much I miss Bob Costas’ astute world view when I say Tirico is manufactured mush. He lost me during the Opening Ceremony, a gloomy event where athletes waved at empty seats and often violated coronavirus protocols, which he and co-host Savannah Guthrie purposely overlooked. And he infuriated me when he brushed over the Scream Team’s loss like it was a sluggish practice in Vegas, making excuses for Team USA’s first Olympic defeat in 17 years and assuring that the NBA slackers would reach “the knockout round.” When Tirico speaks, I mostly feel nothing. Would someone explain how he survived an in-house ESPN scandal to reach the pinnacle of sports broadcasting?
Andy Benoit, Los Angeles Rams — The objective of sports media, or so I thought, was to cover the sports industry — not be part of it. For years, as Benoit wrote for sites such as the New York Times and Sports Illustrated, little did anyone know he was gunning for an NFL gig. This creates a conflict of interest when he writes a glowing piece about Sean McVay when he was a Washington Redskins assistant … and McVay hires him years later, while entrenched as Rams head coach, as a special projects assistant. The DMZ crossover is happening much too often, which blurs the lines between journalism — or what is left of it — and public relations. When I attended Ohio University, there was an acclaimed communication school and an acclaimed sports administration school. The sports-ad guys loathed me, as they should have, because I was covering and scrutinizing sports, not hustling for a future on a pro franchise masthead. Benoit wanted it both ways and somehow got away with it, either because his website editors couldn’t see through him or didn’t know better.
Mike Milbury, former hockey analyst — Sometimes, you’re better off just shutting up than exacerbating a bad situation. Milbury was fired last year by NBC after his most offensive comment of a caveman career, saying of life in the NHL’s virus bubble, “It’s the perfect place. Not even any woman here to distract you.” In trying to explain himself to Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, he sounded like a loon. “As a player and coach in the league, I’ve been on a lot of road trips and around a lot of guys that are young, fit, well-compensated, have celebrity status, and when they go on the road they play hard and they party hard. And a lot of their attention is on women, and I certainly don’t mean that in a bad way,” Milbury said. “Now I get it, everybody else has other ways to party, but that’s my experience and I stand by it. It’s biology, for (goodness) sake. So sometimes their lust for companionship was a distraction. So I didn’t think there was anything wrong with the comment, but apparently it was to other people. And I got dismissed from my job. Excuse me, but I’m not going to be canceled. I refuse to be canceled. The only thing that’s going to cancel me is the grim reaper, and I can see him in the distance, but not yet.” Enjoy the cave, Mike. Not even any woman there to distract you.
MBC — America isn’t the only country that dabbles in cultural and racial stereotypes. The South Korean network apologized for posting offensive images during its coverage of the Opening Ceremony. When the Italian team marched into the stadium, a piece of pizza appeared. When Norway entered, a slice of salmon emerged. Team Romania was greeted with a picture of Count Dracula. How would MBC like it if I mentioned my lingering stereotype of Seoul — a strong kimchi odor that stuck to my clothes? Never thought kimchi would command a sixth “They Don’t Get It” mention.
Jourdan Rodrigue, The Athletic — We all have bad days, but how did her editors allow this to appear as her news-story lead about the torn Achilles tendon of Rams running back Cam Akers: “I’m not even going to sugarcoat it — this sucks.” What, does the site’s beat writer work for the Rams? Is she a paid member of the p.r. department? Is she taking her cues from Benoit? I’ve never seen a breaking news story start with the word “I’m.” Nor have I seen a breaking news story use the word “sucks.” Sucks for who, McVay and owner Stan Kroenke? It shouldn’t suck for Rodrigue, who becomes our seventh entry in “They Don’t Get It.”
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
Tokyo media warriors — The Olympic motto has changed. “Citius, Altius, Fortius — Communis” actually is “Arrive, Test, Quarantine — Pray.” I could write for the 10th time that the Pandemic Games should be canceled, but instead, I salute those covering the most fraught of modern Games. Already, my daunting stories from 14 Olympiads — gargantuan spiders in Australia, guardrail-less icy roads in the French Alps, purposely lost taxi drivers in Beijing, a rock-throwing protest in Athens — sound like so much whining. As if covering coronavirus outbreaks isn’t enough of a challenge, journalists in Japan are being tracked by GPS technology. They can work inside the media center and cover events, but, when finished, they must return promptly to their rooms, where they can leave only to visit a convenience store and must be back within 15 minutes. If not? GPS might find them and put them on a blacklist — not a place to be in a nation hostile about hosting the Summer Games under a state of emergency. Warns the organizing committee, which distributed a “playbook” of restrictions: “The people of Japan will be paying close attention to your every move .. (if) you are suspected or found to be in infringement of the Playbook, such activity may be photographed and shared on social media.” That includes dating apps … “Hey, ladies, avoid this creep who snuck out for sushi in Ginza.” Each day, journalists must test for the coronavirus and variants by spitting as much saliva as possible into a tube, after which they must stand against a wall and stare at photos of fruit to produce more saliva. Suddenly, that wretched McMoose sandwich at a Norwegian McDonald’s doesn’t seem bad.
New York Times — Thank you for reminding the entire industry — writers, broadcasters AND those who operate media companies — that professional integrity can’t be maintained by jumping into business bed with the people you cover. The Times suspended veteran sports reporter Karen Crouse, who has written poignantly of Michael Phelps’ mental health struggles and future related endeavors, for partnering with the legendary U.S. swimmer on a book about … his mental health struggles and future related endeavors. For years, sportswriters have shown no shame in pursuing quick cash-ins on subjects they regularly chronicle — namely, championship teams. This practice has been allowed in Chicago, where The Athletic and ESPN let local writers Jon Greenberg and Jesse Rogers peddle gooey remembrances of the 2016 Cubs and manager Joe Maddon. Tell me: How can one cover a team or athlete critically when he has made money, even a few scraps, off that team or athlete? The same applies to Crouse, whose editors pulled her off Tokyo coverage after she wrote at the U.S. Olympic swim trials that Phelps has “exchanged isolation for outreach, sprinkling instruction and advice like the pope blessing his flock with holy water. As a mentor, he has found a way to pull this U.S. team along in his wake without getting wet.” Upon subsequent discovery that she was writing the book — Crouse failed to inform anyone at the Times — editors attached this note to her glowing Phelps story from June 15: “After this article was published, editors learned that the reporter had entered an agreement to co-write a book with Michael Phelps. If editors had been aware of the conflict, the reporter would not have been given the assignment.” If every sports media outlet followed the Times’ philosophy, the landscape would be less cozy and devious and much more independent.
Maria Taylor, opportunist — I didn’t buy how she used social media to self-frame her political entanglement with Rachel Nichols as an inspirational story. “I’ve taken some punches,” Taylor tweeted, “but that just means I’m still in the fight.” In truth, she won an ESPN promotion at the expense of Nichols, who blamed it on the network’s “crappy longtime record on diversity.” But Taylor also was smart enough not to be swallowed by the scandal. A former college basketball player, she saw an opening and is driving through the lane, reportedly to NBC, where more millions and immediate Tokyo assignments are said to await. She won dignity points in continuing her assignment in the “NBA Countdown” hosting seat, agreeing to work Game 6 of the Finals as her ESPN contract was expiring. At some point, don’t be surprised if Taylor assumes hosting duties on the most visible of studio shows — “Sunday Night Football” — when Mike Tirico moves to play-by-play duties. She won’t get “Stephen A. Smith money,” as her agent had demanded, but she’ll have peace after the Bristol dramas. Too bad Jimmy Pitaro and other Disney executives couldn’t prevent a maelstrom, when they had about a year to figure out the Nichols-Taylor fallout.
Major League Baseball — A sport that caters to White male boomers occasionally escapes its 20th-century cave. MLB outhustled other leagues in featuring the first all-women broadcast crew for an otherwise sleepy Orioles-Rays game. Melanie Newman and Sarah Langs were in the booth, Alanna Rizzo was on the field as a reporter, and Heidi Watney and Lauren Gardner hosted the studio show.”My entire career, especially coming up through the minor leagues, I was the first woman at every single stop,” Newman told MLB Network.”I couldn’t help but think in the back of my head, `That’s great, but let’s keep going.’ Let’s move past being the first, and just make this more of a normal occasion that’s coming around where we’re not qualifying people based on their gender.” Next time, perhaps such a historic crew won’t be confined to YouTube’s “Game of the Week.”
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post — I welcome a movie critic to “They Get It” for his ferocious takedown of LeBron James. While LeBron was mocking social-media “haters” with news that “Space Jam: A New Legacy” had done $32 million in opening-weekend business, Oleksinski was reminding suckers how they’d wasted their money. Copy, paste and send: “During the endless final sequence of `Space Jam: A New Legacy,’ Porky Pig calls himself `the Notorious P.I.G.’ and begins to rap, `This pig is lit. I’m super legit.’ Porky should’ve added: `And my movie is s—t.’ In the pantheon of misguided sequels and reboots, `A New Legacy’ is right up there with `Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ and `Little Fockers.’ ” Damn, Johnny. No wonder James snuck a bottle of tequila under his Phoenix courtside seat at Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The aspiring Hollywood mogul bombed out, and, somewhere, Michael Jordan is laughing.
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times — Like all enduring columnists, he alternately warms the soul and provokes thought (see below). His piece on Vin Scully was a Kleenex-reacher, coaxing the 93-year-old broadcast legend to speak about the Jan. 3 passing of his wife, Sandi. “I’ve been severely wounded, but I’ve also comes to grips with it,” Scully said. “I believe it’s all God’s plans. I’m just trying to do the best that I can for as long as I have … I wouldn’t want to dwell on how I feel much more than, you can imagine, anybody can imagine, when you lose your partner, the loss is overwhelming, and then eventually you come to grips with it. As of right now, I would say that I’m healing to reality.” Scully continues to reject overtures from the Dodgers and Fox Sports to join baseball broadcasts, even for an inning. “I’m done. Really I am. People have heard me enough,” he said. “And now it’s time for me … `Scully, be quiet. Go over and sit down.’ ” Oh, how wrong he is. Vin always is welcome as a “They Get It” addendum.
Megyn Kelly, professional skeptic — When Naomi Osaka boycotted the media and blew off two Grand Slam events to work on her “mental health,” she knew what was on the horizon: her image blasted across the covers of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, Time magazine and Vogue Japan. It smacks of a power play more than depression — wanting to circumvent traditional tennis press conferences to control her own messages — and Osaka should have realized the likes of Kelly would jump on her in critical tweets. Replied Naomi, whose own Barbie doll and LeBron-produced reality show also have debuted: “Seeing as you’re a journalist I would’ve assumed you would take the time to research what the lead times are for magazines, if you did that you would’ve found out I shot all of my covers last year,” she wrote to Kelly on Twitter. “Instead your first reaction is to hop on here and spew negativity, do better Megan.” I am happy to elevate Kelly — whose first name is Megyn, not Megan — in bonus coverage as our seventh who gets it.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN — In refusing to fire or even suspend the reckless, feckless Smith, the network president made a deplorable statement to the Asian community. Pitaro saw fit to remove Nichols from NBA Finals sideline-hosting duties in a gesture to her Black studio colleagues, who reportedly threatened to boycott a show after Nichols’ diversity-hire rant about Taylor went public. So why not issue at least a similar punishment to Smith? His insensitive comments about Shohei Ohtani — that Major League Baseball is damaged because the Japanese phenom uses an interpreter for interviews — were an insult to Asians, not to mention the intelligence of ESPN’s audience. The prevailing perception: Pitaro is more concerned about offending Blacks than Asians, yet another double standard employed by the Worldwide Leader In Hypocrisy.
The layoff-disgraced NFL — Bloated from revenues and resources after absorbing $113 billion in recent broadcast contracts, the richest of sports leagues should be adding to its payroll, not subtracting. But Jerry Jones and the billionaire boys are trying to spin off a minority share of NFL Media to an existing company, which required headcount cuts, as many as 132 according to an employee who lost his job. The league disputes the number, but one layoff is one too many for a powerhouse that depended on those workers during the pandemic. Now, they are cut like bad placekickers in a network division — broadcast and online media — that could use creative help. Credit NFL Media writer Jim Trotter for slamming the league that pays him, tweeting that it’s “really sad that so many loyal employees who took mandatory & voluntary paycuts during the pandemic to help the company, & who came up with creative ways to produce content & limit $$ losses, would be fired after NFL signed $100B TV deals.” It’s a poor reflection on commissioner Roger Goodell, who had guided the league so well through 2020-21 obstacles — somehow raising revenues by almost a half-billion dollars during the pandemic season — before swallowing the greed pill.
ESPN — Alone, Peyton Manning sells. But Peyton with brother Eli? On an alternative “Monday Night Football” broadcast airing on ESPN2? Whose idea was this? Beyond Indianapolis, their hometown of New Orleans and sectors of New York and New Jersey, who will watch? I’m not sure why ESPN is so excited about the Mannings calling 30 games — not even a full allotment — over the next three seasons with no plans of being in stadiums. Said a Bristol release: “Fans will be treated to a mix of in-the-moment analysis, big picture NFL dialogue, knee-jerk reaction, historical perspective, and more. Peyton and Eli will be joined each week by a to-be-determined host. Iconic and current athletes, as well as celebrities, are expected to appear throughout the season. Fans will never miss any of the action, as a multi-box viewing experience will ensure the game is always visible.” Translated, it sounds like they’ll show up when they want for a Monday night party with guests. Sure, we remember the commercial where Peyton and Eli horsed around as the famed football family, including parents Archie and Olivia, was given a Bristol tour. That was a very long time ago. On the same day, ESPN announced Ahmad Rashad will host a streaming interview show. Again, why?
Alex Mather, The Athletic — As any used-car salesman knows, a business might want to drop the price when demand is down. Mather, chief executive and founder of the scuffling sports site, has chosen to RAISE the price of an annual subscription from $59.99 to $71.99 despite a slowdown in renewals. His stubbornness must give way to reality: There is solid-to-good content on his site, with sporadic greatness (read baseball writer Andy McCullough’s profile of geriatric project Tony La Russa), but Mather’s bulk-over-bite strategy isn’t working. Great sports sites, or great sports sections in the print days, require a daily procession of must-read personalities. The Athletic doesn’t have enough in an age when consumers thrive on timely, intelligent perspectives from accomplished columnists willing to speak truth to power. A glaring example of shying away from a major story: Why no major opinion piece on the cultural wars at ESPN — Smith vs. Shohei Ohtani, Nichols vs. Taylor — which dominated news and sports cycles but were addressed only in a little-known podcast from media writer Richard Deitsch? Meanwhile, as the Olympics teeter just hours from the Opening Ceremony, I’m seeing minimal Games coverage from a site that wants $71.99. “We have got 450 reporters, writers, editors, producers on three continents producing as much volume as any national newspaper in the world per week,” Mather told Variety. He could sell more subscriptions with 100 dynamic, well-known writers on one continent, but like many tech bro/dudes, Mather can’t be bothered with tried-and-true common sense.
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times — I sure hope Plaschke never is accused of a crime and fired from a job before being accorded due process. Rather than wait for investigators in Pasadena and Major League Baseball to finish their probe of Trevor Bauer — which is what Plaschke recommended in a previous piece, that MLB “listen equally to the accuser and the accused” — the columnist now wants the Dodgers to cut the pitcher based entirely on the accuser’s side in a sexual assault probe. No arrests have been made. No charges have been filed. But Judge Bill has ruled anyway, writing, “Face it, even if this entire incident eventually disappears and Bauer is never charged with a crime, images of his alleged violence remain and serious questions about his character and judgment linger.” That sound is the B.S. Meter calling hypocrisy on Plaschke, who worshipped Kobe Bryant in print for years and continues to do so in memoriam. Had the Lakers wielded the Plaschke hammer and cut Bryant while his 2003 rape case was being investigated in Colorado, who would Bill have deified all those years? Why hold one standard for Bauer and another for Bryant? Everyone is aware of the magnitude here: This is a monumental legal case of potentially horrific ramifications that could send Bauer to jail and leave a permanent scar on the Dodgers’ public-relations machine. But Plaschke should stop playing prosecutor and wait for the facts in an L.A. legal world where surprises and tricks are the norm. If Bauer is charged and convicted, then, by all means, wield the hammer. His beloved Kobe, for one, would appreciate patience.
Jason Whitlock, lost cause — He spins sports into racial propaganda on Glenn Beck’s site, which leads him to daffy concussions such as this: “ESPN is so afraid of the Twitter mob that the Worldwide Leader in Sports won’t put a byline on its stories covering the arrest of NFL star Richard Sherman. This is significant. It underscores the power of Twitter to manipulate basic journalism and force a two-tiered, racial standard of journalism equity.” As attempted proof, he offers an ESPN story from Jan. 25, with the byline of staff writer Brady Henderson, about the domestic violence arrest of ex-Seattle Seahawk Chad Wheeler. Sherman is Black; Wheeler is White — as Whitlock points out. I’ve raised some serious hell myself about ESPN’s racial double standards, but not in this instance. If Whitlock simply would read the site instead of remaining a prisoner to his wild whims, he’d realize ESPN isn’t using bylines on many recent stories not broken by a staff member. He’d also notice that just this month, in a story about Barkevious Mingo’s arrest and release by the Atlanta Falcons, ESPN references Adam Schefter in the second sentence — not exactly hiding the NFL insider’s identity in a crime story about a Black football player. He’d also notice that the byline of staff writer Dave Wilson was on a July 6 story about a Black running back at Oklahoma, Mikey Henderson, who was dismissed from the team after an alleged robbery. Whitlock publishes this nonsense just so two prominent clickbait names — Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg — can be used in his headline. Time for a long vacation, big man. This was worth extra time in “They Don’t Get It.”
Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune — What sports journalism doesn’t need is another media writer who won’t take on real issues in a $600 billion industry. Sullivan was a good baseball reporter who became a soft columnist and now dabbles once in a week in local media. The first topic he should tackle, in a month when Stephen A. has offended Asians and the Taylor-Nichols racial story dominated news cycles, is how NBC Sports Chicago continues to use Ozzie Guillen as a live baseball commentator with his history of slurs and propensity for outrageousness. But Sullivan, like most Chicago opinionists these days, protects his paycheck first, forgets his responsibility to readers and bows down to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns 50 percent of NBCSC and could get Sullivan fired with one flunky phone call to his Tribune hedge-fund bosses. Playing the Chicago political game, Sullivan weaseled out and praised Guillen for an “over-the-top funny” takedown of Josh Donaldson, the Minnesota third baseman who thankfully stonewalled an ongoing MLB scandal by calling out pitchers for using illegal substances. “Mr. Squealer,” Guillen called him, saying he’d order a pitcher to hit Donaldson were he still managing. Does anyone not see about 10 problems here, including how Sox pitchers had ranked in the top three in spin rate before the MLB crackdown? No wonder, when I couldn’t locate the Tribune (or Sun-Times) during a recent O’Hare flight layover, that the store clerk told me, “Oh, I’m not sure we carry those anymore. Is USA Today OK?” This wasn’t worth extra time in “They Don’t Get It.”
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
Jeff Passan, ESPN — If Disney Company possessed a spine and testicles, it would fire Stephen A. Smith for exacerbating ESPN’s relentless, in-house cultural disorder. The only one making sense lately is Passan, who scolded Smith for insulting the Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani, because he uses an interpreter during interviews. “The reality about Shohei Ohtani, Stephen A., is that he is a story we should be wanting to tell. It’s unfortunate something like yesterday happened,” the network’s baseball insider asserted on “First Take,” Smith’s weekday show. “(Ohtani) is the sort of person who this show, who this network, who this country should embrace. We are not the ones who should be trafficking in ignorance.” In typical disgrace, ESPN executives likely viewed Passan’s criticism as a backlash buffer, allowing Smith to carry on with more thoughtless, rambling takes that embarrass the company and, more importantly, the audience. At least Passan came up with a better show name. Starting today, “First Take” should be called “Trafficking In Ignorance.”
Anthony Mackie, Captain America — Sometimes sports needs to laugh at itself. So does ESPN, especially these days. Enter Mackie, who spared no one in hosting the ESPY Awards for the first time. He sounded like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes in his monologue, firing a zinger at NFL veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, who lost his right index finger in a 2015 fireworks accident. Said Mackie, knowing his target was in the audience: “It’s official: Tom Brady has more Super Bowl rings than Jason Pierre-Paul has fingers.” If that was rough, his observation about baseball’s “ball goop” issue was a riot — “something I never thought Disney would let me say on live TV” — and his dig at disgraced horse trainer Bob Baffert (he of the silver hair and sunglasses) was an all-timer: “People started to suspect Baffert when they looked at him. Just look at the dude. If drugging a horse is the shadiest thing he has ever done, I’d be surprised. It looks like he has season tickets to `The Hunger Games.’ ” Oh, and this on shooting-challenged Ben Simmons: “Not everyone knows this, but (he) has been building orphanages like this one completely out of his playoff bricks.” Relax: The actor also defended Naomi Osaka in her media hiatus and Sha’Carri Richardson against the World Anti-Doping Agency. I hope Mackie’s back — an intended musical reference — for a 2022 encore.
Joe Vardon, The Athletic — Already one of the site’s most incisive writers, Vardon stood up to the bully side of Gregg Popovich. He has been underlining the truth about Team USA’s startling pre-Olympics losses and forecasting potential doom at the Tokyo Games, writing, ” The cold hard facts are the Americans, regardless of who is on their roster, stink under Gregg Popovich, certainly by Team USA’s lofty standards.” Rather than acknowledge the concerns, especially when juxtaposed against America’s traditional dominance in men’s basketball, Popovich turned an exchange with Vardon into a scene. “You asked the same sort of question last time where you assumed things that are not true,” Popovich said as Vardon tried to counter. “Can I finish? Can I finish my statement? Are you going to let me finish my statement or not? When you make statements about, in the past, just blowing out these other teams — number one, you give no respect to the other teams. I talked to you the last time about the same thing, we’ve had very close games against four or five countries in all these tournaments.” It’s not too late to call Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the Americans to three straight gold medals and finished his international career with 76 straight victories, winning eight Olympic games in 2016 by a 22-point average. Popovich should stop growling at reporters and have his out-of-shape team run some sprints.
Rachel Nichols, ESPN — Is it overstating matters to nominate her for a Nobel Peace Prize? Rather than summon a legal army to sue the network for invading her privacy, Nichols dutifully reported for work and quelled a racial storm that was dominating news cycles. This allowed Maria Taylor and her “NBA Countdown” mates to focus. If you’ve been busy flying to the edge of space with Richard Branson, Nichols cited ESPN’s “crappy longtime record on diversity” when she was replaced by Taylor last year as the show’s host. Because her remarks were made privately in her hotel room, captured by a remote ESPN camera and leaked everywhere by rogue ESPN personnel, Nichols has a slam-dunk case if she wants to sue Disney Company. Maybe she will at some point, but she chose to stay above the emotional fray and quell a tempest while some Black personalities were threatening a show boycott and management was removing Nichols from NBA Finals sideline duties. Taylor used the opportunity to negotiate her next broadcast deal, at ESPN or elsewhere, and her current contract expires any hour. Nichols could have flipped the bird at all of them, but she remained a pro, unlike so many in an egomaniacal business. She has a major supporter in NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who said Nichols deserves “the benefit of the doubt” and that “careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment. We should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them.” What a healthy aspiration, if only it applied to all …
Grant Napear, former NBA broadcaster — He was fired last year after tweeting one such single comment — “All lives matter, every single one!” — when goaded on social media by NBA player DeMarcus Cousins. So why does Silver publicly protect Nichols and ignore Napear, who worked Sacramento Kings broadcasts for 32 years? Oh, maybe because Napear is a 62-year-old White male. He was quick to point out the double standard to the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick, writing, “I read those (Silver’s) comments, and I was like … Sure would have been nice to hear that last year … Now people are talking about it and acknowledging that it’s wrong. Adam said, `Careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment.’ Mine was. I’m grateful he made those remarks, but I’m still unemployed for saying something as simple as, `All lives matter, every single one.’ Adam also said we should judge people by the larger context of their work and who they are and what we know about them. That sure didn’t happen for me. My body of work was irrelevant when I lost my career.” There must be a lawyer who will take on a class action case involving screwed White males in media. The hypocrisy is suffocating.
Broadcasters raising hell — Talk about insulting the audience. Preferring to save money than serve fans, regional sports networks continue to force Major League Baseball announcers to call road games from booths in home ballparks and other remote locations. And the vaccinated announcers are speaking out, including the Yankees’ John Sterling, who sounded foolish when he went into his trademark home-run call — “It is high, it is far, it is gone!” — only to realize it was a replay of an earlier Aaron Judge homer. “I’m sorry, it’s on the monitor. What am I supposed to do?” Sterling said. To which partner Suzyn Waldman said, “This is a great way to do a game, isn’t it.” White Sox TV voice Jason Benetti tweeted, “I hold out hope that someone at MLB says this: “It is no longer up to the local networks. Our announcers must be at the games. A person could say that today and change all of this.” Nope. The networks — and the team owners — prefer to keep faking it, which only further erodes the sport’s waning relationship with the American public. This fight is well worth inclusion as a sixth entry in They Get It.
David Samson, CBS Sports — A loose cannon when he was running the Miami/Florida Marlins, Samson has found his niche as a podcaster. He was appropriately aghast when the Los Angeles Angels, whose communications director supplied pitcher Tyler Skaggs with the opioids that killed him, said they would “vigorously defend” multiple lawsuits against the franchise by Skaggs’ family. Said Samson: “My statement would’ve been: `We were made aware of a lawsuit filed by the Skaggs family. The memory and tragedy of his death remains fresh in our minds and we continue to help and work with the Skaggs family to stop and help any sort of addiction.’ That’s my statement. I’m acknowledging that he died and I’m acknowledging the tragedy. I’m putting in a little nugget that he was a drug addict because he was snorting opioids. It is terribly sad that he died, but there is a risk that you’re going to die. In the statement, you don’t have to say that you’re going to vigorously defend the lawsuit.” Can Samson possibly advise the Angels and do podcasts simultaneously? Just asking, in another They Get It addendum.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN — When a sports commissioner publicly takes down the president of a network partner, it’s an extraordinary moment. For Pitaro, it’s the low point of a wobbly tenure when he has tried to re-establish ESPN as a sports-first operation and allowed woke interests to steamroll him. Silver condemned Pitaro’s wishy-washy leadership when he wondered why the network let the Nichols/Taylor drama “fester,” saying in his state-of-the-league news conference, “I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to work through it. Obviously not.” Is Pitaro not in touch with what’s happening on the Bristol campus? Wasn’t he appointed by longtime Disney chief Bob Iger to repress John Skipper’s Bristol activism project? Pitaro wants to appease everyone — and he did succeed in mending wounds with the NFL and landing Disney a place in the Super Bowl rotation. But in the racial wars engulfing the network, the boss is appeasing no one and failing miserably. He SHOULD be emphasizing sports and minimizing politics and racial discord — and if heads must roll, so be it. It’s hard to believe Pitaro, clearly overmatched, will last long in the gig. Can Silver possibly run the NBA and ESPN simultaneously? Just asking.
Norby Williamson, ESPN — Some of the in-house racial rancor stems from the executive’s long-ago treatment of the late Stuart Scott, whose innovative slangy style — “Boo-yah!” — didn’t sit well with the conservative newsroom boss. This is a lingering problem, obviously, when Williamson continues to oversee day-to-day operations. In a revealing 2020 retrospective in The Ringer, Scott’s sister, Susan, said, “Norby wrote him up. He challenged his scripts. It was awful. People really don’t know how awful it was. … Stuart was desperately frustrated.” Pushing Williamson into early retirement also might be a wise move, sending a message to Black employees that Pitaro and Disney are moving on from old-world thinking.
Sports media agents — I’ve had a few in my day. Most were trouble. And they aren’t helping matters, either, in the ESPN dramas. When I’ve seen at least two stories suggest that Nichols is “territorial” and difficult to work with, those are plants from rival agents trying to skew public perception. It’s poisonous, similar to what top NFL prospects deal with before the Draft, and if Pitaro wants to survive in the lead role, he won’t let agents run his ship. Taylor’s agency has the ear of New York Post sports media writer Andrew Marchand, who was less than flattering about Nichols’ professional demeanor before — lo and behold! — being fed information that Taylor was offered $3 million a year by ESPN last week amid interest from NBC and Amazon. Taylor’s agents are delusional to think she deserves what’s now known as “Stephen A. Smith money” — and Smith’s agents were quick to pass along that he’s actually making $12 million a year, not $8 million. There are sewage plants with more pleasant odors than the offices of some media agents.
Jemele Hill, activist — Someone remind Hill that her ratings weren’t good when she and Michael Smith, both Black, were bounced as “SportsCenter” hosts in 2018. If the numbers were better, I’m figuring they’d still be there, but Hill won’t let it go, using the Nichols-Taylor situation to accuse ESPN of racism. “Thinking about my situation, they were reacting to a moment then,” Hill told Dan Le Batard’s podcast. “That moment said people didn’t want to hear any political talk, any racial talk, any social justice talk, not that that was something Mike and I were doing every day on `SportsCenter’ — we weren’t. They let a false narrative persist about our show that people ran away with. They let the idiots in the room control the conversation, people like Clay Travis … they allowed those people to direct their course of action. They panicked. They wanted Black faces, they didn’t necessarily want Black voices.” Um, the last person influencing decisions at ESPN is Travis, one of Bristol’s biggest critics and enemies. Eventually, Hill must move on and define herself in a different mode than ESPN racial victim. It’s getting old.
Erik Rydholm, Rydholm Projects — I worked with the acclaimed producer during the booming peak years of “Around The Horn.” Which is precisely my point — that was a long-ass time ago, and he hasn’t reinvented himself at ESPN. His run of daily programming hits is fading, with “High Noon” crashing, “Highly Questionable” not long for the world and “ATH” often looking as dated as host Tony Reali’s black leather jacket and Woody Paige’s Botox deposits. Only “Pardon The Interruption” continues to work, but at some point, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon will retire. For buzz to accompany a sports debate show, there must be some element of relevant confrontation, but recent Rydholm offerings are too woke-centric and Ivy League-cute and don’t appeal to the everyday masses. Keep this in mind: “PTI” and “ATH” were spawned in the early aughts not by Rydholm, as erroneously assumed by media writers, but by former ESPN programming bosses Mark Shapiro and Jim Cohen. He did help launch the successful careers of the Showtime comedians, Desus and Mero, so maybe he should focus on that genre. If those two are anything but stale, why is his sports stuff so formulaic?
Ken Rosenthal, The Athletic — How convenient. Under a headline that said, “Let’s just enjoy the MLB All-Star Game without dwelling on who is missing,” the baseball columnist was unfazed by the defections of Jacob deGrom, Mookie Betts, various Houston wimps and numerous other players who preferred to be elsewhere. This no doubt earned Rosenthal high-fives, “Attaboys” and maybe a holiday pay sweetener from his second-job bosses at Fox Sports, which just happened to be televising the game. Pucker up, Ken! You’re batting sixth this week in the They Don’t Get It lineup.
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