ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER STINKER BOSS STAINS THE SPORTS MEDIA BUSINESS
In the journalism cradle of Syracuse, a radio CEO fired a talk-show host for telling the truth about the university’s sports failures — with pressure from his good friend, the vindictive Jim Boeheim
Sometime soon, if not already, everyone in sports media will answer to the leagues and teams they’re covering. This will require college-age aspirants to major in cheerleading, with minors in lapdog diplomacy and fanboy science.
Scott Van Pelt will be the industry ideal in his late-night zoot suit, the Mister Rogers of “SportsCenter,” his every ESPN interview a gooey exercise in be-my-neighbor creampuffery and cross-corporate backscratching.
Almost every vestige of journalism has been swallowed, sorry to say, by Big Sports and its hundreds of billions of dollars in intimidation currency. We can thank someone named Ed Levine for stink-bombing the craft at Syracuse, of all places, where newsgathering and storytelling have been fundamental in the educational experience for decades. That’s where Bob Costas and other broadcasting giants once honed their fierce independence and global purviews — and now might be ready to gather on Marshall Street for a collective retch.
With the wicked and unforgiving chill of an upstate New York storm, Levine provided America a prism into ethical mismanagement and how media bosses tether themselves to sports bedfellows. As president and CEO of Galaxy Media Partners, he fired radio talk host Brent Axe, believing his show had become too negative about the university’s sports scene. Welcome to my world, Brent. Just as I was targeted in the very large small town of Chicago, where smarmy and unscrupulous media bosses were in business bed with local franchises, Axe was scapegoated because he was honest about recent failings of Syracuse’s basketball and football programs.
And also because Levine is a close pal and business partner of Jim Boeheim, the legendary but way-past-his-time hoops coach who finally walked away last week — but not before he had an ax to grind, so to speak, unable to handle Axe’s fair criticism and prompting Levine to slay his detractor in a phone call.
“I had a problem with the content of the show,” Levine told Syracuse.com, where Axe remains employed as a sports columnist. “I’m an SU fan. I’m sorry, but I bleed Orange. I’m not going to apologize for that, and I think a fair reading of the Orange is appropriate.
“I understand (Galaxy has) a business relationship (with Syracuse), that Coach Boeheim and I are personal friends and he’s an investor in my company. I understand and acknowledge all of that. We’ve called it pretty fair, and I would argue we’ve been tough on SU when the on-field or off-field events warrant it. I just think over the past six months, it took a different tone and became overly dark and negative. I don’t think that’s what Syracuse fans want to hear.”
The CEO and coach wanted Axe to be Otto the Orange, the school mascot. Never mind that big-time college sport is engulfed in a revolution, the era of NIL payments and transfer portals, and that Syracuse is at a crossroads warranting daily scrutiny. After decades as a national player in basketball, with a football program that produced Jim Brown and Donovan McNabb, Cuse is stuck in an identity and financial crisis as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Once a proud distinction, being in the ACC now means you’re on a curb outside an exclusive gala featuring the Southeastern and Big Ten conferences. See all those broadcast riches going elsewhere. See the campus dome, once a marvel, showing its age. The mystique of Syracuse sports is eroding as Boeheim fades away at 78, his 47-year coaching reign buried in an avalanche of mediocrity.
The show, “On the Block with Brent Axe,” clearly succeeded. It was a must-listen at a time when sophisticated fans are deeply concerned about the future. But like another domineering product of the primitive 20th century, Bob Knight, Boeheim bullied the local media. It was an easy chore given his link as a minor investor at Galaxy, which broadcasts Syracuse sports events through 2025. He used writers in the national media, such as ESPN’s Pete Thamel, to spread the word about the rogue local critic. Only hours before firing Axe, Levine posted on social media that Boeheim will be joining his network — “Alert the media that James Arthur Boeheim is threatening to become part of the media!” he wrote — and might host occasional shows about basketball and more.
Out goes Axe, in comes Boeheim.
Journalism marches on.
“The fans here, they’re not the ones calling the radio show,” Boeheim told reporters in a recent rant. “Not one fan that was here tonight calls any radio show. The people that call the radio shows do not come to games. They don’t have season tickets. The only way they come is if someone gives them a ticket. Do I want to do better? Yeah, I want to do better. But the people that show up tell you whether you have support or not. Not who calls on the radio.”
His friend came to his rescue. “I wish I had a dollar for every fan that came up to me in the last six months and said, ‘Why are you guys being negative about SU?’ ” Levine said. “When we haven’t had a particularly good football, lacrosse or basketball season, everyone around here knows it. We don’t need to have our faces ground into it every day.”
He’s just another media executive who’s in the business for all the wrong reasons, not bothering to educate himself about the importance of truth and accountability. “Brent is a full-time employee of Syracuse.com,” Levine said. “I believe Syracuse.com has an agenda in regards to Syracuse University. I don’t know what that agenda is, but that agenda was manifesting itself on our airwaves. We have no agenda. We’re in business with Syracuse University, but we call it straight down the line. What I said to Brent was, I wish he covered Syracuse University with the same affection that he covered the Buffalo Bills.”
Affection? One man’s affection is another’s infection, in the grand pursuit of professionalism.
I’m sure Axe, if still on the air, would be enthused about a prized basketball transfer, guard J.J. Starling. He arrives in the portal from Notre Dame after rejecting Kansas, Alabama and UCLA, among others. Notice how he was recruited by new head coach Adrian Autry. “My relationship with coach Autry is very strong,” said Starling, who grew up in nearby Baldwinsville. N.Y. “This is a guy I know I can trust. He is going to allow his players to play with freedom and also instill confidence when they need it. Being able to play on one of the biggest stages in college basketball is definitely noteworthy.”
Gee, isn’t that positive? And he came for Autry, not the departing grump.
The censorship topic hits home for me, as regular readers know. I once lost a radio show in Chicago, at ESPN 1000, despite hammering the rival station in the ratings. In what seems like slapstick comedy years later, I refused to sign documents that I wouldn’t criticize the White Sox or Bulls — teams that had media deals with my station. Those papers were presented to me by program director Len Weiner, who met me at an Arby’s in the Loop, and I suggested he shove them with a dollop of Horsey sauce. This continued a pattern of intimidation that included harassment, on and off the air, from the baseball team’s hillbilly-homer announcer, Hawk Harrelson.
I was fired at 8 a.m the day after Christmas. This was the work of Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the two teams, who either controlled or softened everyone in the local media but me. Days later, when the ratings were made public, the station was forced to pay me a sizable incentive escalator. Notice how I had something in common with Axe: ESPN. Levine rents the four letters, but his Chicago counterpart, Good Karma Brands, owns the station in an agreement with the big blowtorch. In America’s No. 3 market, both sports stations and both newspapers have rolled over for Reinsdorf and other owners. They are promoting the teams, far from holding truth to power.
So it’s no surprise what happened in Syracuse, where I once spoke to a large class of students and emphasized freewheeling media speech, only to be met by nervous stares. It happens everywhere. If you raise too much hell and annoy too many rich sports people, the cowardly media executives come for your hide. The Sun-Times was in bed with Reinsdorf, as I’ve chronicled often, starting with two owners, Conrad Black and David Radler, who ended up in prison for skimming profits. Their underlings, Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank, weren’t happy when I admonished Reinsdorf for his low baseball payrolls. Weeks later, when I saw them in the hallway, I asked if they still thought I knew nothing about sports business.
Nah, said Cruickshank, adding that Reinsdorf didn’t buy a table for their social event.
Cooke and Cruick worked for crooks who cooked the books.
And Brent Axe gets the bent ax.
Consider it poetic malpractice.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.