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CAUTION: THIS IS WHY YOU CAN’T TRUST THE AMERICAN SPORTS MEDIA
Watchdog journalism is more vital than ever as the sports industry soars to unthinkable prosperity and popularity, but with media companies in business bed with leagues and teams, the coverage is soft
Soon enough, sports will cross the sound barrier as a $1 trillion industry. As such, this greed-and-power-bloated beast will require unprecedented scrutiny, watchdogging and journalism. There will be gambling scandals to snuff out, nefarious characters to expose and consumer fraud to uncover.
But who’s going to do the investigative work when all but a minuscule percentage of American media companies, big to medium to small, either are in cooperative relationships with leagues, franchises and/or sportsbook operations — or desperately want to be?
And when some of the world’s richest people, as listed in Forbes’ ranking of top billionaires, are calling the shots in suppressing harmful coverage while welcoming media leaders into their sports club?
The days of independently covering sports for the purpose of serving readers, viewers and listeners — holding truth to power, protecting the integrity of competition, making sure fans aren’t gypped in their financial and time investments — have been overwhelmed by the Great Media Money Grab. Oh, the daily coverage of teams, games and developments is intense. But the critical journalistic edge, more necessary than ever, only surfaces occasionally. When was the last time you saw ESPN’s acclaimed television journalist, Jeremy Schaap, do an investigative report that resonated?
If he pursues an expose concerning the NFL’s inner workings, his bosses wouldn’t air it without the expressed written consent of commissioner Roger Goodell. After all, the primary mission of Jimmy Pitaro, upon taking over as network president four years ago, was calming tensions with the NFL. He merrily has done just that, which explains how Disney Company finally is in the Super Bowl broadcast rotation and why it agreed to ramp up production quality on long-neglected “Monday Night Football,” to the absurd extent of spending a collective $165 million to poach Joe Buck and Troy Aikman from Fox. This also explains why Schaap does his share of mushy features these days, just to stay gainfully employed — instead of probing, say, sport’s improper links to the gambling industry. Nah, ESPN is much too busy posting odds, turning “Sports Center’’ anchor Scott Van Pelt into a wager-obsessed frat-house president and figuring out how to maximize sportsbook billions itself.
As for former ESPN personality Dan Le Batard, he has abandoned his once-legendary newshound skills altogether. Rather, he has sold out to a bro-dude gambling company, DraftKings, as part of a $50 million content deal peddled by former ESPN president John Skipper. There’s no chance Le Batard ever would expose a gambling scandal when his comfortable living depends on reading tout advertisements. Nor would Skipper allow it, now that he’s riding a career parachute after his cocaine-related exit from ESPN, which led to Pitaro’s takeover.
Generally, sports media are in the business of promoting sports and sports gambling. The ideal of scrutinizing sports — as America’s biggest entertainment entity, and one of its leading economic generators — has been lost in the craze of making as much money as possible. Usually, that means climbing into bed with the people they’re supposed to be covering with a poking-and-prodding sensibility and a razor’s edge. Their wink-wink gambit is a subtle exercise, not discernible to the common eye, but it’s disturbingly clear when crunch time arrives.
Do you really think a Dallas-area columnist or talk host would lead the charge to oust Jerry Jones, as evidence piles up that he’s a dirty old man? Do you really think Fox Sports would touch such stories when the Cowboys owner — one of the most powerful people in sports — is on speed dial with CEO Eric Shanks, who also is ignoring Urban Meyer’s missteps to rehire him for a Saturday college football show? I’m still waiting for Chicago’s two daily newspapers, both on death row, to follow up on a lawsuit against the White Sox, who were sued last year by an autistic batboy accusing Omar Vizquel of sexually harassing him when Vizquel managed their Double-A affiliate, the Birmingham Barons. I e-mailed a Chicago Tribune higher-up and urged him to pursue the story, among several suggestions on how his sleepy sports product might improve.
He thanked me. But he has done nothing with the story, nor has the Sun-Times. Everyone in the market is intimidated by White Sox and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, with whom I dutifully tangled during my 17-plus years as a Chicago columnist (as I detailed in a recent lengthy piece about the corrupt, dysfunctional Sun-Times). If an investigative reporter chases the Vizquel story, his editors incur the wrath of Reinsdorf and his legal cronies, who make phone calls and threaten jobs. The much easier editorial path is to ignore the story. I could focus on other markets, and the same cowardice and obedience would exist. Which is why the written and broadcast media never have been less relevant in that city and in this country.
Fortunately, the sports news desert has pockets of oases. I see effective digging on HBO’s two laser-focused shows, hosted by journalistic lifers Bob Costas and Bryant Gumbel. I see it from time to time at ESPN.com, not to be confused with ESPN’s TV blowtorch, when Don Van Natta Jr. or the Brothers Fainaru weigh in as bulldogs until their contracts run out — Van Natta on Jones, the Fainarus (Steve and Mark) on Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and “the compromises imbedded’’ in the NBA’s relationship with China. The Washington Post won’t stop shoveling dirt on Daniel Snyder and his rotten NFL franchise until he falls into the grave, if Arlington National Cemetery will have him. The Athletic, admirably, does strong investigative work on some of the bad actors in sports — athletes, that is. Sports Illustrated has robust moments.
But I also ask, fairly, if the Post’s attacks on Snyder are agenda-driven. Wouldn’t the newspaper’s owner, Jeff Bezos, love to swoop in and buy the Washington Commanders if Snyder is forced to sell? As for The Athletic, the site employed a writer, Molly Knight, who wrote that Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer fractured the skull of a woman who accused him of sexual assault during rough-sex sessions. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office is not pursuing charges against Bauer. “There was no basis for that assertion because the Complainant’s own medical records — which The Athletic possessed — showed that she had no such fracture,” Bauer’s defamation suit against the site contends. Sometimes, shady actions lurk behind tough reporting and commentary, such as when two writers from The Athletic, Tim Kawakami and Steve Berman, had to issue published mea culpas when Reuben Foster, then a 49ers linebacker, was cleared of domestic violence charges in 2018.
This makes it vital to have incisive media writers who examine their own peers. For instance, when will someone point out the difference between “personal initiative and hustle vs. spoon-feeding,’’ as Chicago critic Jim O’Donnell puts it? The HBO enterprise shows and the likes of Van Natta and the Fainarus fall into the hustle category. Adrian Wojnarowski and Adam Schefter, ESPN’s two most prominent “insiders,’’ are spoon-fed stories.
In what only can be seen as incestuous relationships with the people they cover, Wojnarowski and Schefter lean on players’ agents and league people for their scoops. They demand this inside information for the favor of never criticizing those who dish. In essence, they serve as agents for the agents — and, by extension, the athletes they represent — and the leagues that ESPN is in bed with. You’ll never see Schefter rip an NFL team or player agent that is good to him, which pretty much entails all of them. Same goes for Wojnarowski.
To call this a conflict of interest is an understatement, especially when ESPN rewards these “sleuths’’ with lucrative contracts (a reported $9 million annually for Schefter, $7 million for Wojnarowski). Pitaro is rewarding his insiders for simply scrolling text messages for their latest hand-delivered stories. It is such a treacherous racket, the process can backfire on them in embarrassing ways. As the final buzzer was sounding Sunday night in Denver and ending the Lakers’ ugly season, a Woj Bomb — as his scoops are called — was dropping on social media. Frank Vogel was out as head coach.
Problem was, Vogel had yet to be told and made his disgust obvious when asked at the post-game news conference. Had the Lakers used Wojnarowski to do their dirty work? Hey, the objective of sports reporting is to have the story first, and he did beat the Los Angeles Times, The Athletic and all other outlets. But what happens later, when the Lakers expect a return gift from Wojnarowski in kind? This is how he does his business with player agents, too. You scratch my ass, I’ll cover yours.
“Speculative and unsourced,’’ Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka said of the leak.
What else is he going to say?
I refer to the practice as Federism. For decades, Robert Feder has broken stories about the Chicago media world via the same sleazy spoon-feeding. Broadcast executives such as Mitch Rosen and Larry Wert scratch his ass, and he covers theirs. Never mind the truth. Feder writes whatever they tell him to write, tailoring the news to their needs. He works media agents the same way. His bosses have let him get away with it because, I suppose, his readership is reasonably high in a Midwest market that treats media stars as Hollywood celebrities. But how does Feder look in the mirror at night? And how many media people, who aren’t on good terms with Rosen and Wert, are being screwed by Federism in the process?
Schefter has built his own Twitter following, 9.4 million strong, with the same ethics-stretching agreements. He officially lost me when he asked Bruce Allen, then the president of Snyder’s Washington franchise, to look over a story before ESPN.com published it. “Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked,” Schefter wrote in a note to Allen. “Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust. Plan to file this to espn about 6 am ….”
Gee, why no credit for Allen in a dual byline?
But Schefter has other problems. Last weekend, he carelessly tweeted this after getting a tragic tip from an agent in his stable: “Dwayne Haskins, a standout at Ohio State before struggling to catch on with Washington and Pittsburgh in the NFL, died this morning when he got hit by a car in South Florida, per his agent Cedric Saunders. Haskins would have turned 25 years old on May 3.” No one needed to be reminded of Haskins’ career struggles in the first sentence of his obituary.
Shouldn’t ESPN, which still claims to be a caretaker of sports journalism, reprimand Schefter? And, while at it, talk to Wojnarowski? Sorry, they are protected by means of their fat contracts. They can screw up without fear of administrative penalty.
All of which diminishes whatever newsgathering these organizations purport to do. It’s as if they want their sports promotional machine and their journalism cake, too — when, in truth, the big bosses would rather abandon serious journalism and join Goodell and NBA commissioner Adam Silver for 18 holes at the club. They think they’ve found a middle ground by referring to the grand mission as “storytelling.” The Athletic defines its strategy as “access reporting,’’ not realizing it’s an acknowledgement of being in cahoots with teams so reporters can stand in a room with other reporters for the same bland quotes. When I met with The Athletic’s founders years ago, they told me how they liked their first Chicago hire because he “goes into the locker room.’’ That’s cool, but rarely are great stories found in locker rooms, where packs of media generally move around in scrums. The best sports stories are found outside the box, outside league-and-team-controlled environments.
Six years later, their guy has broken zero notable stories and made little impact in a passionate sports town woefully underserved by media. But Jon Greenberg does suck up to the White Sox and Bulls, who have won one title between them in the 21st century. All you need to know about Chicago, or anywhere, is an appalling wave of the journalistic white flag by a writer at the Sun-Times, where sports coverage has grown soft, boring, uninspired and predictable. “I’ve heard colleagues refer to the sports department as the toy department. Anyone who would take offense to that would be taking themselves too seriously,’’ he wrote recently. “Sports are fun and games.’’
His name is Jeff Agrest. He is the deputy sports editor.
And the sports media columnist.
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.