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FIVE WHO GET IT, FIVE WHO DON’T
A weekly analysis of the best/worst in sports media from a content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who is vaccinated and will be eviscerated for saying so.
THEY GET IT
Joe West, legal victor — No one is mocking Country Joe today. In a court ruling long overdue in the reckless, irresponsible world of sports bloviating, the controversial baseball umpire won $500,000, plus interest, in a defamation-suit triumph over former big-league player Paul Lo Duca. Consider this a lesson for talk hosts and podcasters: Don’t lie about people, or you will pay. On a 2019 Action Network podcast called ‘‘The Favorites,’’ LoDuca accused the ump of cutting a deal with his then-Mets teammate, Billy Wagner: West would provide a more favorable strike zone in a game against the Phillies as long as he could use the pitcher’s vintage automobile. If only the claim were true; West worked only one Mets-Phillies game during the two seasons when Lo Duca and Wagner were teammates, reported USA Today, and Wagner wasn’t used in that game. That didn’t stop co-host Lo Duca from claiming on his show, ‘‘I get back into the clubhouse and I’m like, ‘What the f— just happened right now?’ And Wagner just winks at me. I’m like, ‘`What’s the secret?’ He’s like, ‘Eh, Joe loves antique cars, so every time he comes into town, I lend him my ’57 Chevy so he can drive it around, so then he opens up the strike zone for me.’ ‘’ In Manhattan Supreme Court, Judge John Kelley showered West with $250,000 for ``past mental anguish and emotional distress’’ and $250,000 to ‘‘compensate for expenses he will need to incur in retaining a public relations firm to formulate and operationalize a sufficient reputation remediation plan.’’ Know how many lawyers are on the phone today with defamed clients, ready to pounce? The operative word: precedent.
Houston Chronicle — When an attorney declares himself a shark and has the tattoos to prove it — why, yes, I might question his agenda and proclivity for self-promotion. But I am a columnist who has the latitude to analyze Tony Buzbee in his relentless legal challenge of Deshaun Watson. Aaron Wilson, as a beat writer who covered the Houston Texans for the Chronicle, does not. When Wilson appeared on Boston sports station WEEI and referred to the plethora of sexual assault lawsuits against Watson as ‘‘ambulance chasing’’ and a ‘‘money grab,’’ his editors had every right to fire him because a reporter required to be fact-neutral had veered into a heavy commentary lane. With the lines blurred more than ever these days, media outlets should clarify to confused consumers the fundamental differences between commentary and news-gathering. Wilson came off as a pro-Texans honk when he foolishly said, ``You don’t negotiate with terrorists’’ — meaning, Watson was powerful and wealthy enough to pay off his accusers. If by chance Watson walks away from all allegations, Wilson might have a lawsuit himself against his former employer. But executive editor Steve Riley was correct when he wrote to the staff, per Defector.com: ‘‘`Facts are good. Analysis is OK. Opinion, speculation or baseless assertions are not. We won’t tolerate that sort of commentary.” Wilson apologized and vowed to ``proceed much more carefully going forward and learn from this moment. ‘‘I am committed to outstanding journalism now and always.” In a media business of selective cancellation, we’ll see if his otherwise successful career is allowed a restart. The management ranks are filled with cowards who make decisions via Google and social-media reaction and don’t ask questions.
Masters journalists — They got it, all right: COVID-19. I wondered when a sports media gathering would be hit by a coronavirus outbreak and whether there would be a mass panic exodus. I’m pleased to report nothing of the such. Those who tested positive and those who’d been in close contact handled their infections professionally, simply staying away from Augusta National in local quarantine. There were no reports of serious illness or hospitalization. Wrote Brendan Quinn of the Athletic: ‘‘``So ... this is a bummer. I’m among those who briefly came into (masked) contact w/ an individual who later tested positive for Covid. Due to contact tracing policies, I’m quarantining and no longer on-site covering the Masters.’’ Quinn then provided a blueprint on how to continue coverage in quarantine, writing, ‘‘So for the past three days I’ve been watching the Masters on TV and online. And again and again, I’ve found myself looking at fans in the gallery as much as the players. It’s quite a sight. Try it Sunday, while Hideki Matsuyama attempts to close out his four-shot lead and the likes of Justin Rose and Will Zalatoris give chase. Look at the faces in the crowd. Look at the reactions. Look at the attention. Look at the kids who are seeing that feeling every swing, instead of thumbing away on a screen. Maybe let it be a reminder. We spent the last year living through screens. Zoom calls. Netflix. FaceTime. Instagram. For months, we were locked in house-shaped cages. As we return to the world safely and vaccinated, let’s consider that sometimes it might be worth leaving the phone in the pocket.’’ Well done, as Nick Faldo would say. With big names falling out of contention or not surviving the cut, some might say this was a Masters to miss — the Mehsters, if you will. Still, there was a hardship in not being there: no pimento cheese and barbecue sandwiches.
Jon Krawczynski, the Athletic — If Gonzaga can lose its perfect season in the national championship game, then Adrian Wojnarowski can lose an NBA scoop. A Minnesota-based writer, Krawczynski tweeted on Saturday at 6:49 p.m.Bristol time: ‘‘3-time MLB MVP Alex Rodriguez and close friend Marc Lore have signed a letter of intent and are negotiating with Glen Taylor to become the next owners of the Minnesota Timberwolves, sources tell @TheAthletic.’’ The Woj Bomb was slow to the switch, coming in 10 minutes later according to the Twitter timeline. How nice if ESPN had credited the Athletic for having the A-Rod news first, but lately, both parties have been guilty of not acknowledging the other’s scoops. If I’m keeping score, I’m assuming others are in media — the Associated Press properly credited the Athletic. Memo to all: Don’t be petty, or I’m going to polish off the Sam Smith Sourpuss Trophy, named for the former Chicago Tribune sportswriter who was whipped soundly on the story of Michael Jordan’s return to the NBA but didn’t credit me and the Chicago Sun-Times, only referring to ‘‘a newspaper.’’
Young, promising podcasters — I shot an objecting email to sports radio god Bruce Gilbert when he said, during an industry conference, that podcasts are like a-holes — everyone has one. He’s right to say there are gazillions of them, but the wisecrack wasn’t fair to broadcasting aspirants who are using the platform to attract prominent ears. I’ve made recent guest appearances on several podcasts, and I was impressed by the questions assembled by hosts of Chicago-based ‘‘Friendly Confines’’ and New York-based ‘‘`You Know I’m Right.’’ I wasn’t as impressed by a Chicago loser who misrepresented himself, asking to discuss Tiger Woods when he actually wanted me — ready? — to apologize to the White Sox. What am I apologizing for? The Sox, who have been to the playoffs once in 12 years and have rigged as many World Series as they’ve won the last 102 years, still have to prove they can consistently beat right-handed pitching and not let fly balls conk them in the head before winning games in October. Fortunately, that goof is the exception to a pleasant surprise: The kids get it. Encourage them, please.
Turner Sports — The same could be said for sports documentaries these days — like a-holes, everyone has one. But this one is meaningful and timeless, the story of how baseball helped a nation spiritually after the attacks of 9/11. Joe Torre and Bobby Valentine, who managed New York’s teams at the time, have collaborated on the project as executive producers. As pointed out by the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand, the partnership is particularly compelling given Valentine’s remarks years ago, when he said the Mets were much more involved than the Yankees in the public recovery. ‘‘`I was dealing with players who were dealing with this fear factor, and even some of them dealing with a little bit of a guilt factor,” Valentine told WFAN. ‘‘Then there was the situation with the Yankees across town. Because let it be said, that during the time from 9-11 to 9-21, the Yankees were AWOL. You couldn’t find a Yankee on the streets of New York City. You couldn’t find a Yankee down at Ground Zero talking to guys who were working 24-7. Many of them didn’t live here, and so it wasn’t their fault. Many of them did not partake in all that and so there was some of that jealousy going around. Like `Why are we so tired, why had we been to funerals and the firehouses and the Yankees are getting all the credit for bringing baseball back?’ And I said, ‘This isn’t about credit, guys. This is about doing the right thing.’ ‘’ Twenty years later, a horrific moment in time demands a raw canvas — doubly important during a pandemic that sees sports carry on without much outward sympathy for COVID casualties. I know, another week of Six Who Get It.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Bill Simmons, rockhead — I remind you that this guy, miscast as editor-in-chief of the now-defunct ESPN site Grantland, approved a published article that outed a transgender golf inventor — who subsequently committed suicide, prompting Simmons’ 2,720-word apology. Why am I not surprised he has learned nothing from that mistake in judgment? Apparently not current on news events that include anti-Asian hatred and violence in America, Simmons mocked CBS’ Jim Nantz for his socially responsible call that concluded the Masters: ‘‘``Matsuyama is Japan’s first Masters champion!’’ Simmons said Nantz was ‘‘scared’’ and afraid of ‘‘cancel culture’’ when, in fact, he was being mindful not to exacerbate tensions that include a recent shooting rampage at Atlanta-area spas, where six women of Asian descent were murdered. Said Simmons on his podcast, offering his idea of a better call: ‘‘I had the savvy one. ‘Heat of the Moment,’ which was a song that won like five Grammys by a band called Asia in the 80's. I think Nantz could have gone stealth and done, ‘It was the heat of the moment, Hideki Matsui is our Masters champion.’ Something like that and then it just would have been really underground. Nobody really would have gotten it. But he just played it chalk. You know what? You just signed a new contract, Jim Nantz. We don't want a scared Jim Nantz. Come up with some sort of line. Anything? Disappointing." That Simmons described Hideki Matsuyama as Hideki Matsui, the former major-league ballplayer, is beyond disgraceful. But his flippant take on the entire matter compels me to ask, as I have before: How in creation did this overgrown fanboy ever become a leader and entrepreneur in sports media? When someone does the narration of Simmons’ life, which is becoming less likely by the day, the tag line should be: ‘‘Once a bartender, always a bartender.’’
CBS, ESPN and All Tiger Protectors — Not that Nantz ever will be confused with a journalist. He and his fellow mush-and-gush twin, Scott Van Pelt, are brothers from another mother in their zeal to paint sports as an ongoing fairy tale. When the networks and most mainstream media ignored a responsibility to present a disturbing story bigger than anything at Augusta National — the grisly SUV crash of Tiger Woods, his history with opioids and whether police accorded him preferential treatment by not seeking blood tests — they insulted a public that deserves an investigation of Woods, not blanket protection. Shame on CBS boss Sean McManus, son of legendary journalist Jim McKay, for not devoting a hard-news segment to Woods during Masters coverage. Van Pelt didn’t even explain what happened, simply saying, ‘‘Tiger knows that the competitors here are thinking about him’’ before shifting into weepy mode and adding, ‘‘It was impossible to miss a young man hugging his father in ’97, and that man, now a father (in 2019), hugging his children in the very same spot.’’ As I wrote last week, we’re still not getting answers from the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department about Woods, who was driving almost double the speed limit on the back roads of Palos Verdes Peninsula. Most public figures of his stature would be subjected to media probes and robust opinion pieces, but for some reason, Tiger is sacred. Do the media not realize he is extremely fortunate not to have killed other drivers or pedestrians that morning, or himself, when he was speeding between 84 and 87 mph on a curvy, downhill road with a 45 mph sign? I grasp that the networks are in it for the revenues. But don’t cowardly abandon journalism so TV executives can buy their third vacation homes.
Twitter — From personal experience, Twitter’s gatekeepers continue to allow misinformation from trolls even when challenged with documents. But when commentator Jason Whitlock, who is Black, pointed out an unavoidable fact — Topanga Canyon ``has a black population of 1.4%’’ while voicing dismay that a Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors, purchased a $1.4 million home in the Los Angeles hillside community — the Twitter police suspended Whitlock’s account, determining that he can’t post ‘‘other people’s private information without their express (sic) authorization and permission.’’ More likely, a moderately paid worker given unchecked authority decided Whitlock was an anti-BLM propagandist. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey should spend less time grooming his Abe Lincoln beard and more time on policy consistency. For a while now, I’ve used Twitter only as a billboard for published columns and podcasts. My motto: Use Twitter, but don’t let Twitter use you.
ESPN “``Daily Wager’’ — It’s painful enough to see sports coverage invaded by relentless references to point spreads and prop bets. Now, ESPN2/ESPN+ will broadcast an entire NBA game with an all-gambling focus, choosing this evening’s Nets-76ers game as the ‘‘first alternate presentation fully driven by sports betting content.’’ With a minute left, say the Sixers have a 15-point lead while giving three points. Say the Nets score six quick points and cut the legitimate lead to nine with 30 seconds left. When the actual game is all but over, are the ``betting analysts’’ sitting in a Las Vegas studio — Doug Kezirian, Joe Fortenbaugh, Tyler Fulgham and even former NBA player Kendrick Perkins, who should know better than to dip into this alternate-universe sludge — going to start shrieking like it’s a tight game? Attention all gamblers: What you’re watching and betting on is not real. At least these experiments aren’t on ESPN’s blowtorch feed. Yet.
Dave Portnoy, Barstool Sports — Of course, he would release a sex tape. Of course, the woman with him in the tape was wearing a leather dog collar as he yanked her neck with a metal leash. Of course, the New York Post would run with it. Of course, the stock price of Penn National Gaming — which owns a chunk of Portnoy’s company — would slip. Of course, Portnoy would launch a rant: ‘‘`A stock is down because somebody has consensual sex? Are you f—ing kidding me? I would jump on this (stock) and I would f— it. No pun intended.” Of course, his tape partner, who goes by Sydney Raines, wrote on Instagram, ‘‘Some might not approve of the video content but it was entirely consensual and it’s unfortunate that it is no longer private, but (Portnoy and I) are still friends with no animosity between us.” Of course, Portnoy would say it’s one of three sex tapes he has produced. Of course, the degenerate-male demographic loves it. Of course, this is America in 2021.
Hawk Harrelson, unworthy Baseball Hall of Famer — Our sixth entry comes from New York. Braindead from too many apologists in soft markets such as Chicago, where Harrelson took hillbilly homerism to new lows, I was thrilled to hear Mets broadcasters Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez call out their team for a cheap victory. When Michael Conforto intentionally leaned into a pitch in the strike zone, he should have been declared out on a third strike, as home plate ump Ron Kulpa later acknowledged in a … Mea Kulpa. Instead, he ruled Conforto had been hit by a pitch, which forced in the winning run — and, refreshingly, angered the voices who are financially connected to the Mets. ‘‘They’re trying to get it right. They don’t get it right. So why even have replay?’’ Darling grumbled. Why couldn’t Harrelson, a 2020 Hall inductee only because White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf greased the political skids, have practiced such professionalism instead of embarrassing himself every single day? Hawkeroo would have celebrated in the booth, then rushed downstairs to hug Kulpa. Too bad the White Sox didn’t hire current voice Jason Benetti, the delightful polar opposite of Harrelson, many years ago.
Kevin Durant, social media loser — And, of course, a late seventh entry. At this point, after humiliating himself with homophobic and misogynistic direct messages to an equally pathetic Michael Rapaport, Durant should be shutting down his devices and preparing for a postseason media circus with the Nets. Nope. When Fox Sports 1 host Shannon Sharpe mistook a fake Durant tweet as real and referenced it on ``Undefeated’’ —’’`People argue (LeBron James) is the GOAT, but if I beat him in back-to-back finals, then what does that make me?” — Durant shot back: ‘‘Y’all drunk uncle out here lying again. When did I say this @ShannonSharpe ???????????????????????????” Prediction: Durant and Kyrie Irving spar with the local and national media throughout the playoffs, and the Nets crash, prompting Durant to spend his summer as a Twitter arsonist.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ is the host of ``Unmuted,’’ a frequent podcast about sports and life (Apple, Spotify, etc.). He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio host. As a Los Angeles resident, he gravitated by osmosis to movie projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.