MEMO TO MEDIA CRITICS: YOU CAN’T CONDEMN MEYER AND ADORE BARKLEY
Urban Meyer is no saint, but when his misdeeds are juxtaposed against those of Charles Barkley, it’s painful to read hypocrites who slam Fox for returning Meyer to its “Big Noon Kickoff” studio show
Just out of college, eager to accept any beat, I was assigned the sports media column by my first newspaper editor. The bowling writer apparently didn’t want it. When executed properly, with strict independence and no cronyism, the gig can be a niche asset to any sports content initiative.
But when done irresponsibly — say, protecting a TV analyst you like and vilifying one you loathe, topped with a thick dollop of hypocrisy — the rat stench leaves a credibility void in the bigger product.
The idea that Urban Meyer shouldn’t be working on Fox’s college football studio show, “Big Noon Kickoff,” was first launched by The Athletic’s Richard Deitsch. He has covered sports media for much too long — I quickly moved on to a lengthy career as a general sports columnist — and he tends to hold curmudgeonly grudges while kissing the asses of those who can grease his professional skids. He never has liked Meyer, and, certainly, there are reasons to condemn his recent failings as a one-and-done NFL head coach in Jacksonville.
In an episode that forever will be known as The Urban Legend, as caught on video in a bar, Meyer lost his mind early last season. Rather than bond with his players after a Thursday night game in Cincinnati, where a loss left the Jaguars at 0-4, he blew off the flight home … and took a frat-boy detour to his former championship stomping grounds in nearby Columbus. There, in the college town where he’ll never have to buy a drink and always will have a friendly female backside available, he cavorted with a woman who danced up to him as he sat inside Urban Chophouse, a restaurant he owns. Then he touched her backside with his right hand, which might not have been a sin if he wasn’t married and his wife wasn’t at home babysitting their grandchild. In a sports world that forgives winners, no one cared much about this public slip at Ohio State, where he won a national title in 2014. But as the Jaguars slid into the league’s dregs, Meyer was reviled as a scoundrel whose verbal scoldings of players and coaches were viewed as abusive.
He was fired after losing 11 of 13 games. Weeks later, kicker Josh Lambo accused Meyer of kicking him as he warmed up before a preseason practice, which Meyer denied before the inevitable “emotional distress” lawsuit was filed. All eyes turned to the Fox Sports compound in Los Angeles, where he had enjoyed a successful run as an analyst before grabbing the NFL carrot offered on the yacht of Jaguars owner Shad Khan. Could a case be made that Meyer should have been blackballed permanently from a media comeback? I suppose, sort of.
But to go that far as a critic, I’d have to ask myself — as Deitsch did not — if I could cancel Meyer from the profession without also demanding the cancellation of the beloved basketball commentator, Charles Barkley. Did Meyer screw up? Yes, he was an NFL disaster and a dirty-old grandpa who embarrassed himself on both fronts. At Ohio State, he did himself no favors with a dawdling reaction to an assistant coach accused at the time — not convicted — of domestic violence. Years earlier at Florida, he recruited problematic players, just as other leading programs recruited problematic players. But did he screw up to the degree that Barkley has screwed up in his personal life? The way Barkley has fallen short in his playing career?
Let’s compare the transgressions. Meyer never has been arrested, but Barkley has been arrested at least five times — he says “eight times.” In 2008, he was busted for DUI after running a red light on New Year’s Eve in Scottsdale, Ariz., explaining to the police officer, “You want to know the truth? I was gonna drive around the corner and get a blow job.” He received a five-day jail sentence in a tent city where most inmates were forced to wear pink underwear, but he was given a pass. Of course, Deitsch and other media Barkleyphiles didn’t demand his firing, but they did continue to fawn over him and praise his TNT program, “Inside The NBA,” as the best sports studio show ever.
Violence? Barkley was arrested in Orlando for throwing a heckler through a plate-glass window at a bar. He was arrested in Milwaukee for breaking a man’s nose after a game, an altercation in which he threw karate kicks and removed his clothes. Spitting into a crowd during a game, his saliva landed on a little girl. The NBA was so appalled by his off-court altercations as a player, commissioner David Stern ordered Barkley to hire security guards or retire from the game.
I could cite more examples. I could mention the tens of millions he has blown as a gambling fiend, as the NBA cuts murky deals with sportsbooks and downplays the possibility of game-fixing and other scandals. One day, tired of being ripped by Barkley, LeBron James didn’t have to look far for return ammunition: “I’m not going to let him disrespect my legacy like that. I’m not the one who threw somebody through a window. I never spit on a kid. I never had unpaid debt in Las Vegas. I never showed up to All-Star Weekend on Sunday because I was in Vegas all weekend partying. All I've done for my entire career is represent the NBA the right way. Never got in trouble. Respected the game. Print that.”
Print this, too: If the metric is championships, Meyer has won three in his career. Barkley has won none. Hardware equals media cred, correct?
Yet, not once has Deitsch and his groupthink cadre — Sports Illustrated’s Jimmy Traina included — taken down Barkley for his criminal and unethical behavior or suggested he be removed from his job. Meyer? Writes Deitsch: “If the issue of character in the game comes up (on the Fox show) … sorry, I just dropped my laptop from laughing.”
And he doesn’t laugh when Barkley talks about character?
Writes Traina, making the same point: “So while Meyer might be fine breaking down X’s and O’s, how on Earth is he going to go on national television and talk about the behavior of college football players or what a player’s character means or how a player can’t let his teammates down? He’ll do it because that will be his job and he has no shame. And Fox will pretend Meyer doesn’t have a credibility problem because Fox doesn’t care about his credibility problem.”
And Barkley doesn’t have a credibility problem?
Adds The Athletic’s David Ubben, a college football writer who was making the same point: “It’s hard not to think about … (Meyer’s) history almost every second he’s on screen.”
But it’s easy to completely forget about Barkley’s DUI, oral-sex hunt, numerous arrests for violence and the little girl he spit on?
To wit: Most sports media critics aren’t to be taken seriously. Or my first boss in Detroit never would have handed the job to a 21-year-old. The only people who care about sports media, I’m convinced, are sports media people.
Just don’t insult our intelligence with fanboy double-standards.
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.