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SPORTS MEDIA COLUMN: FIVE WHO GET IT (ME, MANNING); FIVE WHO DON'T (BREES, VAN PELT)
A weekly analysis of the best/worst in sports media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows and podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts
THEY GET IT
Me — I’ve come to realize, in 18 months of writing media columns for Jason Barrett’s site, that the only people who care about sports media are sports media people. I think you grasp by now who gets it and who doesn’t get it from my perspective. And I get it by knowing when to step away and focus on my sports columns for Substack — after all, I am a career sports columnist at a time when a fading column-writing craft needs robust dissections of a $600 billion industry immersed in legal gambling, COVID-19 stadium ignorance and countless other self-interest compromises. It’s still fun to write about events and athletes, but I won’t contribute to elevating media people into the gods they are not. The best advice I can offer aspirants is to NEVER allow a media career to define your existence as a human being, because, chances are, industry people generally will fall short of your expectations and exploit this profession for all the wrong reasons and agendas. I hope I’ve been able to shed light on my experiences, correct misconceptions about me and help formulate playbooks for sports media’s murky future. I’d always assumed athletes owned the mega-egos, but based on burner-account feedback, the true megalomaniacs are inside studios and C-suite offices. I’m proud to have been the anti-Richard Deitsch — by that, I mean actually critiquing media with a razor’s edge instead of presiding ineffectually at The Athletic. In that vein, Phil Mushnick of the New York Post always gets it, while Deitsch and other imposters tend to curry the favor of network public-relations departments. Hey, they have paychecks to protect! As you know, I only curl my lips for loved ones.
Peyton Manning, ESPN — He’ll be calling an Omaha-like audible soon enough, slipping out the door of his Man Cave studio and ditching a TV world he doesn’t want. What Manning wants is to own a piece of an NFL franchise, and he’s well aware that the Denver Broncos will be sold to the highest bidder next year — good news for a man who is raising his kids in a 16,000-square-foot home about 20 minutes from Empower Field at Mile High. Imagine him as ownership’s public face, joining Jeff Bezos and Jay-Z as possible major investors in an expected $4 billion deal, as first reported by Front Office Sports. Had Manning really wanted to do “Monday Night Football,’’ he would have agreed to a lucrative, long-term contract in the on-site booth and not settled for an alternate gamecast, where he sits on a couch and kids brother Eli about childhood acne and pretends to be Jon Gruden in a headset and Raiders cap. As I watched, all I could think was: Why is Peyton, who would be a gamechanger on the perpetually underachieving “MNF’’ production, wasting his time and our time on ESPN2 and ESPN+? The idea is to give viewers a folksy option via America’s favorite football family, but people want to hear Manning do the game in the stadium — they don’t want the game as a background visual for two brothers shooting the hay with occasional contributions from the likes of Charles Barkley, who, of course, offered gambling tips via Zoom. Manning is a very smart man. He doesn’t want to analyze the action. He wants to be The Action.
John McEnroe, ESPN — If he never played nice with chair umpires as a player, he certainly won’t be teasing a network tennis audience to keep watching a U.S. Open final when a comeback looks impossible. Realizing Novak Djokovic was minutes from losing his Grand Slam bid, McEnroe bid adieu to his broadcast partners — brother Patrick and Chris Fowler — which had to mortify Bristol bosses praying for a miracle finish against competing NFL telecasts. “John, you’re rolling the credits,’’ said Fowler, somewhat aghast. But this is what you get when you hire an outspoken realist to analyze the Slams. Good for McEnroe, who repeatedly referred to Djokovic-slayer Daniil Medvedev as “this guy,’’ for staying true to his audience and not playing television’s b.s. game.
Allison Williams, ESPN — I’d have more respect for the company’s vaccination mandate for all employees if Bristol stopped a disturbing, contradictory practice — sweeping shots of maskless fans at sold-out football games, where students at Alabama, Auburn and other Southern COVID-iocy capitals chant “F—k Joe Biden!’’ But the veteran sideline reporter has a valid reason for rejecting the vaccine and stepping aside from job duties this season. As she wrote on Twitter: “While my work is incredibly important to me, the most important role I have is as a mother. Throughout family planning with our doctor, as well as a fertility specialist, I have decided not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at this time while my husband and I try for a second child. This was a deeply difficult decision to make and it's not something I take lightly. I understand vaccines have been essential in the effort to end this pandemic, however taking the vaccine at this time is not in my best interest. After a lot of prayer and deliberation, I have decided I must put my family and personal health first.’’
Derek Jeter, scorekeeper — When a voting baseball writer possesses the gall — and stupidity — to leave Jeter off his Hall of Fame ballot, the least he can do is stop hiding and explain why he adversely impacted baseball history. The only “no’’ vote put Jeter’s total at 396, one shy of joining former Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera as the only first-ballot unanimous selections. The Captain took a well-deserved shot at the anonymous killjoy, saying during his induction speech, “Thank you to the baseball writers — all but one of you who voted for me.’’ It was his way of shaming the lone wolf, if only in his bathroom mirror. I understand the integrity of maintaining electoral privacy, but I, for one, wouldn’t mind if someone in the know leaks the identity of the rogue voter. Maybe it would deter the next wise-guy charlatan from poisoning the process.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Drew Brees, NBC — In any worthwhile School of Communication, a college student hears a professor utter this advice in the first class: “Be yourself!’’ No one at the network bothered to tell Brees, who showed up for his ballyhooed “Football Night In America’’ studio gig with a new Hair Club For Men hairline. As it is, large swaths of America don’t trust Brees after his anti-kneeling comments last year, in the charged aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, when he said he “will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.’’ For some misguided reason, Brees thought it was a good idea to pin a piece of Superdome turf on what formerly was a large, shiny balding region. Between the wig, whiter teeth, a refreshed face and a thinner appearance, I haven’t seen a TV personality have so much work since Woody Paige discovered there are tanning booths in Denver. Brees was roasted on social media, which wasn’t the start NBC wanted when he inevitably will be compared to the gold standard of football analysts, the revered Tony Romo. On the set, Brees delivered what seemed a great line after a highlight reel of opening-day scoring passes by his successor in New Orleans, Jameis Winston, saying he was happy the Saints finally found someone to throw a deep ball. But even that moment turned sour when host Mike Tirico said Brees had stolen his line. It’s tough when, in the same week, you realize your old team doesn’t miss you and that memes are comparing your hairline to Stephen A. Smith’s.
Scott Van Pelt, ESPN — Having invested billions in major programming that conveniently feeds into its signature “SportsCenter’’ show, ESPN has squandered an opportunity to be a definitive, for-the-record platform by trotting out this overgrown frat-house president and schmooze-happy friend of all sports figures. What the time slot needs is a robust presence capable of perspective-loaded essays that interpret and celebrate what we’ve just witnessed. Van Pelt lacks the intellectual depth and heft — gravitas, they call it — to deliver. Why pay so much money for premium content when you can’t put a memorable, magnetic bow on it. This isn’t about catering to social media followers, bro-dude bettors on campuses or Tony the Tiger in cereal ads. This is about consistently providing a best-in-class panorama of why we’re watching and what it all means. Monday night, after ESPN aired a promo that announced “The Greatest Moments In Sports Happen Here,’’ Van Pelt quickly reminded the bro-dudes that “ ‘Bad Beats’ are on the way’’ — got to keep that gambling blood gurgling, you know — then followed a wild Raiders-Ravens game by telling analysts Brian Griese and Louis Riddick: “I’m struggling at the moment.’’ Never admit that you’re struggling to ask questions about an overtime thriller. Imagine Van Pelt doing a post-game show when Disney finally airs a Super Bowl.
Kenny Mayne, free agent — With more clarity about his ESPN departure, it’s obvious Mayne’s career wounds were self-inflicted. A reasonable person can’t blame management for monitoring his anti-Trump tweets, as he revealed in a profile in The Ringer, at a time when fellow Bristol personalities Jemele Hill and Dan Le Batard were falling out of favor for their own needlessly self-important political activism. What a shame that Mayne mistakenly thought his witticisms would fly beyond what he did well: delivering “SportsCenter’’ scripts about actual sports news. Who really cared what Kenny thought when a White House doctor said President Trump was in “excellent’’ overall health in 2018? Tweeted Mayne: “President’s doc just hand timed me in the 40 at 4.21 in Snoop Dogg slippers. Moderate wind. sports#’’ He recalls, “`I got a Norby call on that one,’’ referring to stick-to-sports sheriff Norby Williamson. Like Le Batard and Hill, Mayne has seen his impact wane since leaving Bristol, and while he does commercials and hosted a Tokyo Olympics show for NBC’s Peacock streaming service, the Kenny Mayne we knew and enjoyed on ESPN no longer exists. I’m guessing he would have been offered a raise, not a massive pay cut, if he wasn’t another frustrated late-night comedian working on Middle Street in Bristol when he’d have preferred Hollywood Boulevard, Broadway or 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — Anyone who thought he might mellow after a year of professional disgrace — with no screwup worse than when he mocked Shohei Ohtani for using an interpreter, after which I wrote that his middle initial stands for Ass — is advised to avoid a radio interview where he explains why he purged partner Max Kellerman from “First Take.’’ Appearing on New York station Hot 97, Stephen A. said, “The rumors are accurate in terms of me wanting him off the show. Let’s get that out the way. It wasn’t really about asking him to be off the show, it was about the fact I knew that we, together, as far as I was concerned, was not a great partnership anymore and that was something that needed to change.’’ So far, with a revolving cast that includes volcanic Michael Irvin and beatitudinal Tim Tebow, those debating Smith haven’t improved the show. This is dangerous territory for ESPN, which pays him $12 million a year to maintain a level of content quality and ratings success.
John Barr, ESPN — Positioned as an investigative journalist, Barr should be using his platform on the long-forgotten “Outside The Lines’’ to unearth the down-and-dirty about the NFL’s newfound marriage with a gambling industry once designated taboo by the league. Instead, he delivered a promotional reel that had to thrill the league and his ESPN bosses, who have direct financial and programming stakes in the legal betting explosion. Barr told us that $12 billion will be wagered on NFL games this season — we already knew that — and he summoned the network’s Vegas-based betting analyst, Doug Kezirian, to add a little pro-casino buzz: “There's an extra little umph going on right now, because this city is excited about sort of the indirect validation that the NFL brings.” Bob Ley, who once symbolized journalism at ESPN, wisely got out before newsgathering was swallowed up. The likes of Barr and Jeremy Schaap have stuck around and sold out.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.