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SPORTS MEDIA: FIVE WHO GET IT, FIVE WHO DON’T
A weekly analysis of the best/worst in media from a multimedia content prince — thousands of columns, TV debates, radio shows, podcasts — who receives angry DMs from media burner accounts
THEY GET IT
Kat O’Brien, courageous former sportswriter — Not to overstate the obvious, but Major League Baseball might want to purge its entire paradigm and start over. In a particularly horrific season for a sport with too many problems to count, the sexual misconduct crisis hit a new and abhorrent low when O’Brien detailed how she was raped by a big-league player 18 years ago in a hotel room. Working for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, she was interviewing him for an in-depth story about international players and their adjustment to American culture when he suddenly tried to kiss her. ‘‘I said, no, no, I don’t want that, but he pushed me over to the bed,’’ O’Brien wrote in a New York Times guest essay. ‘‘I tried to shove him. I said no, stop, no, stop, over and over. He pushed further, getting on top of me, pulling off my skirt, and having sex with me against my will.’’ Like other women in sports media who’ve been victimized, O’Brien didn’t report the attack because, she wrote, ‘‘I knew that if I told anyone what happened that it would ruin my career. I was 22 with no track record, and at that time — nearly two decades ago — most people in baseball would have rallied to protect the athlete. So I blamed myself.’’ Already this year, baseball has dealt with the Jared Porter, Mickey Callaway and Roberto Alomar debacles, sweeping all out of the industry. Who exactly is this latest unnamed player? How many others like him are still working in baseball? Shouldn’t Rob Manfred be on the phone with O’Brien’s attorney? And is the commissioner’s office serious about a total extinguishing of the problem — or reacting only when another brave woman tells her story publicly? Allow me to challenge Manfred, here and now. I know a former big-league manager and player, still working as a studio analyst for an MLB team, who routinely made harassing remarks about women during his time in uniform. If Manfred is real, one of his security people will contact me via my DMs. It won’t happen.
Walt Disney Company — We don’t have to like everything The Mice — plural for The Mouse, correct? — produce in the sphere of sports programming. And if you read me every week, you know I’m disturbed by ESPN’s minimizing of journalism and headfirst plunge into gambling. But if the biggest game is eyeballs, the corporate bosses know how to get in front of them. Their post-peak-pandemic strategy of emphasizing live sports was a calculated hit, with streaming accounting for more than 40 percent of ad commitments as ESPN/ABC maximize lucrative new rights deals with the NFL, MLB and the NHL. Jolted by modern life, Americans won’t plunge into sports as they once did, but the 11-year, $2.7-billion-a-year bet on the NFL — which includes two Super Bowls — is a Disney lock. And ESPN+ is the one sports streaming initiative showing substantial growth, with 13.8 million subscribers on board thanks to bundling with Disney+ and Hulu. Said CEO Bob Chapek, who isn’t messing with a plan built by predecessor Bob Iger: ‘‘We’re committed to sports because we value live sports, which drives viewers and interest like nothing else.’’ Honchos such as Chapek don’t care what I think. He does care when Front Office Sports blasts this headline: ‘‘Sports Driving Force Behind Disney’s Revenue Boost.’’
Tim Legler, ESPN — As Jazz coach Quin Snyder kept scratching his neck and face during the postmortem — I stopped counting at 12 scratches — the veteran basketball analyst broke down what Snyder couldn’t figure out during Utah’s collapse. He’d left 7-1 rim protector Rudy Gobert on the court too long, allowing Terance Mann and the Clippers (I really wrote those five words) a series of uncontested three-pointers that erased a 25-point deficit and sent Billy Crystal’s favorite curse-riddled team to the Western Conference finals. Legler is considered a journeyman In TV studio circles, as he was throughout his NBA sharpshooting career. Maybe it’s time to include him in the portal for the numerous coaching vacancies popping up in a chaotic league. If Legler were coaching the Jazz, I’m thinking they’d have won Game 6 and perhaps the series. Let’s not stereotype and keep people in pigeon holes. Free Legler!
Robert Griffin III, media star — The shrewder network executives don’t sit around and mope when Peyton Manning rejects megabucks offers and Aaron Rodgers sends cryptic teases about his future. No, they unearth potential analysts from unlikely places, such as the NFL free-agent list, where Griffin has attracted no interest from teams amid a disappointing career — but is said to be high on the lists of ESPN and Fox Sports. Who says you have to be a Hall of Famer (Troy Aikman) or enjoy a successful playing career (Tony Romo, Cris Collinsworth) to excel in a booth or studio? Griffin earned notice when he said on a BleacherReport.com draft show, of all platforms, that his ex-teammate, Kirk Cousins, could lose his starting quarterback job in Minnesota to rookie Kellen Mond. We want candor, regardless of playing pedigree. If Griffin is as good as advertised, might he have a ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ future?
Phil Rosenthal, fighter — One by one, in a brutal bloodletting, prominent staffers at the once-formidable Chicago Tribune have accepted buyouts from the journalism-crushers at Alden Global Capital. Some will fade away, but not Rosenthal, who is inventive enough as an industry lifer to move forward in sports and media column-writing. “``I thought the time was right to take control of my fate and strike out on my own,’’ he explains. As you know, I once fled a Chicago newspaper in disgust. If I hadn’t, I’d probably be in my grave. Either my heart would have stopped or, more likely, someone would have shot me.
THEY DON’T GET IT
The Athletic — I recall flinching when the founders of the now-struggling site, huddling with me during long-ago job chats, mentioned ‘‘equity’’ as a possible form of compensation. Turns out equity concerns are among reasons the New York Times flatly rejected merger overtures from The Athletic, the second major swing and miss by Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann as they begin to wonder if every potential suitor is armed with Spider Tack and pine tar. Simply, the site isn’t generating enough revenue from stalled subscription numbers to justify its massive staff headcounts — forgive the corporate speak — and with the Times responsibly joining Axios in rebuff mode, no bailout is forthcoming. Another chilling round of buyouts/layoffs is possible, and what I originally suggested to the founders has become the smart play: Go with 100 of America’s best sportswriting reads and turn them loose. Trying to cover every beat in every market, sometimes with two or three writers per team, is a senseless money drain that will result in more journalism tragedy.
Chicago Twitter crybabies — The Tribune buyouts have jolted younger media members, who are using social media to convey weepy condolences and well-wishes. Not to be cold about it, but every journalist remaining in that market should get his/her head out of the Twitter pity party and — oh, I don’t know — try to break a story, write a great column or do a kick-ass talk show. Or the Ziggy Monster is coming for you next. What appalls me, as someone who wisely handed back a million bucks and resigned from the Sun-Times because I saw the wreckage ahead, is the sad public grandstanding that accomplishes … I dunno, what? The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg wrote of the ‘‘enormous loss for the Trib and Chicago’’ when sportswriter Shannon Ryan accepted a buyout. If I was Greenberg, working for a site that might be executing mass layoffs, I’d be trying very hard to write a column or two that made a difference and sold a few more subscriptions. This isn’t high school, kids. This is real life as journalism dies.
Dan McNeil, caveman — For a moment, I thought this stuck-in-fanboy-adolescence radio veteran might have grown up. ‘‘Of course, I regret it. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody,’’ he said of his neanderthal, career-killing tweet about ESPN’s Maria Taylor, comparing her ‘‘Monday Night Football’’ outfit to that of an adult film star. But then, appearing on a radio show, he veered into lame justification mode, saying he’d throw similar shade at NFL Network host Kyle Brandt if he’d worn a ‘‘sleeveless leather vest, tight-fitting pants and a cowboy hat.’’ Then McNeil blamed changing times in talk radio, saying, ‘‘I’m from the era (of) fair game, major celebrity, major platform … It doesn’t get any bigger than ‘Monday Night Football’. It was a fashion critique.” No, it was naked sexism, if not racism. He was right about this: ‘‘I guess I don’t have any choice to accept it because I don’t have a radio job, and I won’t get another one.”
Marcus Thompson, The Athletic — As a fan of the columnist, I can’t believe he overdosed on Terance Mann puns. Warning: Have a barf bag nearby. He was ‘‘a Cinderella Mann of sorts’’ who ‘‘Mannufactured a comeback.’’ Rudy Gobert was ‘‘underManned.’’ It was a ‘‘Mannifestation of the work he’s put in.’’ Of course, ‘‘`Pardon the Mannsplaining.’’ Coach Ty Lue ‘‘put his faith in the son of Mann. Eustace Mann, that is.’’ After giving us a break for a few merciful paragraphs, Thompson returned with, ‘‘Mann in the Mirror.’’ Then: ‘‘It’s easy to roMannticize what happened at Staples Center.’’ And finally, predictably, ‘‘You’re the Mann now, dawg.’’ The first comment, from Eric M.: ‘‘A little cheesy.’’ And this from Adam N.: ‘‘There are two errors: you write that Gobert had zero blocks twice in the same sentence and you refer to Reggie Williams instead of Reggie Jackson,’’ which was followed by a staffer stepping in and acknowledging ‘‘an editing mistake on my behalf.’’ C’mon, man. Subscriptions are $59.99 a year.
Will Leitch, leech — At first, I assumed Peter King has a wicked case of amnesia, allowing this limpsack to submit a substitute column while the esteemed football writer is on vacation. Didn’t Leitch, as top editor at since-Deadspun Deadspin, often mock King — including the time another trash site ran photos of King’s daughter from a college party? Didn’t King, a legitimate journalist, abhor the cockroaches who gained web traffic off his meaningful work? And then I got the inside joke: King is being the bigger man in giving him a shot … or, I should say, the only man. Leitch has gone on to various successes and failures, including the demise of two sites, but by agreeing to fill in for King, he confirmed what is self-evident about all rogue-sports-site losers who ripped those with big profiles: They’ll never have our careers, not even close.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular 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.