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SPORTS MEDIA: FIVE WHO GET IT, FIVE WHO DON’T
A weekly analysis of the best and 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
Tokyo media warriors — The Olympic motto has changed. ‘‘Citius, Altius, Fortius — Communis’’ actually is ‘‘Arrive, Test, Quarantine — Pray.’’ I could write for the 10th time that the Pandemic Games should be canceled, but instead, I salute those covering the most fraught of modern Olympiads. Already, my daunting stories from 14 Games — gargantuan spiders in Australia, guardrail-less icy roads in the French Alps, purposely lost taxi drivers in Beijing, a rock-throwing protest in Athens — sound like so much whining. As if covering coronavirus outbreaks isn’t enough of a challenge, journalists in Japan are being tracked by GPS technology. They can work inside the media center and cover events, but, when finished, they must return promptly to their rooms, where they can leave only to visit a convenience store and must be back within 15 minutes. If not? GPS might find them and put them on a blacklist — not a place to be in a nation hostile about hosting the Summer Games under a state of emergency. Warns the organizing committee, which distributed a ‘‘playbook’’ of restrictions: ‘‘The people of Japan will be paying close attention to your every move .. (if) you are suspected or found to be in infringement of the Playbook, such activity may be photographed and shared on social media.’’ That includes dating apps ... “Hey, ladies, avoid this creep who snuck out for sushi in Ginza.’’ Each day, journalists must test for the coronavirus and variants by spitting as much saliva as possible into a tube, after which they must stand against a wall and stare at photos of fruit to produce more saliva. Suddenly, that wretched McMoose sandwich at a Norwegian McDonald’s doesn’t seem bad.
New York Times — Thank you for reminding the entire industry — writers, broadcasters AND those who operate media companies — that professional integrity can’t be maintained by jumping into business bed with the people you cover. The Times suspended veteran sports reporter Karen Crouse, who has written poignantly of Michael Phelps’ mental health struggles and future related endeavors, for partnering with the legendary U.S. swimmer on a book about … his mental health struggles and future related endeavors. For years, sportswriters have shown no shame in pursuing quick cash-ins on subjects they regularly chronicle — namely, championship teams. This practice has been allowed in Chicago, where The Athletic and ESPN let local writers Jon Greenberg and Jesse Rogers peddle gooey remembrances of the 2016 Cubs and manager Joe Maddon. Tell me: How can one cover a team or athlete critically when he has made money, even a few scraps, off that team or athlete? The same applies to Crouse, whose editors pulled her off Tokyo coverage after she wrote at the U.S. Olympic swim trials that Phelps has ‘‘exchanged isolation for outreach, sprinkling instruction and advice like the pope blessing his flock with holy water. As a mentor, he has found a way to pull this U.S. team along in his wake without getting wet.” Upon subsequent discovery that she was writing the book — Crouse failed to inform anyone at the Times — editors attached this note to her glowing Phelps story from June 15: ‘‘After this article was published, editors learned that the reporter had entered an agreement to co-write a book with Michael Phelps. If editors had been aware of the conflict, the reporter would not have been given the assignment.” If every sports media outlet followed the Times’ philosophy, the landscape would be less cozy and devious and much more independent.
Maria Taylor, opportunist — I didn’t buy how she used social media to self-frame her political entanglement with Rachel Nichols as an inspirational story. ‘‘I’ve taken some punches,’’ Taylor tweeted, ‘‘but that just means I’m still in the fight.’’ In truth, she won an ESPN promotion at the expense of Nichols, who blamed it on the network’s ‘‘crappy longtime record on diversity.’’ But Taylor also was smart enough not to be swallowed by the scandal. A former college basketball player, she saw an opening and is driving through the lane, reportedly to NBC, where more millions and immediate Tokyo assignments are said to await. She won dignity points in continuing her assignment in the ‘‘NBA Countdown’’ hosting seat, agreeing to work Game 6 of the Finals as her ESPN contract was expiring. At some point, don’t be surprised if Taylor assumes hosting duties on the most visible of studio shows — “Sunday Night Football’’ — when Mike Tirico moves to play-by-play duties. She won’t get ‘‘Stephen A. Smith money,’’ as her agent had demanded, but she’ll have peace after the Bristol dramas. Too bad Jimmy Pitaro and other Disney executives couldn’t prevent a maelstrom, when they had about a year to figure out the Nichols-Taylor fallout.
Major League Baseball — A sport that caters to White male boomers occasionally escapes its 20th-century cave. MLB outhustled other leagues in featuring the first all-women broadcast crew for an otherwise sleepy Orioles-Rays game. Melanie Newman and Sarah Langs were in the booth, Alanna Rizzo was on the field as a reporter, and Heidi Watney and Lauren Gardner hosted the studio show. ‘‘My entire career, especially coming up through the minor leagues, I was the first woman at every single stop," Newman told MLB Network. ‘‘I couldn't help but think in the back of my head, ‘That's great, but let's keep going.’ Let's move past being the first, and just make this more of a normal occasion that's coming around where we're not qualifying people based on their gender.’’ Next time, perhaps such a historic crew won’t be confined to YouTube’s ‘‘Game of the Week.’’
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post — I welcome a movie critic to ‘‘They Get It’’ for his ferocious takedown of LeBron James. While LeBron was mocking social-media ‘‘haters’’ with news that ‘‘Space Jam: A New Legacy’’ had done $32 million in opening-weekend business, Oleksinski was reminding suckers how they’d wasted their money. Copy, paste and send: ‘‘During the endless final sequence of ‘Space Jam: A New Legacy,’ Porky Pig calls himself ‘the Notorious P.I.G.’ and begins to rap, ‘This pig is lit. I’m super legit.’ Porky should’ve added: ‘And my movie is s—t.’ In the pantheon of misguided sequels and reboots, ‘A New Legacy’ is right up there with ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2’ and ‘Little Fockers.’ ‘’ Damn, Johnny. No wonder James snuck a bottle of tequila under his Phoenix courtside seat at Game 5 of the NBA Finals. The aspiring Hollywood mogul bombed out, and, somewhere, Michael Jordan is laughing.
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times — Like all enduring columnists, he alternately warms the soul and provokes thought (see below). His piece on Vin Scully was a Kleenex-reacher, coaxing the 93-year-old broadcast legend to speak about the Jan. 3 passing of his wife, Sandi. ‘‘`I’ve been severely wounded, but I’ve also comes to grips with it,’’ Scully said. ‘‘I believe it’s all God’s plans. I’m just trying to do the best that I can for as long as I have … I wouldn’t want to dwell on how I feel much more than, you can imagine, anybody can imagine, when you lose your partner, the loss is overwhelming, and then eventually you come to grips with it. As of right now, I would say that I’m healing to reality.’’ Scully continues to reject overtures from the Dodgers and Fox Sports to join baseball broadcasts, even for an inning. `’’I’m done. Really I am. People have heard me enough,” he said. ‘‘And now it’s time for me … ‘Scully, be quiet. Go over and sit down.’ ‘’ Oh, how wrong he is. Vin always is welcome as a ‘‘They Get It’’ addendum.
Megyn Kelly, professional skeptic — When Naomi Osaka boycotted the media and blew off two Grand Slam events to work on her ‘‘mental health,’’ she knew what was on the horizon: her image blasted across the covers of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition, Time magazine and Vogue Japan. It smacks of a power play more than depression — wanting to circumvent traditional tennis press conferences to control her own messages — and Osaka should have realized the likes of Kelly would jump on her in critical tweets. Replied Naomi, whose own Barbie doll and LeBron-produced reality show also have debuted: ‘‘Seeing as you’re a journalist I would’ve assumed you would take the time to research what the lead times are for magazines, if you did that you would’ve found out I shot all of my covers last year,” she wrote to Kelly on Twitter. ‘‘Instead your first reaction is to hop on here and spew negativity, do better Megan.” I am happy to elevate Kelly — whose first name is Megyn, not Megan — in bonus coverage as our seventh who gets it.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN — In refusing to fire or even suspend the reckless, feckless Smith, the network president made a deplorable statement to the Asian community. Pitaro saw fit to remove Nichols from NBA Finals sideline-hosting duties in a gesture to her Black studio colleagues, who reportedly threatened to boycott a show after Nichols’ diversity-hire rant about Taylor went public. So why not issue at least a similar punishment to Smith? His insensitive comments about Shohei Ohtani — that Major League Baseball is damaged because the Japanese phenom uses an interpreter for interviews — were an insult to Asians, not to mention the intelligence of ESPN’s audience. The prevailing perception: Pitaro is more concerned about offending Blacks than Asians, yet another double standard employed by the Worldwide Leader In Hypocrisy.
The layoff-disgraced NFL — Bloated from revenues and resources after absorbing $113 billion in recent broadcast contracts, the richest of sports leagues should be adding to its payroll, not subtracting. But Jerry Jones and the billionaire boys are trying to spin off a minority share of NFL Media to an existing company, which required headcount cuts, as many as 132 according to an employee who lost his job. The league disputes the number, but one layoff is one too many for a powerhouse that depended on those workers during the pandemic. Now, they are cut like bad placekickers in a network division — broadcast and online media — that could use creative help. Credit NFL Media writer Jim Trotter for slamming the league that pays him, tweeting that it’s ‘‘really sad that so many loyal employees who took mandatory & voluntary paycuts during the pandemic to help the company, & who came up with creative ways to produce content & limit $$ losses, would be fired after NFL signed $100B TV deals.” It’s a poor reflection on commissioner Roger Goodell, who had guided the league so well through 2020-21 obstacles — somehow raising revenues by almost a half-billion dollars during the pandemic season — before swallowing the greed pill.
ESPN — Alone, Peyton Manning sells. But Peyton with brother Eli? On an alternative “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast airing on ESPN2? Whose idea was this? Beyond Indianapolis, their hometown of New Orleans and sectors of New York and New Jersey, who will watch? I’m not sure why ESPN is so excited about the Mannings calling 30 games — not even a full allotment — over the next three seasons with no plans of being in stadiums. Said a Bristol release: ‘‘Fans will be treated to a mix of in-the-moment analysis, big picture NFL dialogue, knee-jerk reaction, historical perspective, and more. Peyton and Eli will be joined each week by a to-be-determined host. Iconic and current athletes, as well as celebrities, are expected to appear throughout the season. Fans will never miss any of the action, as a multi-box viewing experience will ensure the game is always visible.’’ Translated, it sounds like they’ll show up when they want for a Monday night party with guests. Sure, we remember the commercial where Peyton and Eli horsed around as the famed football family, including parents Archie and Olivia, was given a Bristol tour. That was a very long time ago. On the same day, ESPN announced Ahmad Rashad will host a streaming interview show. Again, why?
Alex Mather, The Athletic — As any used-car salesman knows, a business might want to drop the price when demand is down. Mather, chief executive and founder of the scuffling sports site, has chosen to RAISE the price of an annual subscription from $59.99 to $71.99 despite a slowdown in renewals. His stubbornness must give way to reality: There is solid-to-good content on his site, with sporadic greatness (read baseball writer Andy McCullough’s profile of geriatric project Tony La Russa), but Mather’s bulk-over-bite strategy isn’t working. Great sports sites, or great sports sections in the print days, require a daily procession of must-read personalities. The Athletic doesn’t have enough in an age when consumers thrive on timely, intelligent perspectives from accomplished columnists willing to speak truth to power. A glaring example of shying away from a major story: Why no major opinion piece on the cultural wars at ESPN — Smith vs. Ohtani, Nichols vs. Taylor — which dominated news and sports cycles but were addressed only in a little-known podcast from media writer Richard Deitsch? Meanwhile, as the Olympics teeter just hours from the Opening Ceremony, I’m seeing minimal Games coverage from a site that wants $71.99. ‘‘We have got 450 reporters, writers, editors, producers on three continents producing as much volume as any national newspaper in the world per week,” Mather told Variety. He could sell more subscriptions with 100 dynamic, well-known writers on one continent, but like many tech bro/dudes, Mather can’t be bothered with tried-and-true common sense.
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times — I sure hope Plaschke never is accused of a crime and fired from a job before being accorded due process. Rather than wait for investigators in Pasadena and Major League Baseball to finish their probe of Trevor Bauer — which is what Plaschke recommended in a previous piece, that MLB ‘‘listen equally to the accuser and the accused’’ — the columnist now wants the Dodgers to cut the pitcher based entirely on the accuser’s side in a sexual assault probe. No arrests have been made. No charges have been filed. But Judge Bill has ruled anyway, writing, “Face it, even if this entire incident eventually disappears and Bauer is never charged with a crime, images of his alleged violence remain and serious questions about his character and judgment linger.’’ That sound is the B.S. Meter calling hypocrisy on Plaschke, who worshipped Kobe Bryant in print for years and continues to do so in memoriam. Had the Lakers wielded the Plaschke hammer and cut Bryant while his 2003 rape case was being investigated in Colorado, who would Bill have deified all those years? Why hold one standard for Bauer and another for Bryant? Everyone is aware of the magnitude here: This is a monumental legal case of potentially horrific ramifications that could send Bauer to jail and leave a permanent scar on the Dodgers’ public-relations machine. But Plaschke should stop playing prosecutor and wait for the facts in an L.A. legal world where surprises and tricks are the norm. If Bauer is charged and convicted, then, by all means, wield the hammer. His beloved Kobe, for one, would appreciate patience.
Jason Whitlock, lost cause — He spins sports into racial propaganda on Glenn Beck’s site, which leads him to daffy conclusions such as this: ‘‘ESPN is so afraid of the Twitter mob that the Worldwide Leader in Sports won't put a byline on its stories covering the arrest of NFL star Richard Sherman. This is significant. It underscores the power of Twitter to manipulate basic journalism and force a two-tiered, racial standard of journalism equity.’’ As attempted proof, he offers an ESPN story from Jan. 25, with the byline of staff writer Brady Henderson, about the domestic violence arrest of ex-Seattle Seahawk Chad Wheeler. Sherman is Black; Wheeler is White — as Whitlock points out. I’ve raised some serious hell myself about ESPN’s racial double standards, but not in this instance. If Whitlock simply would read the site instead of remaining a prisoner to his wild whims, he’d realize ESPN isn’t using bylines on many recent stories not broken by a staff member. He’d also notice that just this month, in a story about Barkevious Mingo’s arrest and release by the Atlanta Falcons, ESPN references Adam Schefter in the second sentence — not exactly hiding the NFL insider’s identity in a crime story about a Black football player. He’d also notice that the byline of staff writer Dave Wilson was on a July 6 story about a Black running back at Oklahoma, Mikey Henderson, who was dismissed from the team after an alleged robbery. Whitlock publishes this nonsense just so two prominent clickbait names — Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg — can be used in his headline. Time for a long vacation, big man. This was worth extra time in ‘‘They Don’t Get It.’’
Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune — What sports journalism doesn’t need is another media writer who won’t take on real issues in a $600 billion industry. Sullivan was a good baseball reporter who became a soft columnist and now dabbles once in a week in local media. The first topic he should tackle, in a month when Stephen A. has offended Asians and the Taylor-Nichols racial story dominated news cycles, is how NBC Sports Chicago continues to use Ozzie Guillen as a live baseball commentator with his history of slurs and propensity for outrageousness. But Sullivan, like most Chicago opinionists these days, protects his paycheck first, forgets his responsibility to readers and bows down to White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns 50 percent of NBCSC and could get Sullivan fired with one flunky phone call to his Tribune hedge-fund bosses. Playing the Chicago political game, Sullivan weaseled out and praised Guillen for an ‘‘over-the-top funny’’ takedown of Josh Donaldson, the Minnesota third baseman who thankfully stonewalled an ongoing MLB scandal by calling out pitchers for using illegal substances. `’’Mr. Squealer,’’ Guillen called him, saying he’d order a pitcher to hit Donaldson were he still managing. Does anyone not see about 10 problems here, including how Sox pitchers had ranked in the top three in spin rate before the MLB crackdown? No wonder, when I couldn’t locate the Tribune (or Sun-Times) during a recent O’Hare flight layover, that the store clerk told me, ‘‘Oh, I’m not sure we carry those anymore. Is USA Today OK?’’ This wasn’t worth extra time in ‘‘They Don’t Get It.’’
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.