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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
Jeff Passan, ESPN — If Disney Company possessed a spine and testicles, it would fire Stephen A. Smith for exacerbating ESPN’s relentless, in-house cultural disorder. The only one making sense lately is Passan, who scolded Smith for insulting the Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani, because he uses an interpreter during interviews. ‘‘The reality about Shohei Ohtani, Stephen A., is that he is a story we should be wanting to tell. It’s unfortunate something like yesterday happened,’’ the network’s baseball insider asserted on ‘‘First Take,’’ Smith’s weekday show. ‘‘(Ohtani) is the sort of person who this show, who this network, who this country should embrace. We are not the ones who should be trafficking in ignorance." In typical disgrace, ESPN executives likely viewed Passan’s criticism as a backlash buffer, allowing Smith to carry on with more thoughtless, rambling takes that embarrass the company and, more importantly, the audience. At least Passan came up with a better show name. Starting today, ‘‘First Take’’ should be called ‘‘Trafficking In Ignorance.’’
Anthony Mackie, Captain America — Sometimes sports needs to laugh at itself. So does ESPN, especially these days. Enter Mackie, who spared no one in hosting the ESPY Awards for the first time. He sounded like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes in his monologue, firing a zinger at NFL veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, who lost his right index finger in a 2015 fireworks accident. Said Mackie, knowing his target was in the audience: ‘‘It’s official: Tom Brady has more Super Bowl rings than Jason Pierre-Paul has fingers.’’ If that was rough, his observation about baseball’s ‘‘ball goop’’ issue was a riot — ‘‘something I never thought Disney would let me say on live TV’’ — and his dig at disgraced horse trainer Bob Baffert (he of the silver hair and sunglasses) was an all-timer: ‘‘People started to suspect Baffert when they looked at him. Just look at the dude. If drugging a horse is the shadiest thing he has ever done, I’d be surprised. It looks like he has season tickets to ‘The Hunger Games.’ ’’ Oh, and this on shooting-challenged Ben Simmons: ‘‘Not everyone knows this, but (he) has been building orphanages like this one completely out of his playoff bricks.’’ Relax: The actor also defended Naomi Osaka in her media hiatus and Sha’Carri Richardson against the World Anti-Doping Agency. I hope Mackie’s back — an intended musical reference — for a 2022 encore.
Joe Vardon, The Athletic — Already one of the site’s most incisive writers, Vardon stood up to the bully side of Gregg Popovich. He has been underlining the truth about Team USA’s startling pre-Olympics losses and forecasting potential doom at the Tokyo Games, writing, ‘‘The cold hard facts are the Americans, regardless of who is on their roster, stink under Gregg Popovich, certainly by Team USA’s lofty standards.’’ Rather than acknowledge the concerns, especially when juxtaposed against America’s traditional dominance in men’s basketball, Popovich turned an exchange with Vardon into a scene. ‘‘You asked the same sort of question last time where you assumed things that are not true,’’ Popovich said as Vardon tried to counter. ‘‘Can I finish? Can I finish my statement? Are you going to let me finish my statement or not? When you make statements about, in the past, just blowing out these other teams — number one, you give no respect to the other teams. I talked to you the last time about the same thing, we’ve had very close games against four or five countries in all these tournaments.’’ It’s not too late to call Mike Krzyzewski, who coached the Americans to three straight gold medals and finished his international career with 76 straight victories, winning eight Olympic games in 2016 by a 22-point average. Popovich should stop growling at reporters and have his out-of-shape team run some sprints.
Rachel Nichols, ESPN — Is it overstating matters to nominate her for a Nobel Peace Prize? Rather than summon a legal army to sue the network for invading her privacy, Nichols dutifully reported for work and quelled a racial storm that was dominating news cycles. This allowed Maria Taylor and her ‘‘NBA Countdown’’ mates to focus. If you’ve been busy flying to the edge of space with Richard Branson, Nichols cited ESPN’s ‘‘crappy longtime record on diversity’’ when she was replaced by Taylor last year as the show’s host. Because her remarks were made privately in her hotel room, captured by a remote ESPN camera and leaked everywhere by rogue ESPN personnel, Nichols has a slam-dunk case if she wants to sue Disney Company. Maybe she will at some point, but she chose to stay above the emotional fray and quell a tempest while some Black personalities were threatening a show boycott and management was removing Nichols from NBA Finals sideline duties. Taylor used the opportunity to negotiate her next broadcast deal, at ESPN or elsewhere, and her current contract expires any hour. Nichols could have flipped the bird at all of them, but she remained a pro, unlike so many in an egomaniacal business. She has a major supporter in NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who said Nichols deserves ‘‘the benefit of the doubt’’ and that ‘‘careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment. We should be judging people by the larger context of their body of work and who they are and what we know about them." What a healthy aspiration, if only it applied to all …
Grant Napear, former NBA broadcaster — He was fired last year after tweeting one such single comment — ‘‘All lives matter, every single one!’’ — when goaded on social media by NBA player DeMarcus Cousins. So why does Silver publicly protect Nichols and ignore Napear, who worked Sacramento Kings broadcasts for 32 years? Oh, maybe because Napear is a 62-year-old White male. He was quick to point out the double standard to the New York Post’s Phil Mushnick, writing, ‘‘I read those (Silver’s) comments, and I was like … Sure would have been nice to hear that last year … Now people are talking about it and acknowledging that it’s wrong. Adam said, ‘Careers shouldn’t be erased by a single comment.’ Mine was. I’m grateful he made those remarks, but I’m still unemployed for saying something as simple as, `All lives matter, every single one.’ Adam also said we should judge people by the larger context of their work and who they are and what we know about them. That sure didn’t happen for me. My body of work was irrelevant when I lost my career.’’ There must be a lawyer who will take on a class action case involving screwed White males in media. The hypocrisy is suffocating.
Broadcasters raising hell — Talk about insulting the audience. Preferring to save money than serve fans, regional sports networks continue to force Major League Baseball announcers to call road games from booths in home ballparks and other remote locations. And the vaccinated announcers are speaking out, including the Yankees’ John Sterling, who sounded foolish when he went into his trademark home-run call — “It is high, it is far, it is gone!’’ — only to realize it was a replay of an earlier Aaron Judge homer. ‘‘I’m sorry, it’s on the monitor. What am I supposed to do?’’ Sterling said. To which partner Suzyn Waldman said, ‘‘This is a great way to do a game, isn’t it?’’ White Sox TV voice Jason Benetti tweeted, ‘‘I hold out hope that someone at MLB says this: ‘It is no longer up to the local networks. Our announcers must be at the games.’ A person could say that today and change all of this.’’ Nope. The networks — and the team owners — prefer to keep faking it, which only further erodes the sport’s waning relationship with the American public. This fight is well worth inclusion as a sixth entry in ‘‘They Get It.’’
David Samson, CBS Sports — A loose cannon when he was running the Miami/Florida Marlins, Samson has found his niche as a podcaster. He was appropriately aghast when the Los Angeles Angels, whose communications director supplied pitcher Tyler Skaggs with the opioids that killed him, said they would ‘‘vigorously defend’’ multiple lawsuits against the franchise by Skaggs’ family. Said Samson: ‘‘My statement would’ve been: ‘We were made aware of a lawsuit filed by the Skaggs family. The memory and tragedy of his death remains fresh in our minds and we continue to help and work with the Skaggs family to stop and help any sort of addiction.’ That's my statement. I'm acknowledging that he died and I'm acknowledging the tragedy. I'm putting in a little nugget that he was a drug addict because he was snorting opioids. It is terribly sad that he died, but there is a risk that you're going to die. In the statement, you don't have to say that you're going to vigorously defend the lawsuit." Can Samson possibly advise the Angels and do podcasts simultaneously? Just asking, in another ‘‘They Get It’’ addendum.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Jimmy Pitaro, ESPN — When a sports commissioner publicly takes down the president of a network partner, it’s an extraordinary moment. For Pitaro, it’s the low point of a wobbly tenure when he has tried to re-establish ESPN as a sports-first operation and allowed woke interests to steamroll him. Silver condemned Pitaro’s wishy-washy leadership when he wondered why the network let the Nichols/Taylor drama ‘‘fester,’’ saying in his state-of-the-league news conference, ‘‘I would have thought that in the past year, maybe through some incredibly difficult conversations, that ESPN would have found a way to work through it. Obviously not.’’ Is Pitaro not in touch with what’s happening on the Bristol campus? Wasn’t he appointed by longtime Disney chief Bob Iger to repress John Skipper’s Bristol activism project? Pitaro wants to appease everyone — and he did succeed in mending wounds with the NFL and landing Disney a place in the Super Bowl rotation. But in the racial wars engulfing the network, the boss is appeasing no one and failing miserably. He SHOULD be emphasizing sports and minimizing politics and racial discord — and if heads must roll, so be it. It’s hard to believe Pitaro, clearly overmatched, will last long in the gig. Can Silver possibly run the NBA and ESPN simultaneously? Just asking.
Norby Williamson, ESPN — Some of the in-house racial rancor stems from the executive’s long-ago treatment of the late Stuart Scott, whose innovative slangy style — ‘‘Boo-yah!’’ — didn’t sit well with the conservative newsroom boss. This is a lingering problem, obviously, when Williamson continues to oversee day-to-day operations. In a revealing 2020 retrospective in The Ringer, Scott’s sister, Susan, said, ‘‘Norby wrote him up. He challenged his scripts. It was awful. People really don’t know how awful it was. … Stuart was desperately frustrated.’’ Pushing Williamson into early retirement also might be a wise move, sending a message to Black employees that Pitaro and Disney are moving on from old-world thinking.
Sports media agents — I’ve had a few in my day. Most were trouble. And they aren’t helping matters, either, in the ESPN dramas. When I’ve seen at least two stories suggest that Nichols is ‘‘territorial’’ and difficult to work with, those are plants from rival agents trying to skew public perception. It’s poisonous, similar to what top NFL prospects deal with before the Draft, and if Pitaro wants to survive in the lead role, he won’t let agents run his ship. Taylor’s agency has the ear of New York Post sports media writer Andrew Marchand, who was less than flattering about Nichols’ professional demeanor before — lo and behold! — being fed information that Taylor was offered $3 million a year by ESPN last week amid interest from NBC and Amazon. Taylor’s agents are delusional to think she deserves what’s now known as ‘‘Stephen A. Smith money’’ — and Smith’s agents were quick to pass along that he’s actually making $12 million a year, not $8 million. There are sewage plants with more pleasant odors than the offices of some media agents.
Jemele Hill, activist — Someone remind Hill that her ratings weren’t good when she and Michael Smith, both Black, were bounced as ‘‘SportsCenter’’ hosts in 2018. If the numbers were better, I’m figuring they’d still be there, but Hill won’t let it go, using the Nichols-Taylor situation to accuse ESPN of racism. ‘‘Thinking about my situation, they were reacting to a moment then,” Hill told Dan Le Batard’s podcast. ‘‘That moment said people didn’t want to hear any political talk, any racial talk, any social justice talk, not that that was something Mike and I were doing every day on ‘SportsCenter’ — we weren’t. They let a false narrative persist about our show that people ran away with. They let the idiots in the room control the conversation, people like Clay Travis … they allowed those people to direct their course of action. They panicked. They wanted Black faces, they didn’t necessarily want Black voices.” Um, the last person influencing decisions at ESPN is Travis, one of Bristol’s biggest critics and enemies. Eventually, Hill must move on and define herself in a different mode than ESPN racial victim. It’s getting old.
Erik Rydholm, Rydholm Projects — I worked with the acclaimed producer during the booming peak years of ‘‘Around The Horn.’’ Which is precisely my point — that was a long-ass time ago, and he hasn’t reinvented himself at ESPN. His run of daily programming hits is fading, with ‘‘High Noon’’ crashing, ‘‘Highly Questionable’’ not long for the world and ‘‘ATH’’ often looking as dated as host Tony Reali’s black leather jacket and Woody Paige’s Botox deposits. Only ‘‘Pardon The Interruption’’ continues to work, but at some point, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon will retire. For buzz to accompany a sports debate show, there must be some element of relevant confrontation, but recent Rydholm offerings are too woke-centric and Ivy League-cute and don’t appeal to the everyday masses. Keep this in mind: ‘‘PTI’’ and ‘‘ATH’’ were spawned in the early aughts not by Rydholm, as erroneously assumed by media writers, but by former ESPN programming bosses Mark Shapiro and Jim Cohen. He did help launch the successful careers of the Showtime comedians, Desus and Mero, so maybe he should focus on that genre. If those two are anything but stale, why is his sports stuff so formulaic?
Ken Rosenthal, The Athletic — How convenient. Under a headline that read, ‘‘Let’s just enjoy the MLB All-Star Game without dwelling on who is missing,’’ the baseball columnist was unfazed by the defections of Jacob deGrom, Mookie Betts, various Houston wimps and numerous other players who preferred to be elsewhere. This no doubt earned Rosenthal high-fives, ‘‘Attaboys’’ and maybe a holiday pay sweetener from his second-job bosses at Fox Sports, which just happened to be televising the game that he was working. Pucker up, Ken! You’re batting sixth this week in the ‘‘They Don’t Get It’’ lineup.
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.