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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 burner accounts of media people
THEY GET IT
Naomi Osaka’s skeptics — Too many columnists are writing scared. Too many commentators are talking scared. To wit: Anyone who raises doubts about the motives behind Osaka’s media boycott and French Open withdrawal — as I did in a column — fears they’ll be vilified as barbaric, insensitive and anti-Asian by the social media mobs. Such backlash, in return, might lead to rebukes from media bosses trying to cover their asses and keep their jobs. This explains the flood of sympathetic pieces that couldn’t look past Osaka’s two operative words — ‘‘mental health’’ — when her tug-of-war with tennis officials is more about control. Look, I don’t know of a soul on Planet Earth who isn’t dealing with some sort of mental health issue, nor do I know a person who’s entirely happy to perform all required job responsibilities. That doesn’t mean everybody should just quit and go home; there wouldn’t be a workforce, right? So, should we be disproportionately compassionate toward a 23-year-old superstar who earned $55.2 million last year — more than any female athlete — because she doesn’t want to face certain questions in news conferences? Osaka’s stance is about athlete empowerment, as I opined, and her memorable tribute to police brutality victims wouldn’t have made the same impact had she boycotted media at the U.S. Open. I feel for anyone dealing with depression — unlike FS1’s Skip Bayless, who mocked Dak Prescott for talking about his battles. Contrary to Osaka, Prescott kept suiting up and playing football, making Bayless look worse. All I know is, when a family member fell ill one spring, I asked my radio network boss if I could take a few days off for mental reasons. ``No,’’ he said. That’s the real world, Naomi.
Reggie Miller, TNT — The legendary provocateur, reviled in Madison Square Garden and NBA arenas everywhere, is best equipped to address the alarming series of fan incidents this postseason. And he delivered, criticizing the league for enabling a culture in which a water bottle is hurled at Kyrie Irving, popcorn is dumped on Russell Westbrook, Trae Young is spat on, Ja Morant’s parents are peppered with racial slurs and a goof somehow rushes onto the court in Washington. ‘‘I was part of ‘Malice at the Palace,’ ‘’ said Miller, reintroducing the league’s dreaded fans-vs.-players violence narrative to a modern audience. Rather than focus on his large turnstile counts, league boss Adam Silver might confer with Miller, who asks the question on all of our minds: Where the hell is security? What I liked most about his commentary, on a topic broached by broadcast partner Kevin Harlan: Miller pointed directly at the league, not an easy task when his Turner Sports bosses are partners with the NBA. With Irving saying players are treated as if ‘‘they’re in a human zoo’’ and Brooklyn teammate Kevin Durant telling fans to ‘‘grow the f— up,’’ yes, the league has a very dangerous problem that keeps growing worse.
Hubie Brown, ESPN — It’s time to mute all postseason static and recognize this man as a broadcasting masterpiece. Brown will turn NINETY in two years, yet he’s still twice as prepared and passionate as many analysts half his age. In an age of ranting and scolding and pontificating, he continues to educate and make measured points as a hoops sage. ‘‘The Memphis front line,’’ said Hubie, ``is not contributing any points, and they’re not giving you the defense in the paint or the rebounds.’’ Stephen A. Smith would shriek that the Memphis front line sucks, but Brown isn’t in this game for attention. Despite sitting in a makeshift studio in Atlanta, with caricatures of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird behind him, he quickly dispensed information as the Utah Jazz made repeated defensive stops: ‘‘They’re averaging 24 deflections in the first two games.’’ Sports networks often ship old voices to the morgue when they reach 50 or 60, so credit Bristol for recognizing the vitality of wisdom and ignoring his birthdate (Sept. 25, 1933). What if Brown keeps running it back until he’s 100? For now, I’m loving it when his commentary leads into a rap verse before a commercial break. That’s it: Someone record The Hubie Hustle.
Russell Westbrook, filmmaker — Rising above the arena hatred, which has included racial taunts in Utah, Westbrook put his name and money behind the History Channel documentary, ‘‘Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre.’’ Any prominent athlete can capitalize on stardom by making a self-aggrandizing sports doc, but Westbrook wants to be defined by more than basketball and triple-double sprees. ‘‘The Tulsa Race Massacre was not something I was taught about in school or in any of my history books. It was only after spending 11 years in Oklahoma that I learned of this deeply troubling and heartbreaking event,’’ he said. ‘‘This is one of many overlooked stories of African Americans in this country that deserves to be told.’’ The Michael Jordan doc has led to the Tom Brady doc, the Mike Tyson doc, the Derek Jeter doc, the Serena Williams doc and too much sports docu-mania. Westbrook remained above the creative fray.
Clay Travis, conservative talk host — Using his sports site to advance his political leanings might have had scattered success during a pandemic, when Southern followers embraced his rhetoric that COVID-19 was overblown. But Travis is much better off leaving sports and his Fox Sports Radio program to replace Rush Limbaugh, joining partner Buck Sexton on one of radio’s biggest platforms. ‘‘As I looked at the data during 2020, the story it told me was clear,’’ Travis wrote on Outkick. ‘‘As much as people might enjoy my sports opinions, they loved even more when I talked about issues that were, frankly, far more important than sports: my belief in American exceptionalism and the meritocracy, my rejection of cancel culture and identity politics, (and) my repudiation of everything woke in our culture.’’ Travis will be a right wing fixture for the long haul and eventually will inhabit a regular chair on the Fox News channel. As for Outkick, it has been purchased by Fox but I doubt it will remain a sports site as much as a conservative destination for its cultists. Sports can say bye-bye to Travis, who never belonged — which made him refreshing until he wasn’t.
Joey Votto, careerist — At 37, with his baseball career trending downward to a crawl, Votto is no fool about future work possibilities. Rehabbing a broken thumb at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park while the Reds were out of town, he heard a request from the broadcast booth: Would he like to join team announcers Tommy Thrall and Chris Welsh on their remote radio call of the Reds-Cubs game? One of baseball’s most fascinating personalties, Votto made his way upstairs and instantly flashed his personality when Thrall introduced him as a future Hall of Famer. ‘‘You didn’t introduce me. You said `future Hall of Famer,’ ‘’ Votto shot back. ‘‘Easy there, easy, easy, easy, easy, easy … current Reds IL member.’’ By all accounts, his performance was insightful and delightful, and in the vast wasteland of MLB analysts, he should be front and center on the Fox, ESPN and TNT radar. He also extended this column to extra innings in becoming the Sixth Who Gets It.
L. Jon Wertheim, cross-pollinating overlord — I’d just finished reading his work on Prince’s fondness for all things basketball — muttering to myself, ‘‘On my best day, I’ll never write half as well as this guy’’ — when I flipped on ‘‘60 Minutes’’ and saw his piece on German pianist Igor Levit, who has managed to find audiences digitally and stay relevant during a pandemic. Then, as the Osaka story broke, Wertheim put on his tennis cap for Sports Illustrated’s website and weighed in. As SI’s executive editor and a supreme writer, he’s the biggest in-house reason why a once-beleaguered magazine still features the best top-drawer content among sports digital sites. Sometimes, personal bio taglines are overwrought, but when SI describes him as ‘‘one of the most accomplished sports journalists in America,’’ it’s actually underselling his versatility — a topic worthy of a Seventh Who Gets It.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Aaron Rodgers, overexposed — It was powerful when he hijacked the NFL Draft to demand a trade. It was exquisite when he fulfilled a dream by guest-hosting ‘‘Jeopardy!’’ It was riotous when he explained his grievances with the Packers on friend Kenny Mayne’s final ‘‘SportsCenter’’ appearance. But when social media was flooded with photos of Rodgers and his Hawaii traveling party — purple-bikinied fiancee Shailene Woodley, bromance partner Miles Teller and his wife — this officially became the Offseason Of Aaron. And I’m officially tired of it. With every new Rodgers development, it smacks of a calculated media takeover, as if premeditated step by step, week by week, through the imagination of a very clever man. It would be nice not to hear a peep from him until he decides either to rejoin the Packers or boycott them until he’s traded. But — ding! — there goes my latest Rodgers phone alert: The Packers are holding firm on their stance that he won’t be dealt. Which means, Rodgers will be responding soon enough, perhaps from Croatia or Bora Bora.
Pat McAfee, bullshit artist — Just because he’s having big success in the sports audio space — and I can’t exactly explain why — doesn’t mean McAfee should run with stories before at least trying to corroborate them. (Dear Pat: The dictionary definition of ‘‘corroborate’’ is to confirm or give support to a finding.) McAfee made the mistake of crossing his frequent show guest — you guessed it, Rodgers — by botching details surrounding an alleged assault victim — you guessed it, Teller — in the bathroom of a Maui restaurant. In his role as a ‘‘Smackdown’’ wrestling commentator, McAfee thought Teller knew his attackers and compared the incident to a tag-team beatdown. Teller responded with a tweet to McAfee: ‘‘I got jumped by two guys in a bathroom. Never met them before in my life but ya cool wrestling segue bud.’’ To which McAfee responded: ‘‘Miles.. I apologize for not knowing the whole story. I will fix my position and make it right… with that being said, it was a pretty good segue.” The segue, of course, always is more important than getting the story right to begin with.
Retro cancelers — When so many areas of law are subjected to statutes of limitations, it’s interesting that media companies reach back decades and fire employees for alleged sins. It’s just as interesting that some do not. Because I don’t know what happened and won’t pretend to, I will not pass judgment, for instance, on whether ESPN’s Woody Paige yelled at a 24-year-old editorial assistant and called her a ‘‘cunt’’ when he was executive sports editor of the Denver Post in 1992. According to the American Journalism Review, Carrie Ludicke received $25,000 in a confidential settlement following her sexual harassment complaint while Paige, though denying ever using the word, lost his position but kept his salary and column. Should ESPN retroactively fire Paige today? Cancel culture would say yes; Paige defenders would say the episode happened almost 30 years ago in a workplace that didn’t involve ESPN. What can’t be disputed: There is too much selective justice in retro cases, depending on current politics and cronyism and who’s on the right or wrong side of those walls. I see a new story on this topic every week, and I cringe at the lack of corporate consistency. It’s time to find an equilibrium.
Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN — I’m troubled that Herbstreit, college football’s leading analyst, still can’t taste or smell after testing positive for COVID-19 in December. He took to Twitter, writing, ‘‘Been 5 months since I tested positive for Covid. Still can’t taste or smell. Anyone else experience this?? Did it ever come back?? Haven’t tasted a meal since late December. After 5 months...is this my new normal or will taste and smell come back???" Rather than asking important medical questions on social media, shouldn’t he, um, see a doctor? The good news: If Herbstreit has to eat crow on a prediction, he won’t taste it. The bad news: ESPN might not want him around partner Chris Fowler and production employees if the condition persists in August.
New York Times — In my sphere of media consumption, the Times excelled through a pandemic to remain the gold standard of go-to news operations. So why would a prestigious site, having successfully transformed to digital while poised for a continued long run of profitability, ponder acquiring a struggling operation such as The Athletic? As pointed out by Sportico, ‘‘It is less clear why the NYT would be interested in making a big bet on a growth business that has seemingly stalled, is losing money and competing in an extremely competitive digital media environment.’’ Beyond the financials, why jump into bed with the sports industry — as a whole, The Athletic remains too cozy with leagues, franchises and broadcast networks — when the Times is among the few shops committed to robust, independent journalism? If the Times comes to its senses and says no, it would be the latest bitter pill for Athletic founders Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, who also were rejected recently by Axios. I’d consider buying The Athletic, but as I once told Mather and Hansmann over breakfast in San Francisco, there’s no need to have hundreds of payrolled staffers when a strong stable of 50 well-known columnists would serve a smarter, more impactful purpose. Maybe the Times, which has deprioritized sports coverage, will reach my conclusion, which would mean mass layoffs if this deal actually happened.
Jim Jackson, TNT — Sure, I could mention how I love hanging out in Santa Monica at R&D Kitchen and Esters Wine Bar, or with Kendall Jenner and Devin Booker at Nobu in Malibu. But that would be a cheesy form of payola, of which the NBA game analyst hasn’t been apprised by his network bosses. As he vies for a promotion after the dismissal of top analyst Chris Webber, Jackson is impressing only himself by name-dropping ‘‘The Capital Grille’’ in downtown Miami — ‘‘where I smoke my cigars’’ — and ‘‘Myles’’ Chefetz, known to league nightlife vets as the restaurateur behind South Beach’s Prime 112. Jackson didn’t know it, but play-by-play man Brian Anderson was chiding him by saying he’d never pay for a meal again at either place. I’m assuming that former NBA players on TNT aren’t prepped about the basics of broadcast professionalism, because the list of screwups is growing by the day. Me? I’m endorsing Reggie Miller for the lead analyst position. Because I did added work on a Sixth Who Doesn’t Get It, I’m going to treat myself to lunch at the Sunset Tower Bar in West Hollywood, where I know Gabe, the maitre d’.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports columns and media columns for Barrett Sports Media and appears on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio 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.