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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 industry people
THEY GET IT
Anti-Olympics disruptors — Let them protest. Let them rally and chant outside Japan Olympic Committee headquarters. Let them rage when Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, arrives at his hotel. As one who has covered 14 Games, I fear the Tokyo version will be a COVID-19-marred debacle, a ruthless money grab for the alphabet-soup boys at the IOC and NBC. Only continued pressure from the Japanese people, who’ve dealt with a tsunami and a nuclear disaster, can stop the corporate invasion now that IOC member Dick Pound has said the Games are happening even if Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga tries to cancel them. If so, Planet Earth should cover its eyes. The mood will be limp, with spectators from other countries banned and no certainty that locals will occupy venue seats, and if you expect the usual joyous global festival, you must be … an NBC executive. The network is shunning optics — and making America look greedy and cold — by ignoring Japan’s dire health condition, breathlessly issuing media releases detailing 7,000 hours of coverage across various platforms. ‘‘We are going to deliver the most comprehensive — and accessible — coverage for any sports event in history,” trumpeted Molly Solomon, executive producer and president of NBC Olympics Production. ‘‘The depth and breadth of our broadcasts will be unprecedented, showcasing once-in-a-generation athletes and story lines capturing the incredible uniqueness of these Games and our times.” In truth, this is the most dangerous, insensitive and grotesque Olympiad ever staged, but don’t expect host Mike Tirico to do much more than smile and read his teleprompter. Let them riot, if necessary.
Ariel Helwani, ESPN bird-flipper — Though it would have been fun watching him torment Dana White, the ongoing war wouldn’t be such a hoot for Helwani. He just wants to do good work, after all, and he was smart to reject an ESPN pay cut and pursue other opportunities as a UFC commentator and multimedia journalist. Pay cuts are the new way of life in Bristol, always a wonderful morale booster, but his departure cuts deeper: ESPN has little or no interest in journalism, especially when it might threaten a bedfellow partner. As long as White and UFC have a $1.5 billion rights deal with ESPN, Helwani never was going to report sensitive news independently — network bosses always follow the money, no matter how smarmy White and his death sport might be. And the lowball sent a lukewarm message that Bristol didn’t care if Helwani stayed — and probably was relieved that he left, so as to appease its business buddy. He held up well when White was calling him a ‘‘douche’’ and, according to Helwani, once telling him ‘‘my career was over and a bullet would be put in my head.’’ ESPN semi-supported him in tense White situations, but who knows if the network’s conversations with the bald bully were wink-wink and two-faced? Helwani took the high road and thanked Bristol for the opportunity, but added, tellingly, ‘‘I’d be lying if I said I got there and thought that I would leave three years later, but this is a crazy world and a crazy business. And once I was given the opportunity to look at what else was out there, I found a lot of things that really got me excited.” A lesson I learned long ago: You’re best off leaving a media operation when your bosses are in business bed with the people you’re trying to cover. Question: If White actually said ‘‘a bullet would be put in (Helwani’s) head,’’ shouldn’t the authorities be investigating?
TJ Olsen, fighter — Someday, when his father is deep into his career as a premier NFL analyst, TJ will remember the year when a heart donor stepped forward and made a transplant possible. Greg Olsen and his wife, Kara, have pledged millions to the children’s facility in Charlotte where TJ received his new heart. Their good deeds and prayers were rewarded. ‘‘Hi, everybody,’’ the 8-year-old said in a video posted by his father. ‘‘Thank you for thinking of me. Thank you for praying with me. We love you guys, bye.’’ Fox Sports projects an enormous future for Olsen, possibly as Troy Aikman’s heir apparent on the top broadcast team. This warm story only will endear him to the masses.
Jane McManus, veteran journalist — Whether you think Naomi Osaka’s media boycott is a cry for emotional help or a Generation Z power play (my take), this cannot be disputed: An athlete’s raw response immediately after a competition helps the public gain an understanding of that person. If Osaka wants the masses on her side as she chases tennis eminence and riches, she should hear out McManus, who wrote, ‘‘You get an authentic reaction from people. It's right after something has happened. They're not manicuring it. Their publicist isn't writing it up for their social media account. It is right in the wake of what has happened." The lazy media reaction is to empathize with Osaka in what she is calling a ‘‘mental health’’ concern. The flap goes much deeper when you consider Osaka, in her only French Open match before going home, was quite cheerful in a post-victory chat with WOWOW, a network based in her native Japan, which — WOW! — pays her for interviews.
Baseball writers — A sport that can’t afford more problems — games too long, action too limited, balls too gooey, fewer hits than Donald Trump’s blog, no signs of labor peace — realized it can’t push back against media access. Led by Cincinnati-based president Trent Rosecrans, the Baseball Writers Association of America convinced Major League Baseball to let vaccinated media members conduct pre-game, one-on-one interviews. As expected, the NFL will use the pandemic to reduce media access for the foreseeable future, which is bad news for sites striving to cover sports independently and not under the controlling umbrellas of Big Sports. Tweeted baseball writer Lindsey Adler of The Athletic: ‘‘Would also like to thank those with the league and players’ association who recognized the value of in-person access. This is a big win for baseball fans.’’ Who knew MLB ever would get something right? I guess desperation moves boulders.
Jason Whitlock, right-wing ding-dong — Whitlock is our extra Sixth Who Gets It because he has figured out — finally — what he does best after all these wayward years. He wasn’t a sports columnist. He wasn’t a sports TV host. No, he’s a conservative who appeals only to those who share his views about politics and race. He isn’t open-minded or versatile enough to reach the masses, so he’ll join hands with Glenn Beck and conservative outlet Blaze Media for a podcast and writing vertical. This will be all propaganda and no journalism, but after breakdowns at ESPN and Fox Sports, at least he knows who he is and what he does.
THEY DON’T GET IT
ESPN — As The Worldwide Leader In Disciplinary Double Standards, Bristol finds itself in yet another hypocritical mess. It’s understandable why betting analyst Kelly Stewart was fired last week, as reported by Front Office Sports, for her series of since-deleted anti-gay tweets in 2012 — such as: ‘‘yeah but today my timeline is full of fags trying to say I’m fake.’’ But if Stewart’s slurs rise to the level of dismissal when she wasn’t employed by ESPN at the time, please explain why Woody Paige remains an ‘‘Around The Horn’’ contributor after being accused by a 24-year-old editorial assistant of calling her a ‘‘cunt’’ when he was executive sports editor of the Denver Post. As mentioned here recently, in my observations about retroactive cancellation, Carrie Ludicke received $25,000 in a confidential settlement after her sexual harassment complaint while Paige, though denying ever using the word, lost his position but kept his salary and column. The American Journalism Review reported the story in detail. Though I enjoyed my time sparring with Paige on ‘‘ATH,’’ ESPN is vulnerable to legal action — and a swelling of shame — when it fires a new female employee for a long-ago misdeed but continues to employ a 74-year-old white male in a similar situation. Full disclosure: I’ve had my own experience with ESPN double standards — see my column on the veteran writer and commentator, Howard Bryant, published on this site last July 15 — and with cancel culture in full and disturbing bloom, Corporate America must be more meticulous when making decisions that impact careers and lives. The lawyers are rustling.
Major League Baseball — Now THIS is the MLB I know and don’t trust. Rob Manfred, who has allowed pitchers to cheat for years after allowing teams to electronically steal signs for years, has cut a content deal with the grubby Action Network. That means betting experts will be all over MLB’s digital outlets … as Pete Rose remains banned for life due to his 1980s gambling indiscretions. Manfred is the worst commissioner in the modern history of American sports, and now that media are allowed one-on-one interviews, he should be asked immediately about the hypocrisy of Rose. Maybe Pete can join the Action Network and talk about baseball prop bets.
Jay Williams, ESPN — Kevin Durant is a very angry man, especially when the topic is TV and talking heads. So unless a personality has a recording of something Durant might have said to him, it’s best he not tell a story publicly and leave himself vulnerable to KD’s wrath. Once upon a time at a club, after suggesting on a show that Giannis Antetokounmpo was a hybrid of Durant and Anthony Davis, Williams said Durant approached him: ‘‘(He) says, ‘Yo, don’t you ever compare me to Giannis again. Don’t you ever do that again.’ And I was like, ‘Kev, what’re you talking about? Calm down. First off, I’m talking about scenarios, stylistically, the way you guys play a little bit, size, length.’ ‘’ Not long after Williams told the tale on ‘‘Get Up,’’ an enraged Durant wrote on Instagram, ‘‘This is a F***in lie. Jay Williams can NEVER speak for me, ever.’’ Then he tweeted, ‘‘Mans will do anything to advance their careers in this media shit, wanting to be accepted by an industry that will dispose of you whenever they please. Keep me out all that corny ass talk about who’s better and legacy and all that dumb ass shit. I don’t even talk like that.” Before you say Durant is absurdly oversensitive and should get off social media — which is true — consider the politics of how he’s faring on the court. His comeback has been powerful as the Nets, his superteam creation, cruise toward the NBA Finals. That means he holds the power of perception leverage, forcing Williams, whose NBA career was a disappointment, to defend his credibility. Also bruised today: TNT’s Jared Greenberg, whose gushy question about Durant’s recovery from a devastating Achilles rupture was greeted by a mean glare. ‘‘Is that a real question? What do you want me to say to that?’’ Durant fired back. If the Nets win the NBA Finals, the next six weeks are going to be SO MUCH FUN for media and basketball fans.
Charles Barkley, TNT — Doc Rivers, among the prominent Black coaches of his time, ‘‘parted ways’’ with the Clippers last fall. I could cite other examples of NBA teams that softened the public blow when releasing Black coaches, but it’s impossible to jackhammer through the hard head of Barkley, who said this after announcements that Terry Stotts and Steve Clifford — both White — left gigs in moves described as a mutual parting of ways: ‘‘In America, that means they were white. They fire brothers; they don’t part ways.” I want to hear Barkley if Chauncey Billups, who is Black and hasn’t been a head coach on any level, gets the Portland job over Jeff Van Gundy, whose coaching and broadcast resume speaks for itself. Sometimes, in his perpetual zeal to be outspoken, Barkley is his worst enemy. Think and research first, then fire.
Bally Sports Arizona — Any world striving for racial equality can’t excuse Barkley for his aforementioned comment, then beat up on Diamondbacks TV analyst Bob Brenly. Yes, Brenly was wrong to insensitively refer to pitcher Marcus Stroman’s head covering as a ‘‘do-rag’’ — “Pretty sure that's the same do-rag that Tom Seaver used to wear when he pitched for the Mets," he said, in a reckless attempt at humor. Yet why is Barkley allowed to use race in his wry remarks and avoid corporate reprimands every time he makes an insensitive crack, which is about once a half-hour? Urged by Bally Sports to undergo sensitivity training, Brenly took a voluntary leave of absence and said in a statement, ‘‘I want to apologize again for my insensitive reference, as it does not reflect my values or who I am. … I have decided to take some time off to listen, reflect and devote my attention to awareness training related to diversity and inclusion to enhance my understanding and appreciation of others. I plan to return to the booth next homestand, hopefully a better person." An on-air apology would have sufficed.
Bill Plaschke, Los Angeles Times — Sis Boom Bill is at it again. Blowing in extremes like a Santa Ana wind, Plaschke now is predicting the hometown Clippers are headed to a Western Conference title — ‘‘This Game 7 brilliance was the win,’’ he wrote Sunday, ``that will eventually catapult them into the NBA Finals.’’ The problem here: Just a week earlier, he was writing how the ‘‘Clipper Curse’’ soon would doom L.A.’s basketball orphans (‘‘The Clipper Curse has never held such power. The Clipper Curse has never been so perilous,’’ he penned). Which came as his original forecast for the Lakers was bombing out — ‘‘As long as the Lakers have a healthy LeBron James, they are headed directly toward a second consecutive NBA championship,’’ he wrote — and as the Dodgers were sputtering on his outrageously giddy prediction that they’ll be ‘‘the greatest team in baseball history.’’ In 2020, Plaschke was this column’s ‘‘`Badass Of The Year’’ for surviving a wicked coronavirus battle to produce exemplary column work during the championship runs of the Lakers and Dodgers. This year, the Plaschke Curse has never held such power. The Plaschke Curse has never been so perilous. Wasn’t planning on a Sixth Who Doesn’t Get It, but Sis Boom Bill needs to recalibrate his column compass.
Steve Warmbir, Chicago Sun-Times — After my recent piece on the demise of local news — titled, ‘‘Once The Heartbeat Of Newspapers, Chicago Is Death Row’’ — two readers wondered specifically how far circulation has plunged in that city. So I e-mailed the interim editor-in-chief, Warmbir, and asked him to clarify the current readership numbers. To quote Phil Collins, ‘‘There’s no reply at all.’’ I e-mailed him again. To channel Simon and Garfunkel, ‘‘Silence like a cancer grows.’’ Hmmm. If a newsroom leader ran from a potential advertiser who requests those numbers, that money wisely would be spent elsewhere. Death Row, indeed. Wasn’t planning on a Seventh Who Doesn’t Get It, but I’m trying to save Chicago from itself.
Jay Mariotti, called ‘‘the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes sports 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.