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SPORTS MEDIA: FIVE WHO GET IT (ROMO, BOMANI); FIVE WHO DON’T (FOX, SMOLTZ)
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
Journalists — Twenty years ago this week, three sportswriters walked into a radio studio in Chicago. We assumed our show would be dominated by the story I’d broken the night before — Michael Jordan returning to the NBA with the Washington Wizards — but just before airtime, the horrific images of 9/11 flashed across our monitors. We followed our instincts, Jim Litke and Mike Mulligan alongside me, and reported the details to network listeners, taking their grieving calls in our collective shock and anger. During a break, some advertising nitwit demanded coverage be flipped to a news channel, but the program director, Mark Gentzkow, valued our skills and kept us on the air. The next day, we were recognized in the national media as “sports guys’’ who crossed over and covered the news story of our lives. I mention this to remind today’s PDs, who seem frightened of the C-word, to please allow well-read hosts to discuss COVID-19 in depth and not run from it like cowardly sheep puppeteered by Big Sports. It’s embarrassing, in these complicated times, to hear sports radio dumbing-down on who’s gonna-win-the-NFC-West minutiae.
Tony Romo, CBS — As he rearranges his bank vault to accommodate $180 million in compensation, it would be convenient for Romo to tank. You know, shy from the predictions that helped make him the richest sportscaster ever. Instead, he keeps living dangerously, daring to forecast that rookie Zach Wilson will defy the NFL’s longstanding incurable disease — Jets Syndrome — and quickly attain the quarterbacking status of … Patrick Mahomes? “It’s rare for me to say someone has the ability to get in the stratosphere of a Mahomes, but I think this kid actually has that ability,’’ Romo said. “So when you have a quarterback like that, I think there’s no telling how good you can be. He can make up for a lot of weaknesses in a lot of areas for a football team. I think Zach Wilson is going to be in the discussion as one of the top three to five quarterbacks very quickly. Within the next couple of years, I think you’re going to see him rise. I think he’s unbelievable. His ceiling is so high.” As soon as Sunday, Romo could be forced to eat his bold words — or, in New York, a more odorous substance — but give him credit for audacity. He risks credibility for the sake of spirited, made-to-rewind conversation.
Bomani Jones, HBO — It’s time to commission a study: How much do intelligence quotients increase when sports commentators escape ESPN’s Silly Squares? That’s what I call the caged silhouettes that define quick-hit debate programs — I was locked inside one myself for eight years and 1,700 shows — and Jones, perceptive and streetwise as it is, comes off as doubly illuminating on Bob Costas’ new series, “Back On The Record.’’ He delivered a powerful and timely commentary on why the NFL isn’t punishing Deshaun Watson, despite 22 civil lawsuits and 10 criminal complaints from message therapists (think money), then swung harder in a roundtable discussion that underlined the evils of legal gambling for leagues and media companies. This is the one premier production, in a vast sports media wasteland, that covers and scrutinizes a $600 billion industry rather than promoting and ass-kissing — and ESPN and Fox Sports would be wise to acknowledge middling-to-low ratings on Silly Square TV and adopt HBO’s sophisticated approach. To say Jones is a thinking man’s Stephen A. Smith is understating matters.
Plaxico Burress, redemptive soul — How fascinating to see Burress firing football opinions instead of shooting himself in the thigh region. He served 20 months in prison for that nightclub accident, having violated New York’s gun laws, but the one-time Super Bowl hero is back on a Fox Sports Radio weekend gig with two other former NFL players, LaVar Arrington and TJ Houshmandzadeh. Burress stated what others were reluctant to say about the New England quarterbacking situation: “Bill Belichick cut Cam Newton because he was not vaccinated. That is the absolute truth. He will never be able to come out and say it publicly, but he was released because he was not vaccinated, you can't depend on him, and he would be unreliable going forward as the starting quarterback.’’ Sing it, Plaxico: “Don’t you … forget about me.’’
T.J. Quinn, ESPN — This surely isn’t his romantic ideal of participatory journalism: chronicling his long-haul bout with the coronavirus. But the investigative reporter tells a chilling tale, melding his plight with that of Justin Foster. Of the Clemson defensive lineman, Quinn writes that he’s still “missing a sense of smell, still struck by occasional shortness of breath or pains in his chest, still prone to brain fog when he’s tired (and) has intense reactions to any bug bites.’’ Then, at 52, Quinn ponders his own fate: “You spend your life running into limits and defining yourself by how you react to them. Then long-haul COVID hits you with limits that you don’t know how to deal with, or didn’t expect to deal with for years. And no one can tell you whether it will be one more week of this or the rest of your life.’’
61,825 — Sad to say, this isn’t the seating capacity at Soldier Field. In response to readers who inquired about Chicago Sun-Times circulation, following my piece about the demise of that city’s once-robust newspaper culture, I e-mailed interim editor-in-chief Steve Warmbir. He didn’t respond — and now I know why (see: the number above). A London-based media site that gets it, Press Gazette, analyzed data from the Alliance for Audited Media about the declining readership of American papers. The Sun-Times plunged 18 percent in Monday-through-Friday print-copy averages since the start of the pandemic and sells half the haul of the Chicago Tribune, which owns a still-profitable Sunday market. It’s a bleak report overall, with only the Wall Street Journal and New York Times topping 200,000 in weekday print circulation, and it further underscores the long-ago importance of launching a paywall-worthy digital presentation — which only the Journal, Times and Washington Post can boast at present. USA Today, which used to give away copies at hotels, has lost 62 percent of print circulation in 18 months and has gone to a paywall. And to think I was ripped throughout the industry, after leaving the Sun-Times of my own volition, for predicting on HBO’s “Real Sports’’ that papers without robust websites would fade away. Paid weekday circulation when I departed: 325,000. Just saying … as a worthy sixth item.
Lyndsey Gough, Georgia TV reporter — Jerk behavior is on the rise in stadiums, no doubt fueled by pandemic angst, and Gough deserves a medal and a raise for exposing this unruly element on Twitter. Attempting to tape a segment inside a concourse during the Georgia-Clemson game, the WTOC 11 sports director was repeatedly harassed by fans of both teams. “Please don’t touch me,’’ she told one yahoo before allowing the tape to roll for a sick minute. “So uncomfortable. Can we please respect people’s space?’’ she wrote. A tip for Gough: Next time, avoid the concourse. The game is what matters, not idiot fans — a proverb built for Item No. 7.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Fox Sports — You almost could see the sinister spikes from the COVID-19 photo illustrations, red and gray and imported from Wuhan, creeping through the maskless thousands inside Camp Randall Stadium. There was a college football game to play, you see, and before the fourth quarter, there was a tradition to observe. It’s called “Jump Around,’’ the mob scene where entire sections of Wisconsin students do just that, jumping and jamming to the House of Pain beat. This should not have been allowed to happen, with mask-wearing “strongly encouraged’’ in the stadium if not mandated, yet “Jump Around’’ went off the first time in 651 days with few, if any, jumpers masked up. And Fox was right there to celebrate it all, irresponsibly and blindly, panning the capacity crowd of 76,832 fans for several minutes and even participating — sideline reporter Jenny Taft jumping and spinning, play-by-play man Gus Johnson bopping his head. Do I need to remind Eric Shanks, CEO of Fox Sports, that America remains in the ravages of COVID and the Delta variant? That parents are petrified when they see such madness at packed venues? In the network’s fervor to drive ratings, promote the sport, appease Big Ten partners and borrow political rhetoric from Fox News — you know, make money — Fox wants viewers to think the pandemic is over. This goes for all sports networks moving forward: Stop enabling superspreads by glorifying large, rowdy, maskless crowds. If Shanks cares, he’ll check for COVID case-load numbers in Madison this week and inquire about Badgers linebacker Leo Chenal, who tested positive before kickoff. Oh, did I mention that Johnson, while hyping “Jump Around,’’ was reading a promo for the Fox Bet app? Ain’t that America, for you and me.
John Smoltz, MLB Network — Which leads to another Fox conundrum: what to do with Smoltz in the upcoming postseason when he refuses to be vaccinated. As the network’s top baseball analyst, he’ll be expected to join Joe Buck for the major American League showdowns — which could include large markets in New York, Chicago, Houston and Boston — and the World Series. But will Fox follow the lead of the MLB Network, which banned anti-vaxxers Smoltz and Al Leiter from in-studio appearances? For all concerned, Smoltz should arrange for two jabs and not jeopardize the health of Buck and other Fox personnel. Besides, no one wants Alex Rodriguez anywhere near the main booth if Smoltz isn’t available.
Joel Klatt, Fox Sports — Camp Shanks is in disarray this week. When not mocking COVID, the Madison production included a troubling observation from the football analyst. In a safety-minded era, it’s a near-consensus view that players — especially those in college — should be protected from killer hits. The officials did their job, ejecting Penn State linebacker Ellis Brooks for targeting Wisconsin quarterback Graham Mertz with a vicious shot. Said Klatt, who should know better as a former college QB: “I just hate the ejection. This is a problem with this rule. Hey, college football, at some point you gotta measure intent. The guy’s not out there head-hunting. He’s playing fast. It’s a violent sport. This is a really good player. He’s the heart and soul of this defense. He shouldn’t be ejected from the game. You wanna throw a flag? Throw a flag. Eject a guy from the game? You’ve gotta fix this in college football. Disgrace." Actually, we’ve gotta fix Klatt. Disgrace.
Social media chasers — At some point, legitimate sports media will stop allowing social media to dictate coverage. I just don’t know which decade that will happen. Obviously, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly wasn’t advocating mass murder when he borrowed John McKay’s ancient quip on execution and football. “I'm in favor of execution. Maybe our entire team needs to be executed after tonight. We just didn't execute very well,’’ Kelly said after beating Florida State in overtime. With nothing better to do on a holiday weekend, the trolls exploded — and Kelly was forced to explain himself. “I was kidding. It was tongue-in-cheek. It wasn't funny? I was talking and making a joke about it. It was taken serious? Are you people crazy?’’ he said. “I was stealing one of (McKay’s) old quotes and being funny, because nobody likes to be funny anymore. If you want to take me to town on that, please do.’’ I prefer to address the trolls: When will you do something with your lives? No one cares about your opinions, your selfies or you. The same applies to those speculating recklessly about the sideline appearance of ESPN football analyst Todd McShay, who acknowledged health issues in announcing he’ll be stepping away from work for the short term. Signing up for a Twitter account isn’t a license to slander.
“First Take,’’ ESPN — This is what happens when you let Stephen A. program the network. You have one new debate partner, Michael Irvin, who will duel Smith in high-decibel screaming rants on Mondays. And you have another debate partner, Tim Tebow, who will turn Fridays with Stephen A. into acts of religious blasphemy. With the ouster of Max Kellerman, the show needs continuity, not the sort of panelist roulette that has plunged the ratings of “Around The Horn.’’ Yet producer Antoine Lewis says Smith and moderator Molly Qerim will see a third chair rotated among Chiney Ogwumike, Jessica Mendoza, Mina Kimes, Dan Orlovsky, Marcus Spears and Damien Woody. So “FIrst Take’’ becomes just another musical-chairs stop for the same pundits seen on other daytime shows. Why not at least use Bomani Jones? The short answer: Stephen A. is afraid he’d be brain-shamed. Said Lewis: “Stephen A., Molly and a lineup of A-list guests will definitely continue to provide fans with all they’ve come to expect from ‘First Take’ and much more. We’re excited to get going!” Whee!
ESPN — A week doesn’t pass without another attacker taking down the Worldwide Leader In Dysfunction for its internal issues. It’s pretty bad when Paul Pierce, dumped by ESPN last spring after an Instagram video showed him zonked out with exotic dancers, calls out WWLID for its business conflicts of interest. “I was done with them anyway. It wasn’t a great fit,’’ Pierce told Sports Illustrated. “There’s a lot of stuff over there you can’t say. And you have to talk about LeBron all the time.’’ The Truth, who joins a conga line of stoned NBA greats in the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, always is worthy of an overtime period in “They Don’t Get It.’’
Jim Gray, schmoozer — I believe we have time for a seventh item. Once reviled for boldly peppering Pete Rose on live TV with tough questions about gambling, Gray softened in recent years to become an advocate of the elite athlete. Nothing like climbing into business bed with superstars to pad one’s income. Gray’s book — “Talking to GOATs,’’ now available in paperback — features intimate conversations with Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. They’ve trusted him with certain topics and open up more than they might with other interviewers, but when it’s time for another Rose moment, Gray protects the GOATs rather than feed them nutrients for major exclusives. Baaaa!
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.