SPORTS MEDIA: FIVE WHO GET IT (TEBOW, MACMULLAN); FIVE WHO DON’T (STEPHEN A., AGAIN)
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
Tom Coughlin, guest essayist — Forget all images of the authoritarian curmudgeon whose style worked in the NFL until it didn’t. Nothing you read in 2021 will be as soul-torturing as Coughlin’s tribute to his wife, Judy, who is dying of an incurable brain disorder. The coach, who won two Super Bowls with the Giants, wrote in the New York Times: “For the past year, I’ve been torn between protecting my wife’s dignity and privacy and sharing some deeply personal and sad news. It’s only after some reflection that I’ve come to the conclusion that what my family and I are experiencing may be helpful for others to read. As so many of you are gearing up for another NFL season, I will be sitting far from the sidelines, at the bedside and holding the hand of my biggest supporter, my beloved wife, the mother of our children and a grandmother to our grandchildren.” The life lesson: Beneath even the thickest of crusts, a shattered heart weeps.
National Football League — This won’t win me any friends in the industry, but the league is right to ban independent media representatives from locker rooms this season. It would be more prudent of the NFL to make sure mask mandates are enforced in Los Angeles at SoFi Stadium — where spectators largely are ignoring the county edict, as I wrote this week — but it’s a given that reporters can’t be in locker rooms when franchises are having enough difficulty convincing the likes of Cam Newton and Cole Beasley to vax up. If you’re a conspiracy theorist who thinks the league is capitalizing on the pandemic to permanently relegate independent media to Zoom calls, hey, it’s no conspiracy — it’s true. But I can’t blame commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners for protecting their $16 billion baby.
The Mike Richards crushers — Hail to Sony Pictures Television, which canceled its messy choice of Richards as “Jeopardy!’’ host and reopened delicious possibilities. They should include Aaron Rodgers, who told CBS’ Adam Schein that he “definitely would have’’ accepted the gig if his football schedule could be accommodated. My latest brainstorm as face of the show is the vanguard of versatility, Bob Costas. But when I reached out, he said he rejected a guest-hosting invitation last year for COVID-19 reasons and isn’t interested in a long-term role succeeding the late Alex Trebek. “Would have been fun as a one time experience, but I never saw myself as the right person for the job,’’ Costas texted. “Whoever winds up doing it, I think he or she should be in their forties or early fifties. That seems like the best fit. I know Alex was around 80, but he had the eternal equity with the audience and could have continued as long as he was able.’’ Costas is 69 going on 49. He should re-consider, though he’s quite busy with his new HBO show and TBS hosting duties for the National League championship series.
Tim Tebow, ESPN — Unless he tries rugby — please, no — the illusion of a professional sports career is over for America’s God-fearing lightning rod. I expect him to expand his role as a college football analyst, the smart call, as he figures out a future that should include, yes, evangelism. I, for one, never have understood Tebow Hate, respecting that his humanitarian contributions overwhelm any me-me-me defects. In a country where people don’t work because they can take government payouts, he set a never-quit example — on minor-league bus rides through the hinterlands — even in the face of social-media ridicule and talk-show overkill. Tebow is a good man at a time when good men are needed, and not a minute after he was waived by Urban Meyer in Jacksonville, he landed a deal with Clean Juice as national brand ambassador. “Tim Tebow’s natural authenticity, inspiring reputation, commitment to healthy living and unwavering faith is a perfect embodiment of the personal and professional values we hold dear at Clean Juice," CEO Landon Eckles said. Somehow, thanks to Tebow, clean living still sells. ESPN could use a little clean living itself.
Jackie MacMullan, renaissance journalist — To call her a female pioneer is to undersell her extensive impact. As she retires from ESPN, Jackie Mac should be remembered as the rare media badass, regardless of gender, who performed all functions well. She coaxed reluctant sports figures to bare souls. She delivered blistering commentaries in print and on TV. She broke stories, mostly on the NBA beat. In what generally was a farts-and-giggles “Showdown’’ segment on our “Around the Horn’’ episodes, I always braced for fierce, airtight arguments from MacMullan. She is leaving much too soon, but as usual, her reasoning is sensible: "Sometimes, you just know when you're ready to dial it back, and this is the right time.’’
Ethan Strauss, Substack — This rabble-rouser is the latest to join me and other media freedom-seekers at the independent writing site, joining recent departures at The Athletic. This is the best take I’ve seen in ages on the sleazy intersection of ESPN, sports and Beverly Hills agencies. Just read and swallow hard: “Even if I don’t take it as seriously as malfeasance in our politics or financial institutions, sports corruption still has an impact on coverage, and I dislike how much of the game behind the game is shielded from readers. For example, Creative Artists Agency (CAA) happens to represent key media personalities at ESPN NBA, which was by design, and accomplished with the subtlety and tact of the Red Wedding. When you combine that nugget with knowledge of CAA’s influence over the New York Knicks (GM Leon Rose is a former CAA superagent, coach Tom Thibodeau is a CAA client), ESPN’s reports of Zion Williamson (CAA client) having an interest in joining the Knicks gets put in a different light. The way it’s presented to the consumer is the mere reporting on a rising star in New Orleans wanting to play in New York. You’re not supposed to know that ESPN wants this to happen because ESPN is CAA and CAA is ESPN, which means that CAA is the Knicks, meaning that the Knicks are ESPN. You’re not supposed to know that this factors heavily into why New Orleans is shit out of luck, gumbo and jazz music be damned. In many ways, the agencies run the NBA. The media that they use to execute their messaging is making the principals seem peripheral. So often, the story of a trade or free agency signing is told absent mention of its true author.’’ Preach, baby, preach, with Strauss qualifying as a sixth “They Get It’’ item.
Chicago sports voices — I had the utter misfortune, during my 17 years in the city, to experience the hillbilly homerism of Hawk Harrelson. Chicago was unique that way, filled with broadcasters compelled to shamelessly root for the home teams, sometimes to the point of inebriated parody (R.I.P. Harry Caray). So I’m pleasantly surprised — shocked, actually — to see some of the industry’s best young voices bringing high professionalism to the No. 3 market, namely Jason Benetti and Adam Amin. Both are coveted by the national networks, making it incumbent upon the White Sox and Bulls to keep them well-compensated and happy. Mercy, did I just write something nice about the Reinsdorf Empire? Gobsmacked, I’m calling this item No. 7.
THEY DON’T GET IT
Stephen A. Smith, ESPN — He is appearing so often in the “Don’t Get It” lane, I might have to retire the award and inscribe his name. Body language and long staredowns told us that Smith never was fond of Max Kellerman as a sparring partner, but Kellerman’s removal from “First Take’’ — without a firm replacement — suggests Smith is a tyrant. Will he ever be happy without his close buddy and partner-in-multiple-million-dollar crime, Skip Bayless? Smith should realize that his viewership success doesn’t require Bayless, who is under contract at Fox into 2025, when he’ll be pushing 73. The secret to the longer-running “Pardon The Interruption’’ is natural chemistry, dating back decades, between co-hosts Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon. But Smith prefers to argue with an assortment of debate foes including another loudmouth, Michael Irvin, which will hinder the continuity of familiarity — how’s that for self-invented TV jargon? Whatever Smith wants at ESPN, he gets. This is a dangerous game for his bosses, who suffered through the Shohei Ohtani slur and other Stephen A. disasters and might be in for worse if they don’t rein in his control freakdom. Kellerman is moving to morning network radio and will have a new TV show, but it won’t be front and center. He effectively has been Stephen A’d.
Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, b.s. artists — If they want post-NBA careers in media, they must stop with self-serving revisionist history that dents their credibility. On Green’s new Bleacher Report series, “Chips,’’ the two former teammates/combatants don’t blame themselves for the on-court altercation that led to Durant’s departure from the Warriors. Nope, three years later, both are pointing fingers at general manager Bob Myers and coach Steve Kerr for how they handled the viral fireworks. Yep, blame the honchos when you guys were the ones squabbling. Said Green: “I told them, ‘I’ll talk to (Durant), but ya’ll aren’t going to tell what I need to say.’’ Next day, Myers and Kerr asked Green to apologize publicly, and he blew a gasket: “I told them then and there, ‘ya’ll are about to f—k this up. The only (people) that can make this right are me and (Durant). There’s nothing ya’ll can do, and ya’ll are going to f–k this up.’ And in my opinion, they f—-d it up.” To which Durant chimed in: “It wasn’t the argument. It was the way that everybody — Steve Kerr — acted like it didn’t happen. Myers tried to discipline you and think that would put the mask over everything.’’ Welcome to the age of athlete empowerment. They simply can reinvent their mess and expect us to believe it.
Associated Press Sports Editors — I realize this ilk is a dying breed, but sports editors shouldn’t completely abandon ethics. There should have been only one conclusion when APSE hosted a panel discussion titled, “Best Practices For Covering Sports Gambling.’’ That would be: Investigate, don’t participate. But the panelists represented pro-gambling interests, including VSiN’s Brent Musburger and ESPN’s Doug Kezirian, and I have no faith that traditional newspaper sites — which aren’t financially attached to the legal gambling world like broadcast and wagering sites — will launch probes into inevitable scandals. “It was so exciting,’’ wrote VSiN’s Dave Tuley, “to see and hear so many sports editors from around the country interested in devoting staff to sports betting coverage in their states.’’ When in doubt, sports editors usually cover their asses rather than advance journalism.
ESPN — Some people, usually with a Bristol area code, think I hold a professional grudge against ESPN. In truth, after eight years of drawing paychecks on Mickey Mouse paper, I own an advantage unlike any other sports media critic: I have the freedom to expose how the place operates without harboring any interest in working there again. The network has a five-year, $1.5 billion contract to stream and broadcast UFC fights, but to be a legitimate news organization, ESPN must separate from UFC goon Dana White. It failed miserably on its website by posting a business manifesto titled, “Inside the UFC’s Plans to Expand Its Global Stronghold.’’ How about investigating how many UFC fighters suffer brain damage in a life-and-death sport, how many are underpaid and how many were infected by COVID-19? Nah. White would call ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro, throw a fit and threaten to take his rights to Fox. So, the manifesto trumps all.
Double-standard practitioners — The legal case of Rick Telander was only scantly covered in Chicago, probably because local sports columnists aren’t relevant anymore, certainly not as they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago. But a question of fairness comes to mind. If a sports figure is arrested for DUI and charged with five related offenses, he generally is put through a ringer with media investigations and frequent updates. Almost a month passed before Telander’s case was dropped by a Cook County Circuit Court judge, who said he viewed a police video, heard testimony from witnesses and ruled there were no “reasonable grounds to believe (the) defendant was intoxicated.’’ The story probably wouldn’t have ended there for an athlete, who might have faced further media probes. A double standard? I’d say so — and the media who cover sports should be subjected to the same intense coverage of their legal issues, regardless of income and station in life. As I said in a previous column, Telander deserved the presumption of innocence. But so do sports people.
Fox Sports — In a country divided by politics and vaccines, one safe and sacred place should be college football. But Fox insists on leaning right and turning loose Clay Travis — yes, he’s back — as a COVID-is-a-myth, Trump-loving activist on its pregame shows. Riding a bus like John Madden back in the day, he’ll only be appearing in the Deep South, thank goodness, in states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia. I assume Fox is trying to attack ESPN’s SEC stranglehold, but now more than ever, America needs a football season as an escape, not another reason to vent. And what’s with the promotional depiction of Travis as some steroids-bulging freakoid with tats? Is anything real anymore? Again, it’s a sixth entry, and again, I can’t help myself.
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.