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WHEN TONY KORNHEISER IS THE PHILLIE PHANATIC, IDIOCY ERODES HIS CREDIBILITY
As one who wasted several days in a Halloween costume on ESPN, I implore the network to grasp a journalism reality: One can’t dress up as Pete Davidson or Guy Fieri and still be seen as a serious pro
Now more than ever, as America’s trust in media plummets to all-time lows, you don’t want to be wearing a Phillie Phanatic costume on ESPN if a sports luminary dies. Or if another toxic-workplace scandal breaks. Or if Kyrie Irving promotes another antisemitic cause. Or if a natural disaster, not rain showers, halts Game 3 of the World Series as it did 33 years ago.
Yet there was Tony Kornheiser, covered in green fur on the network’s “Pardon the Interruption” debate show Monday. And he would have looked ridiculously inappropriate had a major development forced the program to air with Kornheiser in the mascot suit. Same goes for his partner, Michael Wilbon, who came as a version of the Houston Astros’ mascot, Orbit, with antennae sticking out of his hat and a red clown nose.
It’s safe to say, even in madcap times on Planet Earth, that no sports reporter from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or The Athletic or another prominent news organization would come to work in a Halloween ensemble. So I’m having difficulty understanding why ESPN would undercut its own journalistic credibility by allowing commentators — who regularly address important subjects beyond fun and games — to dress up like fools during a weekday news cycle. As it is, sports media are perpetually fighting a “toy department” stigma. For a cringeworthy hour, “PTI” and “Around the Horn” stooped below the toy department rung. They were Aisle 11 at the CVS store, where I bought my Halloween hockey mask last weekend.
I am uniquely equipped to tackle this topic. For several days of my life, paralyzed by a regrettable brain fog, I was one of those talking heads who didn’t say no when producers requested that we wear costumes. I was a daily regular for eight years during “Around the Horn’s” most successful period, with peak ratings. And on Oct. 31, while immersed in the misplaced narcissism of a show with soaring popularity, I forgot for a few hours that I was a big-city columnist and three-decade journalist. Instead, I focused on hundreds of thousands of viewers and longed to entertain them, in my long-awaited Hollywood moment, not realizing many were wincing or laughing at us or changing the channel.
Even for one afternoon within a year’s calendar, an interlude of fun sends a mixed message to a media-consuming audience: Sportswriters really are the idiots of journalism society — referenced by the legendary Frank Deford in the cheeky title of his best-of compilation, “The World’s Tallest Midget.” You can’t have it both ways, demanding one day that Dan Snyder or Robert Sarver be removed as a franchise owner, then showing up days later as Guy Fieri, Pete Davidson, Aaron Rodgers or NFL “RedZone” host Scott Hanson. To even remotely approach the gravitas of those who’ve covered the war in Ukraine, the Jan. 6 mob attack of the U.S. Capitol, America’s raging cultural divides and, you know, real news stories, sports reporters can’t lapse into a shits-and-giggles mode. Because that’s what people will remember about, say, Tim Cowlishaw, who stuffed himself with sandwiches as he channeled Fieri, the oft-mocked host of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
What does he write about Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and other significant figures in the Dallas Morning News? Who cares what he writes? Tim was rocking Flavortown just like Guy! Sarah Spain has written breakthrough pieces about sexual assault for ESPN’s site, but when she’s mumbling and assigning blame as Rodgers in a No. 12 jersey, does her activism wane? Israel Gutierrez is a fine feature writer and NBA sideline reporter, and while he killed it as Davidson holding food — see: Taco Bell ad — what happens if a brawl breaks out in a Nets-Celtics game and he’s pressed into journalistic duty? Two fans watching in a bar: “Hey, bro, isn’t that the dude who did Pete Davidson?!” The show’s host, Tony Reali, can be forgiven for going as Jerry Seinfeld because he isn’t a journalist and doesn’t pretend to be one.
Can’t have it both ways, people. Dress up at night, not on TV.
I can’t apologize enough for my handful of pumpkin-influenced sins, but perhaps I can help wean ESPN off the costume kick. Adorn the studio with a “Happy Halloween” sign, as seen on any other holiday. But that’s enough. Never, ever abandon the professional visual.
When the “ATH” producers told us to find costumes, most of us obliged at the time. The show was a hit. The money was great. Being on TV gave us more weight with sports figures, for some reason. Why resist what was working? I went one year as Steve Bartman, the foul-ball saboteur who cost the Cubs a pennant. Apparently I was so convincing, one of my big ESPN bosses asked me to appear at Chicago events in the same get-up. I refused, fortunately drawing the professional line before it blurred. Another year, I considered going as David Letterman, who was embroiled in a workplace scandal; I even bought one of his trademark coffee mugs in New York. This time, ESPN told me no. Kate Hudson was dating Alex Rodriguez and cheering for him in the stands, and quickly, my studio associate found a Yankees cap and a blond wig while I shrieked in my highest voice.
I felt stupid every time I left the set. I’m assuming Wilbon feels stupid, but most are trying WAY TOO HARD, as if auditioning at a talent show. For debate forums to survive — “ATH,” in particular, has suffered sizable ratings losses — the panelists’ takes on sports must be more thought-out than what they put into their Halloween characters. You can’t let a credible sports presentation devolve into weaksauce entertainment.
Otherwise, you’re just another bad TV show.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.