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WHY LIFE BEYOND THE NATIONAL MEDIA “MARQUEE” IS SO MUCH BETTER
The so-called sports media pinnacle radically changed my life — from normalcy as a Chicago columnist to madness as an ESPN personality — and anyone who thinks I miss TV celebrity is quite mistaken
A sports media friend says he wants to see me “on the national marquee” again. I think I’d rather be a scraggly white hair inside Rupert Murdoch’s left nostril. The reason I’m healthier, happier and saner these days — and writing better columns — is BECAUSE I’m not on a national marquee, whatever that is.
Back when I was seen by almost a million TV viewers a day, back when I was read daily by hundreds of thousands in a major American city, I did not lead a normal life. The media universe wouldn’t allow it. Five shows a week for eight years on ESPN, as part of a lead-in to the all-important evening “SportsCenter,” transformed a Chicago columnist into a global circus animal. I’d signed up for a spirited debate program. I did not sign up for TMZ-style celebrity.
“Around The Horn” hijacked my entire existence. The money was great and friendly words on the street were nice, but very early, I realized a professional tenet that I’d worked hard to protect for decades — don’t let yourself become the story — would be impossible to maintain. Unless I escaped to a cave, the people who didn’t like me, my topical stances and my highly opinionated modus operandi were going to hate me, exploit me and ultimately get me.
“You’re a target,” said my sports editor, smiling for some reason.
It’s one thing to have fans disagree with viewpoints. It was quite another to have scuzzy websites constantly telling lies, such as one that said I’d been in a nightclub fracas, prompting our show producers to delay my appearance until confirming the falsehood. It was quite another when social media claimed I was high because “gotcha” public photos caught me with a goofy or odd look, once at a restroom urinal. Or when I couldn’t cover sports events from an assigned arena seat because some media jackass would try to start an altercation and gain attention for himself, forcing me to watch on TV in press rooms, which led to more published lies that I wasn’t at the events. Or when I couldn’t work at Fenway Park, where out-of-town columnists wrote in auxiliary seating areas during baseball postseasons, because a few fans were occupied with me and my assessments of the Red Sox.
It was quite another when a crude comment — you know by now about the crazy baseball manager who called me “a f—ing fag” — could mushroom into a nationwide brouhaha that led me to tell grimy stories about the guy to Tucker Carlson and other prime-time political hosts. Or when a fan got in my face as I was eating dinner with my family. Or when industry backlash turned juvenile, in the form of Richard Deitsch, a media reporter who mocked how we looked on the show when he needed to lose 25 pounds and find a better barber. Or when people in the Sun-Times newsroom, who might have wanted their own national forums and didn’t appreciate my critiques of their hometown teams, draped sheets of paper with XXXXXXXXX on the studio exterior before tapings were moved to the ESPN Zone restaurant on Ohio Street.
This was not just a TV show. This was a 24/7 insane asylum. One night, out with friends, I was all but tackled by a blonde fan in her 30s. Another night, at my favored hangout in Chicago’s River North neighborhood, a Bears fan said he didn’t like the show or my column, and when I expressed surprise that he knew how to read, his friend noted he was a high-school dropout — and they loudly cursed each other out. In the same establishment, a server from a place down the street, taking orders from a customer, asked if I was “Jay,” and when I said yes, she tried to pour a beer on me. Inside an airport restaurant, as ``Around The Horn” aired on an overhead TV, a person looked at me, then at the screen, and said in a dead-serious tone, “How do you clone yourself like that?” The Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley, didn’t know me from the average Bernie or Rick when I wasn’t doing TV. But in China one night, when he was supposed to be schmoozing an international Olympic crowd in his failed pursuit of the 2016 Summer Games, he shouted across the room at me, “Are the Sox gonna trade Konerko?” In Cleveland, my then-agent removed artwork from a wall in my hotel room, and I actually had to demand he return it so I wouldn’t be charged or arrested. Before football games, anywhere in the country, I was asked to join tailgates outside stadiums, and inevitably, while being polite, I would be offered shots or weed or worse.
Life was different, all because I was stating sports views on national TV for the 22 minutes between commercials. Sports figures were different. Colleagues were different. Fans were different, including famous ones like Josh Duhamel, who said he watched before allowing me a wee role in one of his movies. And Mila Kunis, who said in an airline magazine that “ATH” was her guilty pleasure. Surely, George Clooney had better things to do; Charlie Sheen, probably not. Lil Wayne appeared on the show, and after thanking me for an earlier shout-out, he got mad because of something I said during a debate. Snoop Dogg asked me, “Who do you think you is?” Travel was different, too. In Italy, a kid in an Ohio State shirt yelled “Around The Horn!” as we completed the final few steps of a 463-stair Duomo climb in Florence. An Australian radio station wanted me to talk rugby. All the while, because I felt a responsibility to my actual craft, I worked even harder to write and travel — a workload, mixed with radio shows alongside the ESPN-ascendant likes of Jalen Rose, that only made me more fatigued on all platforms. In 2007, I had chest pains during an assignment in New Orleans. The rival Chicago Tribune, which didn’t have an ESPN studio in its newsroom, all but had me on my death bed as I was checking out of the hospital. When I returned to the program and covered the Super Bowl days later, the reception from some of my media brethren in Miami wasn’t exactly joyful. I think some wished I’d died. It’s a gnarly business, sports media, filled with resentment and schadenfreude.
My name certainly was “on the national marquee.” Damned right, it was. But if this was the so-called pinnacle of sports media success, why did I constantly feel a need to turn around and see who was plunging a knife in my back? When I left the Sun-Times, rightfully convinced that a corrupt newspaper was digitally dysfunctional and fading away, news coverage of my resignation was unhinged. The spurned editor-in-chief, Michael Cooke, led a front-page assault that included an open letter from famed movie critic Roger Ebert, who called me “a rat.” Copy editors threw a party celebrating my departure, not realizing that without me, their livelihoods would be negatively impacted as the paper lost four-fifths of its circulation. Media sites started a Mariotti Watch, convinced I wouldn’t be hired anywhere as a columnist, with Real Clear Sports trying to paint me as a malcontent in an interview with ESPN boss Erik Rydholm, who defended me as a loyal team player who was “great” in the show’s daily interactions. When I went digital and signed a long-term deal with the now-defunct AOL Fanhouse site, there was more backlash from media people — even lowly writers with no accomplishments — who actually were disappointed I’d landed quickly. I’m not sure who Bob Keisser is/was, but before I went on HBO’s “Real Sports” to explain why newspapers were ailing, he pummeled me in a Los Angeles-area media column. What, was I wrong?
And what were these people getting out of their psychotic obsession with me? Were they being paid on the sly? Did they think they’d curry favor with the morons who ran some of these sites? And where are all of them now?
As I kept appearing on “ATH” day after day — remember, the producers filled out the lineup card and wanted me on regularly — animosity only grew uglier. Sites started digging into my private life and telling more lies, which led credible news organizations to abandon ethical principles and start reporting some garbage as fact. My first and only brush with the law, in an otherwise clean and accountable life, turned into a media debacle so filthy and reckless that I had no chance of defending myself in a fair environment. When I pleaded no contest to a low-level misdemeanor, so my family could have peace, CNN reported on its news crawl that I’d pleaded guilty — not so. The frenzy enabled a plaintiff to invent stories, in an attempt to extract money, which failed on the civil level after I compiled an exhaustively detailed refutation. To do so online was considered “victim-shaming,” so I said little publicly then. TMZ and other paparazzi tried to goad me, trapping me and a friend on a sidewalk outside an Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills. I chose to lay low for a while before taking an editor/columnist job in San Francisco at yet another failing paper/digital site, where staffers were offered cash from an outside source for “dirt” on me. The creep, formerly with a Deadspin site since Deadspun, was a drug addict who since has found a God who likely won’t help much.
Today, in my 13th year by the ocean, I continue to love life in L.A. It truly is the best place to live, recent storms and occasional tremors aside. Notice how I’m no longer subjected to weirdness, now that I’m off the “national marquee.” Here in the land of real stars, few people are aware of “Around The Horn” or local sportswriters, much less one from the Midwest. They don’t connect me to anything but my tennis forehand and my lunchtime order.
Still, a hitch remains. Not one media outlet has reported I prevailed in the civil proceeding — a notable victory, considering the case was about money — and that my record has been clean for many years after a total expungement. When a columnist from The Athletic profiled me last year, he included the civil outcome and expungement after doing homework and speaking to my attorney, who provided the ancient paperwork. That’s when editors at the site chose not to run the story. They’d intended to make me look bad, in my always suspicious opinion, and weren’t aware of the favorable conclusion. So, rather than report the entire truth, they killed all of it. I’m still waiting for someone to complete the legal story. I might wait the rest of my life.
Americans don’t trust media anymore. I know why, first-hand.
Not long after that experience, I had one more bout with dishonesty at the highest media levels. While I chatted with a Hollywood producer about a TV hosting position, at a table of several people, a longtime ESPN executive stumbled through a restaurant off the lobby of a luxury hotel. He handed his card to a woman at our table. I called John Skipper, then the ESPN president, and suggested he clean up his colleague’s act. That was the end of it — until, years later, someone who’d been at our table (not me) leaked a phone video of the executive’s dubious performance to Deadspin. Curiously, Skipper stopped communicating with me. Later that year, a GQ story accused me of recording and leaking the tape. It was another lie, and I’d have won ample sums in a lawsuit, instead settling for a retraction that held up the magazine’s production run an entire weekend. In 2017, Skipper left ESPN in disgrace after, he said, he was extorted by his cocaine dealer. Last week, he told a federal court how Murdoch and Fox Sports had sabotaged ESPN’s World Cup bids with high-scale bribery.
Yep, such is life on that proud, glorious “national marquee.” I replied to my media friend via e-mail. Below is part of what I wrote about today’s obedient and soft sports media culture, which features gushing promotion of leagues and teams and casinos and very little of what I do best: holding truth to power in a $800 billion industry rife with scandal.
“There is no national marquee anymore unless you work for the network man and gush accordingly,” I wrote. “An occasional Stephen A. (Smith) or (Charles) Barkley will slip through the cracks. I’m an outspoken white dude in a melting pot of media mediocrity. And I’m cool with it. I’ve made my money, made my impact and made my enemies. I worked hard for a long time to enjoy freedom from b.s.
“Healthy and happy. My kids have great lives. And I’m the best sports columnist in America, not that there are many left (note: those who disagree, please outwrite me and keep up with my frequency and topicality of the last two years). I don’t define myself by media circles. I define myself by the quality of my writing and the independence to do my own thing. I didn’t burn bridges. The business burned my bridges. It’s beneath me. Sorry if it sounds bad.
“The business is stretched out into a million wrinkles. I did all of that for three decades. No one was bigger as a triple threat. No one traveled more. No one lived it more. The business couldn’t handle it — it didn’t want me rattling high-level cages. Don’t have any interest in working for agenda-driven people.
“Never have had more fun than what I’m doing now, which is clearly in the present. Chicago is in the past. I live in L.A. It’s a better life BECAUSE I’m not in the limelight. Do you see people calling me names? Picking fights? Don’t feel like climbing back into that pig sty. Haven’t had a chest pain in 16 years.
“I like being my own boss. Love to write and travel and play tennis. Hope that explains it. If an editor called and we hit it off, I’d consider it. I was talking to San Diego about a SE gig.”
That’s true. I spoke to the San Diego Union-Tribune recently about a sports editor position. The publisher/editor-in-chief was impressive in our back-and-forth correspondence. He encouraged me to go through the process. I engaged in a Zoom call with someone at the Los Angeles Times, which owns the U-T.
She was at her home breakfast table. Her cat was there, too, front and center. Somehow, I don’t think Woodward and Bernstein were hired at the Washington Post while Ben Bradlee’s kitty kept watch. I sincerely thanked the editor-in-chief for his interest, and he told me to call next time I was in San Diego, probably to watch the payroll-puffed Padres and eat fish tacos.
I’m pretty sure he didn’t know what “Around The Horn” was, and I’m pretty sure the cat didn’t know, either. Since my last appearance, the show has lost much of the vast viewership we’d built over time. I’m not familiar with many of the faces in a revolving cast of panelists. I doubt they deal with any crap.
They aren’t me.
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.