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Deadspin Examines The Failure of “The Undefeated”

Jason Barrett

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Last month, The Atlantic published an 18,000-word article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It was the second epic piece in what appears to be a series in which Coates examines the toll of white supremacy as American policy on black life in the United States. The article was every bit as harrowing, illuminating, and infuriating as its famous predecessor, “The Case For Reparations,” which investigates the damage dealt to blacks through this country’s long tradition of housing discrimination.

Coates is one of the great social writers of our time, and singularly qualified to do work of this scale and ambition, which changes how Americans view their own history and how they view themselves. The Atlantic, for its part, is nearly singular in its willingness and ability to approve, finance, and publish this kind of work. As beautiful a writer as he is, what makes Coates’s writing so powerful and so radicalizing is his reporting and research. His telling of history is nauseating precisely because it amounts to no more than the arresting arrangement of iron facts. Even in a piece like “Reparations,” there is very little that can be described as controversial in his pieces. The only controversy comes in how Americans react to them.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve reported on what’s now known as The Undefeated, the black-interest site ESPN gifted to Jason Whitlock in August 2013, which still has yet to get off the ground. Pitched as a “Black Grantland,” The Undefeated was conceived in large part as a place where ESPN could address race in America with work like Coates’s. For 18 months, multiple ESPNers close to the site have excitedly or regretfully described an alternate reality or series of events in which Coates, employed by The Undefeated, would write something like “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” and publish it on ESPN.com. When Whitlock took over as editor in chief, he attempted to poach Coates from The Atlantic as a statement of intent, offering to triple his salary and “make [him] a star.” Coates, of course, declined.

After we published a story in April detailing Whitlock’s nightmarish, comical reign as the head of the site, Whitlock was removed, and I was told, again, that Coates was, again, an option to join the team. This has always struck me as no more than a delusion, because Coates’s sober writing on race is confrontational and uncompromising and unlike anything that ever has been or can be published at the Worldwide Leader. Coates’s work would never appear at The Undefeated for the same reason Whitlock was chosen to run the site in the first place, and for the same reason that even with him now out of the picture, The Undefeated remains a dead letter. From the day Whitlock was hired, the site has been at odds with itself, its actions belying its own premise and purpose. The Undefeated, like the Worldwide Leader itself, was not designed to engage with the truth.

To understand how badly Jason Whitlock failed ESPN and his handpicked team at The Undefeated, consider this: he was removed as editor of The Undefeated in June and the site is still a smoldering heap, no more than a single webpage with links to 19 articles written by the staff over the last 27 months. No women have published a piece; no one on staff under 45 has published more than three. There are talented young writers and editors at the site who have had their careers stifled—potentially even ruined—by Whitlock. Undefeated articles that appear on ESPN.com do so without any announcement, and there is no continuity between them that would suggest an ethos, an identity, or a point of view.

“They’re just putting out branded content,” an ESPNer close to the site says. “Just some stories about black people.”

It’s worse once you consider how important this year was for black people, and for black history. March marked the 50th anniversary of the protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In early April, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. Two weeks later, Freddie Gray died after his spine was nearly severed while in police custody. In June, Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shot nine people to death in the name of white supremacy. Sandra Bland died in police custody in July. Eric Garner was choked to death in July 2o14, and Michael Brown was shot dead a month later. The Watts Riots took place 50 years ago, from Aug. 11-17. Late August marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There’s Serena, Bernie, #BlackLivesMatter, and Viola Davis. This year was the perfect time for a well-funded black-interest site written and edited by blacks, and yet no site exists.

“This is a colossal missed opportunity,” says a source.

The only news to break about The Undefeated since Whitlock left came in late July, when we reported that ESPN wanted Howard Bryant to oversee the site’s reboot in an “editor-at-large” role. There was immediate interest from black personalities within ESPN who wanted to be part of a black project but wanted nothing to do with Whitlock.

There was outside interest, as well. Names Deadspin heard linked to the Bryant reboot included Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Jamil Smith, Spike Lee, and—speculatively—Coates.

These are legitimate stars, but there’s a world of difference between names coming up and anything happening, and for now, nothing is happening. Leon Carter—The Undefeated’s interim editor and Whitlock’s former right hand—will almost surely get booted. Bryant wants the gig and seemed an obvious pick, but won’t get a shot. There has been almost no communication between ESPN executives and Bryant regarding the site in months. The little momentum the site had after cutting Whitlock out has died out.

One theory is that Whitlock’s failure is to blame for Bryant’s misfortune. In order to make a splash, ESPN appointed Whitlock as editor-in-chief. Whitlock has spent his entire career alone, though, churning out 800-word columns from the comfort of his own home. He’s never been anyone’s boss; he’s never managed anyone; and due to his personality and nearly two decades of writing in isolation, he is breathtakingly paranoid. He saw enemies—challengers to his authority who would steal his legacy from under him—in the very faces of the staff he hired. Whitlock was more concerned with keeping power than utilizing it. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

Over time, ESPN president John Skipper has learned that writing is a vastly different skill than editing, which is completely removed from managing people. Whitlock was ousted a month after Skipper publicly executed Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Simmons, a writer, was a great and beloved boss who could manage people, and knew enough to hire a capable team of editors around him and let them do their work. But as an ESPN employee, he was notoriously petulant and needy. Grantland has an enormous budget, and many in its staff of over 50 writers, editors, and contributors have comically lucrative salaries relative to industry norms, all without Grantland making a profit or boasting a very large readership. Still, in an interview with Re/Code, Simmons said he needed more.

“The problem with Bill was Bill asked for the world,” an ESPN employee says. “He always needed more after they gave him everything. Pulitzer Prize winners, Charlie Pierce, everything.”

As EICs, Simmons and Whitlock were polar opposites, but both of their problems stemmed from hubris. They were both writers—what ESPN calls “talent”—and so Skipper decreed that ESPN would no longer permit talent to run Grantland or The Undefeated. Bryant is a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine—talent—and so he’s disqualified from the EIC post regardless of his potential. (Multiple sources have told Deadspin that one man Skipper is pursuing for the role is Kevin Merida, managing editor ofThe Washington Post. Merida is interested; he met with Skipper in Los Angeles last month, and according to a source, he’s been quietly asking if some of his favorite Post employees would be open to following him to ESPN.)

A second prevailing theory, though, is much simpler.

It’s easy to say now that Whitlock was destined to fail at The Undefeated, but that’s a harsh reading of events. Whitlock is an unsophisticated thinker on race who wrote his belief in black pathology into the The Undefeated’s DNA, and whose ideas about respectability politics bled into each piece he edited before he was tossed aside. His ideology was formed over 20 years of writing opinions on race that were largely inaccurate, but, more importantly, firmly aligned with the opinions of many whites. Though he’d alienated many blacks along the way, including talented ESPN colleagues, his readings of American history were agreeable to an enormous portion of ESPN’s audience. He was decidedly safe and unchallenging. Through this lens, Whitlock was, in theory at least, theperfect choice to run the site.

To read the rest of this fascinating article visit Deadspin where it was originally published

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Pedro Martinez: ‘Never Imagined’ TV Career

“And the reason I’m here, it’s not because of the camera, it’s actually because it gives me an opportunity to remain linked to the game, remain linked to what’s going on, the different changes the game is offering right now, adjusting to different things.”

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As the Major League Baseball season comes to a close and preparations for the playoffs begin, MLB Network and TNT analyst Pedro Martinez joined The Press Box podcast to discuss his time as a television analyst.

When asked what he liked about working in television, Martinez didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I think it’s a platform and the opportunity I have to bring to the audience what I know, what I think, what I understand and broadcasting gives me the opportunity to continue to have that communication with the people, the young athletes and fans. At the same time, I’m able to continue to learn and transmit some of the things that I would love to show everybody by playing but my body doesn’t allow me, but my mind does.

“This is a great way to bring the right information to the people, but I take advantage of the platform to communicate with my fanbase, the player’s fanbase, and the voice behind the players and the situations that come up, I can actually teach the audience some of the things that I understand from my point of view.”

A media career was never in the cards for Martinez. At least that’s what he thought during his playing career.

“I swear to god, it’s the only thing I never imagined. I never thought I would like being in front of a camera,” Martinez said. “And the reason I’m here, it’s not because of the camera, it’s actually because it gives me an opportunity to remain linked to the game, remain linked to what’s going on, the different changes the game is offering right now, adjusting to different things.

“You learn so much just by having access to information, having access to so many other different things. A lot of people would be surprised how much you can dig into and I think for everybody else, if they knew the kind of information we have access to, they’d be intrigued to come do what we do.”

He then said one of the things he would have never picked up on was how many pitchers tip their pitches, but due to all of the information, video, and relationships broadcasters have make that information readily available. He added his work in television has enabled more relationships with baseball players from his home country, the Dominican Republic.

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Stephen A. Smith and Malika Andrews Get Heated Over Ime Udoka Coverage

“Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, I listened to you,” Smith interjected, “you’re the one telling me to stop on my show. It ain’t happening.”

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Stephen A. Smith, Malika Andrews

On Friday’s First Take, Stephen A. Smith continued his stance regarding the public leaking of information surrounding Celtics’ Head Coach Ime Udoka relationship with a team staffer. He also went further by sharing his dismay that Udoka was seemingly the only person punished for the violation of company policy.

“Only he is in violation of the company policy?” Smith asked. “The woman who elected to have a consensual relationship with him is not in violation?” 

Before the end of the show, ESPN NBA Today host Malika Andrews called in the program and wanted to address Smith’s comments.

“Stephen A., with all do respect, this is not about pointing the finger. Stop,” Andrews said. “The fact that we are sitting here debating whether somebody else should have been suspended or not, we are not here, Stephen A., to further blame women.”

Smith would replay saying that his intention was not blame anyone outside of the Celtics coach.

“First of all, let me be very clear, I don’t appreciate where you’re going with that, I’m not blaming anybody but Ime Udoka,” Smith stated. “The fact of the matter is, he deserves to be fired if they were going to fire him. If you’re not going to fire him, then don’t fire him. My issue is all of this being publicized.”

Andrews tried to jump back in for further commentary but Smith stopped that and noted he didn’t appreciate being interrupted on “my show”.

“Excuse me, excuse me, excuse me, I listened to you,” Smith interjected, “you’re the one telling me to stop on my show. It ain’t happening.”

Andrews did thank Smith for clarifying his stance at the end of the segment. ESPN has removed access to the video from its YouTube channel by making it private.

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Rich Eisen on Tom Brady Joining FOX: ‘I Gotta See It to Believe It’

“I think what Peyton Manning has done with his post-playing career is more of a blueprint that I would think Brady would follow.”

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Is 2023 the year we see Tom Brady in the broadcast booth for FOX? Rich Eisen isn’t so sure.

“I still gotta see it to believe it, I’ll be honest with you, man. I know it’s a great chunk of change and it’s a lot of money. I don’t know,” the NFL Network icon said on the most recent edition of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast.

Tom Brady has taken his foot off the gas in 2022 in a more public way than fans are used to. He voluntarily missed eleven days of training camp and has announced that he will not be available to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesdays during the season.

Eisen says if Brady is looking for a less demanding career, broadcasting isn’t the best option.

“It is a lot of work. And I’m not saying Brady’s not up for it, but if he’s been grinding for 23, 24 years, it’s still a grind in its own way.”

FOX signed Brady to a ten-year deal reportedly worth $375 million to start after he retires. He will be in the network’s top broadcast booth and also serve as an ambassador for the network’s coverage of the NFL.

Eisen says there is a much better model for Brady’s media career in his old rival Peyton Manning.

“I think what Peyton Manning has done with his post-playing career is more of a blueprint that I would think Brady would follow,” Eisen said. “Peyton Manning could be making that much money in the booth himself, right? Instead, he’s got his own production company and he’s doing the games, but not all of them, only 10 of them. And he’s doing them from his basement and he’s got the rights to the games!”

He added that Tom Brady “write his own ticket like that” if he chose to do something similar to what Manning has done with Omaha Productions.

Brady has not had much to say about his deal with FOX since the news became public. In June, he told Dan Patrick that he knows his first season in the booth will come with a lot of growing pains.

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