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Deadspin Examines The Failure of “The Undefeated”

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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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Domonique Foxworth: Tom Brady Contract Is About Impressing NFL

“I think that’s why the booths look the way they look. It’s because the league wants their games to feel big, and it’s worth it to them.”

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The shake-up of NFL TV broadcast booths has been one of the top storylines in the league this offseason.

Part of the reasoning is because of the massive sums of money involved. Whether it’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman or Tom Brady, NFL broadcasters have been getting paid. And it doesn’t seem like the spending is going to slow down anytime soon.

Speaking to Bomani Jones on The Right Time, Domonique Foxworth said the NFL just wants to continue to get bigger and bigger even with its broadcast crews.

“These TV partners want to be in good with the league. And I think that’s what this Tom Brady contract comes down to,” Foxworth said. “I think that’s why the booths look the way they look. It’s because the league wants their games to feel big, and it’s worth it to them.”

Even with some feeling like Brady is uninteresting and likely won’t move the needle as an analyst, it’s the name recognition factor that will set the table for Brady in the booth.

“I do believe that if you turn on an NFL game, and Tom Brady’s talking about it, it feels bigger no matter what he’s saying,” Foxworth said.

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Joe Buck, Troy Aikman Visit Bristol For First Time Since Signing With ESPN

“My anticipation for the start of this season is literally off the charts; I’ve never been this excited.”

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Monday Night Football on ESPN is going to have a new sound this year with Joe Buck and Troy Aikman in the broadcast booth. The deal is reportedly worth a combined $165 million, and will officially begin on September 12 when the Denver Broncos visit the Seattle Seahawks at 8:15 p.m. EST on ESPN.

“I’m thrilled to officially welcome Joe and Troy to ESPN and Monday Night Football,” said ESPN Chairman Jimmy Pitaro. “They are elite broadcasters who have been at the forefront of our industry for more than two decades [and] are universally respected, and fans truly appreciate their candor and expertise.”

Buck and Aikman visited ESPN headquarters in Bristol for the first time today. The broadcast duo, now entering their 21st season in the booth together, are switching networks for the first time, a move that was initiated because of Aikman’s expiring contract. Throughout the season, Aikman had an inclination that it would be his last at Fox; however, he would have stayed at the network. The original thought, according to Aikman, was that he would call Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime while continuing his role in doubleheader games with Fox – but it was quickly realized that it would not be feasible.

“ESPN began conversations with me, and it was an opportunity that was just the best fit for me,” said Aikman. “I didn’t think that was going to happen until a little bit after the Super Bowl.”

Buck’s contract was not set to expire until the end of this season, but after watching his veteran partner change networks, the possibility existed that he too would depart.

“When I knew Troy was gone, I think there was a little bit more intensity in my talks with Fox about ‘Was I going to stay there?,’ or ‘Was I going to try to continue my relationship on-air with Troy?’,” Buck reflected.

After approximately a month of negotiations between Buck and Fox, the broadcaster was off to ESPN. While the negotiations moved quickly, Buck never felt like he was taken for granted by Fox after working there for 28 years.

“They tell you how much you’re worth to them every time a check arrives,” said Buck. “They prove all that stuff by letting you continue to do it, and the relationships that we had. It was very collegial and very friendship-driven, much more so than employer-employee at Fox, and I expect the same will continue here at ESPN.”

Much of the media landscape across the National Football League has been significantly altered going into next season. Whether it is Buck and Aikman going from Fox to ESPN; the new Fox booth of Kevin Burkhardt and, upon his retirement, Tom Brady; the addition of Thursday Night Football on Amazon Prime with Al Michaels and Kirk Herbstreit; and Mike Tirico being moved into the lead Sunday Night Football role with Cris Collinsworth, the game will adopt a new sound upon the season’s opening kickoff.

ESPN Head of Event and Studio Production Stephanie Druley commented that amid the new broadcast landscape, the network believes it now has the number one football broadcast booth in the country. Additionally, she revealed the addition of a second Monday Night Football booth to be announced in the coming weeks as part of the network’s new broadcast rights deal with the NFL. The secondary booth will be calling three games this year and five games next year, and an announcement with more details is forthcoming.

For Buck, being welcomed to ESPN was representative of a full-circle moment, as his father Jack called Monday Night Football on the CBS Radio Network with Hank Stram. While Buck idolized his father and strived to one day be like him, he was always attentive as to what was going on in one of the other booths in the stadium.

“I knew as a little kid something special was going on two doors down, and that was when Howard Cosell was there; Don Meredith was there; Frank Gifford was there – and it was, ‘Man, that is the peak of sports and media,’” said Buck. “My anticipation for the start of this season is literally off the charts; I’ve never been this excited.”

“This is an opportunity with ESPN that I’m really excited about,” added Aikman. “We’ve been doing it so long in one way [and] it feels like it’s 2001 again…. I have nothing but respect for the people I worked [for] at Fox, and appreciate the way I was treated for the 21 years I was there, but am excited for the next chapter.”

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Sports TV News

NFL Explains How World Cup Effected 2022 Schedule

“We didn’t strategically deploy any of our games to either go really strong or go a little less strong, because we knew there was going to be soccer that day.”

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This will be the first year that the World Cup will be contested during the NFL season. It isn’t a challenge professional football is used to in America. That is why Mike North, the NFL’s vice president of broadcast scheduling, told Richard Deitsch that it was important to do some homework.

“Very early in the process we got with our broadcast partner at Fox and we knew that there weren’t going to be any windows where Fox was not going to be able to broadcast an NFL game,” he said.

The real effect had to do with the NFL’s international schedule. Five games will be played outside of the United States borders this season. North said he wanted to understand the potential schedule for the World Cup so he could create the best atmosphere for the international contests.

“I’m not sure we’re doing the right thing for the fan in Germany if we’re playing in Bayern Munich’s stadium while the German national team is playing a World Cup game; I’m not sure we are doing the right thing for our fans in Mexico if we were playing a game in Mexico on a day when the Mexican national team was playing. So we were certainly aware of the World Cup schedule and worked very closely with our friends at Fox to make sure we were aligned on how we were going to approach it.”

North said that he wasn’t worried about football beating fútbol. He just wanted to understand what he was putting his teams up against.

“We didn’t back out of any of our windows. We didn’t strategically deploy any of our games to either go really strong or go a little less strong, because we knew there was going to be soccer that day.”

FIFA moved the World Cup to the final two months of the year in 2022. To play the games any earlier would have meant players would have been dealing with extreme heat in Qatar.

The first match will be played on November 21. The final is scheduled for December 18. That overlaps with weeks 11 through 16 of the NFL season.

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