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ESPN Should Use Don Van Natta on Scandals, Not Rehash

“Don Van Natta Jr. is being wasted on a network docu-series, “Backstory,’’ that is more about retro storytelling than the kind of attack-dog journalism needed more than ever in sports.”

Jay Mariotti

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In my wish upon a journalistic star, Disney pun intended, Don Van Natta Jr. would be covering sports scandals. He is an acclaimed investigative reporter in a world that needs more. He helped the New York Times and Miami Herald win three Pulitzer Prizes. He has won individual awards I’ve heard of and never heard of. He has written books on presidents who cheat at golf and Hillary Clinton, with a punchline in there somewhere.

Turn him loose, right?

I would dispatch him to New England for a deep dive into the Patriots, who — after Spygate I, Spygate II, Deflategate, Rub-and-Tug-gate and a tight end who became a double murderer — have become less a football dynasty and more a mirror image of a ruthless, dishonest America.

Investigative Docuseries Backstory Returns Jan. 19 with “Banned ...

I would sic him on Major League Baseball and the demise of a sport immersed in self-sabotage, unable to figure out labor peace, game pace, killer foul balls, the minds of those under age 50 and how to investigate and adjudicate a sign-stealing scheme that involved many more teams — say, all 30 — than just the rogue Houston Astros.

I would hand him a Hazmat suit and send him into the sewage tanks of collegiate sports, where athletes are treated like slaves, coaching legends avoid scrutiny and high-minded university presidents turn into low-minded greedmonsters who expect games to continue amid a pandemic.

Hell, I’d have him probe the sports industry’s bullrush to resume games, with leagues so bent on recouping lost 2020 billions that they apparently don’t care if COVID-19 spreads and people die.

But we know those assignments aren’t going to happen. See, Van Natta works for ESPN, which enjoys lucrative business relationships with those organizations and wouldn’t want bedfellows roughed up and smeared too much by its own employee. If Bristol truly wanted a legitimate journalistic unit, it wouldn’t have minimized the “Outside The Lines’’ news franchise, allowed Bob Ley to walk away and relegated Jeremy Schaap to a curious number of breezy “E:60’’ features. No, ESPN’s concept of journalism is to wait for a general manager or player agent to text an insider, whereupon Adam Schefter or Adrian Wojnarowski tweets out a breaking development, after which Stephen A. Smith and the “Pardon The Interruption’’ guys rant about it. Sports is rife with corruption and dirty money like never before, a landscape made for an attack dog who has tackled corporate American sleaze and Al Qaeda. What a shame Van Natta isn’t permitted to sniff the real blood out there.

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Instead, ESPN has given him a series, “Backstory,’’ that is more about retro storytelling than groundbreaking interrogation. So far, the program has explored Serena Williams’ umpire-related meltdown at the U.S. Open and the lifetime baseball bans of Pete Rose and “Shoeless’’ Joe Jackson, and in both cases, Van Natta and his team gave us a better understanding of what went down. As evidenced by the ridiculous success of “The Last Dance’’ docu-series, TV viewers do like circle-back sports programming, particularly when eager to reminisce during a pandemic.

Yet “Backstory’’ seems more suited for a narrator — does Trey Wingo need something to do? — than a trained, hard-crusted newsbreaker. Once, Dan Le Batard was a brilliant reporter and columnist before ESPN turned him into a multimedia cartoon character. The network does this to people, softening inquisitive brains to use for its why-we-love-sports, serve-the-fan mass mantra. Sure, there’s room for an upcoming piece on Manti Te’o, the football player, and how he fell victim to an online catfishing hoax. I don’t need Van Natta doing the raw legwork any more than I needed Woodward and Bernstein covering Andy Warhol at Studio 54.

I did marvel, though, at how “Backstory’’ deftly succeeded at making a previous ESPN management regime look shoddy without anyone seeming to know it. In the most recent episode, Van Natta explores “The Decision,’’ the 2010 debacle that saw LeBron James and his young business partners from his native Ohio — Maverick Carter and Rich Paul — try to control the narrative of his scorched-earth decision to join the Miami Heat by finagling a live televised announcement via free ESPN airtime. The LeBron-athon — I’ve used the phrase forever — was an infomercial painfully gone wrong, an immediate disaster in every way: for James, who looked stiff, arrogant and unsympathetic toward the incensed, jersey-burning fans he left behind in Cleveland; for ESPN, which created a circus event that bastardized its news division for tacky ratings; for the NBA, which didn’t need a superstar antagonizing the sports world and becoming a villain; and for sports media, who watched a cable TV shop ruin the business in a single-hour swoop.

The Decision: Ten Years Later

It was the night ESPN devolved from a responsible network of record to one that would hand over its entire operation to a celebrity. You can call it the dawning of athlete empowerment; I’ll call it an ethical sellout enabled by a double-talking content executive named John Skipper, who claimed to value elite journalism yet green-lighted a dog-and-pony show. This was a farce from the minute Bill Simmons, then an ESPN.com columnist and a rising influence-peddler at the network, cribbed the idea from a reader named Drew Wagner, who proposed this in a mailbag column: “What if LeBron announces he will pick his 2010-11 team live on ABC on a certain date for a show called ‘LeBron’s Choice?’ What type of crazy ratings would that get?” Simmons, no journalist himself, feverishly sold the idea to Skipper, who moved forward with the project and allowed LeBron and his camp to take over the production — which explains why Jim Gray was the host — despite the petrified protests of NBA commissioner David Stern.

As soon as James uttered the words, “This fall, I’m going to take my talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat,’’ the NBA had a firestorm it wouldn’t extinguish for four years, until James executed a mature about-face, returned to Cleveland and eventually won a championship. The show cheapened ESPN to the point an appalled news reporter was compelled to tweet that night: “ESPN insists it hasn’t handed over the network keys to LeBron. He just picks the time slot, interviewer and gets all ad $ for his charity.’’ Amazing how Van Natta could post such sarcasm, get a job offer from Skipper two years later, then embarrass him on “Backstory’’ three years after Skipper left the network. I don’t think Van Natta was trying to shame his ex-boss. He just asked questions that led to the grave-digging.

“It worked for everybody,’’ Skipper said. “LeBron was smart enough to figure out he would get a platform. He did. ESPN, I believe, was smart enough to understand we would get an audience, be the center of the universe. And despite all the media criticism, 10 million people watched. A lot of them watched incensed. But that’s OK.’’

Ten million people watched. That’s all he cared about.

ESPN will air an episode of Backstory focusing on The Decision

In Skipper’s mind, “The Decision’’ was the impetus for athletes to climb from traditional media boxes and create their own platforms, which led to a revolution: Sports figures now control their messages, start production companies and don’t need external outlets beyond Instagram and Twitter. But for journalists, all this did was hijack the profession and weaken the power of watchdogs who are trying to keep a $200 billion sports industry honest. Maybe fans don’t care about integrity in sports. Fine. Watch your favorite team fall victim to a point-shaving scandal. Lose your bet because a hitter was illegally stealing signs. Let a player leave the NBA’s Disney World bubble for a night and spread COVID-19, shutting down the league.

If we let athletes, leagues and sports-dependent ESPN commandeer and steer the message, you won’t recognize sports in the future. You won’t like it, either, because it will be long on spin  and short on transparency. As it was, the final minutes of “Backstory’’ served as a makeup call to James, praising him for becoming a media mogul and Hollywood producer who just launched another company, Springhill, as a storytelling platform for people of color. I praise James, Carter and Paul for taking lessons from “The Decision’’ and funneling them into empires.

But my takeaway from the show was Don Van Natta, as accomplished in his craft as LeBron is in his, bemoaning how a regrettable decision by his employer has made his job next to impossible. He is being wasted in sports and at ESPN. The New York Times should hire him back. 

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BSM’s Black Friday SALE on BSM Summit Tickets is Underway!

Jason Barrett

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Each year I’m asked if there are ways to save money on tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit. I always answer yes but not everyone takes advantage of it. For those interested in doing so, here’s your shot.

For TODAY ONLY, individual tickets to the 2023 BSM Summit are reduced by $50.00. Two ticket and four ticket packages are also lowered at $50 per ticket. To secure your seat at a discounted price, just log on to BSMSummit.com. This sale ends tonight at 11:59pm ET.

If you’re flying to Los Angeles for the event, be sure to reserve your hotel room. Our hotel partner this year is the USC Hotel. It’s walking distance of our venue. Full details on hotel rooms can also be found via the conference website.

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BSM Writers

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Demetri Ravanos

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Demetri Ravanos has questions about Disney going back to the future with Bob Iger. This entire episode of Media Noise is all about what the change at the top of the Walt Disney Company indicates about the future of ESPN.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: What Is Realistic For FOX at the World Cup?

Demetri Ravanos

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On this special holiday edition of Media Noise, Demetri Ravanos dives into the controversy and criticism surrounding FOX’s coverage of the World Cup in Qatar.

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