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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.”

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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.

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. 

BSM Writers

Grant Cohn’s Trolling of Players is Unacceptable

After an altercation between Javon Kinlaw of the San Francisco 49ers and Grant Cohn, it became clear that Kinlaw was being trolled by a member of the media.

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grant cohn

Grant Cohn is a media member who writes for the FanNation 49ers blog on SI.com. He also talks about the team on his YouTube channel, which has over 48,000 subscribers as of noon Thursday. His father, Lowell, was a longtime columnist in the Bay Area.

Javon Kinlaw is a defensive lineman, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted in the first round despite concerns about the durability of his knee. He played four games last season, his second in the league.

The two were involved in two confrontations this week. The first one occurred off to the side of the 49ers’ practice field. Kinlaw apparently cursed at Cohn and knocked his hat from atop his head. Later in the day, Kinlaw again swore at Cohn, this time after joining a live stream on Cohn’s YouTube channel. (Side note: I have never felt so freaking old as I did while typing that previous sentence.)

OK. That’s my attempt at an absolutely straightforward and objective summary of a situation that scares the hell out of me. Not because a player was mad at a member of the media. I’ve had it happen to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. It’s my opinion that this has been happening for as long as human beings have scrutinized the athletic efforts of other human beings.

What scared me was that I was seeing some version of the future of sports media. A future in which media members behaved like YouTube trolls, acting purposely ridiculous or antagonistic to initiate conflicts that could be turned into more conflicts that would could be gleefully recounted as content for the audience. I thought that because that’s pretty much what Cohn did:https://youtu.be/4Hf9sjBttFY

Cohn essentially bragged about the number of different things he said that may have prompted Kinlaw’s reaction, and you know what? It worked. Kinlaw got mad. He confronted Cohn. Twice. TMZ published a story about it. So did SFGate.com.

This is troll behavior. You know, the online pests who say or do something intended to provoke a reaction, and once they get that reaction, they recount and scrutinize that reaction with an eye toward triggering another reaction. Lather, rinse repeat. Increasingly, entire online media ecosystems consist of nothing more than people who don’t like each other talking about how much they don’t like one another.

I’m not going to pretend this is entirely new in sports media. Sports columnists have been known to make reputations with their willingness to be critical of the home team. A huge part of Skip Bayless’ brand is his unwavering insistence on highlighting Lebron James’ perceived flaws. Stephen A. Smith has engaged in public feuds with players, namely Kevin Durant.

I do see a difference between this and what Cohn did, though. The reaction Bayless and Smith are primarily concerned with is from their audience, not their subjects. The subjects may get mad, but that’s not the primary goal. At least I hope it’s not.

What happens if that is the primary goal? What if someone is offering opinions not because it’s what they really think, but because they want to provoke a response from the subject? Media careers have been built on less.

I don’t know if that’s the case with Cohn. I’ve never talked to him in my life, and even if I had, it’s impossible to know someone’s true intent. But in listening to everything he said AFTER the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, I’m not willing to assume that Cohn was operating in good faith. Here’s how Cohn described the initial confrontation with Kinlaw, which occurred as practice was beginning.

“In the training room, I saw Javon Kinlaw, who is the king of the training room,” Cohn said. “He’s usually in the training room.”

Cohn said the two locked eyes, but were separated by about 70 yards at the time. Kinlaw then walked across the field to where the reporters were gathered. He stood directly behind Cohn.

“So I turn, and I say, ‘Wassup, Mook Dawg?’ “ Cohn said, referencing the nickname on Kinlaw’s Instagram account. “And he doesn’t say anything. And I say, ‘Why are you looking at me like that, Javon?’ “

“And then he said, ‘What are you going to do about it you bitch-ass,’ and then he said one more word that I can’t say,” Cohn said. “And then I turned to face him, and I said, ‘Oh, it’s like that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, it’s like that.’ And then he knocked the hat off my head.”

OK. Pause. In my experience, when your job is to publicly describe and critique the performance and attitudes of professional athletes, there will be times in which the athletes do not care for your description or your critique. Some of those who are displeased will make their objections known to you.

However, there are two things that are unusual here: First, the fact Kinlaw knocked the hat off Cohn’s head, which is unacceptable. Second, Cohn then posted a video on  YouTube to not only talk about what had happened, but state he had been so critical of Kinlaw for so long he wasn’t sure what specifically sparked Kinlaw’s anger.

“Javon, what are you upset about?” Cohn asked toward the end of  his video. “Is it the fact that I said you have an 80-year-old knee? Is it the fact that I said that you’re a terrible pass rusher and you’re just a two-down player? Is it the fact that I said the Niners shouldn’t have drafted you and should have taken Tristan Wirfs instead. Is it the fact that I said that you’re unprofessional and immature.

“It escapes me, which of the hundred negative things I’ve said about Javon Kinlaw the last couple of years, moved him to approach me in such a way, but you know what, I applaud Javon Kinlaw for coming to speak to me directly, and I ask you, what do you think Javon Kinlaw is mad about.”

Cohn was trolling Kinlaw. No other word for it.

That night, Cohn was conducting a live stream on YouTube, which Kinlaw joined, while apparently eating dinner, to make declarative statements about the size of Cohn’s genitalia — among other things.

Neither one looked particularly impressive. Not Kinlaw, who was profane and combative with a member of the media, at one point making a not-so-subtle threat. Not Cohn, who asked Kinlaw, “Do you think I’m scared of you, Javon?” He also said, “I don’t even know why you’re mad, Javon.”

I think Kinlaw would have been better off ignoring Cohn. If I was Kinlaw’s employer, I would probably prefer he not log into video livestreams to make testicular comparisons. But honestly, I don’t care about what Kinlaw did. At all. He’s not on a team I root for. He didn’t physically harm anyone. He used some bad words in public.

I am bothered not just by Cohn’s actions, but by some of the reactions to them because of what I think this type of behavior will do to an industry I have worked in for 25 years. Credentialed media members who behave like Cohn did this week make it harder for other media members who are acting in good faith. Preserving access for people like him diminishes what that access will provide for those who aren’t trying to use criticism to create conflict that will become content.

I think Cohn knew what he was doing. In his livestream, before Kinlaw joined, Cohn stated he was not scared because he knew — by virtue of his father’s history in the business — that if Kinlaw had touched him he would potentially be entitled monetary compensation.

By now, it should be pretty apparent how problematic this whole thing is and yet on Thursday, a number of 49ers fans online were sticking up for Cohn as just doing his job. Dieter Kurtenbach, a Bay Area columnist, Tweeted: “Javon Kinlaw does not know that @GrantCohn was built for this.” Built for what? Winning Internet fights? Kurtenbach also deleted a Tweet in which he called Kinlaw “soft.”

Cohn’s father, Lowell, is a former columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. He promoted the first video his son made on Tuesday:

Sorry, I don’t find it funny because it’s another step down a path in which media members seek reactions at the expense of information. Where they look to make fun of players instead of learning about them. They’ll stop acting like journalists and start acting like the trolls who make their money by instigating a conflict, which they then film: “Jake Paul, reporting live from 49ers practice …”

If that’s the case, thank God I’m about to age out of this business, entirely. I’m 47 years old and I can’t believe there’s anyone in our industry who thinks what Cohn did this week is acceptable.

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BSM Writers

Media Noise – Episode 75

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A new episode of Media Noise is all about reaction. Demetri reacts to the ManningCast’s big win at the Sports Emmys. Danny O’Neil reacts to people reacting to Colin Kaepernick’s workout in Las Vegas and Andy Masur reacts to John Skipper’s comments about Charles Barkley.

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BSM Writers

Bron Heussenstamm Blends Bleav Advertising with SiriusXM

Bron Heussenstamm, the CEO of the Bleav Podcast Network says blending podcasting advertising with satellite radio’s reach is a victory for both sides.

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Last week, the Bleav (pronounced believe) Podcast Network announced a deal with SiriusXM to make all 32 NFL team-specific Bleav pods available on the SXM app. SXM can also air Bleav content on any of its sports channels. Each NFL Bleav show pairs a former player with a host to discuss team issues. Eric Davis, Lorenzo Neal, and Pac-Man Jones are amongst the former players Bleav has signed as talent.

I have hosted a Bleav podcast about Boise State football -the Kingdom of POD. I am usually provided 1-3 advertisers per episode by the network and get paid by the download. My subject matter is regional, so my take-home pay is usually under four figures. I have enjoyed the technical assistance and cross-promotion I receive and I enjoyed meeting Bleav CEO Bron Heussenstamm. Bron is Los Angeles-based, a USC graduate, and founded Bleav in 2018. We discussed the SXM deal, podcast advertising, and the future. 

Will the podcast advertisers be carried on the SXM distribution platform?

Yes, Bleav baked-in advertisements and hosts read ads are distributed across all platforms. This enables the host to do their show once through, making it as easy as possible for the hosts and consistent for the advertisers.

Bron Heussenstamm, CEO Bleav Podcast Network

How is advertising on Bleav different? 

We want to be more than a ‘host read ad’ or a ‘digital insert’ with our advertising partners. When companies work with Bleav shows and talent, those companies can receive our omnichannel of distribution points—podcast platforms, YouTube, socials, streamers, TV, radio, and more. This allows for consistent branding across all platforms: great talent presenting great companies to fans and consumers no matter where they consume content. 

What is the growth pattern for podcasts that you see? 

The industry trades have presented 400%-800% percent growth over the next ten years. Once the COVID fog lifted, we really saw these gains. Sports are always going to be at the forefront of culture. The increases in all sports sectors have certainly carried into the digital space. 

SXM has started with NFL shows but can also air more Bleav content – what does that look like? 

We’ve started with our NFL network of 32 team shows hosted by a former player. We’ve kept the door open for our NCAAB, NCAAF, MLB, NHL, Basketball, and Soccer networks. We’re happy for our hosts to be part of such a tremendous company and platform. SiriusXM can continue to amplify its voice and give fans the access and insight only a player can provide. 

The Interactive Advertising Bureau-IAB- says podcast revenue grew 72% last year to $1.4B and is expected to grow to $2B this year and double to $4B by 2024. Have you seen similar growth? What is driving the industry now, and what will be the primary cause of growth by 2024?  

There is a myriad of reasons for the growth. I‘ll lean into a couple. 

At Bleav, we launch and maximize the digital arm of industry leaders. The technology upgrades to allow hosts to have a world-class show — simulcast in both audio and video – from their home has led to an explosion of content. With this, the level of content creators has risen. Having a YouTube, RSS feed, podcast, and more is now part of the brand, right alongside Twitter and Instagram. 

If a company wants to advertise on Bleav in Chargers, we know exactly how many people heard Lorenzo Neal endorse their product. We can also safely assume they like the Chargers. The tracking of demo specifics for companies is huge. It’s a fantastic medium to present products to the right fans and consumers.

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