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Yes, ESPN Executives Need To Do Better

“After Black employees accused management of systemic racism in a New York Times report, my personal story might lend new perspective about the company’s agendas.”

Jay Mariotti

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My eight years as a regular “Around The Horn’’ panelist weren’t spent in Bristol. The shows were taped inside remote studios in Chicago and Los Angeles, where fiber-optic technology allowed me to peer into a camera and see three other debaters and a host. So it is not my place to comment on systemic racism in ESPN’s executive suites, as some Black employees alleged in a New York Times piece this week.

But I can tell you my story.

Ten years removed from the only courtroom case of my life, I can look back and say this from a legal angle: (1) I never acknowledged guilt; (2) I prevailed in a civil case that clearly was about extracting money from me; and (3) charges were expunged years ago by the state of California. As a strongly opinionated columnist and commentator who always has tweaked powerful people and covered sports as a multi-billion-dollar industry — and not as a fanboy just happy to be in the playpen — I used to tell friends, “It’s a good thing I live a clean life, because if something goes south, they’ll run me out of the business.’’

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Which is what happened, to some degree, starting with ESPN. Only two days after my arrest for domestic abuse, before I’d had a chance to detail my side amid recklessly erroneous and one-sided reporting, “Around The Horn’’ more or less decided I was guilty, allowing panelists to pillory me on the show. Later, one participating panelist told me they were urged to do the segment. Urged? As a public figure who criticizes athletes for personal conduct issues, I certainly should be covered aggressively when I’m in the news. I just assumed — bad idea, assuming — that people from the program or network might contact me in a journalistic capacity before commenting and swaying public perception about the case when, of course, they had no idea what happened.

The call never came, never mind that I’d appeared on more than 1,600 shows, once did a national radio program with Max Kellerman and was on call for “SportsCenter’’ spots. I certainly wasn’t making the megamillions Stephen A. Smith earns now, but even as an independent contractor who did TV as one of three media jobs, the pay was substantial on a show that had grown to nearly a million daily viewers during my tenure. Not only did it seem ESPN was getting rid of me, it seemed the network WANTED to get rid of me. And when a district attorney decided not to pursue the case, well, I wondered exactly how ESPN would welcome me back after my colleagues had hammered me.

My head is still spinning over the politics of the next few weeks. ESPN continued to stonewall me, as did AOL, my sportswriting employer. Though the DA didn’t want the case, a Los Angeles city attorney eventually did and produced seven charges, though immediately removing six and ordering me to accept one low-level misdemeanor. New at this and beyond suspicious, I wondered why there were seven charges to begin with. Answer: The city attorney, known for media grandstanding, wanted a newspaper headline before getting his usual settlement. Aware that my legal bill could run toward $1 million if I pursued this in a trial — in a city where a jury might not like a loudmouth sports guy who’d just arrived from Chicago — I chose to protect my family from the media circus and accept the terms. I also did so because my direct sports boss at AOL told me to prepare a column for the following Monday.

I pled “no contest’’ to one low-level misdemeanor.

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Next day, ESPN officially let me go. So did AOL, with a cold higher-up reading a statement over the phone and saving his company hundreds of thousands of dollars … weeks before dumping the site. Throughout sports, athletes and even some owners have been allowed to continue livelihoods after pleas larger than misdemeanors. I was a dead loudmouth walking. After the conviction and double job loss, I became more vulnerable to additional trumped-up inventions and a civil case, the paperwork of which literally was dropped into my lap in 2011. It was around that time when a sportswriting friend alerted me to a similar story.

Howard Bryant, a talented sportswriter and broadcaster, was arrested in Massachusetts and accused of violently attacking his wife — charged with domestic assault and battery, assault and battery on a police officer and resisting arrest. In a news report in the Boston Herald, where Bryant once worked, witnesses told state police that Bryant “grabbed his wife’s neck, pushed her into a parked vehicle and pinned her against it’’ outside a pizza shop. According to state police, when the couple returned to their sport-utility vehicle, with their 6-year-old son in the back seat, Bryant resisted arrest by elbowing a trooper who was cuffing him, prompting three other officers to slam him “chest-first onto a vehicle hood.’’ His attorney accused police of racism, saying of Bryant, who is Black, “If Howard Bryant was Caucasian and was on the streets having exactly the same conversation with his wife — nobody would have even noticed.’’ Bryant acknowledged, “I did put my hands on her. I did not physically assault her.’’

Howard Bryant’s employer at the time: ESPN.

Nine years later, he still works for ESPN in a prominent role.

His wife did not press charges, telling the Herald she’d “never been a victim of abuse.’’ Because I was not at the pizza-shop scene, I have no idea what happened and will not be so foolish to assume I know. I also know how witnesses can have fuzzy recollections about the truth. But I’ve always found it curious that Bryant, as authorities still were sorting out his case, said this to the Herald: ESPN was “1,000 percent supportive’’ of him.

Lawyer claims racism in arrest of ESPN reporter Howard Bryant ...

How nice of ESPN to be supportive. But why was ESPN “1,000 percent supportive’’ of Bryant while allowing its own panelists to convict me on an ESPN program before I’d barely contacted an attorney?

I forgot about it, pleased that Bryant and his wife, who had been in a trial separation, were able to move forward. A year later, while meeting with a TV producer interested in hiring me and former ESPN personality Sean Salisbury to host a new show, we saw ESPN executive John Walsh ambling around the bar area of a Beverly Hills hotel and handing his business card to women. I didn’t care so much about that, but I did care when he put his room number on one such card and handed it to a woman at our table.

Next day, I called John Skipper, ESPN’s president at the time, so I could ask why he allowed behavioral double standards. Wasn’t this harassment? I still have Skipper’s quick-reply email from Jan. 12, 2012: “What number can I call you at?’’ Skipper had been in the back bar of the hotel, talking to an agent, while Walsh was blazing in rare form in the front bar.

I told Skipper I had no interest in undermining Walsh or making the story public (though someone else at our table filmed video of Walsh and did go online with it in 2014). But I did want to know why ESPN had discarded me like garbage without a phone call, not bringing up how Skipper had been “supportive’’ of another employee in a similar situation. Months later, Skipper and I shared a dinner table at Nobu in Malibu to talk about my media career. Out of nowhere, in mid-sushi bite, he dropped a bomb.

Former ESPN president says cocaine extortion ... - New Britain Herald

“Jay,’’ he said, “we needed diversity on `Around The Horn.’ ’’

What did he just say?

I am a champion of diversity. I didn’t like seeing five white male faces on “Around The Horn,’’ which happened way too often, more than anyone else did. I understand ESPN management was accused of racism then, as well as now, and that creating as much diversity as humanly possible always will be a critical mission in Bristol and everywhere else on Planet Earth. But don’t push a company agenda at my expense without at least granting me a phone call and explanation. And if Skipper pounced on my case as an opportunity and not a punishment, shame on him.

Years later, Skipper was fired by ESPN in a cocaine case. A writer from the stinky Deadspin site, since spun dead, asked me to comment. I refused, not wanting to dance on his grave as he did mine.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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