Monday August 17th, 2009

James Brown says he spelled out the rules with Michael Vick last May when the two spoke for 45 minutes at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan. Why was the CBS Sports anchor visiting Vick at a federal prison? He was looking for The Big Get, an interview with Vick following his 18 months in prison on charges related to his illegal dogfighting operation.

"When we met in prison I said, 'Michael, just to be clear, unlike what I do for sports, this will not be a sports piece. I would be asking you some very hard questions,' " Brown said. "His response was, 'I want to answer the hard questions.' "

History will ultimately judge Vick's level of contrition, but Brown proved an adept interviewer in a well-reported piece on 60 Minutes on Sunday night. The reporter did not appear chummy with Vick and ably pushed him on motive ("Were any of those reasons, the competition, the adrenaline?"), spin ("Michael, is this you talking, or the Vick team of attorneys, image shapers and the like?") and Vick's hard-to-believe statement that his football losses did not matter ("Losing a $135 million contract doesn't matter? Why not?").

But Brown's best moment came when he forced Vick to explain what could not be explained. Said Brown, in a question-cum-statement: "And the operation, Michael, that you pleaded guilty to bankrolling, to being a part of, engaged in barbarous treatment of animals, beating them, shooting them, electrocuting them, drowning them, horrific things, Michael?")

Getting the Vick interview had consumed Brown for the past 16 months. The pursuit began in June 2008 when Brown's attorney, Jeff Freid, set up a lunch with his friend and Vick's criminal lawyer, Billy Martin. When Brown spoke with on Friday during an Amtrak ride from New York City to Washington, he was clearly perturbed by the notion that he landed the interview because he would be soft on Vick as a "sports guy" and employee of one of the NFL's broadcast partners.

"I know a number of people have said or written that J.B. is a sports guy so obviously there is comfort level for Vick there," Brown said, "or that I agreed to certain restrictions as to what I could ask. I gave up nothing. Everything was fair game. After all these years in the business, there is nothing I would do to tarnish a reputation of being fair. ... There are those who suggest that because CBS is a network partner, that we were in cahoots with the [league] to benefit ratings. Give me a break. All I know is I was aggressive in going after the interview. I wanted it because I felt I could tell the story well."

Brown interviewed Vick for 75 minutes on Aug. 10 at a hotel in Northern Virginia. He also conducted a 30-minute interview with Vick, Tony Dungy and Wayne Pacelle, the president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. The 60 Minutes piece ran just under 15 minutes.

"My aim was not to re-try him again," said Brown, who also visited the quarterback at his Virginia home last month for a pre-interview session. "I wanted to get at the level and core of contrition as best I could and his mind-set before, during and after. I wanted to get what his resolve is, what the adverse effect on his family was, and his efforts to resurrect his career.

"I won't offer my personal opinion to hopefully and effectively wear the reporter's cap of impartiality. I want people to make their own judgment. But I'll be transparent: Part of that is because there was a fair amount of cynicism and skepticism going into this interview because I covered the NFL. Would I be able to be objective as one of the regular correspondents of 60 Minutes? With that in mind, I will not give anybody any ammunition as to what I thought one way or other. But, hopefully, I did my job asking questions."

• "I don't know how Rick Pitino can continue to hold onto that job in good faith. He has violated himself, he has violated his marriage, he has violated his church." --AOL Sports columnist and ESPN Around The Horn panelist Kevin Blackistone, on whether the University of Louisville should stand by its coach.

• "Sadly, in this country, in this world, there have been a lot of people who have committed adultery. I would think you would find a majority in most marriages. Employers have stood by those employees and I know in the case of people that I have worked with, they have stood by me in terms of accusations that have been made and that have been found untrue." --Denver Post sports columnist and Around The Horn panelist Woody Paige, on the global state of marriage.

• "Couldn't this Pitino thing have happened before ESPN released its twitter policy??? I am so bitter." columnist Bill Simmons, Aug. 12, 11:09 a.m.

• "T.O. Show" ratings good enough to tie for 469th place on cable, with viewer figures just behind Nick at Nite's 4 a.m. "Fresh Prince" episode. --Sports Business Journal writer John Ourand, Aug. 11, 11:07 a.m.

• "Just figured out how to read replies to my tweets. And no, I'm not blonde." --ESPN Radio producer Amanda Gifford, Aug. 10, 8:38 p.m.

• The latest episode of HBO's Real Sports debuts Tuesday featuring an emotional interview with former South Florida player Nick Schuyler, who miraculously survived a boating accident last March that claimed the life of NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and Schuyler's best friend and former South Florida teammate, Will Bleakley. The gripping feature is fronted by correspondent Bernard Goldberg. I'll be honest," Schuyler tells Goldberg. "I have to pretend I'm OK."

• NBC Sports track and field analyst Ato Boldon starred Sunday during the network's sharp coverage of the World Track and Field Championships from Berlin. Boldon carried the telecast, especially before the 100 final, with insight into the strategy and history of top contenders Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Asafa Powell. Boldon predicted Bolt would win with a world-record time, which he did in an otherworldly 9.58. (The call of the 100 final by Tom Hammond was also excellent.) "Is there no one on this planet to challenge this young man?" Boldon exclaimed.

The answer is no, which is why the first post-race question for the then-and-still world-record holder from the usually reliable Bob Neumeier was a very strange one. Asked Neumeier: "Beating Tyson Gay tonight, what does that mean to you?"

• There is an abundance of bad sportswriting on the Web (no doubt some would say from this column), but Deadspin's Tom Scocca was too harsh placing both New York Times sports reporter Greg Bishop and national columnist Gene Wojciechowski into the site's "The Worst American Sports Writing" annals. (Yes, I probably just guaranteed my placement on the list with that previous sentence).

Of Scocca's picking on sportswriters, a Deadspin commentator named Dr. Jimmy wrote, "Beating up on print media workers is like clubbing baby seals: too easy a target." True indeed, though it's surprising that Scocca, who wrote elegantly from Beijing during the 2008 Games, went after Bishop. From this keyboard, Bishop is a gifted young writer (he covers the Jets) who has produced interesting work for both his current paper and the Seattle Times.

Wojciechowski has a respectable (and multiple award-winning) body of work over his two decades as a national columnist, especially in golf. (For the record, I've never met either guy in person.)

"My immediate reaction was: Wow, I'm getting ripped on Deadspin," Bishop said in an e-mail. "Now I can cross that off my bucket list. It amused me more than anything. Working for a paper like The New York Times, I expect my work to be examined under a microscope. For as often as we criticize professional sports leagues, or professional athletes, it would be hypocritical to then turn around and expect everyone to love everything I write, or even my approach to writing. It's not like I'm going to change the way I write, or the way I approach covering games, because of how someone labeled it on the Internet."

• Anyone who has watched ESPN over the past two decades knows the fondness ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale feels for Rick Pitino. They're friends and former business partners. Earlier this decade, Vitale and Pitino co-owned (along with Joe Ircane) a thoroughbred racehorse, aptly named "It's Awesome Baby."

While the news from Louisville last week has reverberated around the sports media, we've heard mainly silence from Vitale and the network's other high-profile former coaches, including Digger Phelps, Bobby Knight and Steve Lavin. That's hard to swallow given how vociferous that crowd is when extolling the on-court virtues of the game's best coaches. ESPN officials said Vitale is under the weather and that Knight is not under contract in the offseason. We take them at their word on Vitale's health, but regarding Knight and Phelps, one does not need be under contract to receive a phone call from a producer to speak about one of the biggest stories to hit college basketball in years.

While I expect Vitale to support his friend -- the question of whether such intense fraternization with subjects aids or hurts viewers is a question for another time -- college basketball viewers need to hear from ESPN's highest-profile analysts on such a high-profile story. We await Vitale's words (along with Phelps' and Knight's) on Pitino. As for controversial subjects, the ESPN announcer had no problem counseling Alex Rodriguez after the Yankees' star admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs.

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