There is schadenfreude and then there is the frothing-out-of-the-mouth with bloodthirsty delight that CBS Sports.com columnist Gregg Doyel experienced Saturday afternoon after he learned that Jay Mariotti had been arrested in Los Angeles earlier that day. As first reported by The Los Angeles Times, the AOL FanHouse columnist and ESPN Around the Horn contributor was booked on suspicion of felony domestic assault, according to authorities.
In the hours after the news broke, Doyel sent tweet after tweet excoriating Mariotti, a 140-character assault ranging from indignation ("Last week Mariotti demanded the Mets suspend K-Rod more than 2 games. And K-Rod was accused of hitting a man. So whadya say, AOL - 2 months?") to juvenile taunting ("Anyone know who posted Mariotti's bail? I'd like to egg that person's house.").
"That wasn't me enjoying Mariotti's news; that was me being infuriated by it," Doyel said in an e-mail Sunday. "Nobody in our business makes me angrier, consistently, than he does, and not because his columns evoke such feeling. It's the way he does his business, even the way he carries himself, that ticks me off, and this news was just awful. So I got angry, and it bubbled over, and that was a flash flood. I'm getting angry again thinking about it."
Doyel was not alone. The phrase "Mariotti" became a Twitter trending topic in the United States by Saturday afternoon, with the majority of the commenters exhibiting glee over his arrest. The attacks were also not limited to the general public.
Among those who offered their thoughts through social media outlets were Roger Ebert, Mariotti's former colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, whotweeted, "Jay Mariotti's arrest makes me fondly remember my farewell column after the rat left the Sun-Times." He then re-posted this column, which the paper headlined "Jay The Rat." Teddy Greenstein, a Chicago Tribune sports writer, was also not shy with opinion. The most famous person to cyber-opine was Chad Ochocinco, the publicity-shy Bengals wide receiver who sent tweets to both SportsCenter and teammate Terrell Owens, including asking Owens if the media "would crucify their own like they do us."
The early answer is yes. Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard tweeted, "[T]he level of hostility and glee about Mariotti is something I've never seen in sports b4 over an arrest. Ever. Can't think of anything close." Well, it doesn't come close to Tiger Woods, but as far as hostility toward a sports media person not named Jim Gray, it seems unprecedented.
Mariotti is not a popular figure among his colleagues and he's long been a columnist who works in absolutes and indignation. The list of those he has criticized is long, including most major figures in Chicago sports. While there are much better stylists and reporters, Mariotti did what good sports columnists do: He provoked reaction -- and often angry reaction.
"My initial thought was of the irony," Doyel said. "Here's a guy who writes without pause or nuance about athlete misbehavior. There is no gray with him, only black and white. In his columns he's fired more people than Donald Trump -- and for doing the exact thing Mariotti was accused of doing the other night. I was shocked by the news, and I was disgusted."
While I'm an ardent supporter of sports writers appearing on television and getting paid for it, I've long criticized Around the Horn for its remarkable ability to turn normally thoughtful sports writers into a barking chorus signifying very little. (This does not refer to host Tony Reali, who, thankfully, remains ego-free amid the cacophony, as well as occasional panelists Jackie MacMullan and Kevin Blackistone.)
But in an inane world that rewards people points for semi-intelligent bluster, Mariotti was Michelangelo. His dash of smugness and pinch of sarcasm made him a smartly cast foil for the show.
Here now is the problem for ESPN and AOL FanHouse: What do you do with a sports columnist arrested on suspicion of felony domestic assault when that sports columnist has made a career out of attacking athletes in criminal situations? FanHouse, which has pumped tons of money and promotion into Mariotti, has an uneasy road ahead as the legal process plays out. "We take the matter very seriously and are actively pursuing all the facts," FanHouse editor-in-chief Scott Ridge told SI.com Sunday. He referred future questions to the site's corporate communications.
Given that the majority of sports fans identify Mariotti as a TV talking head, ESPN is also under pressure, especially because of precedents already established by the network when staffers have encountered legal problems or external issues that affected credibility. "We're not going to comment until we sort this out," ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys said. Asked if ESPN had a time frame to complete that process, Soltys said, "There is no time frame."
Last October, ESPN fired baseball analyst Steve Phillips after he admitted having an affair with a production assistant at the cable network. "His ability to be an effective representative for ESPN has been significantly and irreparably damaged, and it became evident it was time to part ways," an ESPN spokesperson said at the time. In February, the network suspended Tony Kornheiser for two weeks for his comments about the wardrobe of ESPN anchor Hannah Storm. (Kornheiser said Storm had a skirt on that was "way too short for somebody her age" and that "she's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.") Upon suspending Kornheiser, ESPN executive vice president John Skipper called Kornheiser's comments "entirely inappropriate. Hurtful and personal comments such as these are not acceptable and have significant consequences."
It's important to note that unlike Phillips and Kornheiser, Mariotti is not a full-time employee for ESPN. He is contracted per appearance on Around the Horn, and this creates problems for Mariotti. The show is not conceptually based around his personality and presence in the way that PTI is set up for Michael Wilbon and Kornheiser. It exists in the same form whether Mariotti is there or not, and he no longer offers what he initially brought to the program: a perspective from the city of Chicago. It's hard to see ESPN's going to the mat for Mariotti if this gets ugly.
The process must play out, of course, and arrested does not mean guilty of anything. ESPN and AOL Sports would be wise to investigate the matter comprehensively in addition to whatever the authorities do.
But a prediction here in the event the executives in Bristol find merit with the charges:
You will never see Jay Mariotti appear on Around the Horn again.
The Tillman Story, described by SI as a "searing look at the murky events surrounding Pat Tillman's killing by friendly fire in the mountains of Afghanistan," debuted in New York City and Los Angeles over the weekend to remarkable reviews. Having seen it, I can attest that it is a remarkable examination of a family searching for the truth about the death of its son and loved one. On Sunday, the film's director, Amir Bar-Lev, answered some sports-related questions via e-mail for this column.
SI.com: Over the course of your reporting and research for The Tillman Story, how would you characterize the reporting of the sports press regarding the death of Pat Tillman?
Bar-Lev: I have to honestly say we focused mostly on the general news press' handling of the Tillman case. I can speak in only the broadest strokes about the sports press, but invite you to check out this L.A. Times op-ed. That said, I think all of us played a part in turning Pat into a cartoon character -- the sports and general press, cable TV producers, and filmmakers, too. (I got a look at some of the fiction scripts about Pat Hollywood producers were hoping to get [Tillman's widow] Marie Tillman to sign off -- laughably bad.)
The Pat Tillman that Americans are familiar with is a slo-mo of his face, superimposed with the falling twin towers and Old Glory, smoke and soldier silhouettes and martial music underneath. It's an image Pat would have laughed heartily at, but the more serious truth is that we do a great disservice to our heroes when we depict them this way. One piece of news footage we have in the film says, "Pat had everything to live for -- except a sense of purpose. He said he found that, on September 11th." It's patently false on so many levels -- he did have a sense of purpose, and he never said he found anything on September 11th. It says much more about who WE needed or wanted Pat to be than it says about Pat himself.
SI.com: After making the film, did you come away with any larger truths about the mythmaking of athletes in the American culture?
Bar-Lev: I'm not sure if it's limited to mythmaking around athletes, but I was struck while making this how often adulation is self-serving. We weren't content to admire Pat; we needed him to be on our team so his admirable qualities would rub off on us. It's no accident that the little note you see written to him in the impromptu alter [established after] he died says "Our Hero," with the OUR underlined instead of the hero.
SI.com: Classify your contact with the NFL before, during and after the completion of the piece?
Bar-Lev: The overwhelming majority of our contact was with NFL Films, and they were invaluable. They scoured their archives for material on Pat, and bent over backward to get us the highest quality transfers of their remarkable Super 16mm slo-mo footage. I can't imagine the film without their contribution."
ESPN's Jenn Brown, who will debut this fall as sideline reporter for College Football Primetime coverage on Thursdays, did an interview with the Orlando Sentinel last month in which the takeaway from reporter Jeremy Fowler was that Brown was looking to carve her place as a serious journalist (his words). Brown herself said that she wanted "to try my best to fly under the radar. If nobody's talking about me, that's just as good as them talking or saying positive things."
Five weeks later, in-boxes throughout the sports media world were filled with a press release trumpeting Brown as the spokesperson and brand ambassador for IceHouse beer.
Should a reporter covering colleges endorse an alcoholic beverage? I tweeted out last week that I thought it was an unwise decision by Brown. If the sideline reporter were assigned to a pro sport, I'd have zero issues with her decision. But there's a large percentage of athletes and fans Brown will cover this year who cannot drink legally. For me, it's a matter of figuring out what you want be in sports television: If you are serious about making a name for yourself in newsgathering, you politely turn down this fame and money grab because students are involved.
Yes, I know the counterarguments: College students are going to drink; the whole damn college football system is corrupt; and why shouldn't Brown take advantage of the opportunity? Plus, who am I to make value judgments? Fair enough. Spencer Hall of SB Nation, in disagreeing with me, writes winningly on the hypocrisy of it all here. Alex Weprin at Media Bistro sees it more in my direction. If you asked most college football fans, I'd bet the majority would not have a major problem with it.
ESPN does not have a formal policy regarding its talent endorsing commercial products. The network has long said that it evaluates each of the requests on an individual basis and makes a determination on it. "These opportunities are evaluated on a case-by-case basis," an ESPN spokesperson said when asked about Brown's deal. "While this request was approved, we are reviewing the matter internally."
The fact that ESPN is reviewing the matter is interesting, and the network would be wise to ask Brown to politely decline it. If her work is solid and if fans like what she's doing, Jenn Brown is going to have plenty of opportunities to endorse products down the road. This is one she should ice.
At the end of the month I'll weigh in on Jason Whitlock's radio-thon last Friday, a three-hour, this-is-your-life radio appearance on Kansas City's 610 AM sports-talk station in which the former Kansas City Star sports columnist obliterated his former employer, preached about the fate of democracy and wept on the air. Meanwhile, here are two interesting links on the subject: First, Topeka Capital-Journal sports writer Tully Corcoranstruggles to make sense of what it means to his town. The second is this lively debate on SportsJournalists.com, where the posters debated how Whitlock handled his on-air exit interview. The message-board commenters include New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro, former Ann-Arbor News sports columnist Jim Carty,CBC Sports' ElliotteFriedman and AOL FanHouse columnist Lisa Olson.