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Sports Illustrated Media Awards: The best and worst of 2015

Richard Deitsch selects his winners for the 2015 Sports Illustrated Media Awards, highlighting the best and worst in sports media for the year.

SI.com annually highlights a select group in the sports media who were newsworthy, both for positive and negative reasons. Below are the selections for 2015.

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Media Persons of the Year

THE PICKS: Craig Sager (Turner Sports) and Shelley Smith (ESPN)

There are things Turner Sports reporter Craig Sager and ESPN reporter Shelley Smith share: a love of family and laughter, battle scars from surviving interviews with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and long tenures with the same media employer (Sager has been with Turner for 34 years; Smith is in her 19th year at ESPN)

They are also cancer survivors.

Craig Sager's return to the sidelines covering the NBA for TNT, more

Each returned to sports television in 2015—Smith appeared on-camera bald as a symbol of her breast cancer fight—after rounds and rounds of chemotherapy. They share the 2015 SI Media Person Of The Year honor not only for their sustained excellent work, but for inspiring others who are battling cancer.

Sager was diagnosed with leukemia in 2014 and returned to the NBA sidelines last March after an 82-day hospital stay. Then came a recurrence the same month he was released. Over the last 21 months Sager said he has been to five hospitals and endured 14 different chemotherapy treatments. He has since started working the NBA sidelines again for Turner and travels to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center once a month from his home in Atlanta for aftercare maintenance. Sager had a major checkup last week and most of the news was good. The one bit of concern comes from the latest bone marrow biopsy doctors performed, which had a residual trace 0.15 percent AML (acute myeloid leukemia). They don’t know if Sager’s body is fighting it with an existing stem cell or if they need to increase the chemo. “Obviously I am not cured,” Sager said. “We still have ongoing battles. But everything is going good and I feel great.”

On Dec. 3 Sager worked his first Spurs game since he finished leukemia treatments, which meant a return of the NBA’s most enjoyable sideline duo: Sager and Popovich. The Spurs coach hugged Sager and told the reporter it was the first time he “enjoyed doing this ridiculous interview we are required to do because you are here and back with us ... Now ask me a couple of inane questions!”

“I spent months in a hospital hoping to go back to work,” Sager said. “I love my job and one the thing that most people talk about are my interactions with Pop. I was just hoping to get the chance to interview him when I was in the hospital. I didn’t know what I would say or ask him or what he would say. When he gave me a hug, it was one of the most touching moments I can remember in my 34 years at Turner.”

Smith announced on Oct. 1, 2014, that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and over the next six months, the reporter took off from her job to undergo multiple radiation treatments. She returned to ESPN’s airwaves last March—opting not to wear a wig—for the 2015 NFL draft. “My bald head means I have a fight, and I look at it as being fortunate to have a battle,” she said at the time.

Smith said she finished her treatment in June. “You are never really cancer-free but right now there is no evidence of disease,” Smith said.

The last time Smith and Sager saw each other in person was at the 2013 All-Star Game in Houston, but both are scheduled to work the 2016 All-Star Game in February in Toronto. The two are longtime press row mates during the NBA’s All-Star weekend.

Said Sager: “I didn’t know about Shelley ahead of time and then I saw her on TV with her hair gone and I said, ‘Oh, my god what happened.’ They explained she was fighting cancer. She wasn’t someone who was like, ‘Why me?’, or, ‘How terrible does my hair look?’ She was just the same old Shelley. Smiling, laughing. She gives me a lot of inspiration and she’s been very courageous through her battle. When we are together she’s always fun and lively, just a person who is very likeable.”

“I always make it a point to sit next to Craig because he’s so much fun,” Smith said. “He has a passion for what he does, and I love having it rub off on me. He’s also had it much harder than me because of his reoccurrence. His strength really helps me. He’s fighting so hard and I say to myself: I can do this. I can’t wait to see him. I’m also hoping my hair will look better than his by then too.”

HONORABLE MENTION: Scott Hanson (NFL Network); Ray Hudson (beIn Sport); Bob Ley (ESPN); Rebecca Lowe (NBC); Louis Riddick (ESPN); Adam Schefter (ESPN); Adnan Virk (ESPN).

Broadcast Team of the Year

THE PICK: Sean McDonough and Chris Spielman (ESPN)

Best journalism of 2015; GameDay ratings soar this year and more

Year after year, week after week, with far less fanfare than other college announcers at his network and elsewhere, McDonough provides a quality listen for viewers in both college football and college basketball. He’s found a particular chemistry with Spielman, a non-shtick analyst rooted in film work and preparation, with a specialty on defense. Here’s how the two called the final seconds of BYU’s thrilling win over Nebraska. Best of all, McDonough understands silence, as you’ll see in the BYU-Nebraska clip. This duo also drew the memorable end-of-game sequence in Michigan State-Michigan.

HONORABLE MENTION: Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson (ABC and ESPN); Leigh Diffey, David Hobbs and Steve Matchett (NBC); Ian Eagle and Dan Fouts (CBS); Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth (NBC); Arlo White and Lee Dixon (NBC).

Best Studio Show

THE PICK: Inside the NBA (TNT) and College GameDay (ESPN)

This category is usually a toss-up between College GameDay and Inside the NBA, so I decided once again to give it to them both. (Hey, sue me.) GameDay had the tougher assignment this year given the switch in hosts, from Chris Fowler to Rece Davis. The show did not miss a beat, and ended up with a higher viewership average.

HONORABLE MENTION:Premier League Live (NBCSN and NBC); ESPN’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament coverage.

Newcomers of the Year

THE PICK: Gus Johnson (Fox) and Joel Klatt (Fox)

Year in review: Top 10 moments of 2015; 10 bold predictions for 2016

Yes, Johnson and Klatt have individually been around for years, but they were paired together for the first time this season after Fox decided to move Charles Davis to the NFL and Klatt out of the studio and into full-time game work. Prior to the season Klatt called the move the “biggest opportunity I’ve ever been fortunate enough to have” and he prepared like it was. He’s a quality analyst, who clearly does research on his games. He can be a bit of an anti-SEC honk on Twitter but his on-air work is quality. Johnson is known for his basketball calls but college football really suits him as a broadcaster because there’s more scoring than the NFL and such scoring plays suit Johnson’s go-for-broke style. Molly McGrath, the sideline reporter on the crew, adds to a quality on-air broadcast.

HONORABLE MENTION: David Duval (The Golf Channel); Jenn Hildreth and Kyndra de St. Aubin (Fox, Women’s World Cup); Pedro Martinez (for his MLB Network analyst gig); Jessica Mendoza (ESPN, for game analysis); Bill Raftery (CBS, for his first NCAA Final Four call); Alex Rodriguez (Fox), The Bill Simmons Podcast Network.

Reader Picks From Twitter: Rick Allen (NBC Sports); Nate Duncan (Dunc’d On Pod); Chris Fallica (ESPN, being given a larger role on GameDay); Joey Galloway (ESPN); Marty Smith (ESPN, moving away from NASCAR coverage); Christian Vande Velde (NBC Sports); Field Yates (ESPN).

Most Improved

THE PICK: Maria Taylor (SEC Network reporter)

Now in her second year as a college analyst, host and reporter for the SEC Network, Taylor has a variety of jobs, including working the sidelines for the Brent Musburger-Jesse Palmer team. She’s also an analyst on volleyball (where she is excellent) and women’s basketball. She handled herself like a Doris Burke-Lisa Salters-Michele Tafoya-esque pro in the insane aftermath of LSU’s win over Texas A&M, a game which centered around rumors of LSU coach Les Miles being fired. She asked Miles the question that needed to be asked (“What is your take on your future at LSU?”) and Leonard Fournette about the Miles tenure.

HONORABLE MENTION: Brent Barry (NBA TV); Bill Cowher (CBS)

Reader Picks from Twitter: Adam Amin (ESPN); Julie Stewart-Binks (Fox); Kevin Connors (ESPN); Chris Fowler (ESPN, for his college football calls); Katie Nolan (Fox)

Best News Feature on a Sports Program

THE PICK: ESPN College GameDay’s feature on Adam Griffith

ESPN aired a piece in September on Alabama junior kicker Adam Griffith, who most sports fans know as the kicker from Auburn’s famous “Kick Six” play in the 2013 Iron Bowl. But Griffith’s backstory is remarkable. He grew up as an orphan in Poland before a Georgia couple adopted him when he was 10. For a piece that aired on GameDay, ESPN’s cameras journeyed back to Poland with Griffith where he reunited with his birth parents. If you watch the piece, you can see clearly that the budget had significant costs that a GameDay feature normally would not have. To the credit of GameDay management, they invested in the project and the result was something that makes GameDay stand out among all other studio shows. Reporter Gene Wojciechowski and producer Scott Harves traveled several times to Calhoun, Ga., (Griffith’s home) and to Tuscaloosa for on-camera interviews. Then, last May, the team met in Berlin and made their way to Poland. As part of the feature, viewers saw scenes of Griffith being reunited with his birth family.

ESPN producer calls tragic Chad Carr story her ‘most difficult assignment’

Said Wojciechowski: “Adam didn't decide until the last minute that he wanted to visit his birth parents’ house. He had gone back on forth on that, and understandably so. It was such an emotional fulcrum for him. When he decided to go, his only request was that we hang back for a few minutes until he approached the house on his own. It turns out his birth dad was outside in the backyard. We then followed Adam into the house and Scott and I found the nearest corner. Everything that happened inside the house was entirely spontaneous.

“As a reporter, I simply wanted to observe those beautiful, heartfelt, natural moments as they unfolded. And that’s what we did. The Debowskis [his birth family] were in a daze, but also were so welcoming. There was such emotion, apprehension and joy in the room. It was incredible to witness. Our goal was to tell Adam’s story with respect. We didn’t want to be helicopter reporters, always hovering. Sometimes he needed his own time … We had a wonderful Polish crew and a translator who did her best to navigate the languages. All in all, [it was] an experience of a lifetime. To visit that orphanage and see those lovely children, and think that Adam was once one of them—and then think of his unlikely journey—it still boggles my mind how arbitrary life can be.”

HONORABLE MENTION:E:60 on Ernie Johnson; ESPN College GameDay’s piece on Chad Carr; TSN on women’s soccer inside Brazil’s favelas; Real Sports interviews Isiah Thomas

Best Documentary

THE PICK:Four Falls of Buffalo (ESPN 30 for 30)

This Ken Rodgers-directed love letter to the city of Buffalo on the Bills’ teams of the 1990s was one of the best 30 for 30 efforts of recent vintage. The Bills’ four-year Super Bowl stretch always deserved better than the punch lines it endured in the ’90s, as this was an all-time great team: The franchise was 14–2 against the NFC in the regular season during its four-year Super Bowl stretch and those two losses came with many of their players benched after clinching a postseason berth. Scott Norwood’s interviews, poignant and painful, are the emotional center of the piece.

HONORABLE MENTION: Of Miracles and Men (ESPN)

Roundtable: What will media coverage of Super Bowl look like in 50 years?

The Halberstam Award

THE PICK: Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon (Texas Monthly)

This award cites a member of sports media for sticking it to power as David Halberstam did as a young Vietnam War correspondent for the New York Times. (On this topic: Once Upon A Distant War by William Prochnau is one of the best books on journalism.) Luther and Solomon reported on Baylor University’s shameful handling of a football player named Sam Ukwuachu, who was convicted of sexual assault on Aug. 21 by a jury at Texas District 54 Court in Waco. Ukwuachu had transferred to Baylor in fall 2013 after being dismissed from Boise State that May due to an unspecified violation of team rules, which was alleged to be violence against another woman. There was little reporting on this before the Texas Monthly authors started digging into what the program knew, when it knew it and the willful ignorance at Baylor.

HONORABLE MENTION: Diana Moskovitz (Deadspin); Brad Wolverton (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Duds of the Year 
(culled, in part, from this year’s media column)

• Warren Sapp—always outspoken, rarely interesting—was terminated from the NFL Network following his arrest for soliciting a prostitute and assault in Phoenix. The charges were eventually dismissed after Sapp completed a Prostitution Solicitation Counseling Program.

• Last year I named Cris Carter as my 2014 Most Improved Broadcaster. This year I felt I got played after video came out showing Carter encouraging NFL rookies to find a “fall guy” in the event they got into trouble. “You all are not going to all do the right stuff,” Carter says in the 2014 video taken at an NFL rookie symposium, “so I got to teach you all how to get around all this stuff too. If you're going to have a crew, one of those fools got to know he’s going to jail. We’ll get him out.” In his role at ESPN and ESPN Radio, Carter often waxes on about NFL players who get in trouble. As a viewer, I no longer have confidence in his opinions when he talks about player criminality and discipline. Maybe that changes down the road.

What's next for Greg Anthony at CBS, Turner in wake of arrest, suspension?

Deadspin’s Tim Burke

• Fox’s U.S. Open debut was fair-to-middling, but there was no arguing its post-final round coverage was as bad a performance by a major network as we have seen in some time. That was disappointing because Fox had an excellent 45 minutes leading up to that. Cameras capturing the winner in the scoring trailer or locker room is a standard part of golf coverage, and that was a huge miss for viewers who never saw Jordan Spieth during Dustin Johnson’s missed putts on the 18th hole. Only after Spieth was leaving the U.S. Open scoring trailer did he appear on camera. Curt Menefee was miscast as a host, it took forever for the production to get analyst Greg Norman to talk about Johnson’s collapse, Fox failed to land Johnson immediately after his round and Spieth’s father was misidentified. As a prominent television producer emailed me that Sunday night:  “A disaster on every level.”

• ESPN shuttered Grantland just months after its management told SI that it was committed to the site for the long term. Given the seven-figure spending on former athlete analysts in Bristol and the benefit Grantland provided the company in terms of its storytelling prowess and reputation, it’s remarkable that management would not have attempted to continue the site on a scaled-down basis.

• CBS Sports and Turner Sports basketball broadcaster Greg Anthony lost his NCAA broadcasting gig after he was arrested inside a room at a hotel in downtown Washington as part of an undercover operation targeting prostitution. He later re-joined Turner as an NBA analyst after the aspects of Anthony’s deferred prosecution agreement had been fulfilled.

• Curt Schilling got a raw deal from ESPN because once again the network’s discipline of its talent remains arbitrary and selective. In October ESPN announced that the baseball broadcaster had been pulled for the remainder of the Sunday Night Baseball schedule. ESPN initially pulled Schilling off its airwaves until Sept. 6 for sending a tweet in late August containing a meme comparing Muslims to Nazis. Schilling apologized for it, calling it a bad decision, and he was pulled off the air for a short time. That seemed like a reasonable workplace outcome for all parties.

Media Circus roundtable: Inside the life of a sports radio producer

• ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith conducted a multi-part infomercial with Floyd Mayweather off a seven-hour interview session. Given Smith is far more provocateur and pitchman than journalist these days, the final product wasn’t much of a surprise. Deadspin’s Daniel Roberts wrote a blistering piece that highlighted Smith’s whitewashing of Mayweather’s domestic violence issues. So did Awful Announcing’s Andrew Bucholtz.