- The Olympic primetime hosting torch is being passed from Bob Costas to Mike Tirico, and here, we take a closer look at NBC's move. Plus, a Q&A with Adam Schefter on his new NBA role, the best journalism from this week and much more.
One of the great phone calls of Mike Tirico’s life arrived shortly before noon last November 11 as he sat in the back seat of an SUV traveling south on U.S. Route 1 on his way to Gillette Stadium to meet with members of the New England Patriots.
The NBC Sports broadcaster was in southern Massachusetts to host the pregame and halftime segments for a Sunday Night Football broadcast two days later between the Patriots and Seahawks. While in the SUV, Tirico’s cell phone rang. At the other end of the line was Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC’s Olympics coverage.
“I just cut straight to it and said that we would be thrilled to have him become the Olympic prime time host,” Bell recalled in New York last week. “We discussed how it's a big and unique job, and one that he's perfectly suited for as a gifted broadcaster and lifetime fan of the Olympics.”
“I waited a few minutes to call my wife and Mom because I wanted it to sink in,” Tirico said. “I remember as a kid in Whitestone, Queens, watching Channel 7 at 4:30 PM. That was Jim McKay and Wide World of Sports and of course I saw him at the Olympics. Then came Bob [Costas] and all the things he has done. So all of this stopped me in my tracks.”
Tirico had become the frontrunner to replace Costas last summer after NBC Sports brass saw him host the afternoon bloc of the Rio Olympics. Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC Broadcasting and Sports, said Tirico’s age (50) and global experience hosting World Cups were major factors into the decision. Tirico’s first night as host will be Feb. 8, 2018, when the Winter Olympic Games begin in PyeongChang, South Korea.
“We re-evaluate things all the time but this is not a test,” Lazarus said. “We believe in Mike and he’s proven himself long before he was here. He has hosted many different events including the World Cup which has many similarities including length of time, the energy you need, and understanding different nationalities. Without a doubt, this was in our view of what could be [when they hired him]. That was why it was important for us to get him to call us home. He makes a telecast bigger and better. You can’t put him in there with Al [Michaels] or Bob because he doesn’t have the longevity but he is on his way to becoming an iconic broadcaster in our view. He is already an A-list broadcaster.”
Tirico joined his NBC Sports colleagues in New York City last Thursday as part of a 60-minute ceremony to officially accept the Olympic hosting torch from Costas. It also served as a formal ceremony to announce Costas stepping back from major responsibilities to move into what NBC Sports execs called the “Brokaw Role,” which refers to Tom Brokaw’s current role at NBC News following his long career at the network.
“I made this decision more than a year ago and people at NBC knew about it, but we didn’t want it even in the tiniest way to obscure our coverage of Rio or get in the way or distract us in any way,” Costas said. “So we waited until now, exactly a year out from the start of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, to make the announcement.”
As far as the Brokaw role, Costas said, “I’ve already done a number of things through the years that would fall into that category. For example, when Muhammad Ali died last summer, I was on virtually every NBC broadcast—The Today Show, Nightly News, Meet the Press—talking about Muhammad Ali. I did an essay about his life and career that ran between periods of a Stanley Cup Finals game. Somewhere along the line, some athlete of consequence will end his or her career and an appreciation or an assessment will be called for or some remarkable event will occur and there will be a controversy of some kind, and I’ll be called upon. Even within NBC Sports, if something out of the ordinary occurs, something that kind of jumps off the page, I won’t be taking anyone’s place, but I could be added to the coverage of that event if I have something worthwhile to contribute. So it’s kind of on a case-by-case basis.”
Costas’s Olympics career will end at 12 Olympics, beginning in 1988 as NBC’s late-night host in Seoul. Former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol then tapped him to be the primetime host for the Barcelona Games in 1992.
“Dick Ebersol put me in a position to succeed time and time again,” Costas said. “Part of why I was able to succeed if I did was Dick and his successors surrounding me with extraordinarily talented and dedicated people. I’d like to think every now and then I elevated what was around me but more often than not, it was that I was elevated by the work of people who supported me and were not as well known to the public as I was. I hope I enhanced people’s enjoyment and understanding of the events and I hope I projected a sense of the drama, the theater, and the excitement but also where appropriate and where circumstances allowed, I was able to acknowledge the issues involved.”
Among those who feted Costas last week was Michaels, who told a story about the first time meeting Costas—at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium in 1983 when Michaels, Howard Cosell and Earl Weaver were calling a baseball game.
“He came into the booth to say hello,” Michaels recalled. “Bob introduced himself to Cosell and Howard looked at him and said, “I know who you are. You are the child who rhapsodizes about the infield fly rule.” Howard thought of himself as the best broadcast journalist ever but to me that mantle belongs to one Robert Costas.”
Costas’s immediate NBC future will be to host the Kentucky Derby and occasionally Sunday Night Football. He will also host NBC’s coverage of Super Bowl LII on Feb. 5, 2018 because Tirico will be in South Korea prepping for the Olympics, which starts five days after the Super Bowl. He said he will also get much deeper with MLB Network work.
“Baseball-wise, I try to be as honest as I can, I try to review most of what I do,” Costas said. “I am still a good baseball announcer but you would be amazed at what you can find on YouTube. I went back and found World Series and LCS games from the 1990s that I did and I was better because I was in rhythm then. I was doing games more regularly or a series of games with the same production crew or partners. Given my affection for baseball, I would like to get back to whatever is my highest level, whatever my lifetime batting average is.”
Costas thanked many NBC staffers during the ceremony, and nearly broke down mentioning some of the names he worked with for decades (including his longtime Olympics writer, Aaron Cohen; Becky Chatman, the coordinating producer of NBC Olympics, and Joe Gesue, now the Senior Vice President of Production for the Olympics). He also praised Tirico’s work at ESPN and said he believed Tirico had the skill set and sharpness of mind for the job. “NBC has made the right choice and I could not be more happy about it,” Costas said.
Succession among television stars does not often go smoothly (think Leno and Letterman and Cronkite and Rather). This one, though, could not have been easier for NBC brass. First, Costas and Tirico have known each other for three decades and share the same alma mater, Syracuse. They are also represented by the same agent, Sandy Montag.
“On top of knowing each other, there is a clear mutual admiration and respect,” Tirico said. “The backbone of the Olympics are the people calling the events. You are there to enhance. I understand what the role is. People are not going to tune into the Olympics for Mike Tirico. They did not tune into the Olympics for Bob Costas. They tune in for the competition and that will continue. My responsibility is to make the experience pleasant and maybe you learn something or are entertained along the way.”
“You don’t need to know every platform diver from Peru or every cross-country skier from Finland,” Costas said of the hosting job. “But you need to be a good generalist and [know] the history of the Olympic games and the history of the city and host nation. You need be able to take a briefing quickly and you need to be versatile and not just in sports but in world events.”
While NBC Sports executives made it clear that they see Tirico in the role for years, Tirico said he is only focusing on his responsibilities in PyeongChang and makes no assumption that the job is his beyond that.
“I am a huge fan of Bill Belichick,” Tirico said. “A lot of people may give him grief but I got a chance to work with him on the Super Bowl XL pregame show (on ABC). He was the analyst with me on a set and it started a good professional relationship. So I will paraphrase him: I am onto South Korea. I am not worried for one second about Tokyo [in 2020] or how long I can do that. I want to get through Thursday night Feb. 8, 2018 and then the next night. To sit here and think about anything long term is silly.”
With America turning inward under the current Trump administration, it’s a fair question to examine how American television viewers will view the Olympics heading forward given it is a cultural exchange of the highest order. I asked Lazarus what the place of the Olympics if America is becoming more isolationist.
“You say, ‘Why is it [the Olympics] still important?’ I say it’s more important, for just those reasons,” said Lazarus. “It is one of the few things that brings the world together, especially the youth of the world as the Olympics does. It’s young people from around the world in a celebration of competition and fair play. And no matter what’s going on in the world, that still brings great joy to people around the world. So I think it’s more important and more needed than ever.”
“What we do know is that it’s our job to present the games and all of the athletes and countries that are represented. Every country that participates in the Olympic Games has people from those countries or heritages that live here. Our job is to show the best athletes and the most interesting stories regardless of where they’re from. Our coverage will not be biased by what is going on politically. We’ll be covering the Games as they develop and present themselves.”
THE NOISE REPORT
(SI.com examines some of the most notable sports media stories of the week)
1. On Wednesday, ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter will work his first game as an NBA sideline reporter—an assignment he negotiated into his new contract given his love of basketball. He’ll be part of the Knicks-Thunder broadcast along with Ryan Ruocco, Jeff Van Gundy and Dan Dakich. I traded emails with Schefter about his upcoming assignment.
Richard Deitsch: How are you preparing for Knicks-Thunder?
Adam Schefter: Now that the Super Bowl has ended, and with just under a month until free agency begins, I've been able to focus this week on my podcast and getting ready for the Knicks-Thunder game. For starters, I watched the Knicks-Clippers on Wednesday night, and all I could think of was, “Why couldn't Charles Oakley have shown up courtside Wednesday night in Oklahoma City?” Also, I watched the Thunder on Thursday night against the Cavaliers. But more important, I've been on the phone with the great Doris Burke and J.A. Adande, asking them about the rhythms of doing sidelines for an NBA game. I've done sideline reporting before, plenty of times, just never for an NBA game. I also have spent time on the phone with our NBA boss, Tim Corrigan, asking what he needs from me and what I can do to contribute to the broadcast in any kind of meaningful way. I have not yet reached out to Knicks and Thunder officials yet—I will—but I'm preparing for this the same way I would if I were doing sidelines for a Raiders-Texans game. Study up, read up, makes calls and be as prepared as possible so you don't mess up anything.
RD: Why was that first game chosen for you?
AS: Basically, Tim asked me a couple of months ago for windows in my scheduling. I couldn't do the beginning of January because there are NFL coaches getting fired and hired while the postseason is underway. Couldn't do the end of the month because it's the Super Bowl. Couldn't do the end of February through the middle of March due to the scouting combine and NFL free agency. So when the windows in my schedule were not as chaotic, that made it a more natural time to be able to do something like this. Tim chose this game, and between this being a week before the NBA trade deadline and in front of Mr. Triple Double himself, I'm frankly honored.
RD: What will be your specific role?
AS: No different than any other NBA sideline reporter, be it Doris or J.A. or Lisa Salters or anyone. They're looking at me as someone who has a passion for the league, who values news, who has sideline experience. When I've spoken to other NBA sideline reporters, my focus has been to understand the do's and dont's, what I can and can't do, what works and doesn't work. But in the end, before ever having done this, I have to believe stories are stories, information is information, and it is my job to come up with questions and information that can enhance the broadcast. Sometimes some games lend themselves to relying on a sideline reporter, other games not so much. If any significant trades or injuries were to happen, or Charles Oakley wanted to show up to another Knicks game, then there would be more of a need for sideline reports.
RD: Is your next NBA assignment known yet?
AS: Tim has told me that the plan is for me to do the March 22 Hawks-Wizards game in Washington, D.C., which hopefully will work out well. I just sat down last week in Houston with Dwight Howard for a podcast that is scheduled to run next week—and he was engaging and entertaining, offering me tips on how to report on sidelines—and that is a window that is a couple of weeks after NFL free agency begins. Hopefully by then, things will have died down. If not, I could go from a sideline report on Dwight Howard to how contract talks with Kirk Cousins have bogged down.
1a. Here’s the breakdown of all of Turner’s All-Star Game coverage, including the game next Sunday with announcer Marv Albert (calling his 22nd NBA All-Star Game), analysts Reggie Miller and Chris Webber and reporters David Aldridge and Kristen Ledlow.
1b. Here's ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, on Phil Jackson's handling of Carmelo Anthony.
1c. I thought ESPN Radio hosts Michael Kay and Don Lagreca did a good job with Knicks owner James Dolan here, especially considering that the station airs the team. Kay has a good professional relationship with Dolan and kept the Knicks owner on the air long enough where listeners could judge Dolan’s words on Charles Oakley.
1d. ESPN said the Warriors’ win over the Thunder Saturday night on ABC delivered a 4.1 overnight rating, the highest-rated, non-Christmas NBA regular-season game on any network since 2013.
2. Lazarus addressed the potential of the NHL players not appearing at the 2018 Olympics. “It’s an unknown at this point,” he said. “I have spoken with the IOC and NHL and they had what was described to me by both parties as a cordial discussion without any negotiation, leaving the door open to try to conclude a deal. What I do know is the players very much want to be there, the owners have reservations and the IOC and IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) very much want them there. The rest is out of our control.
Lazarus said there was more optimism four years ago because of how important hockey was to Russia and given the amount of NHL players in Russia. As far as hockey goes in South Korea, it will not air in primetime given the time difference. “I believe whatever happens, it will be a quality hockey tournament,” he said. “We would like the NHL to be there. We have made that clear.”
2a. Among the notes on Costas: He anchored 181 primetime nights (and NBC believes it was at one point 157 consecutive Olympics nights). Costas said his NBC Olympics researcher in 1988 when he was a late-night host was Jeff Zucker, now the President of CNN.
2b. Lazarus said you may see less non-sports personnel (think Ryan Seacrest) on-air for the 2018 Winter Games. “We are not turning it into an entertainment vehicle,” he said. “The thing with Ryan made sense to us because of the setting. It was a beach, it was Rio. Maybe it does not make sense in a different setting.”
2c. Costas, on the spate of doping scandals that have hit recent Olympics:
“Well, they’re going to have to get even more serious than they were before, and they were at least fairly serious. They’re going to have to other get even more serious about performance-enhancing drugs, unless they just want to throw up their hands and say forget about it, and I don’t think they’re pointing in that direction. The recent Russian doping scandal, which was so pervasive and was not, like so many others, the result of individuals with rogue chemists but was a sophisticated, government-run-and-approved doping program that spread over a number of Olympics, including one which Russia itself hosted, if they’re not going to get serious about that with lifetime bans and even more comprehensive testing and with the possibility of taking international events, be they Olympics or World Championships, whatever, away from perpetually offending nations rather than individuals — and I’m talking about you, Russia, in this case — then they might as well just wave the white flag.”
2d. Costas, on his favorite Olympic moment:
“You know, I always give the same answer when I’m forced to pick only one in the Olympics, and that’s Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in 1996 in Atlanta. It was such a well-kept secret that maybe 10 or 12 people in the whole world knew it was going to happen. They rehearsed it one time at 3 a.m. Dick Ebersol, who had the original idea of having Muhammad be the guy, would not tell me or Dick Enberg who it was going to be. He said, “You will recognize him or her. But I want your reaction to be as spontaneous as everyone else in the stadium.”
The way they staged it, he literally stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It was such an arresting moment. I’ve said this before, you hear a lot of sounds in the arena, but you seldom ever hear an audible gasp. And there was a gasp before it kind of set in. And then it turned into thunderous applause and cheering. And it wasn’t just excitement. It wasn’t just admiration. It was all those things plus respect and I think an understanding that he represented so much — athletic excellence, grace. Whether everyone always agreed with him at every stage along the way, you had to respect the integrity. He walked the walk. He put millions of dollars and the prime years of his career on the line for his beliefs. And people had to respect that. And they were also moved by how poignant it was that the man who once was the most beautiful and nimble of athletes on the entire planet and the most entertainingly loquacious of athletes had now been reduced to a man trembling as he held the torch and a man essentially unable to speak, even by that point, and yet he was willing to present himself to the world that way. And somehow even in that new state he was a dynamic and charismatic figure and a profound figure. So if I have to pick one, that’s my one.”
2e. Costas sat down with John Ourand as part of a 30-minute Sports Business Journal podcast.
3. Episode 103 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features Ryen Russillo, the co-host of the ESPN Radio show Russillo & Kanell, which airs daily 1 to 4 PM ET on ESPN Radio and ESPNEWS, alongside co-host Danny Kanell. In this podcast, Russillo discusses how frustrated he was being tagged as Scott Van Pelt’s “sidekick”; how he prepares for each show; why he believes he’s been doing sports-talk radio wrong; whether a radio host can avoid talking politics in 2017; how he decides what NBA news to report on the air; his thoughts on his show being bumped on Sirius for a show hosted by Stephen A. Smith; why he does not use an agent; why he believes previous agents lied to him; where he expects to be in five years; how much input he had on choosing Kanell as a co-host; why Skip Bayless banned him from First Take; why Van Pelt does not appear much on his show; how much NBA and college football he will do in the future; and much more. Listen below.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• From Nathanial Rich of the New York Times Magazine: A young, shackled black man is shot to death—and the police say he killed himself. The resulting investigation has pitted the victim’s father against the most powerful man in New Iberia, La. I hope you read this piece.
• Via Hailey Bronson Potts of the L.A. Times comes this remarkable piece about a foster father who takes in only terminally ill children.
• Via The Guardian: I accidentally bought a giant pig.
• Via Buzzfeed’s Thomas Golianopoulos: How Tommie Woodward’s Last Words Haunt His Family.
• The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz, on when things go missing.
• From The Marshall Project: What’s it like being the best man at a prison wedding?
• Via Vanity Fair’s Lili Anolik: Warren Beatty, Pauline Kael, and an Epic Hollywood Mistake.
• From David Corn of Mother Jones: The mysterious disappearance of the biggest scandal in Washington.
• Mitchell Sunderland of Vice on Chyna’s final days.
• From Matthew Shear of The Atavist: Half a century ago, an American commando vanished in the jungles of Laos. In 2008, he reappeared in Vietnam, reportedly alive and well. But nothing was what it seemed.
Sports pieces of note:
• The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears, on what LSU's first black basketball player endured.
• USA Today’s Sam Amick on Oscar Robertson’s legacy.
• SI’s Super Bowl story from Greg Bishop was really terrific, especially the reporting on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
• From Nik DeCosta-Klipa of Boston.com: How three sports reporters wrote—and rewrote—the game stories of the Patriots' record Super Bowl comeback.
• SI’s Chris Ballard on Nico Mannion, a 15-year-old (sorta-maybe) basketball prodigy.
5. Longtime ESPN producer and social media editor Jason Romano has left the company to embark on a faith-based speaking career.
5a. The Undefeated put out the “The Undefeated 44” this month—a list of living and past African Americans with extraordinary accomplishments and contributions. The list is here.
5b. News that always stinks to report: Bleacher Report laid off 50 employees last week.
5c. New York Post writer Phil Mushnick on Saturday reported that Doug Gottlieb would be moving from CBS Sports to FS1 and Fox Sports Radio. An industry source confirmed the move to SI on Sunday. Gottlieb came to CBS from ESPN in 2012. At CBS, he hosted a show on CBS Sports Radio, called games for CBS Sports Network, and also worked on the CBS/Turner coverage of the NCAA Tournament.
5d. Bellator MMA got creative to promote the fight on Spike between Fedor Emelianenko and Matt Mitrione.
5e. Philly.com profiled Jasmine Alexander, the producer of ESPN’s new 6 p.m. hour of SportsCenter with new hosts Michael Smith and Jemele Hill.
5f. Showtime announced the feature-length documentary “Disgraced,” which centers around the murder of Baylor University men’s basketball star Patrick Dennehy, as well as an attempted cover-up of NCAA rule violations.
5g. ESPN journalists Don Van Natta and Seth Wickersham announced they will collaborate on a book titled Powerball which will report on “NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the league owners he answers to, and the internal power wars that have greatly impacted America’s most popular sport.” Fellow ESPN journalists Dave McMenamin and Brian Windhorst have a book coming out in April on LeBron James returning to Cleveland to deliver a championship. That book is title Return of the King.
5h. CBS Sports Radio said Jim Rome signed a multi-year contract to remain with the network. His The Jim Rome Show airs on CBS Sports Radio live weekdays from 12:00 Noon-3:00 PM, ET.
5i. ESPN hired New York Times soccer writer Sam Borden, whose previous experience includes column writing for Gannett, to work as a writer and television contributor on enterprise and investigative work around international sports. The company said his written work will appear on ESPNFC and ESPN.com and ESPN app editions globally, and he will also appear on SportsCenter, E:60, Outside The Lines and various ESPNFC programs.
5j. CBS Sports Network will air an encore presentation of Wyoming Football’s Black 14 next Sunday at 9:00 pm. ET.
5k. The Duke-North Carolina game last Thursday drew 3,184,000 viewers, the second-most viewed college basketball game in 2017 behind Kansas at Kentucky on January 28 (3,426,000 viewers).
5l. ESPN hired Mark Teixeira to work as an MLB analyst. He will contribute to ESPN’s MLB studio coverage, SportsCenter and additional ESPN platforms, including ESPN Radio.
5m. Interesting Bloomberg BusinessWeek profile of ESPN analyst Steve Young, who readily admits he’s using his profile at ESPN to extend business for his private equity firm, HGGC. ESPN has always had different rules for different employees—particularly high profile ones—and the company is clearly fine with Young’s approach. If nothing else, I appreciate how honest Young was in that interview.
5n. Their ratings this week are of little consequence given they have a three-year guaranteed deal, but for those interested in the viewership for the “The Six,” the new 6 p.m. SportsCenter hosted by Jemele Hill and Michael Smith that debuted last Monday, here are the numbers for the first three days:
Monday: 732,000 viewers
The time slot prior to Hill and Smith’s arrival averaged between 500,000 and 600,000 viewers depending on the time of year.
5o. Outside The Lines had an exclusive sit down with Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.
5p. I asked Michael McCann, the legal expert for Sports Illustrated to offer his extended thoughts on former New York Post NFL writer Bart Hubbuch’s lawsuit against the news organization. Hubbuch was fired after sending out a controversial critical tweet about Donald Trump. Here are McCann's thoughts:
When sports journalists tweet from home about politics, are they “working” or are they merely engaged in a personal hobby?
The answer to that question is crucial in determining whether former New York Post NFL writer Bart Hubbuch has a winnable lawsuit against the Post. The Post fired Hubbuch on January 27, a week after Hubbuch tweeted “12/7/41. 9/11/01. 1/20/17.” The tweet, which was published nearly an hour before Donald Trump became president, attracted widespread scorn as being insensitive and offensive. Critics lambasted Hubbuch for comparing the day Trump became president to days when Pearl Harbor was bombed and when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center—two events where thousands of people, including many New Yorkers, died.
Hubbuch’s employer was among his harshest critics. According to Hubbuch’s lawsuit, his supervisor called him within 20 minutes of the tweet and demanded that Hubbuch delete the tweet and apologize. The supervisor, Hubbuch says, warned him that failure to follow the supervisor’s instructions would result in his firing. Hubbuch promptly deleted the controversial tweet and also tweeted two apologies, in which admitted that he was “insensitive and wrong” and that he had let his emotions get the best of him.
Hubbuch thought that he had adequately addressed the tweet, but on Jan. 27 the Post fired Hubbuch.
A journalist fired by his or her employer is, unfortunately, not an uncommon story these days. Journalism is a highly competitive industry, with many talented writers seeking fewer and fewer available positions. Worse yet for journalists, they, like most other kinds of workers, often have few legal resources when let go. Generally, employers can fire at-will employees for any reason or no reason, at least so long as the employer’s motivation for firing isn’t an unlawful form of discrimination (such as racism or ageism). Employers often have similar discretion in letting go employees who have employment contracts, though the language of an employee’s contract may limit the employee’s discretion and might also make firing the employee expensive.
Hubbuch attempts to overcome the Post’s broad discretion in ending his employment by invoking New York Labor Law § 201-d. This state law prohibits “discrimination against the engagement in certain activities” and provides that “Unless otherwise provided by law, it shall be unlawful for any employer … to discharge from employment … an individual … because of: *** (c) an individual’s legal recreational activities outside work hours, off of the employer’s premises and without use of the employer’s equipment or other property.”
Hubbuch’s case thus rests on whether his tweeting constitutes a “legal recreational activity” under New York law. To advance that argument, Hubbuch’s complaint attempts to paint his use of Twitter as disconnected from his employment with the Post. For instance, the complaint has a section titled, “Plaintiff’s social media hobby,” where Hubbuch’s use of social media is characterized as a mere “personal hobby” intended to “build social relations.” Along those lines, the complaint stresses that Hubbuch tweets about “myriad personal cultural and socio-political topics.” The complaint also claims that Hubbuch’s tweeting alleviated some of the stress he felt while writing for a newspaper “with many views” that Hubbuch rejected.
Although much of Hubbuch’s complaint is devoted to portraying the Post and its chairman, Rupert Murdoch, as conservative and eager to please Trump, those points are likely not central to whether he will prevail in court. The key legal issue is whether Hubbuch’s use of Twitter while employed by the Post was an extension of his workplace or a mere hobby.
Working in Hubbuch’s favor are the following factors:
• Hubbuch asserts that the Post neither required nor expected its writers to maintain social media accounts. He also insists that he was never told by Post supervisors to adhere to any particular social media policy. If these characterizations prove accurate, Hubbuch would have a better argument that his tweeting reflected his own initiative and was not governed by his employer.
• Hubbuch’s controversial tweet was sent from his home computer, during what he terms “non-work hours on his day off.” These factors match up well with the relevant New York law—the tweet was made off hours, away from the Post’s offices and not on a Post computer.
• Hubbuch has used Twitter to comment on a wide-range of topics, many of which are distinct from his employment. In fact, quite a few of Hubbuch’s tweets are about politics or government, neither of which the Post paid him to write about. Along those lines, Hubbuch and I recently debated California’s budget situation—a topic outside of the scope of Hubbuch’s NFL writing. To the extent Hubbuch’s use of Twitter is more about “The World according to Bart Hubbuch” and less about “Bart Hubbuch New York Post writer,” the stronger his case.
Other factors, however, work against Hubbuch:
• Until recently, Hubbuch’s Twitter page clearly identified himself with the Post. In 2015, for instance, his bio read “NFL writer/columnist for the New York Post • Sarcastic Texan • Tyler's dad • Proud Jayhawk • Personal favorite of Alec Baldwin.” The fact that Hubbuch began his bio with his Post employment strongly signals the relevance of his employment to his Twitter feed.
• Most journalists view their Twitter pages as largely extensions of their work lives. In an industry where we are judged in part on how many people click on our articles, Twitter, along with Facebook and other social media platforms, are crucial in sharing links to our stories. Hubbuch is no exception. A cursory read of his archived Twitter page reveals instances where he promoted and tweeted out links to his articles. For Hubbuch to now describe his use of social media as a simple “hobby” seems, at best, only partially true.
• While Hubbuch maintains that he was fired for that one tweet, it remains to be seen if the Post offers supplemental reasons for dismissing Hubbuch. Hubbuch has attracted the scorn of others, particularly New England Patriots fans. Hubbuch, in fact, temporarily took down his Twitter account last September after tweeting about Patriots quarterback Jacoby Brissett being the first black QB to start for the Patriots in a way that implied the Patriots were racist. Then again, though he has his critics, Hubbuch insists he excelled in his work. According to his complaint, Hubbuch “received very good performance reviews and merit pay increases each year.” Whether the Post supports that portrayal remains to be seen.
Anyone who is both employed and uses social media should keep a close eye on Hubbuch’s lawsuit. This is particularly true of journalists who are active on social media. While New York’s labor law is different from those found other states, media companies—many of which are headquartered in New York—would likely be more inclined to adopt clear social media policies in the event that Hubbuch prevails. Although those companies probably won’t seek veto power over their journalists’ tweets, they may nonetheless demand rules and procedures that make it clearly lawful to hold journalists accountable for tweeting statements that company executives regard as insensitive or inappropriate.
Along those lines, in recent months much has been made of whether sports journalists should “stick to sports” while on Twitter. Less discussed is whether those journalists’ employers—media companies—might prefer that their employees stick to sports. After all, those companies pay writers to write about sports. The more that Twitter becomes a critical part of a journalist’s work life, the more control that journalists’ employers will likely demand over journalists’ use of Twitter.