Year-in-review requires perspective listening to 2013 Simmons podcast with Whitlock

Jason Whitlockbill-simmonsAn excerpt from my latest column for Poynter:


To gain perspective on the two biggest stories in sports journalism in 2015, you need to dial up a podcast from two years ago.

On Aug. 15, 2013, Jason Whitlock was Bill Simmons’ guest on his “BS Report” podcast for Grantland. Yes, it can be found, and in light of what happened this year, the interview sounds laughable and more than a touch ironic.

Back then, Whitlock was beaming in rejoining ESPN after leaving in 2006. “This is one of the greatest days of my life,” he said.

Whitlock discussed how he “fell in love” with ESPN president John Skipper. Skipper wanted Whitlock to oversee a new ESPN aimed at African-Americans. Whitlock called it “the black Grantland.”

“Skipper carved out a vision for me,” Whitlock said. “It was like he talked to my mother…It was everything I wanted to hear.”

Indeed, the podcast was an ESPN lovefest with Simmons welcoming Whitlock to join him on the thrones in Bristol, Conn. Does it get much better for a writer than getting to develop and then run your own site on the biggest platform in sports?

Whitlock, who repeatedly bashed the network during his hiatus, called his previous employer,, “off Broadway” compared to ESPN.

“ESPN is Broadway,” Whitlock said. “It’s the big stage. All the spotlight is on you.”

And then ESPN turned off the spotlight on both of them in 2015. Whitlock was relieved of his duties in developing The Undefeated site. He eventually left ESPN. Meanwhile, ESPN decided it could live without Simmons, saving big money by not renewing his contract.

In both cases, the downfall of Simmons and Whitlock at ESPN likely was due to big-head syndrome. Deadspin documented how Whitlock, with his bizarre and grandiose pronouncements, clearly lacked the leadership skills to run a major site.

Former LA Times sports editor Bill Dwyre reflects on past, future of business

DwyreExcerpts from my latest column for Poynter.


You will be hard pressed to find anyone with a more unique perspective on the epic shifts in sports journalism than Bill Dwyre.

After 25 years as sports editor of the Los Angeles Times, Dwyre sought a change in 2006. He wanted to spend the final years of his career writing as a columnist.

In hindsight, Dwyre says it was the right decision. The view he got during the last 9 ½ years was much different than if he stayed in “my glass office.”

“I’m happy that I did get both looks [as an editor and writer],” Dwyre said.

Even though he says he isn’t retiring from writing, Dwyre recently bid farewell to the Los Angeles Times. He didn’t necessarily want to leave, but he says if somebody “offers you a buyout at 71, you take it.”

The final column put the wraps on Dwyre’s highly-successful run at the paper. He won the 1996 Red Smith Award for contributions to sports journalism, the Associated Press Sports Editors highest honor.

Dwyre experienced the best of the times for the Times and newspapers, and the worst.

Indeed, the contrast is striking. When Dwyre took over as sports editor in 1981, he oversaw a staff of more than 130 people. He recalls the Times sports section had so much talent, a young Rick Reilly had to work his way up to the main newsroom in Los Angeles from the Orange County bureau.

Of course, it helps to have your clean-up hitter be Jim Murray. Dwyre said for a columnist of such immense talent, Murray had “no ego.”

“He was incredible,” Dwyre said.

Dwyre had vast sports sections to showcase Murray and the other writers’ work. During the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the Times published 24 special sections, many of them 44 pages.

The travel budget virtually was unlimited. Dwyre said the Times once dispatched a reporter to Paris just to get a quote from an athlete to fill out a story.

Early in his tenure, Dwyre sent Murray to St. Andrews for the British Open. Concerned that he might have spent too much, he called then editor Bill Thomas.

“I remember there was a long pause,” Dwyre said. “Then he said, ‘Listen kid, I give you a budget and I expect you to spend every cent of it and more. Don’t bother me anymore.’”


Dwyre had an interesting answer when asked about his assessment for the future.

“One of two things is going to happen,” Dwyre said. “Everything is going to go to the web. Then every newspaper in the country, except maybe the big ones, will start printing one or two days a week. We will just give away.

“Or this on-going mandate to do everything digital that’s making us no money, has no financial backing for the journalism, will finally run out. Somebody then will put a lot of money into this thing that gets delivered to your doorstep every day, and people will get excited about it. The whole thing will come full circle.”


Players are real losers with dwindling media access in college football

IvanExcerpts from my latest column for Poynter:


Access, or a lack thereof, continues to be a major problem for college football reporters. And that goes for the reporters from the biggest outlets in the business.

“What I got [in terms of access] as a national guy 25 years ago for the Dallas Morning News was much better than I get now writing for the biggest website in the country,” said Ivan Maisel of “I bet the guys at Sports Illustrated say the same thing.”

Billy Watkins of the Clarion-Ledger vented about his frustrations in a column about covering college football in Mississippi. In an email to me, Watkins wrote:

“I’m doing a big profile of a player at Navy. He is a senior from Mississippi. They have bent over backward getting me anything and everything I need for the story. They lined me up a 45-minute phone interview with him. They also set up an interview with the Navy head coach.

“It took me five months last year to get into the office of Ole Miss’ coach. And we’re the largest paper in the state. I’m sorry, but the subject kind of works me up.”

Prior to the season, Mark Selig, a graduate student at Missouri, surveyed football Southeastern Conference beat writers for his Backstory blog. He asked this question: If you wanted to write a story about a player, how confident are you that you can get 10-15 minutes for an interview?

The replies included:

James Crepea of the Alabama Media Group who covers Auburn: “Absolutely no chance this will happen.”

Josh Kendall of The State, who covers South Carolina: “Not at all. I’ve had one true one-on-one since I’ve been here (five years), and it turned out to be a great story because it’s a way better interview format.”


The lack of access actually hurts the players. For the 97 percent who won’t be going to the pros, this will be the last time in their lives the media cares what they have to say. This likely will be their only chance to tell their stories.

“We used to get to know the kids,” Gould said. “When you know people, you can have a meaningful dialogue. You can learn what they are all about.”

John Feinstein, in a recent column for the CBS Sports Radio site, also made a similar point about media-player relationships in college basketball. He wrote:

“Players are coached to be very careful around the media and, when they come into the interview rooms they are inhibited by the presence of TV cameras; PR people and, often, their coach, who is sitting right next to them. There’s very little chance to develop relationships.

“When I was the Maryland beat writer, I routinely went to practice. I routinely went in the locker room before and after practice to talk to players. It was a no-brainer. The players got to know me, felt comfortable when I was around. I was able to do my job well.”

If coaches truly are teachers preparing their players for life after football—OK, maybe I am being naïve again–they should see the value in allowing them to do interviews. Speaking to the media is a great way for players to develop communication skills. With extensive practice, they will be more effective public speakers. It’s a good pretty good skill to have when you are wearing a suit for that first post-college job interview, and it has nothing to do with football.

“[Former Notre Dame running back] Allen Pinkett was a go-to guy for me when I covered Notre Dame,” Gould said. “Now he is the color guy for [Notre Dame’s radio broadcasts]. Maybe all those interviews helped him.”

Maisel thinks Bobby Bowden always had the right approach in allowing the media access to his players.

“He used to say [speaking to the media] was a skill they had to learn,” Maisel said. “He felt it was a part of them being in college.”

Dave Wannstedt: Unlikely media star; ‘I just get caught up talking about football’

WannstedtExcerpts from my latest column for the Chicago Tribune:


Dave Wannstedt is walking down Michigan Avenue on an overcast November morning after finishing his regular Tuesday morning sports radio appearance. He ducks into a store to get a cup of coffee even though he already appears to be fully caffeinated.

Wannstedt always gets amped talking about college and pro football. Above everything else, his rapid-fire, high-energy broadcast persona makes him completely engaging. Must-listen radio. Mike Mulligan, co-host of WSCR-AM 670’s “Mully & Hanley Show,” says, “It is the best segment on our show.”

The on-air version of Wannstedt is a stark contrast to how Bears fans remember him.

“I always was protective with the media,” Wannstedt said, in explaining why he didn’t reveal that outgoing side during his days as Bears coach from 1993-99 and later as head coach with the Dolphins and in college at Pitt. “I always was cordial, but I never wanted to let them inside Dave Wannstedt’s personality. I don’t know why. I wish I knew why.”

The 63-year-old Wannstedt, though, doesn’t waste any time doing a deep examination because he is way too busy talking football everywhere and anywhere these days. His schedule is a whirlwind.

Wannstedt’s week includes commutes to Los Angeles to be a studio analyst for Fox Sports’ college football coverage. On Sundays mornings, he appears on Fox’s early NFL pregame show, “NFL Kickoff.” Then Wannstedt immediately returns to Chicago, usually watching the Bears game on the plane, so he can make a Sunday night appearance on Comcast SportsNet. He also has regular weekly spots on BTN and CSN, including “Pro Football Weekly.”

Wannstedt’s plate could be even fuller.

“Everyone is calling,” said Bryan Harlan, his agent. “We’ve turned down a lot of things.”


When Wannstedt decided to go the broadcasting route, Harlan said he had to follow a strict mandate if he wanted to be successful. Harlan told him he couldn’t be worried about whether his comments would affect his ability to land another coaching job.

“Bryan said I couldn’t be guarded because I was thinking about what a general manager or an athletic director might think,” Wannstedt said. “I had to be honest. I had to let my personality come out.”

Former ESPN Magazine writer worked as clubhouse attendant; other laid-off sportswriters share their stories

Jeff BradleyAn excerpt of my latest column for Poynter:


For the bulk of his professional life, Jeff Bradley has spent his summers at a Major League ballpark. He had high-profile beats covering baseball for ESPN The Magazine and the Newark Star-Ledger.

But last summer was different. Struggling to make ends meet ever since being let go by the Star-Ledger in Jan., 2013, Bradley worked as a clubhouse attendant at a country club near his home in New Jersey. He shined shoes, vacuumed the carpet and kept the bathrooms clean.

Bradley likely is the only clubhouse attendant who also has written about Derek Jeter for national publications. A few times, Bradley was mistaken for being a member. On other occasions, he ran into people who knew him as “the sportswriter,” prompting the inevitable questions of what happened?

“Sure, it was embarrassing sometimes,” Bradley said. “But most people, if they have heart, say, ‘I respect what you’re doing. You’re doing what you’ve got to do [for your family].”

Bradley decided to write about his situation on his website last week. In a phone interview, he said he didn’t rehash the frustrations and hardships he has endured so “people could feel sorry for me.”

“I just felt like this is what has come to for a lot of people who used to work as journalists,” said Bradley, whose resume also includes stints at Sports Illustrated and the New York Daily News.

Indeed, the comments to Bradley’s post depict a depressing snapshot of an industry where long-time sportswriters find themselves in no-man’s land. Several veterans commiserated with Bradley by sharing similar experiences after being jettisoned from their jobs.

Rachel Shuster, formerly of USA Today, writes:  “I drive for Uber, where if I happen to mention, no, this is not my life’s dream.”

Diane Pucin, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, writes: “This is pretty much my story…Even been rejected for a grocery store checked out job.”


New public editor represents shift for ESPN; first with digital background

Brady JimAn excerpt from my latest column for Poynter:


Jim Brady’s appointment marks a significant transition for ESPN. He will be the first person in the position whose background primarily is in digital. Brady helped launch and then later served as both sports editor and then executive editor of He also held multiple executive positions at AOL. Brady is the CEO of Spirited Media, which operates the mobile news platform Billy Penn in Philadelphia, and in the interest of full disclosure is a member of Poynter’s Board of Directors.

Brady’s resume is quite a departure from his predecessor, Robert Lipsyte, the former New York Times columnist who barely used social media. Stiegman, though, quoted Lipsyte in noting that ESPN wanted a new public editor who can address various issues on the network’s many platforms from TV to mobile.

“Bob had a great line,” Stiegman said. “He felt his job was ‘to be a window washer.’ It wasn’t necessary to be inside ESPN, but he had to make sure the fans and audience have a clear view into our decision making and processes. We’re at a tipping point as far as user behavior on all our platforms. In order to be a window washer in 2015, you have to touch the audience in a multitude of their touch points.”

That mandate is one of the reasons that attracted Brady to the job. He thinks the seismic shifts in the media landscape provide him with a unique opportunity to examine ESPN.

“It is one of the more fascinating media companies on the planet,” Brady said. “Yes, they have their relationship with the leagues, but they are having to work their way through the complete upsetting of the whole media ecosystem. There are expanding platforms to changing business models; new competition. How do you go forward in a world that keeps changing by the day?”


ESPN should have pulled plug on Grantland when Simmons left

Grantland doneAn excerpt from my latest column for Poynter:


In Grantland’s case, there was another factor beyond money. When ESPN parted ways with Bill Simmons earlier in the year, ESPN president John Skipper should have pulled the plug on Grantland at the same time.

While the site was named for Grantland Rice, the most influential sportswriter in the 20th Century, it really should have been called “Simmons,” arguably the most impactful sportswriter thus far in the 21st Century. Simmons conceived the site as an extension of his ground-breaking columns and podcasts that covered the Celtics in one breath and “Mad Men” in the next.

With Simmons, Grantland developed into a niche site with a faithful following. Even though it didn’t generate a profit, Grantland’s premium content allowed ESPN and Skipper to take a pleasant ride into an intellectual, high-brow neighborhood.

However, when Simmons left, Grantland lost its voice. It seemed to be floating aimlessly without its captain, an image further enhanced by James Andrew Miller’s piece for Vanity Fair about staff vdiscontent in the wake of Simmons’ departure. The negative vibe was getting fairly heavy.

In retrospect, Skipper was foolhardy to try to keep Grantland going. It wasn’t going to be the same site. And plus, Grantland wasn’t making any money. Ultimately, it was a simple decision for Skipper.

Tom Verducci: Lessons from his approach to working as Fox analyst for World Series, writing for SI; Reporting common thread

Verducci and BuckAn excerpt from my latest column for Poynter:


Tom Verducci is a busy man during the World Series.

He has a “night” job working with Joe Buck and Harold Reynolds on Fox Sports’ No. 1 announce team for the games. Then after the final pitch, he makes the transition to his “late, late night/early morning job” in writing columns for the games on

Verducci says his game day routine usually ends around 3 a.m.

“There’s always November for sleeping,” Verducci said.

Perhaps nobody else in sports media has conquered the multi-media aspect like Verducci. He is the first non-player to work as an analyst in a World Series TV booth since Howard Cosell. He also remains a must-read with his baseball writing for Sports Illustrated.

So how does Verducci view himself these days: As a broadcaster or a sportswriter? His answer reveals why he has risen to the top in both categories.

“That’s an interesting question,” Verducci said. “To begin with, I view myself as a reporter. Whether it’s writing or during a broadcast, it is all about information and how to use words, either spoken or written. I don’t see myself as a writer who also is broadcasting, or a broadcaster who is writing. I’m a reporter with a job to convey information.”

There are valuable journalism lessons to be learned from Verducci’s approach to both jobs. A common thread is the quest for information, specifically new information. It dates back to Verducci’s first days at Sports Illustrated in the early ‘90s.

“At Sports Illustrated, you’re usually writing about teams and players that were well-known,” Verducci said. “You better have something new. You can’t just do a rehash. That thirst to find new information about a mostly-known subject always has been a motivating factor.”


Lost art of using phone is bad trend for journalism, public relations

phoneExcerpts from my latest column for Poynter:


At the dawn of 2015, I made a New Year’s resolution. I vowed to try to rely less on email and actually use the good old-fashioned phone to reach out to public relations people on my various beats. Even if I didn’t have anything on the agenda, I planned to dial someone’s number just to see what was going on.

You know, how’s the family? What’s the latest at your place?

Of course, New Year’s resolutions never stick. So along with my vow to read more and eat less, I haven’t come close to calling PR folks as much as I had hoped.

I make that admission to show that I am just as guilty as anyone in being part of a horrible trend in media: Journalists and PR people have forgotten how to use the phone.

I’m not saying nobody uses the phone. However, I am fairly confident about this thought: Perhaps not since Alexander Graham Bell unveiled his new invention has the phone been used less in media interactions at many levels.

“If [using the phone] has become a lost art, that’s a damn shame,” said Vince Wladika, the former PR head for Fox Sports who now does consulting for companies like Comcast and Tribune Media.

Indeed, it’s all about sending emails, texting, and communicating through social media these days. If you are a reporter, think about how many calls you receive from PR representatives making a story pitch. I’m fairly sure the answer is, not many.


Malcolm Moran, the director of the sports journalism program at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, believes there’s something even bigger at stake with the heavy reliance on emails.

“The technology has overtaken relationship building and maintenance,” Moran said.

Indeed, relationships seem to be the biggest casualty of the email/text age. They can’t be the same when reporters and PR people aren’t having phone conversations, much less face-to-face contact [another infrequent exercise].

Wladika wondered if enough emphasis is being put on relationship building at the college level.

“Are people being taught to cultivate their contacts?” Wladika said.

Moran can’t speak for other schools, but he emphasizes it to his students.

“I tell them, ‘If you’re not making an effort to get to know [a PR person], why would they have reason to share anything with you?’” Moran said.

Author Q/A of new Carlton Fisk biography: Much more to proud catcher’s career than epic ’75 homer

Carlton FiskCarlton Fisk takes center stage every October. During baseball’s postseason, there are multiple replays of his iconic homer in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. It ranks near the top as one of the game’s most memorable blows and was Fisk’s defining moment. Yet there was much more  to Fisk’s Hall of Fame career.

In “Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk,” author Doug Wilson details how the catcher seemed to defy age that saw him still squatting behind the plate at 46. He writes how it started with an old school New England work ethic that he brought to the Midwest when he came to Chicago in 1981, posting several exceptional seasons during his 13 years with the White Sox.

I was with Fisk during my three years as the White Sox beat writer for the Chicago Tribune. He always ranks among my favorite athletes to cover. He is an extremely thoughtful man. I still remember those long pauses after I asked him a question, knowing that Fisk was thinking about what he wanted to say.

He truly had a fascinating career. Here is my Q/A with Wilson.

What intrigued you about doing a book on Carlton Fisk?

Carlton Fisk is a man who is a sports icon in two major cities, Chicago and Boston, a Hall of Famer, and he hit one of the most memorable home runs in baseball history, yet little has ever been published about his life and career other than the standard one paragraph summary. He has a fascinating story and as the 40th anniversary of his signature moment approaches, I thought it was time.

Did you have any access to Fisk for the book? Who did you interview?

I did not have any access to Carlton Fisk. He has kept a very low public profile since retirement and he grants very few interviews. I contacted him by mail to let him know of my intentions and to extend the invitation to participate but did not have any other contact. I interviewed about 75 people including his childhood friends and teammates from high school, college and professional baseball. I spoke with his older brother numerous times for stories and fact-checking and also met his mother and sister. From these sources I was able to get a pretty complete picture, not only about his career, but about how he was viewed by those around him.

How did his New England roots shape him as a player?

More than most players, Carlton Fisk’s upbringing is absolutely crucial to the understanding of him and his career. His roots gave him the foundation for the work ethic, principles, attitude and stubbornness which later became his most famous features–he was New England to the core. He was Calvin Coolidge in John Wayne’s body. Being from New England also made him incredibly popular with Boston sports fans–he was one of them and they loved him. Had he been drafted by say, Los Angeles, it wouldn’t have been the same. His New England roots also made his exit from Boston much more difficult and tragic.

How did he view his epic homer in ’75? 

He was very proud of his entire career, especially the records made possible by his longevity as they validated his determination and work ethic. He was heard on occasion to remark that it was annoying that some people thought that all he did in his career was hit the one home run. But at the same time I think he realized that it was a treasured, special moment–one of the greatest in the history of the game–and it gave him lasting recognition for generations. It’s what makes him unique. For a long time, some of the few pieces of memorabilia on display in his home were pictures of the famous camera shot and the bat that he hit it with (the bat has since been loaned to the Hall of Fame for an exhibit).

What did it say about Fisk that he was willing to leave Boston, where he was an icon?

He was a man of immense pride and he valued his accomplishments and place in the game. It’s necessary to understand that he was put in a very difficult position by Boston management; they made it clear that they were not willing to pay him anywhere near the market rate for even decent catchers at the time. And they purposely mailed his contract late–essentially voiding the contract. He felt insulted and, with him, once that line was crossed, there was no going back. I think he would have accepted a contract to stay in Boston for much less money if they had only shown a little respect and made him feel wanted. He never wanted to leave Boston–that had been his dream all his life. It was very hard, but once they publicly disrespected him the way they did, he would not have signed even if they had topped all other offers. And it worked out very well that he was able to have a great second half to his baseball career in Chicago–he settled in the Midwest and that became his home.

You write how Fisk seemed brittle early in his career with injuries. How did he manage to survive for 24 years?

He spent quite a bit of time on the disabled list during his first four years in the majors. He suffered two major injuries that cost him half a year each. Some of that was due to the usual fate of all catchers: foul tips and getting run over by runners, but also his style of play factored in. He was very athletic for a catcher and played with almost a recklessness in his early years. He led the league in triples as a rookie (a rare accomplishment for a catcher, especially one called Pudge), he routinely sprinted down to first to backup throws, he dove into stands chasing foul balls and he blocked the plate against all comers. He smartly toned some of that down as time went by and he picked his spots. He learned to use the sweep tag instead of tackling every runner. That helped him avoid more injuries. But I think the major factor that allowed him to catch for 24 years was the insane workout regimen that he adopted in the mid-1980s. He was one of the first baseball players to go all in with weight training and he stuck to the intense regimen throughout the season. He was often found sweating away in the stadium weight room at one in the morning–several hours after playing a complete game. It was no accident that he was able to continue squatting behind the plate a hundred times a game when he was 44 years old.

Was 1983 his best year?

Statistically, 1977 was probably his best year (.315, 26 home runs, 102 RBIs), but when all things are considered, I think a good argument can be made for 1983. He led the team to the divisional championship (the first title for any Chicago team in any sport since the 1963 Bears) while hitting .289 with 26 home runs and 86 RBIs. The thing you have to remember about his numbers is that he absolutely stunk for the first two months. His batting average was below .200 in mid-June. He was frustrated and butting heads with manager Tony LaRussa. One of the great stories of that year is how he and LaRussa settled their differences and Fisk went on a tear for the next 3 months and the team blew everyone away. That was a great team with several very good veteran leaders, but everyone understood Fisk’s place in the clubhouse and he had delivered on the enormous hype and expectations that the team had when they signed him. He later said that he had more fun on that team than any other he ever played on due to the unique set of personalities and, of course, winning big like that makes everyone happy.

Fisk also had battles with White Sox management. Why didn’t he get the respect he deserved from White Sox and Red Sox?

That’s a difficult question. I think it is due to both the personality of Carlton Fisk as well as the personalities of the specific men in both the Boston and Chicago front offices. Fisk was a man of tremendous pride who sometimes had a hard time letting go of an insult. The financial climate of those years definitely played a role. In Boston, it was the early years of free agency and Boston’s owners were almost reactionary in their views; they were clearly behind the times and it resulted in destroying what could have been a dynasty. Also, in both places, standard operating procedure at contract time seemed to be to insult the player and degrade his abilities and then try to get a low-ball contract rammed through–and that was absolutely the wrong way to approach Fisk. In Chicago, the owner was known as a very hard-line negotiator and, in the early 1990s, the Armageddon of owner-union battles was rapidly approaching and that definitely factored into the attitudes and rhetoric.

Where does Fisk rank among all-time best catchers?

Picking the All-Time greatest of anything is always a matter of opinion, but I think Johnny Bench is the best catcher by far. Yogi Berra won all those championships and people forget how great an all-around player he was. I think Fisk belongs in the group right after those two, along with old-timers like Bill Dickey, Mickey Cochrane and Roy Campanella. I will not pass judgement yet on the guys who put up big numbers from 1990-2006 because, as Ivan Rodriguez said, “Only God knows” if they used chemicals that helped their careers.