Full Of Sound And Fury

jaymariotti

So, it’s mildly amusing that AOL decided to take one of the most universally loathed sportswriters and give him a platform. I don’t know what drove the decision to hire Jay Mariotti for AOL Sports other than the desire for what I’ve personally called “The Rush Effect”*: people will click to be outraged at what he writes, but since page views are what matter, it will be a success either way, no matter how blatantly wrong he is.

In my original note about Mariotti’s debut at Awful Announcing on Sunday, I snarked about Jason Whitlock, which, in retrospect, isn’t exactly fair to Whitlock for a couple reasons:

  1. Whitlock, from what I can tell, has a fanbase.
  2. He also is right on occasion. Rare, but that’s better than Mariotti’s ratio.

Now, everyone is weighing in: Brian followed up at AA in the AM, MODI is calling for people to speak out forcefully at SOMM, and Deadspin’s Rick Chandler employed some good old fashioned snark and mockery.  After reading his introductory column, with some fashionable talk about how behind the newspaper world is (predictable) and spoiling a movie ending (yes, everyone could probably guess that the dog bites it in the end, but that’s still bad form), he goes into some victimhood:

I resigned after the Games with a calm, professional letter, a decision that came mere months after I’d signed a contract extension. I guess I hurt some feelings. The boys called me a “rat,” forgetting those 5,000 columns through the years. They accused me of using Beijing as vacation time (“Hey, kids, let’s ditch Hawaii and hang out in a Communist country.”). They let a few staff writers, who should focus on doing better work, react with rage reminiscent of Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.” All because I handed back about a million bucks and wanted something more.

Well, I don’t know. I suppose that if you happen to take potshots in print and on TV at professional athletes and their coaches without daring to set foot in locker rooms any longer, the beat writers and columnists who do might be tired of taking shit aimed at you. When your paper uses your resignation to ramp up a subscriber drive, you might want to consider where your ego ran off the rails.

Jay, bless him, does no such thing.

I’m working for a company, AOL, that attracted 54 million unique visitors to its programming content sites in November and ranks fourth in traffic among Internet news sites. As established writers keep moving Web-ward, it will cause consternation among a few members of the sports blogosphere, some of whom think they own the Internet when, as everyone knows, Bill Kurtis owns the Internet. I’ve never bought into this “mainstream media vs. bloggers” blood war because, in my mind, we’re all writers. The best young writers provide compelling takes on sports. The losers wake up each day and attack (choose your ESPN target), an approach that can’t attract much audience beyond a few neurotic souls in sports media. Now hear this: I’m a bit too busy to hate bloggers or, really, anyone but terrorists and certain Illinois politicians. I just think they should be writing about Steve Smith, not Stephen A. Smith.

Well, we would, Jay, and happily, but the problem is that you, Stephen A. Smith, and many others have gone past the point of no return — you, through your writing, TV appearances, etc., in which you spout off, define the prism of sports for so many people and propagate coverage that makes the writers, reporters, and pundits as news-worthy as the athletes.

The angles taken by big-box columnists in an out-dated 80s narrative style and the focus of ESPN in paying more attention to athlete misdeeds (with a racial double standard to boot) is only part of what makes sports media an unwelcome part of the news when it comes to sports. A monopoly by one network is part of it, but when Ed Werder can take a completely anonymous sourced report and foment two weeks of Terrell Owens nuttiness, ESPN can ignore the civil suit against Brian Giles of abuse filed by an ex (along with the video), and when all sports websites run wire stories about athletes getting fucking parking tickets, of all things, sports media is as much a part of writing about sport as the competitions themselves.

Mariotti’s wishful thinking is just that — and a refusal to accept responsibility for the things he’s written before. The irony of all of it? His first full column is about Charles Barkley and his DUI, calling him “An American Idiot.”

You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t bother reading.

(*Named after Rush Limbaugh, naturally. I never understood why he had such a large audience as a kid. There are reliable conservatives, but I sense there are plenty of liberals listening just to hear the outrageous bullshit he’ll spout next.)

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Rid Of Him

Normally, I don’t write a whole lot of posts about media folk leaving their outlets, particularly when it’s people I loathe both reading and seeing on TV — like former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti — because everyone else and their mother will have written something about it online before I figure out something coherent, if not interesting, to say about it.

But when the departure of such a figure is being celebrated and used as a subscription sales tactic, that’s gone well beyond the usual parameters of a high-profile departure.

The paper is running a semi-article/column on the White Sox commenting about his leaving. There are reader letters being published. The web editor for the sports section is explaining that a tiff over who got to write an Obama/Cubs column that went in Rick Telander’s favor may be why Mariotti offered his resignation. Hell, one of the letters from a Deadspin commenter and his picture are featured on the rag’s front page. Even his former editor, Michael Cooke, is writing announcements like this one (boldface emphasis mine):

The Chicago Sun-Times had the best sports section in the city before Jay Mariotti came to town — that’s why he signed up with us — and his departure does not change that.

We still have the stars — respected veterans such as Rick Telander, fiery newcomers such as Greg Couch, quirky voices like Carol Slezak, not to mention seasoned beat reporters tracking the Cubs and White Sox toward their eventual collision in the World Series, plus the Bears, the Bulls, the Blackhawks, and all the other teams that make Chicago the sports center of the nation. We could have a World Series in Chicago in a couple of months … talk about excitement!

The Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com will continue to have the scores and the stories before anyone else, anywhere, and the deepest and most comprehensive stats and standings. We wish Jay well and will miss him — not personally, of course — but in the sense of noticing he is no longer here, at least for a few days.

A paper, like a sports franchise, is something that moves into the future. Stars come and stars go, but the Sun-Times sports section was, is and will continue to be the best in the city.

I wonder if the Sun-Times and its staff would like to tell us how they all really feel about the man. That is colder than a witch’s teat, and rival Telander isn’t holding back either, talking to the Chicago Reader about it:

“Because the damage a ‘humorless loner,’ as you described him [I did], can do to an overstressed sports department is incalculable.” He said the sports department lost its cohesion and  became “sinister and secretive and fuck your buddy. It was the worst possible teamwork conditions.”

Yikes. Look, this is hellishly amusing to me, watching a media meltdown and human nature in an embattled industry lash out against what appears to be a singularly loathsome figure among the ranks of newspaper columnists — so much so that rumors of him heading to Boston are causing angst among that city’s sports fan — but let’s face it, it’s also brutally unprofessional.

You’re likely to respond, “well, so was Mariotti,” and you’d likely be right. However, there’s got to be some semblance of decorum regarding the departure of a hated figure — the enmity in the pages of the paper and the airing of dirty laundry tells me a lot more about the staffers still on the masthead of the Sun-Times’ sports section that it does about Mariotti. We already knew a sizable contingent (if not the majority) of Chicago sports fans disliked his Lupica-style attitude about not visiting the locker room and tendency to stir shit up for kicks (nothing is more annoying in a columnist than a reflexive contrarian.)

But the dirt-dishing about Mariotti’s tantrums seems, well, beneath a professional journalist.  I was a solid reader of the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune in college (my small little school had this newspaper program where students got free copies of those two papers plus USA Today, the New York Times, and the Des Moines Register), and while the latter is certainly the more tabloid of the two, this kind of pissing match just goes further than it ought to.

Maybe this is the natural outreach of sportswriters like Mariotti inserting themselves into the news cycle via TV appearances and outsized presences online and in print — he became just as much of a media story for his ranting and raving as those he covered, so now he is a public figure and, in this realm of Chicago sports infamy, everything goes when you are universally hated.

Does Mariotti deserve it? He probably deserves every trashing his former co-workers give him and more, but you’d think his editors and the others who are happy he’s gone would be a bit quieter about it, not because they ought to be automatons, but because this isn’t the way these things should be handled internally. Release a statement without the personal digs, leave the gossip about the departure to your competitor, and move on.