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, FoxSports.com, “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.
Simmons, meanwhile, seemed to be constantly daring ESPN to suspend him by making highly inflammatory statements about Roger Goodell and the network’s coverage of “Deflategate.”
James Andrew Miller, writing about the split for Vanity Fair, put it best: “Once was forgiven; twice was Bugs Bunny declaring, “Of course, you know: this means war.”
Given all Simmons did for the network, perhaps he thought he was indispensible. Skipper, though, decided enough was enough. Bye-bye Bill.
ESPN tried to keep Grantland afloat for a while without its founder. It was a mistake since the site and its writers were tied to Simmons. Skipper decided to pull the plug in October.
The writers and readers of Grantland were the biggest losers with Simmons’ departure. 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. It’s always sad to see any kind of a platform be shut down.
The good news is that ESPN remains committed to The Undefeated. Kevin Merida, the former managing editor of the Washington Post, now is working on developing the site. However, a launch date hasn’t been announced for 2016. Clearly, the Whitlock debacle derailed the timetable.
Of course, Skipper’s original vision was for Whitlock’s “black Grantland” to complement Simmons’ Grantland. It all sounded so promising in that 2013 podcast.
Here are some other important sports journalism stories that I wrote about for Poynter during 2015.
A column on Jeff Bradley’s situation generated quite a reaction. Struggling to find work, the former ESPN Magazine writer spent the summer working as a clubhouse attendant at a country club. Obviously, it struck a chord with many people in the industry who have uncertain futures.
Layoffs continued to be prevalent, but a major purge in the New York Daily News sports department still was stunning with several long-time, big-name sportswriters being shown the door.
A rare success story: Dejan Kovacevic is thriving with his own site in Pittsburgh.
Derek Jeter’s The Players Tribune continues to be a growing outlet for stars to bypass traditional media to get out their stories.
Pam Oliver was frank in regard to saying too many women sideline reporters want to be famous rather than journalists.
To those critics, including Simmons, who think ESPN has gone soft on Goodell, check out the back story about Don Van Natta Jr.’s ESPN Magazine hard-hitting piece that exposed the NFL commissioner and the league on “Deflatgate.”
Also in the ESPN journalism department, it is worth noting that “Outside The Lines” celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. The show continues to do excellent work.
The future is here? The AP used computer-generated game stories for college baseball coverage.
The New York Times decided to pull its beat writer off the horrible Knicks and have him write stories about basketball as far away as New Zealand.
And two of my favorite stories: The great Mike Emrick discusses storytelling and his colorful use of language on his hockey calls; Dave Kindred, one of the great sports columnists of his time, talks about the joy he gets in writing about his local girl’s high school basketball team.