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Five Who Get It, Five Who Don’t


Joe Buck, Fox Sports — If you aren’t ready to rip out his larynx by now — 15 games, 16 days, one private jet, one misinterpreted episode (see below)  — it could mean you actually like the man. Truth is, the Buck Over America tour hasn’t worn on me one bit, which suggests a status unthinkable back when he was ridiculed relentlessly on social media: He has become The Voice of American Sports, establishing signature-event splendor and all-demographics cool without forcing his ego upon the scene. Given the multi-billion-dollar stakes and massive platforms, we can’t help but compare the industry’s power game-callers — those who work the premier windows in multiple sports on the grandest stages. Jim Nantz is just too schmaltzy, overdoing the goo and treating big moments like kiddie fairy tales. Al Michaels only does the NFL now, soon to make way for Mike Tirico, who is bland and safe. ESPN has no such creature. That leaves the polished Buck, who has taken his scheduled COVID-19 tests, dutifully done his homework and delivered seamless performances during the baseball postseason and three NFL games. Quicker with a quip than the aforementioned rivals, Buck said this when Giants quarterback Daniel Jones tripped and face-planted on a would-be touchdown run: “The old turf monster got him!’’ And his call at the end of the Game 4 classic, a frantic sequence that could have frazzled any World Series broadcaster, could not have been smoother. Recently, the Fox production crew surprised him with yet another pre-game nod to his recent Pete Rozelle Award, which assures induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This time, he couldn’t wait to deflect the attention, quickly thanking rock singer Eddie Vedder for a virtual wine toast — Eddie Vedder? — and shifting to Troy Aikman for a game-related question. Buck could be luxuriating in his new acclaim, but to see him shy from self-celebration and work his tail off in extraordinary times makes him eminently commendable.

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ESPN — I’ve had enough of pro leagues and college conferences toying with coronavirus protocols, as if their games are bigger than life and their athletes are immune from infection surges. When the sleaze cracks of college basketball — see: ongoing hearings and punishments for bribery scandals — tried to big-foot ESPN and bypass guidelines approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the company easily could have prioritized its bottom line and moved forward with eight events in the now-historic Disney World Bubble. Instead, concerned about liability, ESPN scrapped plans when several programs refused to waive a demand that players re-test 90 days after a positive test while wanting control if players tested positive in Orlando. An athletic director or coach who won’t accept such simple, safe requirements shouldn’t be trusted with an athlete’s health. Among the programs bounced: Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, Michigan State, Baylor and Gonzaga. Indianapolis could host the Champions Classic and Jimmy V Classic, but why would protocols be any different there? Next, ESPN should place similar restrictions on reckless programs in a college football system that it more or less operates. Oh, you say football brings significantly higher revenues to the company? I don’t care. All together now: Health over wealth.

Molly McGrath, ESPN — Here’s the playbook on how to turn a demeaning social-media moment into empowerment. “For the first time, maybe ever, I let a cruel troll tweet about the changes of my pregnant body get to me,’’ the sideline reporter wrote on Instagram. Rather than repel, the mom-to-be fired back, reminding the world’s morons that she’s working college football games while in her third trimester. “My feet swell and hurt like I’ve never imagined and my back constantly aches. Not to mention the slew of other symptoms like nausea, heartburn, and exhaustion,’’ McGrath wrote. “I am making a HUMAN LIFE! The baby I’m carrying around could live outside of my body right now, and my strong ass body made that baby from scratch. Completely separately, the job of a sideline reporter is also hard with the travel, prep, hustle to get information and reality that we never get into a broadcast as much as we could have contributed. But you know what, I wouldn’t change ANY of my circumstances in a second.’’ Someday, her child will be proud of a mother’s courage in an increasingly twisted world.

Thomas Boswell, Washington Post — Covering a World Series live at the ballpark isn’t for the faint of heart. In my 21 assignments, I’ve experienced an earthquake, a riot, threats from a South American radio reporter who demanded to use my phone, near-frostbite, deadlines that passed before games ended, taunts from Red Sox fans who knew me from TV, distractions from Yankees fans who stood over my computer and read columns aloud, back pain, eye strain, coffee spills, mustard stains and a taxi that got lost in a part of Detroit where Eminem might have done his rap battles. So when the legendary Washington Post columnist decided, at 73, to sit out Dodgers-Rays because of coronavirus concerns, I cheered. Wrote Boswell, who didn’t have to explain to his readers but did anyway: “Last October, I went from D.C. to Los Angeles to D.C. to L.A. to St. Louis to D.C. to Houston to D.C. to Houston to D.C. I wrote 21 columns, an introductory chapter to The Post’s book on Washington winning its first World Series in 95 years as well as five Monday chats with readers. About 50,000 words. Then I wrote a parade!” After 44 consecutive Fall Classics, this classic deserved to sit one out, though I’d have loved to read Boswell’s deadline column after Game 4.

Ric Bucher, technological visionary — Our sitting President didn’t see the pandemic coming. But Bucher did, deciding three years ago to double down on his multimedia career as an NBA analyst and plunge $40,000 into a soundproofed home studio. He filled it with high-quality tech gadgetry — a camera if he ever had to do TV from home, mixers and microphones for a podcast or radio interview. The Wall Street Journal turned Bucher into a media renaissance man with a feature story, accompanied by a photo where he’s wearing a suit jacket … with shorts and slippers. “There is no question that it has been a huge benefit to my career,’’ he said. I’m still figuring out how to sign onto Zoom.


Teddy Greenstein, PointsBet sportsbook — I refuse to separate church and state. There are authentic sports journalists, and there are gambling touts — one cannot be considered both, particularly when point-shaving scandals are inevitable amid the legalized betting boom. So in the interest of removing the riff-raff, anyone who wants to follow Greenstein into the casino — the longtime Chicago reporter, who covered college football and golf, has become a sportsbook editor — is encouraged to do so. Gambling remains the dark, dirty secret of the sports media racket. Know how many writers and broadcasters have gambled substantially on games using inside information that comes with the job, which should be a fireable offense but rarely is because, oh, the bosses might be betting, too? If you’ve wondered about the comical industry vitriol that accompanies my career, it goes back to Denver in the ‘90s, when I explained why it was wrong of sportswriters in that city to gamble on sports, including a columnist who was arrested at a bookie’s house with cocaine in her purse. I guess that made me a rat when, I don’t know, I thought I was carrying out an important column assignment from the editor-in-chief. That’s when the lies and smears started. Such a fine business, media.

The Athletic — It wasn’t good news for the startup when ESPN decided to place much of its premium editorial content — studio show simulcasts featuring the network’s stars, prominent writers and analysts, pretty much everything but breaking news and occasional investigative work — behind an expanded ESPN+ paywall. That means sports consumers, at a time when personal budgets are tighter than ever, now have a trickier choice between two subscription sites: ESPN’s ramped-up offering or The Athletic, which features plenty of written storytelling and some breaking news (such as ESPN’s nixing of college hoops) but still lacks a visual presence and, as I’ve often noted, a sharp critical edge. I don’t need four writers waxing poetic about Game 4 and how it “gave us the epic World Series battle these times called for.’’ I need at least one zinging Dodgers manager Dave Roberts for strategic misfires and another explaining why these are the lowest-rated Series games ever. The Athletic, too invested in promoting and hugging sports and not as interested in holding sports accountable, simply won’t go there. At least ESPN+ has talk-show hosts and analysts who will go there. I’ll keep subscribing to both. But many folks will not, especially when The Athletic is $59.99 per year and might have to go all-local and cheaper to survive.

Network snitches-for-profit — You must be a damaged soul, worthy of drowning in a vat of feces at a sewage treatment plant, to sell an off-air tape of Joe Buck and Troy Aikman for a little weed money. But as long as sleazy websites pay for this material, networks will be vulnerable to rogue employees trying to set up high-profile talent. Yes, Buck and Aikman should know better than to mock a military flyover in any context, even if Buck claims they were sarcastically reliving a conversation between other Fox crew members at a previous night’s dinner. But the bigger story is this: To what lengths will two desperate parties — a snitch and a website — go in their shameless pursuit of scant gain? I’ve told some of my tales: a website creep offering money to newsroom staffers to dish “dirt’’ on me; GQ falsely accusing me of videotaping a since-retired ESPN executive, which forced a delay of that month’s publication while my attorney won a retraction. The same cretins still exist, as seen last spring when Rachel Nichols’ private phone conversation in her hotel room was leaked in an ESPN inside job. It was Kurt Cobain who said, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.’’ Every media personality should heed the warning.

Jeff Garcia, NBC Sports Bay Area — During Garcia’s decidedly erratic quarterbacking career, I doubt he brought two post-game outfits to the locker room: one if he played well, another if he played poorly. So his rip job on Cam Newton’s snappy sartorial selection after another bad performance isn’t what I need from an in-studio NFL analyst. What I do need: Why has Newton become a turnover machine? Has Tom Brady officially won his divorce proceeding against Bill Belichick? Is it coincidence Newton hasn’t been the same since his COVID-19 bout? Instead … “You threw what, three more interceptions? You get yanked in the second half, there’s nothing good going your way. Why are you dressing like that to bring more attention to yourself? I’d be trying to ask the equipment managers `Put me in your jock sock cart and sneak me (through) the back door.’ ‘’ If this continues, ship Garcia to “Project Runway.’’

Those who keep using the phrase “out of an abundance of caution’’ — In sports and media, this has become code for, “Well, we really don’t have to move this game or quarantine the entire offensive line, but because we have to put on a facade of actually caring about COVID-19, we’d better use some legal gibberish.’’ Try this instead: “The coronavirus is a life-and-death infectious disease, and sports is meaningless by comparison.’’ Nah. A week after a maskless Nick Saban danced with his players after testing positive, a maskless Indiana coach, Tom Allen, crowd-surfed among his players in the locker room. Many athletes and coaches still don’t think COVID applies to them. Maybe they will in 2021. And 2022. And …

Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariotti
Jay Mariotti, called ``the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes a weekly media column for Barrett Sports Media and regular sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts in production today. He’s an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and radio talk host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects. Compensation for this column is donated to the Chicago Sun-Times Charity Trust.

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