Miscellany

An 'Enemies' List at ESPN? Say What? An Interview with Sportsline's Mike Freeman

We’ve been a bit negligent in regards to interviewing sports media members of late, but this one’s worth the wait. After much cajoling, we got Sportsline’s Mike Freeman to open up to us about … well, everything. Freeman has enjoyed a distinguished print journalism career, having covered the NFL for the New York Times. And he published perhaps the definitive book on ESPN, and he also wrote a book about Jim Brown. Freeman’s also famous (notorious?) for this epic rant against sportswriters. Then there was his George O’Leary moment. He talks with us candidly about all of this. There’s a hilarious Mike Lupica anecdote and ripping of Brady Quinn. Sorry about the photo – Freeman swore to us he had nothing worthy of submission.

Q: The legendary Sportspages ‘letter on unprofessionalism,’ for our money, is one of the coolest, most ballsy things ever accomplished. You must have pissed some people off with it. Why’d you do it, what was the reaction the day after it was published, and do people still look at you with a crooked eye because of it? What’s the best story to come of that that’s never been told?

Oh boy, the Sportspages.com rant. I wrote that like I was the Unabomber sitting in a log cabin at an undisclosed location wearing a diaper and drinking Jack while listening to Public Enemy with an oversized portrait of Malcolm X on the wall behind me.

You want to know what’s funny? One of the guys I criticized was Mike Lupica. He told someone afterwards that criticizing him was like “throwing spitballs at a battleship.” That line still cracks me up. The thought of a guy that diminutive comparing himself to a battleship is just funny to me. Okay, maybe I am the only one who finds it amusing. I’ll move on now.

The Sportspages rant was the end result of facing severe racial double standards in the business from some writers, including a handful in New York. Then there was one terribly racist act by several of the writers covering the Jets at the time (and one NFL writer) and I had seen enough.

It was your prototypical case of someone reaching a boiling point.

Let me back up. It is always amusing when I hear cracks from right wingers about the liberal media. I have not yet seen this legion of liberal writers in sports. Many sports journalists I have known are extremely conservative and few have people of different ethnicities as close friends. This leads to all kinds of problems. When I was covering the Patriots in Boston, I got into a stupid argument with another beat writer (who is now a columnist in the New England area) who ended it by saying: “You dress like a black pimp.” True story. I actually dressed more like Urkel with a touch of Michael Irvin. But I digress.

Not long after that I go to New York. Some of the football writers there had applied for the same job I would eventually receive. Here I was this young black kid in his 20s and all of these older white guys were furious I got the position over them. Thus it was ugly from the start with some of them (emphasis on some).

Later, some actually started saying the only reason I got scoops was because I was black and the players were black (a PR guy also said this). Then came some of them discussing the race of the women I was dating.

Some writers used to play touch football before the locker room and press conferences started. We were a bunch of out of shape fat boys but it was fun. Once I was changing into a pair of sneakers in the press room when a writer sitting near me (who was not playing) said: “I hate the sight of black people’s feet.”

What…the…hell? He said that. He actually said that. He was not kidding. I assume he likes white feet. Or Pakistani feet. Or maybe he loves the toes of American Indians. I don’t know.

There were a few other things. I once broke a Jets story while covering the Giants and wrote a few interesting things here and there about the Jets while covering the league. This angered some of the Jets writers. Several of them went to members of the coaching staff and began repeating the same, old crap about how I only got stories because I was black. Except some of the dolts told coaches I knew on the staff. The coaches of course told me. I was rightfully furious. This stuff and other incidents I have not mentioned had been going on for years (with other black writers as well). I subsequently went to my bunker, pumped the Public Enemy and cranked out that rant.

You asked about the reaction. A lot of people loved it; a lot of people hated it. I probably heard from a total of several hundred people over a period of several weeks either by e-mail, phone or in person and most people, I came to realize, hate the way some in the New York sports media operate and treats one another and supported what I wrote. Others felt I should have just kept my mouth shut. To this day, I will be in a locker room somewhere and someone will say: “Damn, do you remember that Sportspages rant?”

There is no pride (or shame) in what I did. I just felt like it needed to be done and that was the forum for it. I’m beginning to think something like that needs to be done again based on some of the things I am hearing now. If I was some of the women, in particular, working in New York, I would be seriously concerned about some of the stuff being said about them. I mean terribly nasty rumors about lesbians and affairs and oh, God, just awful stuff.

Basically, I don’t speak to many of the New York football writers when I see them. One or two guys, I wish I could pull them aside, and make amends. Break bread over the bullshit they pulled with me and me retaliate. I really do not lose any sleep over pissing some of the others off. There are some writers in New York where if they hate you, that is actually a badge of honor.

Others are not bad people; they just behave reprehensibly when threatened or challenged or forced to work hard. Many people (another clarifier: not all) in our business are remarkably insecure. In New York, people would be shocked at the pack journalism that occurs there (I’m mainly talking football here). It is fairly disgraceful. That is why I like reading Ralph and Hutch and a few others. They always have things no one else does because they really work at it.

Then there are other New York writers who are great people and I remain friends with them to this day.

Q: You were a columnist at the Indy Star for a few seconds until they realized you pulled a George O’Leary and didn’t actually get the degree you had on your resume. Did the paper find it out, or did someone tip them off? After it happened, did the thought ever cross your mind that you may never write again?

Dumbest thing I ever did or ever will do. There are no excuses and I have never made any. Never will either. I’ll get my degree this summer or fall and start my pursuit of an advanced degree the following spring.

You basically asked if I was ratted out. The answer is yes. Someone called the paper. I don’t know who. The paper would not tell me. But one thing I am going to do for my book is hire an attorney to discover who did it (I had heard from several lawyers at the time who believed — and still do – that I had a strong legal case for tortious interference). Then I want to confront the person and write a chapter about the entire experience.

Q: What’s the deal with your boy Gregg Doyel? Why does everyone always have beef with him? (We actually think his mailbags are someone funny.)

Gregg is a good dude except when he is constantly lobbying our bosses to be on the front page and make his column mug shot bigger. Just kidding. One of many things I like about what we do at SportsLine is that we are not slaves to the athletes and teams. We like who we like but we do not care as much as certain other websites about what the athletes or teams think of us (or media types for that matter). We’re not constant ass kissers. Gregg epitomizes that. His opinions are tough and raw. He has been very fun to work with. He looks funny in glasses though. Like a pubescent Jack Bauer.

Q: You were at the New York Times, a big-dog in Jacksonville, and are now at Sportsline. Plusses and minuses of working in print vs. website?

It is very interesting having spent most of my life in newspapers – internships in college at the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Associated Press, and full-time gigs at the Dallas Morning News, Boston Globe, Washington Post, a dozen years at the New York Times and then working as a columnist for the Florida Times-Union — and now writing for CBS SportsLine.com. You hear a lot of reasons for the demise of newspapers and the growth of the Internet. Many are valid and some are more important than others. Now having worked in both mediums I can definitively say one reason for the troubles of newspapers is something few people talk about and it has to do with work ethic.

Too many newspapers have become lazy; too many newspaper reporters have become lazy. No one in the industry wants to discuss this. This is not everyone in newspapers of course but almost everyone I know writing for the Internet works far longer hours and writes more than most newspaper guys I know. It is not even close. I think readers know this and appreciate the difference.

When I was covering football in New York, there were a handful of guys who worked their asses off (and still do now). Guys like Ralph Vacchiano and the person who works harder than anyone I have ever met in almost two decades in this business, Jay Glazer, among others (who now writes for Fox Sports). But they were few are far between. Most guys relied heavily on the PR people and pack reporting; spent more time playing golf and in some cases chasing strippers and hookers than they did working at their jobs. Then if you didn’t join in, you were ostracized, and attacked.

(One reporter that used to work the football beat in New York constantly broke stories. He was terrific. In order to compensate for getting their asses kicked, a few New York writers, with aid from an NFL team PR guy, concocted and spread a lie that the reporter was paying players for information. It was complete bullshit.)

I’m writing a book about the sports journalism business. Another example I remember is there was a football beat writer who during training camp used to disappear for hours in the middle of the day to go to softball games play golf and then some of the other writers would phone quotes and info to him. Eventually, he got yanked from the beat by his editors. He walked up to me one day and said: “You’re the reason why I’m getting taken off the beat. All that shit you write.” He blamed me for his own laziness. Then a group of other reporters stopped talking to me for a few weeks as some sort of weird punishment. It was like fourth grade.

Some of this laziness is the fault of the newspapers. Some pay like crap and this breeds bitterness. Some ask a writer or editor to do the work of two and three people and then wonder why so many people get burned out or take shortcuts or make mistakes. Some are laying people off when they really do not have to.

I am not saying websites are perfect or are immune from any of this. I have just been amazed at how much work websites do compared to newspapers. At our site the number of bylines, notes and blogs written by guys like Pete Prisco, Clark Judge, Dennis Dodd, and Gary Parish, among others, is incredible. Scott Miller, who covers baseball for us, writes as much as anyone I have ever seen. At ESPN.com Buster Olney is a machine. Jason Cole at Yahoo and Peter King at SI.com are constantly writing and producing. So does Glazer at Foxsports.com.

Again, this is not about all newspaper writers. When I was in Jacksonville, I was stunned by the work ethic of Garry Smits the general assignment and golf writer for the Times-Union. Dave Hutchinson who dominates the Jets beat for the Newark Star-Ledger is one of the harder working guys I have ever met.

The Internet allows you to write constantly and many web writers take advantage of that apparatus.

Newspapers are also resisting the inevitable day when all newspaper content is put online. Currently newspapers are like aircraft carriers out to sea trying to make a large turn. Newspapers have had a centuries-old lead but the slowness in recognizing change as well as cockiness and being lethargic are as big a reason for the loss of that dominance as any other.

It is only a matter of time before many newspapers are forced to provide all of their content exclusively online. Much of the Internet, including some of the better blogs, are forms of journalism simply utilizing a different delivery system.

Q: March Madness is upon us. Your Final Four picks, please.

Here are my Final Four picks: Blake, Chris Richardson, Melinda and Lakisha. You did mean American Idol, right?

Q: You are big on the NFL, so perhaps can help us with this: A) Why is a non-event such as the NFL combine so heavily written about, B) Are we the only ones who’d take Quinn over J Russell, and C) When someone like Nate Clements gets $80 million, do you throw up a little bit in your mouth?

I wrote a book several years ago examining the NFL and why it was so popular and people love football for three main reasons: Americans enjoy violence, it is a great television sport (and we watch lots of TV) and you can gamble on it. There you have it. The love of football in a nutshell. If we could have a sport where participants blasted each other with guns and someone kept score that would be even more popular because Americans love their firearms, too.

I covered the combine when it was not nearly as popular as it is now. You literally only had a handful of reporters there chasing coaches, and the coaches in turn chased women, and between the skirt chasing and recording 40-times, the coaches would stop and spend as much time with them as we wanted. Now, it is like a Spielberg production. It’s all slick and official and even the skirt chasing is no longer so public.

The reason the combine has become wildly popular coincides with the rise of the website and blogs and to some degree the rise of ESPN. Shows and websites have lots of space and airtime to fill and there is a large group of football fans that eat this stuff up. I’m sure Mel Kiper’s lovely hair plays some factor in the rise of the combine as well.

As for Brady Quinn, he is by far the most overrated quarterback prospect in perhaps the last 10 to 15 years. I cannot believe the nonsense some in the media say about the guy. I’ve seen most of his big games and he is just not very impressive against better competition. A lot of NFL writers are in love with his size and his whiteness. I look at him and see Kerry Collins. Not a bad player but both possess what one scout called “shrinking violet syndrome.” In big games, Quinn was non-existent. He never led his team to a huge win against a formidable opponent. If I was an NFL team, that would scare me. But then again what do I know. I love the show “Cold Pizza.”

Q: Pro Football talk floated it, then you made a blind item out of it, and we went and put it all together: Sean Salisbury’s cell phone ordeal. Did you hear from him at all? You surprised all he got was a week’s suspension? Along those same lines … can blogs have an impact on reporting?

You know firsthand blogs can have an impact, Mr. or Mrs. Big Lead. A huge impact. You have had an impact. So have other sites like Profootballtalk.com, one of my favorites. In general, they are good things.

This is what I like most about blogs and alternative websites. I am one of the few people that gets ripped on the site Sportsjournalists.com but still enjoys and respects the site. Here is why. A significant number of people in our business have become remarkably arrogant. One of my pet peeves is that a number of journalists commit plagiarism, crimes, cheat on their wives, lie all the time, steal information from other writers, etc. But only a select few are busted and punished. The system will try to crush one person for committing a sin while ignoring and even protecting many others.

What SJ.com and other blogs do is level the playing field (a bit) and serve as a sort of watchdog. Reporters hate admitting this but that is true. SJ.com has its faults. There is some terribly racist and sexist stuff on the site and there are anonymous writers bitter about being beat out for a job by someone or taken off a beat/threatened to be taken off a beat, who then use SJ.com as a way to retaliate. Doing so anonymously. But for the most part it is a good thing.

(I do wonder, however: how many other professions have something similar to SJ.com? Are there doctors out there ripping each other the way writers rip each other on SJ.com? Are the doctors writing under the name Bitteryoungdoc and saying: “That Dr. Johnson couldn’t use a scalpel if his life depended on it.” Is there a neurosurgeons.com?)

As for the broadcaster who shall never be named, I just thought what he was doing was so repugnant I had to write something. Some of the executives at ESPN think I hate the network based on the book I wrote about them. I’ll say this again. They have some of the best reporters I have ever seen including Ed Werder, Chris Mortensen and host of others. Buster Olney might be the best pure journalist I have ever seen (he also has some classic stories about what it is like dealing with other media on the Yankees beat).

If I really wanted to rip the network and write a tell-all, I would have written about the numerous affairs some of the anchors have had, the other sexual harassment incidents I learned about that failed to make the book, and many, many other sordid things. But I wrote what I believe is a thoughtful book that examined the rise of one of the most powerful media entities in history. All of the ugly stuff just didn’t fit.

The problem with some people at ESPN is the same problem that afflicts many people across many different professions and that is arrogance. Management allows some of that jock culture that exists in Bristol to run rampant. Not all the time. Not constantly. But enough. The broadcaster who shall never be named is a symbol of that arrogance.

You will also find this interesting regarding ESPN: several high ranking people there that I trust, informed me recently the network has composed an ‘enemies’ list. An actual list known only to a few high ranking people. The people on the list are banned from appearing on the television side. If this is true, it is very Nixonian stuff. What’s next, wiretaps?

I have the names of some of the banned people provided to me by my sources and it is pretty amusing. Let’s put it this way: If I were the guy who runs Deadspin.com or Jason Whitlock, I’d hire an official food taster. Or borrow some body armor. Don’t worry, Sir Big Lead, I don’t think you’re on the list.

Q: Sportsline writers aside, who are your top 3 reads in sports journalism today?

My top three writers might be considered a little unusual. To me, the clear No. 1 is Michael Wilbon. I judge columnists by talent and work ethic and few columnists in the past 20 years have traveled as much as Mike, written as much as he has and are as talented. The hardest part of this job is getting on planes and trains and Mike has done that consistently. Plus he cranks out great columns. While he is doing more television now he has always been the hardest working columnist I have seen. He does not write
once or twice a week. He does not leave games at halftime or write off the television. He has written three and four times a week consistently for decades. Work ethic counts when you are describing top writers.

Wilbon has also done something only two or three people maybe in the history of our business have accomplished and that is be extremely talented, high profile, and make gobs of money all while not engendering jealously. Dave Anderson and Bill Plaschke are two others. Not many more after that. Actually, none after that. Think about it. How many people of Wilbon’s abilities are normally hated in our business solely because they are talented and are highly successful? Or because they became arrogant jackasses? None of that has happened to Mike and it says a lot about him.

My second favorite is Bob Ryan for a lot of the same reasons. In the past year I have seen Bob Ryan everywhere: big events, small events, on media buses, everywhere. He travels extensively and writes a clever, hard nosed column. Plus, he has prospered in a tough media town.

My third favorite is someone I believe is the most underrated in the country and that’s Lisa Olson from the New York Daily News. She should be the lead columnist at the Daily News. When you read her consistently you see she has tremendous ability. I think that if Lisa were a man, she would be held in much higher regard.

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