How better to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Jason Whitlock’s saber-rattling interview with us? Talk to him again! Fifty-four weeks ago, we ran an interview with then-ESPN talking head Jason Whitlock. After the network got wind of our intervew, the two parted ways. After much cajoling, Whitlock agreed to swap emails with us over the course of the last week. We got Oprah’s new BFF to talk about just about everything, from Mike Royko, to the demise of sports journalism (blame Albom!), to where he might go next.
Q: Do you regret giving us the interview that caused your split with ESPN?
Not at all. I am what I am. I’ve been outspoken since childhood. I can’t help it. My outspoken nature has helped me as a columnist and served me well in my relationships with friends and family.
Q: How much do you miss guest-hosting on PTI and Rome is Burning? Sparring with Albom and your boy Lupica on Sports Reporters? Do you think the lack of ESPN presence has cost you juice?
Whatever amount of ‘juice’ I have comes from the originality and honesty of the opinions I state. If a media outlet compromises my ability to be honest, then it’s likely we’re going to run into difficulty. The people running The Sports Reporters (Mike Lupica and Joe Valerio) made it very clear that they didn’t want to hear my opinions about steroids and Barry Bonds. They want a united voice that Barry Bonds is the worst thing to happen to sports. I disagreed. They have the right to recruit other minorities to state their opinion about Barry Bonds, and they’ve done that.
Q: We have to ask – after you put Scoop and Lupica on blast, did you hear from them? See them at any sporting events? And was there any fallout when you called out Wilbon on the Ball State mess?
I saw Lupica at the Final Four, but we didn’t speak. Scoop called my voicemail at the Kansas City Star and told me to keep his name out of my mouth, and I waved to him at the NBA Finals. As for Wilbon, we’re cool. We disagreed about an institution I love, Ball State, and people he’s had a long, respectful relationship with, the Thompson family. Mike Wilbon is one of the great sports columnists of this era. Period.
Q: Talk us through the departure from AOL to Fox. Did it have anything to do with AOL giving Keith Clinkscales a forum to rip you?
I had a contract with AOL to write 45 columns. I wrote 46 columns and struck a better deal with FOXSports.com. I’m not sure how it was in AOL’s best interest to run a column from an ESPN executive dissing me. I hope someone wins a lifetime achievement award from NABJ for publishing that. I’m not into industry politics and winning friends with APSE or NABJ.
Q: You made Oprah and housewives everywhere swoon (or something). Dude, Oprah? What was that like?
I’m a big Oprah fan. She’s the First Lady of Black America. I like what Oprah stands for. It was an honor appearing on her show and meeting her. It was an opportunity to discuss a very important issue for black folks. We need to examine our culture of disrespect, self-hatred. Look at what we just saw with Isiah Thomas and Anucha Brown Sanders. Imagine the uproar had Sanders’ boss been white and had been in the habit of calling her a bitch. Isiah stated what many of us really believe in our hearts – it’s OK for black people to mistreat each other, kill each other and call each other niggas, bitches and hos. Until we come out of that mindset we are never going to achieve socially, economically and educationally at the level we are supposed to.
Q: Between Oprah, the appearances on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, etc, do you feel you’re still a sports-first guy?
Absolutely. I’ve always used sports as the platform to write about social issues. That’s been my shtick since 1992. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I’m just trying to expand my readership and write about things that I’m interested in and things I think my readers are interested in. Most of my columns are about sports.
Q: The Philadelphia Inquirer stripped Stephen A. Smith of his column because he was spread too thin. Is getting dumped a worry for you?
Spread too thin? Ha. Seriously, I haven’t spoken to Stephen A. about his situation so I’m a bit reluctant to speak on it. So what I’m about to say has nothing to do with Stephen A. Smith. I’ve always felt vulnerable in this profession. I’m outspoken, unconventional, uninterested in office politics and I’m black. That’s not a winning combination in any industry. I could be fired at any time. I’ve had several bosses who wanted to fire me, saw me as an impediment to some award they wanted to win or blocking some attention they wanted. Having said that, in my opinion, Kansas City Star readers appreciate my column and respond.
Q: Speaking of Kansas City … do you feel like it’s time to take your act to a bigger stage, perhaps to a paper in one of the bigger cities (NY, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc)?
I already answered this question. I’m outspoken, unconventional, uninterested in office politics and I’m black. Those attributes are not on any editor’s wish list, especially in this politically correct atmosphere. Given my column approach, the freedom that I require and given that most people running newspapers are totally clueless about what newspapers should be doing in the new millennium, I’m in a good spot for now.
Q: What should newspapers be doing in the new millennium? And why not leave newspapers all together and go strictly to the net where all the sports fans are anyway?
Well, I have a passion for being a local newspaper columnist, and I have a goal I haven’t reached. My introduction into newspapers was a bit different than most sports writers. I hated my local paper and all the writers when I was a kid. It was a real love/hate thing. The writers were soft on the Pacers and it pissed me off. It wasn’t until I discovered Mike Royko that I fell in love with newspapers. He set the standard for me on what a columnist should be. I never read ‘great’ newspaper sports writing as a kid. When I graduated from college in 1990, I’d never heard of APSE or APSE awards. I’d never read Mitch Albom or any of the other stuff that was supposed to be ‘great’ newspaper sports writing. All I really knew was Royko and the stuff I read in Sports Illustrated. I enjoyed reading SI, but I never wanted to write feature stories. I wanted to be Mike Royko. I was literally shocked when I took a job at the Ann Arbor News and found out that Albom was the ‘greatest’ sports columnist. To me, a columnist is the ultimate watchdog. He should be feared and respected. He has the latitude to report and call bull**** better than anyone else at the newspaper. That’s what Royko did. Because of a lack of competition newspapers have completely lost their willingness to call bull****. And Albom and APSE poisoned the art of column writing and turned the job into an exercise in writing feature stories that the subjects can frame and hang in their basements. I guarantee you Albom has more framed work than any ‘journalist’ in America. And I guarantee you there are still dartboards all around Chicago with Royko’s face plastered on them. The injection of TV money has turned this into the most corrupt era in the history of sports, and the most celebrated sports columnist is the world’s best-selling fiction writer. Honestly, I don’t dislike Albom at all. He’s talented and he’s never done a thing to me. But as an industry, we don’t have the good sense to be embarrassed by what he’s done to the profession of being a sports columnist. So what I’m saying is that sports sections need to be calling bull**** on more stuff and quit trying to snuggle up with every high-profile sports figure or institution in town. The Internet readers and readers in general don’t really care who agreed to pose for a cute photo. Only APSE judges care about that. And I realize this is going to sound like a major contradiction, but I want to win a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Royko won one and I’d like to win one. I’m hoping my stuff on Imus and The Jena Six will put me in contention. If it doesn’t, it’s just not meant to be.
Q: That’s it? That’s all newspapers need to do is call BS more often?
No. I’ll limit my thoughts strictly to sports sections. But we’ve yet to fully adjust to the fact that sports fans digest events totally different from the 1980s. Newspapers should no longer view Sports Illustrated as the standard for sports journalism. There’s a reason SI is no longer king, and it’s not just because the magazine doesn’t have a TV presence. I don’t need SI to tell me what happened with the Chargers last weekend. I can read Nick Canepa and Tim Sullivan, and they know far more about the Chargers than the guys at SI. Also, sports fans don’t believe fairy tales any more. Exaggerating or recreating in words what people have already witnessed on TV live or in highlights on ESPN doesn’t capture the imagination the way it used to. The Internet doesn’t really care about big pictures and catchy headlines. Newspapers that try to put out their version of SI seven days a week don’t have real traction in their communities. They have contest traction. Sports sections should be intensely local, a slave to news and willing to write critically about the media. Whether we like it or not, sports fans are interested in us, how we do our jobs and whether we do our jobs fairly. Your site is popular because people want to know about us, and they know the mainstream media pretty much refuses to objectively monitor each other. We’re part of the story. We beat up on Michael Vick – and I’m not saying we shouldn’t – and sports fans want an explanation why. We should have hardcore media reporters/columnists writing every day, commenting and explaining every decision ESPN, the local radio and TV stations make, questioning columnists and reporters who shred, for instance, college QBs based on ‘stories told on the sly.’ Watching bloggers build readership writing about us reminds me of watching Rivals.com build readership because newspapers refused to cover recruiting. We can be so foolishly arrogant. We didn’t care that our readers wanted recruiting news. We decided that was beneath us and there was no APSE award for covering recruiting. Rivals sold for $100 million. Ha. Newspapers executives also must recognize that the Internet, unlike newspapers, isn’t as beholden to office politics. We need to get away from the political games. Burying your most compelling, trafficked work is just stupid. The Internet isn’t like a readership survey. It’s more difficult to get the Internet to reach the conclusion you want.
Q: You take positions on racial issues that seem to put you at odds with the majority of black people: Imus, the Jena Six and Ronny Thompson-Ball State. Do you worry about being seen as a sellout?
No. I’m trying to wake up black people to a level of freedom many of us have not experienced. White people are not in control of our destiny. If you truly hate racism and want to limit racism’s ability to limit your success and happiness, then the intelligent and pragmatic thing to do would be to passionately embrace education and responsible parenting because they fight racism far more effectively than whining. Dr. King and the civil-rights movement removed many of the barriers preventing our ascension. We are failing to take advantage of these opportunities because too many of us have not embraced education and responsible parenting. We have a popular culture, hip hop, which is basically anti-education and pro-baby mama and baby daddy. A lack of education and a dysfunctional, single-parent or grandparent home is racism’s best friend. Wasting energy worrying about what white folks think about us is fruitless. Let me give you an example. When I left the Charlotte Observer in 1992 to take a job at the Ann Arbor News, Rich Oppel, the editor at the Charlotte Observer at the time, made it a point to hunt me down in the main newsroom to tell me that I wouldn’t make it in this business and that I’d return to the Observer and beg for my old job. Now I have no idea if Rich Oppel is or was a bigot. I just figured he was petty and stupid. I was making about $430 a week at the Observer at the time and I was covering high school and little league sports out of bureau in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The Ann Arbor News was going to pay me like $650 a week to cover The Fab Five. What was I supposed to do? I had worked in Rock Hill for 15 months, had written three or four stories for A1 of the Charlotte Observer that had nothing to do with my beat, my direct supervisor had put it in my evaluation that I worked too many hours and needed to slow down and get a life. During those 15 months, I’d never heard from Rich Oppel. He hadn’t hurt or helped me at the Charlotte Observer. And he damn sure wasn’t going to hurt or help me at the Ann Arbor News. He wasn’t in control of my destiny. I was. I’ve run across a lot of Rich Oppels in this business, small, petty people who want to put a glass ceiling on people they don’t like and prop up the people they favor. They can be worked around and ignored. You can’t control what people think about you. You can control the quality of your work and create opportunities for yourself if you don’t weigh yourself down with someone else’s perception of you. I’m perfectly content to let people controlled by their bigotry or pettiness to miss out on taking full advantage of my talents. This is America, if you acquire a skill, some businessman – black, white, brown or yellow – is going to find you and exploit it. Bottom line: I’m trying to point black folks in a direction that works in combating the kind of racism we face today. When we’re shooting and killing each other at record numbers, when we’re abandoning our children and leaving them to grandparents, when we’re gleefully calling each other bitches and hos, Jena Six marches complaining about how a prosecutor mistreated a kid we didn’t take the time to raise isn’t a legitimate priority. I want to march on the parents who left Mychal Bell to live in a trailer with two white teenagers.
I’ve had a lot of meetings with a lot of different outlets. So far, nothing makes sense for me. I have to continue writing a column. That’s who I am. The thing at FOXSports.com is going well, but it can go better. They made a significant commitment and I need to deliver. I have unfinished business in the newspaper industry. I can afford to be patient. I’m waiting on the right opportunity. I’ve been thinking a lot about a book about everything I’ve experienced in this business. I’ve experienced a lot, things people can learn from, things people will find fascinating and shocking. When I have it figured out, I’ll let you know.
Q: Word association time.
Larry Johnson?: Angry for no reason.
Q: Rick Reilly?: Love his talent. He lost me when he asked Sammy Sosa to pee in a bottle.
Q: David Stern?: My favorite commissioner. His intentions are good.
Q: Snack?: Microwave popcorn.
Q: Kanye?: Misguided, arrogant and talented.