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Does Anyone Have the Balls to Be Different From ESPN? A Q&A With Jason Whitlock of Fox Sports

As this website nears its 7th anniversary, we thought it would be an ideal time to bring back one of our most memorable interview subjects, Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock. He’s been in the news a bit lately, likes to mix it up on twitter with media types, and he’s an outspoken critic about ESPN’s worst show, which his friend Stephen A. Smith stars in. One of the biggest stories in the media in 2013 will be how Fox, NBC and CBS ramp up to challenge ESPN, and we quizzed Whitlock about that, too.

Q: You had quite a 2012 – from the infamous Jeremy Lin tweet to your work on Bernie Fine and ESPN to Shaq challenging you to a fight to Bob Costas referencing your Jovan Belcher column. Would you say the Costas speech and the craziness that followed was the biggest moment of your career?

A: No. Being on the Oprah Winfrey Show and starting a discussion about black people’s use of the N-word and other self-hating language in the aftermath of the Don Imus-Rutgers controversy was and is the biggest moment of my career. That will be tough to top. But this is a big moment, and I’m appreciative of Costas’ decision to reference my column. Gun violence, gun culture and the abuse of the Second Amendment are issues I’m really passionate about. I’m glad I was a small catalyst in a conversation we are now having because of the Newtown Massacre.

Q: Were you surprised Costas referenced you in that spot? What did you think of his decision to state that he often disagrees with you? Did you think he was he using you to get his point across, while also distancing himself from you?

A: I was totally surprised by the mention, especially the way it was mentioned. The column was mostly about my belief the Chiefs game with Carolina should be delayed or cancelled. I wasn’t offended at all by the way Costas referenced me. I don’t think he was distancing himself. I think he was being honest. He disagrees with some of the things I write. I thought it was a compliment. In order to disagree with many of the things I write, he must read many of the things I write. Costas paid me high praise. He reads me and he respects my opinion enough that he continues to read despite our disagreements. That’s exactly how I felt about my hero Mike Royko.

Q: What did the people at FOX think of your feud with Bill O’Reilly? You called him The Speaker of The Big House in your column, he tore into you on three different days on the O’Reilly Factor and compared you to Louis Farrakahn. Were you called into a glass office? Was this something manufactured by Fox?

A: Manufactured? C’mon, man. Hell no. The feedback I got on my columns was positive. Maybe it was discussed internally. But I didn’t hear about it. The Speaker of The Big House will survive and so will I.

Q: Why didn’t you go on O’Reilly’s show?

A: The subject is too important and too personal for me to waste time debating an entertainer. Plus, I turned down all TV interviews that week. I didn’t have the time or the energy. My dad was in the hospital and it was serious. I have to prioritize. The Speaker didn’t rate.

Q: There’s been lots of talk about Fox, NBC and CBS all gearing up to make a run at ESPN. Some think Fox, being based in LA, far away from Bristol, has the least fear of ESPN. Obviously we’re talking about a 5-10 year horizon for these challenges, but what would you say is the most critical aspect for any of the networks to challenge ESPN?

A: A pair of balls. The balls to be different. You have to have the balls of Roger Ailes. FOX News is not my particular cup of tea. But I have a lot of respect for Roger Ailes and his willingness to do something different, critics be damned. Roger Ailes didn’t want to be CNN. He wanted to be different from CNN. I respect that boldness and savvy. Does anyone have the balls to really be different from ESPN? Or is everyone just going to create their knockoff of ESPN. We will see. As I look around at what is being done so far by ESPN’s competitors, I don’t see much different. I see a lot of status quo.

Q: There was upheaval at FOXSports.com this summer, with some front office movement that readers probably don’t care about and some writers like Mark Kriegel and Thayer Evans jumping ship (NFL Network and SI, respectively). The moves signaled that something was going on over there, and not a lot of it sounded positive. How would you characterize the Fox Sports website in comparison to rivals? ESPN is ESPN, Yahoo has the investigative niche down, CBS excels in college sports, and NBC is all about Pro Football Talk. Does Fox Sports have a niche?

A: I think big things are in store at FOXSports.com in 2013. Upheaval can be good. I think if you reviewed the way we covered the Summer Olympics, you’ll see our niche and you’ll see our future. Our niche is original ideas, original and ahead-of-the-curve perspective. On many of the major Olympic story lines we drove and/or defined those narratives by being original with our perspective and analysis. Reid Forgrave took a lot of heat for writing a very fair story on Serena’s Crip Walk. Greg Couch brilliantly defined the 2012 100-meter final as the Woodstock of track and field. I had a couple of good moments with the Gabby Douglas hair controversy and explaining why the demise of US Amateur boxing and boxing in general is tied to its lack of connection to college sports. Rick Jaffe assembled a great team for the Olympics and we had original, powerfully written content that was supported by broadcast video and high-profile former Olympian commentators. I think that’s where we’re headed. We just have to do it consistently. We just have to consistently identify and highlight our best work. The upheaval might allow us to do that.

Q: I loathe the show and try my best to avoid talking about it, but First Take deserves mention for a couple reasons: 1) the damage it is doing to ESPN’s brand with incessant buffoonery; 2) it could signal what lengths ESPN and future networks will stoop to for ratings. Your thoughts?

A: Capitalism baits us all to stoop to new lows. There are a lot more channels, so there’s a lot more desperation, a lot more stooping.

Q: You seem to be angry that SI’s media guy, Richard Deitsch, always takes the low-hanging fruit and bashes First Take. Many think if everyone just ignored the show, it would go away. Yet you’ve criticized the show, too. And you’re friendly with Stephen A. Smith. When are you and Deitsch going to hug it out?

A: Probably not happening. Deitsch is the head of the good-old-boys network that I despise within our industry. He’s not remotely objective. He favors and protects his group of Twitter and email buddies. How the hell does a sports media critic avoid doing a thorough takedown of Mark Schwarz’s embarrassingly sloppy work on Bernie Fine? Joe Posnanski’s book on Paterno was trashed from coast to coast, flopped in sales and was an embarrassment to journalism. Crickets from SI’s media critic. It’s no secret in the industry that Erik Rydholm, the creator of PTI and a power player at ESPN, thinks Bomani Jones is a major up-and-comer. Bomani is a big-time talent. He’s quick on his feet, provocative, articulate, likable and annoying. He’s a young mix of Ralph Wiley and Colin Cowherd. An informed, fair media critic would be writing about Bomani’s rise. Deitsch is bad at his job. It pisses me off.

Q: Isn’t it hypocritical of you to bash Deitsch for taking on “low-hanging fruit” such as First Take and you’ve written about First Take twice in recent months, trashing Stephen A. Smith and Rob Parker?

A: Good, fair question. I don’t think it’s hypocritical. I attacked big-picture issues as it relates to First Take. If Deitsch were going after ESPN and First Take in a substantive way, I’d be all for it. He’s not.

Q: Do you think First Take will be around in three or four years? Can the Skip Bayless and SAS shtick last over the long haul? How long can sports fans – well, the few who watch – continue to “embrace debate?”

A: ESPN is going to ride the debate thing until a competitor exposes the marketplace to something superior. That’s capitalism. There is something superior. The question is, is there a Roger Ailes willing to sanction a network doing something different? There’s a better conversation in original ideas, original perspective. It requires thought. Most people don’t take the time to think. Thought requires discipline and work.

Q: Have you heard from Stephen A. Smith or Rob Parker since writing about them?

A: Haven’t heard from SAS. I’ve heard from mutual friends he’s irate with me. I’ll see him during the NBA season or playoffs. I have a lot of respect for SAS’s talents. I like Stephen. Rob Parker is a clown. He’s been a clown for years. He’s been fired for an inability to write complete sentences and construct mature thoughts at several major newspapers. Rob is Dexter, a serial killer of journalism. This is not a secret. He has no business holding a job at ESPN. None. He’s paid to bojangle. If you removed Scoop Jackson’s brain, he would be Rob Parker.

Q: You’ve heaped praise – and criticism – on the blogosphere over the last 6-7 years. Some media types joke that bloggers are becoming the equivalent of sports talk radio; others say they are valuable, and still others say the community has become too clubby and similar to mainstream media (white males), just angrier. Agree? Disagree? Do blogs factor into your daily reading?

A: I love blogs. Unfortunately they’re being absorbed into the mainstream and the good-old-boys network. You guys are getting more and more agendas and losing your objectivity and independence. You guys are email and Twitter buddies with too many people in the mainstream media. Can’t believe I’m saying this, but Deadspin really misses A.J. Tommy Craggs doesn’t write often enough and too many of the youngsters write bad shit. Now, they still write some really good stuff from time to time. But the site is much more uneven since A.J. left. Blogs, like the rest of the media, don’t know what to make of me. It’s becoming increasingly hard for bloggers to get beyond their personal hatred of me and address what I do objectively. If they haven’t given up and just gone with the “ignore him” plan, they just give into hatred. It’s rather humorous. But I still love blogs and bloggers. I read your site every day. I get tickled every time Awful Announcing tries to convince the world that I’m Osama bin Sports Writer. Blogs aren’t going anywhere, and I’m not going to stop alternately loving and hating blogs.

Q: Grantland’s been out for about 16 months, and even though it’s all over the place and haters will be quick to point out the traffic isn’t significant, the site, in my opinion, has improved significantly and done a great job with hires. The three-year deal you signed with Fox expires in the Fall. What are the chances Fox would let you start something similar to Grantland? Do you have any interest at all in doing something similar?

A: I’m going to keep chopping wood with my column and podcast. I’m going to continue to explore opportunities in TV and radio. I’m looking for the right opportunity. Again, I think big things are in store at FOX Sports in 2013. Hopefully I’ll be apart of that. Will I get the same opportunity as Bill Simmons? It’s tough. I don’t fit into a box. That makes the power structure uncomfortable. The establishment favors black guys who fit into a box. Angry liberal or assimilated conservative and I would be easier for management to digest and embrace. I’ve been building and broadening my platform with my columns and the expression of original ideas for 20 years. It’s a slower process but the foundation is strong. The people who get me really get me. Someone is going to maximize and profit from the brand I’ve cultivated. People are looking for an authentic independent voice they can trust.

 

 

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