ESPN president John Skipper has capped a whirlwind month by snatching Fox Sports’ top digital talent and longtime ESPN nemesis Jason Whitlock, just days before the launch of Fox Sports 1, sources exclusively tell The Big Lead.
This shocking development – Whitlock famously left ESPN in 2006 after an interview with this website – culminates Skipper’s master plan to define ESPN as the Worldwide Leader in original sports thought and intellect, while letting his new challenger, Fox Sports 1, go the “jockularity” route.
Whitlock didn’t return a call or text message seeking comment. [UPDATE: Fox Sports has sent out a press release confirming the move.]
Whitlock’s hiring comes on the heels of ESPN re-hiring political firebrand Keith Olbermann and snagging New York Times statistical wunderkind Nate Silver. This trio, along with Bill Simmons (Grantland), Dan Le Batard (in a play for Latino sports fans, ESPN is building him a massive studio in Miami), radio hosts Colin Cowherd and Scott Van Pelt and NCAA-slayer Jay Bilas, gives ESPN a formidable and unprecedented sports lineup of original thinkers and personalities.
During a CNN appearance on Reliable Sources Sunday, Skipper was clear about what he’s been looking for: “We have long looked for smart talent and unique points of view … we’re on the lookout for people who can make us smarter.”
Skipper, who took over as ESPN president in January 2012, has made it his goal to fix the network’s No. 1 problem: the perception that the lowest-common-denominator debate culture of First Take defined the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless will continue to make incessant, annoying noise, but it will be impossible to deny ESPN’s increased intellect push.
That search, according to sources, led Skipper to Whitlock in early August and a clandestine meeting in Los Angeles. The controversial columnist – a fixture on ESPN’s Page 2 and on The Sports Reporters in the early 2000s – has spent the past six years writing columns for Foxsports.com. During that time, he has occasionally taken shots at the network that now employs him. He ripped ESPN for its coverage of the Bernie Fine child-molestation allegations. He slammed Stephen A. Smith and First Take when Smith appeared to drop the N-word on air.
Whitlock’s return to ESPN seems even more odd considering Fox Sports green lit a TV segment featuring him on its new network. Writers and athletes from around the country flew to Los Angeles in July to rehearse the segment, titled “Red, White and Truth.” [Full disclosure: Two writers from The Big Lead staff participated in the rehearsal.]
However, Whitlock’s sports-as-social-commentary style was an odd mix for Fox Sports 1’s new “jockularity” and the Foxsports.com web site has undergone a dramatic overhaul. Last week the site featured a Jen Engel column that claimed Johnny Manziel was the new Rosa Parks. The column appeared to be a rebuttal to a Manziel column Whitlock had written the previous day. Whitlock tweeted around the subject.
While ESPN.com doubles down on journalism by hiring beat writers for every NFL team, FoxSports.com seems to be the latest mainstream media outlet going the aggregation route. It is unclear what the move will be going forward for their columnists, who shortly will be moving more to the TV/radio side.
Whitlock is expected to appear on all ESPN platforms.