In its September 2014 edition, GQ magazine all but accused me of extortion in an absurdly false report — claiming I used a camera-phone video of an ESPN executive to coerce the network into giving me assignments. It is a lie that would be laughable if not so damaging and such a reckless disregard of the truth. The author of the GQ story, from the trashy Deadspin site, never bothered to contact me or my representatives about this allegation and apparently didn’t bother to check a Deadspin story about the matter that never connected me to a camera-phone video.
And quickly, GQ issued a correction/editor’s note that was placed in a revised story in the magazine’s online edition.
I’ve long been disgusted about false, fabricated and poorly reported/researched stories by irresponsible media outlets concerning me, my media career and a fallacious 2010 legal case. Even after its retraction, GQ still didn’t have the ESPN story anywhere close to its accurate form; I also saw untruths about my legal case and career. But at least GQ linked to my original and accurate column about the ESPN executive, which I wrote in July 2014 only to correct Deadspin’s typically erroneous interpretation of events that took place in January 2012. In the ongoing media climate of rampant sloppiness, I’ll accept this correction as incremental progress. Our next call was to the Chicago Tribune, which picked up on the GQ falsehood without bothering to verify accuracy; the Tribune also corrected the story under legal pressure, And then we contacted something called Yardbarker, which had me pleading guilty to three felonies, which is grossly untrue and would have prompted plenty of jail time; the least bit of reporting homework would have shown that the allegations were dismissed and expunged per a judge’s recommendation in Superior Court in Los Angeles, meaning I was not convicted.
Below is the column I wrote about the ESPN executive, John Walsh, which was necessitated only by Deadspin’s shoddy reporting on a stale story. I had no interest in making the Walsh story public until Deadspin obtained a tape of Walsh via another party. I loathe these sort of stories, but I wasn’t going to allow a scummy site to mischaracterize me as it has done so often to so many.
The Hypocrisy Of ESPN, The Sleaze Of Deadspin
By Jay Mariotti
July 1, 2014
Let me first note that I’m amused to be part of this story. It’s about everything wrong in media today — corporate hypocrisy, smartphone gotcha-ism, vindictive motives — and it involves me only as a detached restaurant bystander who happened to be meeting with an independent producer interested in a TV project. I haven’t regarded this as a public domain story since the evening it happened, almost 2 1/2 years ago, and I’m still not sure anyone cares beyond a few tittering mopes in a twisted media industry.
But a notoriously sleazy website found out about it, contacted me last month and claimed to have a videotape. And as a reporter who doesn’t accept silence from the people I contact, I chose to address some of the questions as an observer because the reporter did provide proof that he had a tape of the episode, which involves a prominent ESPN executive. Plus, I needed to make certain the site maintained accuracy from my standpoint and didn’t misrepresent me, knowing that the site — Deadspin — has lied about me repeatedly, and rather psychotically, in its reckless mission to smear anybody who ever worked for/appeared on ESPN, as I did for eight years on the “Around The Horn’’ debate fest.
A reporter new to Deadspin’s ESPN beat — Dave McKenna, best known for his incremental takedown of Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder — e-mailed me on June 4. The story centers on John Walsh, who has been the most important creative influence at ESPN for almost three decades, responsible for everything from the SportsCenter franchise to the “30 For 30’’ documentary series to the Bill Simmons fanboy craze to the Grantland site. In January 2012, Walsh teetered into the bar area at The Blvd, a restaurant off the lobby of the upscale Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, and made a complete ass of himself and an utter mockery of his company — Disney Co., purveyor of childhood dreams — in full view of a highly entertained crowd of witnesses. He bothered a number of women customers at the bar by approaching them, positioning himself beside them or behind them, and offering them his business card. He would sit alone for a while, slouched over the bar in a dejected pose. This went on for 90 minutes, at least. While diners and drinkers were stopping everything and taking video of this remarkable ongoing scene through their phones, Walsh teetered to another table, handed his card to yet another woman and gave her his room number upstairs: Room 618.
How do I know all of this? I was sitting at that very table. While it was interesting Walsh didn’t recognize me — I’d appeared on ESPN about 1,700 times as a daily panelist on “Around The Horn,’’ an occasional co-host on “Pardon The Interruption’’ and an analyst for SportsCenter and other network programs — I must say he probably wouldn’t have recognized Barack Obama and Vlad Putin, either. Or Stuart Scott, Chris Berman and Linda Cohn. Or anyone else. I was at the restaurant for a meeting with a Hollywood producer, who was exploring whether I wanted to join another former ESPN commentator — who also was at the table and also wasn’t recognized by Walsh, despite his thousands of ESPN appearances — as co-hosts of a sports-related pilot. The idea sounded silly, but then, so was “Around The Horn.’’ I listened, but as the producer talked, we were continually distracted by Walsh, who struck me on this early evening as some combination of Foster Brooks, Bad Santa and Joe Walsh, who, far as I know, is not related to John Walsh. To make sure he didn’t have an illness or something else that might have caused him to act erratically, I checked a September 2012 video on him on YouTube. He was vibrant and clear as could be in that video, speaking to students at the University of Missouri.
I have alluded to this story, though never naming Walsh until Deadspin identified him in its story this week, because I think ESPN executives are guilty of a double standard. Shouldn’t an ESPN executive be held to the same behavioral policies — protecting the company’s good name in the public eye — as every other employee? The company has been rapid-quick to discipline numerous on-air personalities through the years, and I’d just been through a legal case — the first and only case in my life — in which the company immediately pulled me off the air and never contacted me for an explanation. I would have told ESPN, as I’ve said often in interviews since then and written extensively in my book, that I’d been wrongly accused of domestic abuse and other fabricated nonsense by a person who was gunning — unsuccessfully — for a big payoff from me. Though I’d been told by some industry people to go forward with the Walsh story, I’m not a person who operates that way, and I didn’t think it was newsworthy beyond the media world. Also, it might have looked like sour grapes after my ESPN departure. Also, by naming him, it might have seemed I had something personal against the man, which I did not and do not. I only referred to it, in passing, because of the symbolism involved — a selective conduct policy at a major American corporation. On my content site, I mentioned it in a column about potential favoritism by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the DUI-and-pills case of Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, who helped pay Goodell’s last reported annual salary of $44.2 million.
A day after the Beverly Hills episode, I e-mailed ESPN president John Skipper and his fellow ESPN executive, Laurie Orlando, and informed them what had happened in the hotel bar. Quickly, Skipper replied and asked to talk. I had no interest in going public with the story, I assured him, but I did scold him about double standards and corporate hypocrisy. He thanked me for my “constructive’’ approach.
That was that.
Months later, my agent was making job calls on my behalf and set up appointments at many shops, Bristol included. I refused to leverage the Walsh story into a job, as many scumbags in this profession would have threatened to do, and I visited ESPN, Fox Sports, USA Today and others. Yeah, I wanted to resume a productive sportswriting career, but it had to be at a place that allowed me editorial freedom — the biggest of many problems today in major sports media. Months after that, Skipper invited me to dinner at Nobu in Malibu, where he asked me to spend four weeks in Charlotte and deliver the definitive Michael Jordan At 50 piece — until I started making contact with Jordan’s people the next day and realized the estimable Wright Thompson already was working on the definitive Michael Jordan At 50 piece. Eventually, I did a lengthy interview with Kobe Bryant, wrote a long Bryant piece for ESPN.com, read thousands of accompanying comments on the piece and was paid a nice chunk of money. Then I was told to scram.
One and done.
You can draw your own conclusion on what that was all about.
A payoff for not going public with the story?
I had no intention of mentioning the story again until McKenna e-mailed me with this news: He had obtained a videotape of Walsh that evening, and in the audio, you can hear me talking to others at a table that, throughout the evening, included as many as seven people — including two agents. For the record, I did not and would not videotape Walsh, and the people who accompanied me to the restaurant did not videotape Walsh. I don’t know who videotaped Walsh and who may have given it or sold it to Deadspin, but the scene definitely happened. And as a journalist who demands answers, even if the story might be stale and inconsequential at this point and really kind of beneath me, I provided answers by e-mail to make sure my position was accurately characterized.
Here’s how I answered McKenna’s questions:
McKenna: “What was your immediate reaction and (the other former ESPN analyst’s) reaction when John Walsh came into the same bar?’’
My answer: “This is mostly a sad story, and I’m answering your questions 2 1/2 years later only because you’ve contacted me and said you’re publishing a well-reported story and accompanying video. I want to accurately represent why I was there and why it bothered me. Of course, I was stunned, amazed, then pissed off. There I am, trying to have a business meeting with a TV producer and others at an upscale hotel restaurant, and here is this bumbling spectacle in front of us … a high-profile ESPN executive. I thought of corporate hypocrisy and double standards — how I’d just gone through a legal case in which (1) I’d been wrongly accused by a troubled person who was trying to extract money from me; and (2) ESPN immediately dropped me without once contacting me to ask my side of the story, despite my eight years there as a daily TV panelist encompassing more than 1,600 programs. The company had summoned all employees for a conference call in 2010, emphasizing a zero-tolerance, perfection-in-public behavior policy. Yet a top executive, someone involved in writing the policy, doesn’t live by that same policy? I have no grudge against ESPN. But I do have a problem with double standards in the business world, which is why I’m watching the Roger Goodell/Jim Irsay situation with particular interest.’’
McKenna: “I’m told he approached the table and didn’t recognize you or (the other former ESPN analyst). Given the long careers you both had at ESPN, what was that lack of recognition like? Anything else about his behavior stand out?’’
My answer: “If Chris Berman, Stuart Scott and Tony Kornheiser had been at the table, he wouldn’t have recognized them. If Barack Obama and Vlad Putin had been at the table, he wouldn’t have recognized them. People stopped everything and were taping the scene on phones at various tables in the restaurant and adjoining bar. Never seen anything quite like it.’’
McKenna: “You wrote about an incident in Beverly Hills in a column about double standards regarding the NFL’s handling of the Jimmy Irsay situation. Why didn’t you name Walsh?’’
My answer: “I’m not sure too many people outside the media world know who he is. And by naming him, it may have seemed I had something personal against him, and I don’t. It’s the symbolism involved — a selective conduct policy at a major American company.’’
McKenna: “Did ESPN have any reaction to your writing about that situation?’’
My answer: “John Skipper called and was upset. I’d e-mailed Skipper the day after this happened — in January 2012 — and told him I had no interest in harming the man or publicizing his name, but I also said I can’t believe ESPN allows top executives to behave like this in public when the company expects high character from everyone else in the place. Laurie Orlando (another ESPN executive) looked me in the eye in Bristol one day and said, “You almost have to be a perfect person to work at ESPN.’’ There are no perfect people at ESPN or anywhere else, but when they have that attitude about employees, the executives had better live by the same rules.’’
McKenna: “Your Irsay column linked the incident in Beverly Hills and you getting an assignment from ESPN. Why did it take over a year for your story (an ESPN-assigned story published on ESPN.com in April 2013) to hit the streets?’’
My answer: “Long story. I was ready to resume work after a self-mandated year of fun and relaxation in L.A., and my agent had been checking out possibilities. ESPN was on his list, and later that year, I was asked to visit Bristol — via the agent — for a series of individual meetings with (Laurie) Orlando, (Mo) Davenport, (Chad) Millman and (Patrick) Stiegman. ESPN insisted the meetings were “substantive.’’ Months later, Skipper asked me to meet him in Malibu for dinner. There, he tells me to call the travel department and set up a month-long trip to Charlotte, where I would profile Michael Jordan. I start organizing the trip the next day when Jordan’s public-relations person contacts me, says Jordan is interested in cooperating but also says, “Do you know Wright Thompson is here working on a piece for ESPN?’’ Quickly, I contacted Thompson, whose work always is exceptional, and apologized for the mixup. I thought that was strange. Days later, I was assigned a piece by ESPN.com on the Buss family, except Jerry Buss had just passed away and the timing wasn’t right for the siblings and others to talk. Kobe Bryant happened to give me a lengthy interview, and after much internal consternation (and a complete rewrite that Skipper ordered to be restored to my original form), my Kobe piece ran. But amid all of that, the ESPN public-relations people planted a bogus story with SI.com, something about employees in Bristol protesting that I might be returning to ESPN, and that any story I’d do for the website was a one-and-done. Skipper never had said any of that to me, so that was a bait-and-switch. In retrospect, I think Skipper was playing me so I wouldn’t go public with this story, which I never had any intention of doing in the first place — and wouldn’t be discussing now until (McKenna) contacted me and said (he) had a video. I don’t really want to be at the current ESPN anyway. I enjoy being the fiercely independent, Internet-streamed talk host who was picked up by PodcastOne and writes columns about what I want on my site. I also get to discuss delicate ESPN issues now, something you can’t do when you work at ESPN.’’
McKenna: “Do you think you or other ESPN employees lower on the food chain than Walsh would get away with behaving in public as Walsh did that night?’’
My answer: “No one at ESPN would get away with it, with the possible exception of Bill Simmons, who seems to get away with everything because Skipper lets him.’’
McKenna: “When you think about the Walsh/Beverly Hills situation and its aftermath, what are your thoughts. Is there any moral to this tale?’’
My answer: “Moral to the story: Next time you have a meeting with a TV producer, do it at In-N-Out Burger. In general, ESPN does a magnificent job of covering sports, but I’m concerned the place is getting too big and has almost a governmental feel to it, with journalism there about to be blown out by the company’s massively lucrative partnerships with sports leagues.’’
Later, when McKenna asked if I was pressured by ESPN after my vague earlier references to the hotel scene, I e-mailed this answer: “When I launched my radio show and content site last August and briefly mentioned this scene in a written piece referencing double standards — without identifying a name or other particulars — Skipper called me and warned me from a legal perspective. If anyone should be suing, I should be suing ESPN — for being selective in who it chooses to oust and retain in matters of the law, for not once contacting me to hear my side of a tragically inaccurate and recklessly misreported story filled with lies, and for allowing its buffoonish top executive to distract an important business meeting at an upscale hotel. This was a case of a major company needing to look inward at a serious problem and choosing to cover it up and smooth it over. If I am Bob Iger, I’m calling these two people on the carpet, but then, Mr. Iger is too busy trying to be the next baseball commissioner. This was a corporate farce on so many levels.’’
Excuse me while I spend three days in the shower. How did I get sucked into this mud pit?
Many months ago, I received a pissy e-mail from a Tommy Craggs, who identified himself as the top editor at Deadspin. Out of nowhere, he excoriated me for not acknowledging the fine work produced recently by his site and cited a few recent awards. I don’t read the site, but I’m told the content is a little more professional and a little less sophomoric these days. In fairness, I recently gave the site a try. The first piece I saw was an absurd torching of the esteemed Boston columnist, Dan Shaughnessy, who achieved more on his first day in sports writing than his childish critic will achieve in his lifetime. Craggs, I’m told, has held a lengthy grudge against Walsh after he was rejected for a job in the ESPN empire. So nothing has changed.
ESPN is hypocritical. Deadspin is scummy. I think we already knew both truths, but when you’re pressed as a journalist to point out both flaws in one remarkable swoop, you do it for the greater good of a profession, or what is left of it.