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Deadspin Examines The Failure of “The Undefeated”

Jason Barrett

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Last month, The Atlantic published an 18,000-word article by Ta-Nehisi Coates called “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration.” It was the second epic piece in what appears to be a series in which Coates examines the toll of white supremacy as American policy on black life in the United States. The article was every bit as harrowing, illuminating, and infuriating as its famous predecessor, “The Case For Reparations,” which investigates the damage dealt to blacks through this country’s long tradition of housing discrimination.

Coates is one of the great social writers of our time, and singularly qualified to do work of this scale and ambition, which changes how Americans view their own history and how they view themselves. The Atlantic, for its part, is nearly singular in its willingness and ability to approve, finance, and publish this kind of work. As beautiful a writer as he is, what makes Coates’s writing so powerful and so radicalizing is his reporting and research. His telling of history is nauseating precisely because it amounts to no more than the arresting arrangement of iron facts. Even in a piece like “Reparations,” there is very little that can be described as controversial in his pieces. The only controversy comes in how Americans react to them.

Over the last 18 months, I’ve reported on what’s now known as The Undefeated, the black-interest site ESPN gifted to Jason Whitlock in August 2013, which still has yet to get off the ground. Pitched as a “Black Grantland,” The Undefeated was conceived in large part as a place where ESPN could address race in America with work like Coates’s. For 18 months, multiple ESPNers close to the site have excitedly or regretfully described an alternate reality or series of events in which Coates, employed by The Undefeated, would write something like “The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration” and publish it on ESPN.com. When Whitlock took over as editor in chief, he attempted to poach Coates from The Atlantic as a statement of intent, offering to triple his salary and “make [him] a star.” Coates, of course, declined.

After we published a story in April detailing Whitlock’s nightmarish, comical reign as the head of the site, Whitlock was removed, and I was told, again, that Coates was, again, an option to join the team. This has always struck me as no more than a delusion, because Coates’s sober writing on race is confrontational and uncompromising and unlike anything that ever has been or can be published at the Worldwide Leader. Coates’s work would never appear at The Undefeated for the same reason Whitlock was chosen to run the site in the first place, and for the same reason that even with him now out of the picture, The Undefeated remains a dead letter. From the day Whitlock was hired, the site has been at odds with itself, its actions belying its own premise and purpose. The Undefeated, like the Worldwide Leader itself, was not designed to engage with the truth.

To understand how badly Jason Whitlock failed ESPN and his handpicked team at The Undefeated, consider this: he was removed as editor of The Undefeated in June and the site is still a smoldering heap, no more than a single webpage with links to 19 articles written by the staff over the last 27 months. No women have published a piece; no one on staff under 45 has published more than three. There are talented young writers and editors at the site who have had their careers stifled—potentially even ruined—by Whitlock. Undefeated articles that appear on ESPN.com do so without any announcement, and there is no continuity between them that would suggest an ethos, an identity, or a point of view.

“They’re just putting out branded content,” an ESPNer close to the site says. “Just some stories about black people.”

It’s worse once you consider how important this year was for black people, and for black history. March marked the 50th anniversary of the protest march from Selma to Montgomery. In early April, Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer in North Charleston, S.C. Two weeks later, Freddie Gray died after his spine was nearly severed while in police custody. In June, Dylann Roof walked into Charleston, S.C.’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and shot nine people to death in the name of white supremacy. Sandra Bland died in police custody in July. Eric Garner was choked to death in July 2o14, and Michael Brown was shot dead a month later. The Watts Riots took place 50 years ago, from Aug. 11-17. Late August marked the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There’s Serena, Bernie, #BlackLivesMatter, and Viola Davis. This year was the perfect time for a well-funded black-interest site written and edited by blacks, and yet no site exists.

“This is a colossal missed opportunity,” says a source.

The only news to break about The Undefeated since Whitlock left came in late July, when we reported that ESPN wanted Howard Bryant to oversee the site’s reboot in an “editor-at-large” role. There was immediate interest from black personalities within ESPN who wanted to be part of a black project but wanted nothing to do with Whitlock.

There was outside interest, as well. Names Deadspin heard linked to the Bryant reboot included Roxane Gay, Claudia Rankine, Jamil Smith, Spike Lee, and—speculatively—Coates.

These are legitimate stars, but there’s a world of difference between names coming up and anything happening, and for now, nothing is happening. Leon Carter—The Undefeated’s interim editor and Whitlock’s former right hand—will almost surely get booted. Bryant wants the gig and seemed an obvious pick, but won’t get a shot. There has been almost no communication between ESPN executives and Bryant regarding the site in months. The little momentum the site had after cutting Whitlock out has died out.

One theory is that Whitlock’s failure is to blame for Bryant’s misfortune. In order to make a splash, ESPN appointed Whitlock as editor-in-chief. Whitlock has spent his entire career alone, though, churning out 800-word columns from the comfort of his own home. He’s never been anyone’s boss; he’s never managed anyone; and due to his personality and nearly two decades of writing in isolation, he is breathtakingly paranoid. He saw enemies—challengers to his authority who would steal his legacy from under him—in the very faces of the staff he hired. Whitlock was more concerned with keeping power than utilizing it. He didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.

Over time, ESPN president John Skipper has learned that writing is a vastly different skill than editing, which is completely removed from managing people. Whitlock was ousted a month after Skipper publicly executed Grantland editor-in-chief Bill Simmons. Simmons, a writer, was a great and beloved boss who could manage people, and knew enough to hire a capable team of editors around him and let them do their work. But as an ESPN employee, he was notoriously petulant and needy. Grantland has an enormous budget, and many in its staff of over 50 writers, editors, and contributors have comically lucrative salaries relative to industry norms, all without Grantland making a profit or boasting a very large readership. Still, in an interview with Re/Code, Simmons said he needed more.

“The problem with Bill was Bill asked for the world,” an ESPN employee says. “He always needed more after they gave him everything. Pulitzer Prize winners, Charlie Pierce, everything.”

As EICs, Simmons and Whitlock were polar opposites, but both of their problems stemmed from hubris. They were both writers—what ESPN calls “talent”—and so Skipper decreed that ESPN would no longer permit talent to run Grantland or The Undefeated. Bryant is a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine—talent—and so he’s disqualified from the EIC post regardless of his potential. (Multiple sources have told Deadspin that one man Skipper is pursuing for the role is Kevin Merida, managing editor ofThe Washington Post. Merida is interested; he met with Skipper in Los Angeles last month, and according to a source, he’s been quietly asking if some of his favorite Post employees would be open to following him to ESPN.)

A second prevailing theory, though, is much simpler.

It’s easy to say now that Whitlock was destined to fail at The Undefeated, but that’s a harsh reading of events. Whitlock is an unsophisticated thinker on race who wrote his belief in black pathology into the The Undefeated’s DNA, and whose ideas about respectability politics bled into each piece he edited before he was tossed aside. His ideology was formed over 20 years of writing opinions on race that were largely inaccurate, but, more importantly, firmly aligned with the opinions of many whites. Though he’d alienated many blacks along the way, including talented ESPN colleagues, his readings of American history were agreeable to an enormous portion of ESPN’s audience. He was decidedly safe and unchallenging. Through this lens, Whitlock was, in theory at least, theperfect choice to run the site.

To read the rest of this fascinating article visit Deadspin where it was originally published

Sports TV News

Tom Brady: I’ll Join FOX in 2024

“Even in the future, I wanna be great at what I do. That takes time strategizing, and learning, and evolving.”

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Many have questioned whether Tom Brady will actually join FOX Sports’ top NFL booth after he retires. Today, we have that answer.

During an appearance on The Herd with Colin Cowherd, Brady confirmed he will indeed join Kevin Burkhardt in the network’s top NFL booth, but not until the 2024 season.

“Decompression is important,” Brady said, noting he’ll join the network’s NFL coverage after a year off from the game. “You’re on this kind of really crazy treadmill/hamster wheel, loving the moment, loving the journey, (but) at the same time there’s a daily fight. I have an appreciation to those who are so committed to showing up every day and putting in their max effort to their life and their career.

“I think — for me — I want to be great at what I do. So last week, talking with the people at FOX Sports and the leadership there allowing me to start my FOX opportunity in the fall of 2024 is something that’s great for me.”

Brady added he needs time to absorb a new career before jumping in head first.

“Take some time to really learn, become great at what I want to do, become great at thinking about the opportunity, and make sure I don’t rush into anything. Even in the future, I wanna be great at what I do. That takes time strategizing, and learning, and evolving, and I have so many people to rely on that can support me in that growth, too.”

The seven-time Super Bowl winning quarterback concluded by saying there are other aspects of his life outside of football that “need some catching up and energy”. He went through a high-profile divorce from supermodel Gisele Bündchen, reportedly stemming from his refusal to retire after the 2021 NFL season.

Brady signed a reported 10-year, $375 million contract with FOX Sports to join the network’s top NFL announcing crew, and serve as a brand ambassador in May of last year.

The addition of Brady to the FOX Sports booth creates a potential log jam in the analyst role. Current FOX Sports top NFL analyst Greg Olsen has received high praise from many both inside and outside the industry for his work with Burkhardt. Olsen hasn’t been shy about his wish to remain in the network’s top booth, saying that while the situation “sucks”, he is a “big boy” and “knows what he signed up for”.

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Troy Aikman Believes Tom Brady Has Bright Broadcasting Future

“He has some real opinions. He hasn’t always voiced all of those, of course. Now he will have a platform to where it will be expected.”

Ricky Keeler

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Troy Aikman

Troy Aikman has been in the NFL broadcast booth since 2001 and he knows first-hand what Tom Brady will have to go through as he goes from the playing field to the booth. The game has changed over the last 20 years, particularly the speed at which the game is played.

Aikman was a guest on the Green Light with Chris Long podcast and he was asked about the biggest adjustment he had to make when he entered the FOX booth at the time. The Hall-of-Fame QB mentioned how a lot goes on in the booth and it takes a little bit to adjust.

“There is a lot going on in a broadcast booth that it just takes a little bit of time to understand and have things slow down a little bit. There’s this idea that whether you are a player or a former coach when you go into a broadcast booth, I can’t wait to be able to educate the viewer on X and explain this.

“There’s less time now than there was when I got into the broadcast booth because all these offenses are playing up-tempo. You have to be done talking before the snap of the next play so you just don’t have the kind of time to get into a lot of that.

“What I learned early on is you start down this road of explaining something and then you have to somehow wrap it up to be done talking before Joe jumps back in. You leave something hanging and then a big play happens and you never get back to it…Adjusting to all the action and all the activity going on in the broadcast booth and the timing of everything is probably the biggest challenge.” 

When he is in the booth, Aikman mentioned that he never wants the audience to feel like he has all the answers when he analyzes a game and there are only a few times when he will get very critical.

“I don’t go into a broadcast feeling like I have all the answers to what’s happening on the field and I don’t want to come off as though I do have all the answers because these guys spend an enormous amount of time giving it everything they have and it’s more important for them to win than anyone watching the game. I tend to give the coaches the benefit of the doubt.

“Where I’m critical is just not very smart plays, lack of effort, lack of discipline. Those things are when I tend to then react pretty strongly.”

As for his thoughts on Brady becoming an analyst, Aikman believes Brady will do whatever he can to be successful and he is looking forward to hearing some of the opinions Brady has on the game that now he will be able to say as an analyst.

“I think that for him, he has some real opinions. He hasn’t always voiced all of those, of course. Now he will have a platform to where it will be expected and I think he will deliver. I fully expect him to have a really great broadcasting career.

“My only advice is just be you, be authentic, be honest, speak your mind. He will find his niche. He will do that respectfully and I think he will add a lot to the broadcast.”

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Sports TV News

Jay Williams Tells Stephen A. Smith His Criticism Of Kyrie Irving ‘Seems Personal’

“You say I’m being sensitive and I don’t know why, but you’re the one that’s very emotional right now.”

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Kyrie Irving is a lot of things. Boring is rarely one of them. Discussions of Kyrie Irving can get heated, particularly when those discussions involve Jay Williams and Stephen A. Smith of ESPN.

Williams was a guest on First Take Monday morning. He was part of a panel discussing Irving’s trade request, which ultimately ended with him as a member of the Dallas Mavericks. He and Smith butted heads

“First off, I’m not the one yelling,” he said to Smith. “You say I’m being sensitive and I don’t know why, but you’re the one that’s very emotional right now.”

That comment was met with an “Oh my God!” from Smith, who laid back while Williams told him that it seemed like Smith is considerably harder on Irving and more triggered by stories about him than about any other athlete.

Smith answered that he is always triggered. Williams, as a regular viewer of First Take, said that did not feel true. He said that it seemed like Stephen A. Smith has a personal problem with Kyrie Irving.

“You — of all people, with all the interest you have — have the nerve to sit here on national television and tell me I’m getting personal with a player?” Smith responded. “I don’t lose no sleep. I don’t lose any sleep over Kyrie Irving.”

Smith then claimed he’d to have too much to say. Jay Williams said he did too, to which Smith started saying “Just say it, Jay.”

Williams met those demands with “I’m not here for that” and “I am on your show,” as host Molly Qerim tried to bring the temperature down.

When it comes to daytime sports television, there will always be questions about how authentic the arguments really are. Last year, Jay Williams was a guest on The Jason Barrett Podcast. He admitted on that show that Smith’s discussions of Kyrie Irving are something he has seized on to create conflict when they are together.

“The way he went at Kyrie all of last year ‘Well, you know some people don’t like to come to work. Some people don’t like to be here’ and then all the sudden for him to flip and be like ‘I’m choosing Kyrie Irving for my MVP’ I’m like ‘No! No, you can’t do that!’

Whether this was co-workers genuinely butting heads, a disagreement played up for the cameras, or some combination of the two, will likely only be known by Stephen A. Smith and Jay Williams. Plenty of their sports media colleagues took notice though.

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