RealClearSports Interviews Jay Mariotti

RCS: Next week we have the Super Bowl, but this week there is clearly only one big story. You're a professional writer. From that perspective, what did you think of your fellow Chicagoan's Inaugural Address?

Mariotti: Chilling. Earnest. I think his first breath was more inspiring than anything that came out of Bush's mouth in eight years. If the speech missed that definitive line for the ages -- such as Kennedy's "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country'' -- I also might say it probably wasn't necessary. The moment was that mesmerizing. The expectations for this man are staggering, but the speech didn't let anyone down. I did like, "We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense.”

I also couldn't help but think back to '04, when Obama might have lost the U.S. Senate race in Illinois had Mike Ditka chosen to run. I was among those who suggested Ditka shouldn't run because he'd be faced with intense scrutiny in his personal and professional life. If Ditka had run, maybe Hillary would be president today. Or Ditka.

RCS: In his column today, your colleague Kevin Blackistone made a case for picking up Obama's message and running with it, asking "[W]hat will athletes band together to do now?" How do you think Obama will influence sports?

Mariotti: Above all, he'll inspire all middle-aged men to be like Barry the Bomber and play pickup ball in hopes that they, too, can have abs like his. Actually, as I wrote the other day, I'm blown away about the political awareness he has sparked in sports. His ascent coaxes the apolitical Eldrick Woods out of mothballs and onto a podium at the Lincoln Memorial. LeBron James is passionate. Tony Dungy already is being wooed for a position. The world's biggest athletes are very popular and, to some degree, quite influential with young people.

Of course, if he's not too busy trying to resurrect the global economy and halting warfare, I want to see him follow through on his college football plan, and I'd be glad to serve as his Secretary of BCS Destruction. More importantly, he needs to remain aggressive on steroids, keep an eye on anti-trust and stop college basketball coaches from recruiting 12-year-olds. We'll put Dubya in charge of the DH. He doesn't have anything to do.

RCS: In a column titled "The Audacity of Sports," you took the opposite perspective. Instead of addressing what influence this presidency will have on sports, you addressed what influence sports will have on this presidency. "Sports," you wrote, "is precisely the diversion this president needs to keep himself sane." What is about the greatness of sports in this country that has – and will continue to have – a profound influence on our great leaders?

Mariotti: Escapism. Theater. Sports may have its warts, and always will, but I'm still astounded after 25 years of doing this how it keeps me intrigued every day with compelling stuff. I assume Mr. Obama -- White Sox fan, ESPN watcher -- loves getting away from it all like a lot of fortysomething Americans who sink themselves into sports events and debates. Isn't debate the essence of sports? Why can't the president have fun with it, too? We've had Snoop Dogg and Mark Cuban on Around The Horn. You know, I'm just saying, if he feels like getting away for an hour one afternoon ... the D.C. studio is about 10 blocks from his new home.

Why wouldn't the "greatness" you mention appeal to the most powerful man in the political world? Why wouldn't he quietly root for the Tampa Rays and their dinky payroll against the behemoth Yankees? Why wouldn't he marvel at Tim Tebow and the way he uses sports to help a bigger cause? Jordan, Ali, Tiger -- they ascended in their worlds amid enormous expectations. Obama faces the same superstar syndrome.

RCS: Moving to a more local nexus of sports and politics, Mayor Richard Daley said that Chicago should have two football teams. Do you agree?

Mariotti: That's absurd. Very few markets are obsessed with a sports team the way Chicago is obsessed with the Bears. A second team would be viewed as an interloper. Just when I think the mayor understands sports, he comes up with something wacky like that. Must be something political involved. And where would they play? Please don't say Wrigley Field, which is intended for baseball. One hockey game is plenty.

RCS: Staying in Chicago, we have to talk about the Chicago Sun-Times. Many there, including Roger Ebert, said you left in an "ugly way." In an interview with Michigan Avenue, you described what, from your perspective, hadn't been revealed about your departure. "Not enough people understand that I resigned two months after signing a contract extension; I resigned because I don't believe the paper has a website that will carry it into the future; and whatever tension existed there, it never prevented editors from giving me contract extensions."

To remain relevant, do you think sports writers must leave situations like you left at Chicago Sun-Times, even if it means taking heat for it?

Mariotti: Excellent question. I signed an extension in July under the belief that the paper would try to upgrade its Web site, which is the only way any newspaper can survive in the future. It was a fair request -- I was devoting two more years to them -- but they completely dropped the ball in Beijing. The subsequent "heat" was silly and embarrassing to them -- I laughed at it. Can you imagine the New York Times or any other serious newspaper devoting the thrust of an entire edition to anyone who left the paper? Have some pride. Don't seem so hideously desperate that you're hung up on a sports columnist leaving and handing back about a million bucks. Don't trot out writers to disparage me when, frankly, they should have been directing that fire toward a newspaper war that was lost years ago.

It's my life, not theirs. I wrote 5,000 columns for them in 17 years. I wrote on holidays, spent massive amounts of time away from home. Roger Ebert, whom I've met once, can kiss my ass. No one gave more blood to that place than I did, and if I decide it's going to die an imminent death, it's my call. And based on events of the last four months, I couldn't have been more accurate. The place is dead.

Sadly, we're going to see numerous newspapers fold in 2009 and beyond. If a writer thinks his paper is in trouble, it probably is. And by all means, get your butt out of Dodge, because that paper certainly isn't going to care about you when it decides to pull the cord. Problem is, if several dozen writers and editors are out on the street in a few months, who's going to hire them all? At the moment, there's only a handful of quality sports Web sites -- AOL, ESPN, Yahoo, SI and Fox are a few. It's like a game of musical chairs: When the music stops, who's sitting and who's not?

RCS: You're now at AOL. Why does it have the future that the Chicago Sun-Times – and perhaps the newspaper industry more generally – does not?

Mariotti: Oh, 54 million unique visitors to its content sites in November alone -- and no costs for a printing press, newsprint, ink, truck drivers, overtime, delivery, etc.

AOL is committed to the younger demographics that most newspapers ignore while very much serving the middle-agers who have had e-mail accounts for 10 years (such as me). It's all about advertising, and given the economic condition of the country, I'm impressed by AOL's ad growth and general business model on its various platforms. AOL is positioned for a boom era when the economy cooperates. Management gets it. The arrow is pointing up, not down, and it gives me the opportunity to write and travel and love what I do -- instead of worrying about when the paper is going to fold.

If Hunter Thompson envisioned a newspaper during his worst drug trip, it would be the Sun-Times. It's a nuthouse. By comparison, the environments at AOL and ESPN are a joy -- and much more conducive to having fun and doing good work.

RCS: Much of your success in the news industry has been based around your focus not on the greatness that we discussed before, but on what you perceive as infamy, incompetence or impotence. No one has ever doubted your ability to turn a phrase, but they have questioned whether your criticisms sometimes crossed the line in describing people in sports as these things. Upon reflection of a very prolific career, do you have any regrets about any of the things you've written?

Mariotti: Nope. I cover a multi-billion-dollar industry that appeals to the heartfelt emotions of fans who, incidentally, are asked to pay astronomical prices for tickets. It's my responsibility to be hard on teams -- when necessary. But part of your perception involves spending 17 years in Chicago, where: (a) writers are expected to tell fans what they want to hear, not what they need to know; and (b) teams have a tendency to underachieve.

I'm still waiting for the Cubs to stop choking. I'm still waiting for the Bears to win more than one championship in 45 years. I'm still waiting for the White Sox to stop getting excited about one World Series title -- great, one in nine decades -- and go get another. I was privileged to cover the Jordan era, but even that was filled with controversy, dissension, Reinsdorf, Krause, Rodman. And look at what has happened there since Jordan retired -- nothing. At least the Blackhawks finally awakened -- what a wonderful story.

As a national columnist, I've been extolling the virtues of Tim Tebow and the Arizona Cardinals. I've praised Sam Bradford for staying in school. I'm about to write about the football mind of Bill Parcells. Yep, I was critical of Charles Barkley, but it was due. When you're not scrutinizing the same five teams every week, you'll find more variety from your friendly neighborhood sports columnist. And I still might be writing in Chicago very soon, but it won't be with the Sun-Times-like frenzy that I thought was required at the underdog, struggling paper.

RCS: As much as you see it as your responsibility to be hard on teams, there's no question that some feel it's their responsibility to be hard on you. We, for example, named your January 2008 column titled "Crown them Now. Pats Can't Lose" the most erroneous column of the year; and sites like Deadspin seemingly enjoy hating you. How does it affect you when you're the butt of jokes or receiving criticism?

Mariotti: Hey, if I'm occasionally making people the butts of jokes, how can I complain? A critic who doesn't think he should be criticized is a hypocrite. All I know is, I'm out and about every day in Chicago and around the country, and people couldn't be kinder to me. A few fans are going to rip you on the Internet, and that's fine if they aren't sick puppies about it. Don't really follow it: I'm busy doing TV every day, a column most days and traveling to sports events. I like helping college and high-school students who have a chance to use their talents productively.

As for the Patriots, how many other media people had them going unbeaten? Hundreds?

RCS: Probably thousands. But still, it was more enjoyable to make fun of you.

When we talked to Erik Rydholm (creator and executive producer of Around the Horn), he said "I do hear from [Jay Mariotti] when he hasn't won in a while or when he feels he wasn't scored properly, but part of that is that he likes the extra thirty seconds to talk at the end of the show."

On a day you didn't win, what is the best thing you never got an opportunity to say?

Mariotti: No, he hears from me any time Woody Paige wins. And I kid when I say that, because Around The Horn continues to be the most fun experience I've had in the business -- and I can say that after 1,300 shows. Some people think we don't like each other, and for those 30 minutes, maybe we don't. But we're all friends and grizzled comrades.

Best thing I never had an opportunity to say? That Tony Reali's scoring system is an ungodly mess and needs to be high on Obama's Sports Fix-it list.

RCS: You brought him up, so here's the last question: In your opinion, what are the smartest and dumbest things Woody Paige has ever written on his chalkboard?

Mariotti: I liked, "If love is blind, why is lingerie so popular?"

I didn't like him falling for a stupid Internet hoax and doing a marriage proposal: ``Kristina: Will you marry me? -- David''

There is no evidence that Kristina ever said yes or no, or that there ever was a Kristina -- or a David.

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