Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


January 9, 2013

A Sports Media Critic and More

When he's not covering sports media, Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch has been known to write a little bit about women's basketball, too.

David Goldenberg

Sometimes there's a man…I won't say a hero, because, what's a hero*? But, sometimes there's a man—well, he's the man for his time and place. In this new era of sports-media coverage, that man is Richard Deitsch.

Richard Deitsch
"I could not simply do sports media: I need to work on beats with smaller egos."

Richard Deitsch

From his perch high on Sports Illustrated mountain, Deitsch has the platform and authority to roundly criticize entire networks for the way they cover events, but he's willing to descend into the bloggy muck to mix it up with pretty much everyone, from a testy Jason Whitlock to random fans who take issue with his coverage. To truly understand sports media, you also have to know both sports and media, and Deitsch has proven to be a master of all worlds with the latitude to jump from story to story and field to field.

And the dawn of the Twitter era has been perfect for him, as he breaks news, points out stories others have missed, and replies to all manner of questions. Sure, he loses a few dozen followers every time he pivots from decrying the Baylesization of America to one of his more narrow interests, like women's basketball, but there's something in his 42,000-tweet opus for everyone.

Aw, Hell. I've done introduced him enough. Here's his interview with Gelf, edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What is the best thing ESPN produces, in any medium? What's the worst thing?

Richard Deitsch: The one thing I've always tried to keep in mind when I report and write on ESPN is to be specific to the person, programming, and thesis of what I'm writing about. ESPN does great work every single day of the year. has an exceptional writing and reporting base. Same with Grantland. The network's 30 for 30 programming has been high-end. Outside The Lines, especially its Sunday programming, provides important journalism. (We've seen it recently with its role in investigating gambling in South Florida youth football.) There are a multitude of talented producers, directors and behind-the-scenes people in Bristol. Same with on-air talent. But what bothers me, and I think bothers intelligent viewers as well as many ESPN staffers, is the Baylesization of some of its programming. The oleaginous First Take is the worst thing ESPN does because it is reflective of the network's worst tendency: a lust for cheap debate, social media buzz, and a look-at-me ethos that leads to the kind of nonsense we saw from Rob Parker or when Skip Bayless race-baits or makes of fun of athletes by referring to them with names such as Bosh Spice. The company's thirst for owning a story has prompted sourcing controversies, and other reporters and media entities are right to call ESPN out on it when it happens. And it happens too often.

Gelf Magazine: Is ESPN too big to fail, or could you see a player on the scene now or in the future taking it on?

Richard Deitsch: It is too wealthy to fail. The dual-revenue structure has set up ESPN for decades to come. I believe the CBS Sports Network, the upcoming Fox Sports cable channels, and the NBC Sports Network can swipe some audience from ESPN in pockets, but ESPN is the dominant sports player in the marketplace and will be so for years to come as long as they continue to lock up sports rights.

Gelf Magazine: Has how Grantland turned out surprised you? Is it making any money?

Richard Deitsch: I think Grantland has been excellent on the whole. Do I read it every day? No. Are there pieces that miss? Of course. But editorially, they have made an effort to hire sound, thoughtful voices. Take their last hire, for example, the brilliant Boston Globe film critic Wesley Morris. They've also given innovative writers like Brian Phillips a forum. They hired Norm Macdonald to cover golf, which I thought was genius. Rather than rest on his laurels, as we've seen other high-profile millionaire sports writers do, Bill Simmons decided to build something. I admire the effort. I honestly have no idea if they are making money but I am sure that the ad buys on the site are likely across ESPN platforms and Grantland benefits from that.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the prospects for The Classical, Sports on Earth, and some of the other new online entrants?

Richard Deitsch: Well, for starters, I hope they succeed. I support writers getting work and getting paid. I dislike the conceit of Around The Horn but I like that the show's guests get paid $1,250 or so per appearance. People are always going to find a medium to cover sports, and hopefully, we'll continue to see high-end upstarts like the ones you mentioned.

Gelf Magazine: Will live TV game commentary look very different in five to 10 years as more people comment themselves on Twitter and its ilk, and use those mediums to read other people's comments?

Richard Deitsch: I think the television screen will certainly look different, and I think more people will continue to watch live events on mobile devices and tablets and things other than a television. What you saw from Fox during the Cotton Bowl will also be a reality: multiple boxes on screen where viewers will have a camera that stays on the field while a commercial plays in another box.

Gelf Magazine: When will the last print issue of Sports Illustrated be published, if ever?

Richard Deitsch: Hopefully, long after I am retired or fired.

Gelf Magazine: As a tennis fan, how would you assess US television commentary of the sport, and the quality of print journalistic coverage?

Richard Deitsch: The television commentary is wildly uneven. At the top, it's terrific, whether Mary Carillo, Darren Cahill, Chris Fowler, or Ted Robinson and John McEnroe are calling a match. But no sport does conflicts quite like tennis, dating back to former agent Donald Dell, who provided commentary of matches involving players he represented and tournaments his firm owned and managed. That's morphed today into ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez interviewing a player (Roger Federer) represented by her IMG-agent husband. That's nonsense, and it hurts the sport. It doesn't take a leap to surmise that the philosophical difference between Carillo's and ESPN's tennis executives over the tone and tenor of the network's coverage was one of the reasons she left.
I wish more newspapers covered tennis but it's sadly becoming a relic in that form. I'm pleased to see bloggers pick up some of the slack and the major sports websites have people who really care about the sport, such as Greg Couch at Fox, Greg Garber at ESPN, and Matt Cronin at various places. Thankfully, I work at a place that respects the sport and features arguably the most talented writers (S.L. Price and Jon Wertheim) covering tennis on a regular basis.

Gelf Magazine: Would you want at some point to have a more traditional sportswriting job, rather than covering the sports media?

Richard Deitsch: I'm a writer and reporter who happens to cover sports media. That's how I look at myself—it's amusing and incorrect when people call me a critic—and it's just one job at SI for me. I write and help conceive special projects, I'm one of our principal writers on women's basketball, and I've been to the last six Olympics, where I write our daily previews for I've also covered Super Bowls, NCAA Final Fours, tons of college basketball games, the NHL, and the NBA. It keeps me sane. I could not simply do sports media: I need to work on beats with smaller egos.

Gelf Magazine: Why do certain commentators whom everyone seems to hate stay on the air for so long?

Richard Deitsch: Because they have strong relationships with management, or their representatives do. Never forget there are plenty of people in sports broadcasting (and sportswriting) who are gifted at managing their bosses. Sports television executives often lose perception about their own talent. That ESPN officials argue that Chris Berman should continue to host the NFL Draft is a perfect example. ESPN has 30 people who would fit better there.

Gelf Magazine: What was the biggest media meltdown of 2012? Which was the most entertaining?

Richard Deitsch: Selfishly, I enjoyed the Lost Ogle, an Oklahoma City-based website, showing Woodward-and-Bernstein-type initiative to discover the truth about Skip Bayless's high-school basketball career. As I wrote about Bayless: If you brag about going Pete Maravich on teams in high school, it's probably better if that's accurate, especially when you blast some athletes for being frauds. Colin Cowherd's nonsense thoughts on the makeup of NHL media ("Young, cheap people") and New Orleans ("the least safe major city in the country") exposed him yet again as an over-generalization specialist. The media scrum featuring Michael Wilbon vs. Dan Steinberg (Washington Post) and Bram Weinstein (ESPN) was also quite fun. On a serious note, one of the biggest media fails was the misreporting of Joe Paterno's death. Amazing how many legit places failed to confirm with their own reporting.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of ESPN's sourcing guidelines, as revealed in the Jay Glazer story?

Richard Deitsch: For starters, I'm confused by them. There are too many inconsistencies at ESPN on this topic, and far too often they play games with words like sources and reports. Do ESPN reporters get their stories pilfered without proper attribution? You bet they do, and when it happens, I think they should call people out on it. I've seen it happen to Adam Schefter and to others. But far too often, ESPN is on the wrong end it—we've experienced it at SI with Luke Winn—and this is where the cynic in me wonders if they think their gigantism allows them free reign to do this with impunity.

Gelf Magazine: If a major-sport pro male athlete comes out of the closet in 2013, do you think the sports media will cover it tastefully and sensitively?

Richard Deitsch: Absolutely, especially at the major outlets.

Gelf Magazine: There's a general sense the media dropped the ball in covering steroids in baseball. Do you agree? Is there a story the sports media is now failing to cover sufficiently?

Richard Deitsch: On the first point, my colleague Tom Verducci, the best of the best, made a salient point that gets lost. He told Jeff Pearlman in an interview that "The whole the media looked the other way stuff is overblown. You had to nail such a story on the record, as with Ken Caminiti, to write it. Many stories referred to steroids in baseball, but how to tie a specific player to them without proof? You don't." But I will say this: If the development of the web as a publishing platform had come 10 years earlier, I think you would have seen far more steroid-related stories in baseball because there would have been places such as ProPublica that would have focused significant resources to get the story public.
As for a story today that I'd like to see covered more: I want more resources dedicated to health and safety in the NFL, homosexuality in sports, and the culture of entitlement that certain athletic departments have at universities and what happens when that power goes unchecked.

Gelf Magazine: Do sports fans want the sports press to be investigative and aggressive in their reporting like in the news department, or do they want more profiling/cheerleading of their favorite players and teams?

Richard Deitsch: In the same way you can't categorize the media into one box, I won't do that for fans. There are sports fans who think the role of the press is to serve as an auxiliary PR arm of a team. There are sports fans who want the press to serve as a watchdog. And there are sports fans who simply love great writing or the latest gossip. What I've found is that the majority of fans ultimately respect accuracy and strong reporting. If you work a beat with accuracy and truthfulness for readers, you'll end up in a very good place professionally.

*: We recently rewatched The Big Lebowski.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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