One of the most curious stories of this week comes from Jay Mariotti’s comment to Ed Sherman that he’s working on a "freelance storytelling" project for ESPN. From most standpoints, Mariotti would seem to be one of the most toxic names in the sports media at the moment; he's been essentially "taking a break"from the sports media world for two-plus years following feuds with just about everyone and several domestic violence charges (he eventually pleaded no contest to stalking and assault-related charges, but maintains he didn't do anything wrong), and even the occasional columns he's been writing for the ChicagoSide Sports website have stirred controversy both for their content and for their association with him. Thus, it's not surprising that Mariotti's supposed return to ESPN has not been well received. A sampling of the Twitter reaction:
Something I'm thinking about today is the reaction of female sports staffers inside and outside of ESPN re: Jay Mariotti's freelance gig.
— Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch) February 13, 2013
Meanwhile, former Chicago Sun-Times columnist and woman-beater Jay Mariotti working on "storytelling" skills for ESPN sportsmediawatch.com/2013/02/jay-ma…
— Caitlin Kelly (@atotalmonet) February 12, 2013
Well, well — Jay Mariotti is now ESPN's "storyteller." OMG, LOL, SMDH, and all those other things. shermanreport.com/mariotti-recei…
— SC_DougFarrar (@SC_DougFarrar) February 11, 2013
There's plenty more along those lines, too, which demonstrates just how much many despise Mariotti. What's particularly notable is that much of the distaste for him isn't about his sports work (although you won't find many defenders of that), but rather about the domestic violence charges he's faced. That's for good reason; loathsome sports opinions are one thing, but pleading no contest to very serious charges of assault and stalking is something else altogether. If ESPN is actually working with Mariotti, they've brought back someone who many find personally as well as professionally repugnant.
The question is, do executives in Bristol care? ESPN has deservedly taken plenty of heat for such things as First Take, their Tebow fascination, their dubious sourcing practices, their role in realignment, the Sarah Phillips debacle and stupid comments from the likes of Colin Cowherd, Vince Doria and John Walsh, but what's notable is that they've usually at least recognized that some people are unhappy with their moves and have tried to get their own side of the story across. Hell, they have a whole blog devoted to PR. They've taken respectable actions in response, too, especially with the more problematic cases (see Rob Parker, although he's managed to land at a site ESPN's involved in funding).
However, there's a growing sense lately that perhaps the Worldwide Leader is moving in a direction of paying less heed to the critics; for example, that would explain why there's been no news on the ombudsman front since Poynter's final column in November and why the response to First Take criticism has been "More First Take!".
If Mariotti is indeed back with ESPN, perhaps it's a sign ESPN is willing to accept that they can't appease the network's critics, and are choosing to ignore the countless sports fans that Mariotti's employment offends. Perhaps the network just miscalculated how this would be received, although it's hard to imagine how they couldn't see this coming. Alternatively, perhaps Bristol is more willing to throw caution to the wind with critics than they have been in the past. If that's truly the case, it could have implications well beyond Mariotti.