In a coincidental bit of timing, Indianapolis Monthly published a feature article on Jason Whitlock for their June edition, right before he was removed from his position as Editor-in-Chief of The Undefeated. Whitlock has been noticeably silent about the move in the days since, tweeting more about Game of Thrones than the vertical he was supposed to lead for ESPN.
The profile of Whitlock chronicles his upbringing in Indy and his divisive career that has made him one of the most polarizing sportswriters in this generation. But there’s also some very interesting quotes that foreshadow the events that would unfold this month. Perhaps the most eye-popping remark is Whitlock’s accusation that Deadspin and author Greg Howard “made stuff up.” It’s chronicled in the outtakes from the profile:
On the initial Deadspin story and his critics in general:
“I don’t mind that pressure one me. I would like people to attack me with the truth and non-fabricated material … so I look at the Deadspin piece as a great compliment, they couldn’t attack me with the truth, so they made up stuff.”
It’s important to note that Whitlock appears to be referring to Howard’s first expose on The Undefeated from last June, entitled “Can Jason Whitlock Save ESPN’s “Black Grantland” From Himself?” That report was published before the site even had a staff or a name and focused on Howard’s personal interactions with Whitlock, who was trying to recruit him for the site, and its struggles to get off the ground. It does not appear Whitlock had anything to say on record about the second, and most damning report from Howard, entitled “How Jason Whitlock Is Poisoning ESPN’s Black Grantland.” That piece included e-mail transcripts and audio tapes from Whitlock, which is difficult evidence to dispute. (As a side note, With Whitlock accusing Deadspin of making stuff up, it now makes sense that Whitlock was allegedly driven to watch truther videos.)
Beyond Whitlock’s accusations about Deadspin’s reporting, what bubbles up to the surface is the controversial, often-times abrasiveness of The Undefeated’s former Editor-in-Chief. Whitlock’s words from the outtakes section once again:
On his no-holds-barred approach to work and his willingness to cop to his mistakes:
“I play rough. If people play rough back at me, that’s the price of admission. A lot of people who bite their tongue or don’t really say what they think, to me it’s because they are afraid of what someone what might find out about them. I don’t live with that fear. I am really transparent, I admit my flaws. When I get called out publicly or privately for doing something wrong or coming up short, I am going to cop to it … and when I make mistakes I am going to cop to them at ESPN as well.”
While those personality traits brought Whitlock an audience as a sports columnist, managing a staff and a website is a completely different ballgame. And in truth, the picture painted by Howard in his second report at Deadspin was one of an untenable situation between Editor-in-Chief and staff with Whitlock’s eccentric “leadership” at the center.
The most telling tidbit from the Whitlock profile doesn’t come from the writer himself, but from ESPN President John Skipper. It was Skipper’s decision to hire Whitlock and snatch him away from Fox Sports in 2013 to lead a brand new vertical on sports and African American culture. Skipper went on record to say, ““Maybe I was impulsive in my choice of Jason, but you have to go with talent.”
Skipper’s hire of Whitlock was an impulsive, offensive play against Fox Sports as it happened just days before the launch of Fox Sports 1. There’s certainly no denying that now. With Whitlock certainly in the plans for the new cable network, here was a chance for ESPN to steal one of Fox’s largest personalities and deliver a blow to FS1 before it got out of the gates.
One has to wonder whether Skipper thought at the time that whatever risks Whitlock brought to the table (and there were plenty), it would be worth it to have it unfold at ESPN rather than give any attention to Fox Sports. Two years later, with all the issues behind the scenes with The Undefeated and Whitlock’s very public demotion, Skipper has to be second guessing that decision.