On the HBO comedy Silicon Valley, the character of Nelson “Bighead” Bighetti is an incompetent programmer whose company keeps giving him more and more supposed responsibility to gain an advantage over a competitor, while still not actually having him do anything. Life may imitate art soon, as a Bighead-like existence might be the next logical development in the saga of ESPN and Jason Whitlock. When ESPN spent big money to lure Whitlock from Fox, it was at least partly to lure a competitor’s talent away ahead of the launch of Fox Sports 1, but there were high hopes that Whitlock might be able to create compelling, valuable content for ESPN, particularly with the race-and-culture site “The Undefeated” they intended to base around him.
That site turned into a disaster pre-launch thanks largely to Whitlock’s problematic management, though, and ESPN wound up removing him from the project before it even officially launched. At the time, ESPN management said they would rather have him focus on writing and TV appearances. They’ve tried using him in a few spots since then, most recently as a guest host of Pardon The Interruption, but he’s created issues there too. In the end, ESPN may wind up taking the Bighead solution: keep paying Whitlock and keep him away from competitors, but reduce his actual responsibilities to practically nil.
It’s clear that Whitlock can’t be placed in a management role, as the debacle of The Undefeated shows. It’s possible there may be some value to him as a television personality, but he comes with problems there too. As his uninformed comments on Venus and Serena Williams show, he’s going to generate a lot of criticism for ESPN on any sort of off-the-cuff debate show, and he’s unlikely to bring in the ratings that help other figures like Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith survive that criticism. Whitlock might provide more value as an occasional contributor to different ESPN TV shows in a structured analysis mode, but nothing in particular in their current lineup stands out as a great fit for him. Thus, the most likely ongoing role for Whitlock is just as a columnist with occasional TV appearances.
Whitlock does bring some value as a writer. He did that well for years at The Kansas City Star, and while some of his FoxSports.com work was problematic, he wrote some good columns for them as well. His column construction isn’t bad, his writing’s occasionally compelling, and some of his pieces can bring new and worthwhile angles to the table. However, Whitlock can be hit and miss as a writer, and he’s no stranger to controversy there either. He also may resent being shifted into a lesser role. Keeping him around as a columnist has some value for ESPN, but nowhere near the value of his contract, and it comes with some problems as well.
The other parallel beyond Bighead is that of Rick Reilly, and it’s one that doesn’t particularly bode well for the future of the ESPN/Whitlock relationship. Reilly was once a talented writer and high-profile columnist at Sports Illustrated, and ESPN threw a lot of money at him both to deny a rival and with dreams of using him in a multi-platform starring role. It didn’t really work out, though: they never found the right TV fit for Reilly, who often just annoyed viewers, and his written work seemed to suffer at ESPN, with self-plagiarism, alleged misquotes of his own father-in-law, dental puns, bold but completely untrue predictions and more. Despite that, they paid him millions more to stick around in 2013. Reilly formally gave up his weekly column in June 2014 to focus on TV and now seems to be in a Bighead-style role, still occasionally contributing to ESPN, but not doing all that much. It’s also worth considering that Reilly came with arguably more talent (certainly a better reputation as a writer) and less potential for controversy than Whitlock. That didn’t prevent his eventual slide into obscurity, one that Whitlock may soon follow. Sure, he might be named the co-head dreamer at “ESPN XYZ,” but that doesn’t always mean a lot in the end…