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Anonymous no more (cont.)

Posted: Wednesday March 12, 2008 5:32PM; Updated: Friday March 21, 2008 5:23PM
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TBL was born quietly in February 2006 as a long e-mail chain between three college friends. It soon morphed into a blog with a core of 200 readers, mostly friends and family. McIntyre would post before and after work, and Lessa, a 31-year-old from Annandale, Va., who sells software to the government, would fill in during the day. (Lessa still handles the site's technical side.) That August, McIntyre read a column from the syndicated columnist and ESPN poker commentator Norman Chad. "I had read him religiously in the Washington Post when I was growing up," McIntyre says. "So I decided to e-mail him. I wrote, 'Hey, we're a blog. Nobody knows who we are, but can I send you some questions?' He said sure. I was like, wow, that's surprising. We sent him some questions, and he answered them."

McIntyre and Lessa posted the interview. The feedback was strong. Over the next three weeks they went hunting for other well-known sports media members. Bill Sheft, then the humorist at Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Times columnist T.J. Simers, and Chris Jones of Esquire all agreed to interviews. "At this point we realized the more we wrote about the media, the more the media would pay attention," McIntyre says. "They liked reading about their colleagues and their peers." Readers e-mailed suggestions for other sports journalists. One name stood out: Jason Whitlock. "Overwhelmingly, our readers wanted Whitlock," McIntyre says. "He was writing for ESPN.com's Page 2 and appeared on The Sports Reporters. But I thought he would be a long shot."

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Not so. The provocative columnist, a multimedia player in the sportswriting world, held nothing back in an interview posted on Sept. 22, 2006. Whitlock trashed his then ESPN colleagues Scoop Jackson and Daily News columnist Mike Lupica, a regular on The Sports Reporters. The interview was picked up in USA Today and the New York Post, among others publications. ESPN quickly announced that Whitlock was persona non grata on its airwaves, saying his personal attacks went too far. Whitlock responded with a column critical of ESPN's inability to tolerate criticism. (The network says Whitlock had quit his dot-com job with ESPN prior to his interview with The Big Lead.)

"Doing the interview was no big deal," Whitlock says. "Norman Chad and T.J. Simers had already done interviews with the site. I never gave it much thought in terms of responding to their e-mails." Whitlock says the site's anonymity was not an issue for him. "I felt like it would be difficult to misquote or fabricate what was written in an e-mail," he said. "I had a record of what was said and they had a record. Hard to screw that up."

If the Whitlock interview caused a small ripple in the sports blogosphere, ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd created a tsunami. Last April, while hosting his national radio show, Cowherd urged his listeners to flood the Web site, an act that is commonly known in the 2.0 world as a denial-of-service attack. The added traffic was too much for The Big Lead's server, and the site was forced offline for a couple of days.

"At the time I didn't know much about The Big Lead," Cowherd says. "I remember at one point just laughing and saying, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could just blow up a Web site?' How did I know in four seconds that I would knock it down for a weekend?"

Cowherd's act put The Big Lead on the map. ESPN's ombudsman forcefully wrote that suspensions should occur for Cowherd-like acts in the future. NPR, Slate, USA Today and a host of other publications discussed the attack. It made TBL a sympathetic figure in the sports blogosphere -- which covered it like D-Day -- especially among those with an anti-ESPN bias. "I'm sure he felt like Mike Tyson knocking out a tomato can, but it didn't take that much to knock us offline," McIntyre says.

Not so, says Cowherd. "I've been on the air for more than a decade in radio, and the only thing I've ever regretted in my life is The Big Lead thing," he says. "My dad was a small-business owner, and I would never in a million years inhibit a small-business owner's ability to operate. It was very off-the-cuff. ... I regret it. I felt terrible about it."

In a next-gen twist of irony, Cowherd says he hears from sports blogs more than ever these days. "I have had hundreds of bloggers e-mail me and say, 'Please blow up our site!'" he says. "Literally, it is a running joke on the show."

Asked if he targets ESPN because of Cowherd's attack or because ESPN the Magazine did not offer him a job when he interviewed there a couple of years ago, McIntyre says, "We don't intentionally target anyone. ... We are sitting here objectively covering the sports media."

The Big Lead generates a small amount of income from ads on the site; McIntyre's wife also works full time. Like many Web sites that traffic partly in gossip, The Big Lead's information is not always correct. It has shown questionable judgement on occasion by linking to items based on suspect information at best. McIntyre says his biggest regret was running what he termed an "insensitive" and "irresponsible" post regarding Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart and fatherhood. He says he took it off the site after 45 minutes.

It's unclear how going public will affect McIntyre. He is actively seeking work as a freelance writer and is now able to channel his energies full time into The Big Lead. The site's interviews keep coming, including a Q&A last week with New York Times reporter Karen Crouse. McIntyre says that he hears biweekly from sportswriters asking to be Q&A subjects. (Last year TBL approached me to do an interview; I politely declined.) "We'll still do obscure stories and wonder aloud why USA Today gives a full-page feature to Doug Gottlieb," he says, referring to the ESPN college basketball analyst. "We're going to try to solve blind-item riddles in columns. Nothing is going to change."

Or everything will change. There is now a face and a name behind the items. The problem with losing your anonymity, as the wise philosopher Marla Maples once noted, is that you can never go back. "I wish TBL would make his name known because ultimately, a site is only as credible as the credibility its readers ascribe to it, and over time I think it'll be hard to sustain that," Vaccaro said.

"And it's not just so we can know whom to rip when something bad happens on TBL. I would suspect it's a lot of work maintaining a site like that; you would think someone would want some kind of recognition for those labors. Wouldn't you?"

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