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The social media world screamed with delight over the recent arrest of Jay Mariotti
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There is schadenfreude and then there is the frothing-out-of-the-mouth with bloodthirsty delight that CBS Sports.com columnist Gregg Doyel experienced Saturday afternoon after he learned that Jay Mariotti had been arrested in Los Angeles earlier that day. As first reported by The Los Angeles Times, the AOL FanHouse columnist and ESPN Around the Horn contributor was booked on suspicion of felony domestic assault, according to authorities.
In the hours after the news broke, Doyel sent tweet after tweet excoriating Mariotti, a 140-character assault ranging from indignation ("Last week Mariotti demanded the Mets suspend K-Rod more than 2 games. And K-Rod was accused of hitting a man. So whadya say, AOL - 2 months?") to juvenile taunting ("Anyone know who posted Mariotti's bail? I'd like to egg that person's house.").
"That wasn't me enjoying Mariotti's news; that was me being infuriated by it," Doyel said in an e-mail Sunday. "Nobody in our business makes me angrier, consistently, than he does, and not because his columns evoke such feeling. It's the way he does his business, even the way he carries himself, that ticks me off, and this news was just awful. So I got angry, and it bubbled over, and that was a flash flood. I'm getting angry again thinking about it."
Doyel was not alone. The phrase "Mariotti" became a Twitter trending topic in the United States by Saturday afternoon, with the majority of the commenters exhibiting glee over his arrest. The attacks were also not limited to the general public.
Among those who offered their thoughts through social media outlets were Roger Ebert, Mariotti's former colleague at the Chicago Sun-Times, who tweeted, "Jay Mariotti's arrest makes me fondly remember my farewell column after the rat left the Sun-Times." He then re-posted this column, which the paper headlined "Jay The Rat." Teddy Greenstein, a Chicago Tribune sports writer, was also not shy with opinion. The most famous person to cyber-opine was Chad Ochocinco, the publicity-shy Bengals wide receiver who sent tweets to both SportsCenter and teammate Terrell Owens, including asking Owens if the media "would crucify their own like they do us."
The early answer is yes. Miami Herald columnist Dan Le Batard tweeted, "[T]he level of hostility and glee about Mariotti is something I've never seen in sports b4 over an arrest. Ever. Can't think of anything close." Well, it doesn't come close to Tiger Woods, but as far as hostility toward a sports media person not named Jim Gray, it seems unprecedented.
Mariotti is not a popular figure among his colleagues and he's long been a columnist who works in absolutes and indignation. The list of those he has criticized is long, including most major figures in Chicago sports. While there are much better stylists and reporters, Mariotti did what good sports columnists do: He provoked reaction -- and often angry reaction.
"My initial thought was of the irony," Doyel said. "Here's a guy who writes without pause or nuance about athlete misbehavior. There is no gray with him, only black and white. In his columns he's fired more people than Donald Trump -- and for doing the exact thing Mariotti was accused of doing the other night. I was shocked by the news, and I was disgusted."
While I'm an ardent supporter of sports writers appearing on television and getting paid for it, I've long criticized Around the Horn for its remarkable ability to turn normally thoughtful sports writers into a barking chorus signifying very little. (This does not refer to host Tony Reali, who, thankfully, remains ego-free amid the cacophony, as well as occasional panelists Jackie MacMullan and Kevin Blackistone.)
But in an inane world that rewards people points for semi-intelligent bluster, Mariotti was Michelangelo. His dash of smugness and pinch of sarcasm made him a smartly cast foil for the show.
Here now is the problem for ESPN and AOL FanHouse: What do you do with a sports columnist arrested on suspicion of felony domestic assault when that sports columnist has made a career out of attacking athletes in criminal situations? FanHouse, which has pumped tons of money and promotion into Mariotti, has an uneasy road ahead as the legal process plays out. "We take the matter very seriously and are actively pursuing all the facts," FanHouse editor-in-chief Scott Ridge told SI.com Sunday. He referred future questions to the site's corporate communications.
Given that the majority of sports fans identify Mariotti as a TV talking head, ESPN is also under pressure, especially because of precedents already established by the network when staffers have encountered legal problems or external issues that affected credibility. "We're not going to comment until we sort this out," ESPN spokesperson Mike Soltys said. Asked if ESPN had a time frame to complete that process, Soltys said, "There is no time frame."
Last October, ESPN fired baseball analyst Steve Phillips after he admitted having an affair with a production assistant at the cable network. "His ability to be an effective representative for ESPN has been significantly and irreparably damaged, and it became evident it was time to part ways," an ESPN spokesperson said at the time. In February, the network suspended Tony Kornheiser for two weeks for his comments about the wardrobe of ESPN anchor Hannah Storm. (Kornheiser said Storm had a skirt on that was "way too short for somebody her age" and that "she's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.") Upon suspending Kornheiser, ESPN executive vice president John Skipper called Kornheiser's comments "entirely inappropriate. Hurtful and personal comments such as these are not acceptable and have significant consequences."
It's important to note that unlike Phillips and Kornheiser, Mariotti is not a full-time employee for ESPN. He is contracted per appearance on Around the Horn, and this creates problems for Mariotti. The show is not conceptually based around his personality and presence in the way that PTI is set up for Michael Wilbon and Kornheiser. It exists in the same form whether Mariotti is there or not, and he no longer offers what he initially brought to the program: a perspective from the city of Chicago. It's hard to see ESPN's going to the mat for Mariotti if this gets ugly.
The process must play out, of course, and arrested does not mean guilty of anything. ESPN and AOL Sports would be wise to investigate the matter comprehensively in addition to whatever the authorities do.
But a prediction here in the event the executives in Bristol find merit with the charges:
You will never see Jay Mariotti appear on Around the Horn again.
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