Okay, let’s start this morning with the disclaimer: Most people know that I like Tony Kornheiser and I don’t like ESPN. So, when I discuss Tony’s two week suspension from the network, specifically from Pardon The Interruption, I do so being fully aware of the biases I bring to the table.
Tony and I have been friends for 30 years. I began reading him while in college when he was still at The New York Times and thought he was about as good a writer as anyone going. When he came to The Washington Post we became friends quickly: both of us were (and are) wise-guy New Yorkers and Tony became someone I sought out when I needed advice or guidance. When the idea of trying to do a book on Bob Knight came to me in 1985, Tony was the very first person who said, “you should absolutely do this. It can be a great book.”
He was pretty close to a lone voice (there were a handful of others) because most of my friends and family thought I was crazy to take a leave of absence from The Post to do the book. Fortunately for me I followed my gut instinct and Tony’s advice.
We’ve been through lots of ups and downs. We’ve had periods where we didn’t speak to one another over fights I swear to God I can’t remember anymore. Tony can be an absolute pain-in-the-butt (as can I)—which may be one reason why we’re still friends. He’s lectured me on my behavior and decision-making at times and I’ve done the same to him.
Now, there are some people who love Tony’s work, in print and on-air and think he’s the funniest, smartest guy going. There are others who think he’s a whining curmudgeon and can’t understand why anyone would want to listen to him, much less hire him.
I can tell you one entity that loves Tony’s work: ESPN. That’s why the network bought his local radio show years ago and took it national. (For the record it was Tony who opted to go back to local radio because he got tired of having dull ex-jock, ESPN-talent shoved down his throat as guests). That’s why it built PTI around him and Mike Wilbon. That’s why it chose to put him on Monday Night Football, it’s FLAGSHIP property for three years. ESPN pays Tony a lot of money because it likes who he is on-air. YOU might hate him. ESPN loves him.
Part of what makes Tony Tony is the fact that he’s constantly making fun of people. God knows he makes fun of me all the time, whether about my clothes, my waist-size (still 36 but not with much margin these days) the stupid nickname he stuck on me when I was 23-years-old or my opinions, which often differ from his.
That’s Tony. It is who he is. When he trashed Marv Albert years ago during Albert’s troubles, I said to him, “how can you do that, you’ve been friends with him for years.” Tony shrugged and said, “it’s what I do. It’s my job.”
We disagreed on that one. We often disagree. He defended Mitch Albom when Mitch made up the column about the two Michigan State players at The Final Four five years ago. I thought it was a disgrace and that Mitch’s reaction to the whole thing was worse than that.
Part of what Tony does on the radio is sit and watch TV monitors during the show and make comments about what he’s seeing or sometimes hearing. He kills Ann Curry from The Today show regularly. A few weeks ago he talked about the fact that Jim Nantz had put on weight. Actually that’s not what he said. He said Nantz had gotten fat. It’s worth remembering that Tony refers to himself often as, “bald, fat and old.” The e-mail address for his show is: This Show Stinks. That’s Tony.
ESPN certainly didn’t mind Tony trashing Ann Curry or Jim Nantz or me. But criticizing ESPN is simply not allowed. Remember last summer when all ESPN affiliates were banned from discussing the networks’ unpardonable decision to not mention that Ben Roethlisberger was being sued in a civil suit for assault? The affiliates were told they could NOT bring up the case or ESPN’s decision not to report the law suit.
The last time anyone tried to exert control like this was the old Soviet Union. Misbehave at ESPN and they send you to the Gulag. That’s why I’m not on Sports Reporters anymore. I made a crack to a reporter about ESPN’s desire to own and operate all of sports—and the fact that it appeared to be succeeding. That was it, I was sent to The Gulag, where life has been fine actually. People ask me if I miss The Sports Reporters and my answer is this: I miss the people I worked with on the show. I do NOT miss dealing with ESPN even a little bit.
Tony’s been given a two week Gulag sentence—suspension—because he made a couple of wise cracks about Hannah Storm’s outfit on sportscenter last Thursday. Let’s not even get into the question of whether the outfit was or was not tasteful. It IS ridiculous that people constantly judge women on TV based on their looks and what they’re wearing. Tony does it but he also does it to guys. He’s not trying to be sexist, he’s trying to be funny.
So let’s say he swung and missed on this one. I didn’t see the outfit but even if I did, I’m willing to accept that the comment about looking as if she was “wrapped in a sausage,” was over the line. I’m not even entirely sure what that means.
When Tony started getting nailed on the internet for the line, ESPN, ever-vigilant, sprung into action. Tony instantly agreed to apologize to Storm and did—on the phone and on his show the next day. That should have been the end of it.
Look, I have some experience with this. When I uttered my infamous profanity during the Navy-Duke game five years ago, I apologized right away on the air after first offering to resign. The Navy people, specifically Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk and Eric Ruden, who oversees the radio network both said the same thing: “You made a mistake, you acknowledged the mistake, you apologized. We’re done. See you next week for the Air Force game.”
Most people took the same approach: apology accepted. To this day I still have clever people occasionally say to me, “think you can get through the broadcast without saying ----- today?” That’s the price you pay. Just as a guy came up to me at a basketball game last night and said, “Hey, how’s your pal Bobby Knight?”
To quote Tiger Woods and Peppermint Patty, I blame the media.
The TWO apologies should have been enough. But ESPN couldn’t resist the opportunity to try to let people know that it is America’s great defender of women. That’s because in the past it has been anything but that. So, after Tony apologized to Storm both privately and publicly, he was told he was going to be suspended. At first it was going to be three days but clearly someone up high decided this was a great time to REALLY jump on a high horse so the suspension became 10 days. Then there were predictable self-righteous statements from Bristol about how the network simply couldn’t allow this.
ESPN is, for the most part, a celebration of mediocrity. I was reminded of that this morning when I heard the various taped paeans from sports people to ‘Mike and Mike’s,’ 10th anniversary. (Question: Does Greenberg think that every single coach or manager alive is named, ‘coach or skip?’ Question: Is Golic capable of asking a single non-football question not written for him by a producer?)
There are exceptions to the mediocrity rule, some people who are very good and some shows (notably PTI) that are smart and funny. Actually, now that I think of it, PTI is the ONLY daily show on TV or radio (unless you are an insomniac and listen to Bob Valvano which I do when driving home very late at night) that is consistently smart and funny. Take Tony off the show and it becomes a less loud version of ‘Around The Horn.’ That show is occasionally saved by the presence of Bob Ryan (or at least made less unbearable) and Wilbon, when he isn’t sucking up to famous athletes, brings smarts and experience to PTI. But there’s no show without Tony.
So here’s what ESPN did: It subjected Tony to public humiliation so it could take a phony bow and claim to be a great defender of women. It did this to punish Tony for being Tony. The guy they hired because they liked who he was. What complete hypocrites.
Then again, this is about as surprising as Dick Vitale screaming or the NCAA making a grab for money. It is who ESPN is. And, no doubt, always will be.