Can Jason Whitlock Coach The Undefeated?

Note: ESPN announced today (June 12) that Jason Whitlock would step down as head of The Undefeated project.  The details are in this article by Rich Sandomir of The New York Times.

It’s an oversimplification worth heeding: Journalists should never be in charge of anything.  Don’t ever say to a columnist, “If you’re so smart, why don’t you do something other than criticize?”  Too risky.  We can organize words, sentences and paragraphs into an article.  Beyond that, we struggle to organize a BLT sandwich.

Kidding, mainly, but there is a grain of truth in the above.  Often, one of the worst things you can do to a gifted journalist is to turn him or her into an editor.

For decades, however, that was the only way for good writers to get better pay and promotion.  The results were often disastrous.  A chaotic office and the loss of a top-notch writer.

We see the same phenomenon in sports.  How many championship teams are led by former superstar athletes?  Popovich? Belichick? Meyer? Krzyzewski?

All of this is a long way around to talk about Greg Howard’s takedown of Jason Whitlock on Deadspin.  Howard generated plenty of heat talking about what actually are two separate issues: Whitlock’s competency in leading a major media project, and his personal philosophy of race.

Mashing up the two in a longer essay implies a connection.  With the negativity Howard applies to both, the problems might seem to multiply exponentially.

But these are two separate, unrelated issues.  A top-flight media manager might be unable to keep up with this better writers and come off as a lightweight, even as his or her own publication features those writers generating thought-provoking copy.

An incompetent media project manager might have a well-articulated philosophy on controversial topics that leaves others saying, “If the boss is so smart, why are we in so much chaos here?.”

But neither scenario is dependent on the other.  And Whitlock seems to be the latter — at least as a media project manager.

The reason Whitlock, like most popular writers, struggles as an editor is that the two roles require different tool kits, and those too are often unrelated.  A writer must direct passion and focus toward his or her personal projects and see them as an extension of self and worth the expenditure of concentrated energy.

An editor, on the other hand, again to oversimplify, is judged by the success brought to other writers and their products in creating a unified product.

To me, the most effective editors are “servant leaders” — subsuming their egos to serve their writers by creating an environment where those writers can succeed, knowing that the project (and the editor) will benefit as a result.

When an editor becomes as central to a project as Whitlock perceived himself, then the project serves the editor, rather than vice versa.  Passion is needed in any media project, even in the front office, but too much sends it over the top of the bell curve, and effectiveness decreases.

And for someone like Whitlock, his personal ebbs and flows apparently could not be mediated by skillful leadership when it involved other writers and editors.

Managing writers is like herding high-maintenance cats with an ego.  All of us remember editors who inspired us — a combination of tough love, exhortation and red ink, sweetened with a protective instinct that would allow no one to hammer except the editor.

Any editor who does so successfully probably goes home at the end of the day and needs a good workout at the gym or the bar to decompress.

Obviously, the proof in the pudding will be how long The Undefeated’s ingredients stay in the mix.  Pay alone will not keep them; they will need a sense that they are crucial to the mission.  Let’s be fair: It could be that Whitlock still can pull it off.  The delays are troubling, but not fatal.

The solution is for Whitlock to hand over editorial control to an editor who shares his editorial vision for what Undefeated can be, but who also has the authority to run the project.  Whitlock’s leadership and inspiration still fit in, but filtered through someone with authority over the writers.

I won’t address Howard’s take on Whitlock’s philosophy, because it’s simply a debate, a difference of opinion.  Howard’s criticisms of Whitlock are deep and thoughtful, and maybe Whitlock’s approach to race is a dangerous retread of a previous age, but that is not the danger game on the schedule for The Undefeated.

If Whitlock were a better manager, The Undefeated would be sure to attract, motivate and publish the best writers, and their thoughts, not Whitlock’s would carry the day, as they should, in thinking through the tough issues Howard raises.

So in that sense, Howard is right.  If Whitlock cannot manage the Undefeated so that it retains a staff that consistently produces top-notch copy, it will have to rely on not only his vision, but also his production to power The Undefeated.

And I don’t think ESPN is interested in a glorified blog.

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Shame in the Game

First published in the War Eagle Reader. You can find it here. MilesTweet

So perhaps West Virginia freshman Daxter Miles Jr. was not too smart in calling out Kentucky before their Sweet 16 game last night.

Predicting a Mountaineers victory was preferable to pre-signaling defeat. But to claim the Wildcats “don’t play hard” might have been reckless.

But the media’s post-Daxter takedown on Twitter following Kentucky’s 78-39 double-down was an unnecessary slaughter of its own kind.

Some samples:

@SportsNation: “Daxter Miles had the same amount of points as Kentucky has losses. None.”

@JimRome: “36-1? Maybe Daxter meant the score.”

@darrenrovell: “Daxter Miles Jr., who said West Virginia would beat Kentucky tonight, finishes with ZERO points for the Mountaineers.”`

@BasketballPics: “Y’all misinterpreted Daxter Miles; He said ‘Kentucky would have a 36-1 run.'”

Reports emerged that Miles “hid” in a bathroom stall and had to be coaxed out to face the media, and the laughs grew louder.  (Hey, Dax: For future reference, when the pros hide from the press, they use the training room.)

And just as predictably, when Kentucky player Devin Booker tweeted “36 and WON” postgame, the rout was on off the court as well.

At this point, of course, I should qualify that the shaming was by no means unanimous and many media members either defended Miles’ expression of confidence or at least condemned the over-reaction to it.

Still, one of the most curious unintended consequences of Twitter is its enabling of mass shaming.  The verbal equivalents of an embarrassing Snapchat photo descend on an unfortunate individual whose decision deserved the drop, but not the flood.

Sometimes it’s a good thing — when Twitter’s democratic muscle calls the rich and/or powerful to account.  But when the media mob attacks an 18-year-old (and the takedown continued old school, on “First Take” and the other morning talk shows), is it going too far?

My thoughts are not directed at the fans.  Fans are fans, and if they were rational — well, I shudder to think what we would watch on CBS and three cable channels this week.  The UK faithful were as savage toward Miles as would be expected.

For Auburn fans, Miles’ words reminded them of a similar situation involving Tre Mason before the 2013 Iron Bowl.  Mason expressed a confidence in facing an Alabama team that was being hailed as a juggernaut similar to this year’s UK hoops team.

Tre did not suffer the same fate.  After al.com columnist Kevin Scarbinsky took Mason to task for his comments, the snarky backlash swarmed Scarbinsky more than Mason.  And of course, Mason’s team fared better than WVU.

Still, I wonder about those tasked with covering sports.  It is bad enough that sports style has evolved into a more personal, opinion-laced style.

But throw in the snark potential of Twitter, and if there is a line out there, sports journalists often cross it. The profile plea, “Tweets are my own” are no excuse.  Readers can connect the name dot to the byline dot.

At another place and time, I would have joined in the fun — maybe not toward Miles, but certainly at a more satisfying target.  And when the culprit is a misbehaving media member, the sharper the comment, the better.

As I’ve thought it through, a recent article by Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute provided focus and clarity.  Whether as participants or as detached observers who end up making a situation worse, journalists need to be careful around those who play with fire.

McBride concludes, “My hope is that … professional journalists will distance themselves from the shamings of private people that create very little social good, recognizing them as click bait and nothing more.  Most Internet stone throwers could be ignored.”

I would extend that standard to shaming of other public figures, including athletes, where there is no social good, only ridicule.

One reason for my re-thinking: Within the past couple of years, I had the chance to interact with a journalist who had been the object of shaming as a result of some reporting that had gone wrong.

I will be honest; I had at first participated in the flip criticisms of the reporter.  But from an outside source, I learned some mitigating details that caused me to backtrack on Twitter and to suggest critics take a second look.

From there, a mutual friend on Twitter encouraged me to contact the reporter, who was dealing with the firestorm.  So I reached out, in confidence (which is why I am being as vague as possible here).

We talked through the situation and possible remedies.  I did suggest some courses of action but was mainly there as a listening ear and an encouraging voice.

The reporter, through excellent subsequent work, has prevailed.  The firestorm is but a distant memory, and I don’t want to dredge it up here.  We DM on Twitter from time to time.  But the experience taught me, maybe more than I was able to help the reporter. No, it’s not as dramatic as those stories where a celebrity confronts a troll.

But it did have a disturbingly similar effect, reminding me that the people we snark on — whether a college basketball freshman or a well-known media member — are flesh and blood and feelings.

That, plus a desire to stand firm within the shifting sands that swirl traditional news and social media, have shaped my thinking.

As I have written before, one of my goals is to avoid being “that guy” on Twitter.  When you draw together enough “those guys,” it only gets worse.

No doubt Daxter Miles Jr. has learned his lesson and will probably do his talking on the court from now on. Sports journalists should realize that for them too, silence can be golden.

Rather than talk the talk on Twitter, they should walk the responsible walk.

Cole Position: Former Auburn center is on the verge of breaking it big in sports media

First published in The War Eagle Reader.  Find it here.

It’s been said that you shouldn’t find a career — a career should find you.  If that’s the case, opportunity is chasing down Cole Cubelic on many fronts.

The former Auburn football player is on the verge. Through his daily radio show, his appearances on Paul Finebaum, his far-too-sporadic live game broadcasts, his football analysis for al.com, and countless other media pops, Cubelic is increasing both his visibility and his credibility.

Disclosure: I consider Cole a friend, professionally.  We have talked about profession-related issues, and he has been kind enough to include me as a guest on several occasions (including a tribute to Philip Lutzenkirchen that I was honored to participate in).

As the 2014 season finishes, however, even in the face of a major setback (the loss of his Sun Belt gig via the end of the CSS network), Cubelic has as much reason to be optimistic about next season as Muschamp-obsessed Auburn fans do.

Several factors work in his favor.  From Twitter to Finebaum to al.com, he combines solid x’s and o’s (particularly analyzing offensive/defensive line play) with neutrality and an engaging on-air manner that is not Millen-esque hyperactive.

He learned the football side as a center and team captain for Auburn from 1997-2000.  Soon after graduating, he and former teammate Ben Leard started an Auburn pre-game show for a Huntsville station, which led to weekly appearances on WJOX. And the ride started.

Among his most recent high-profile opportunities was to join Paul Finebaum’s panel for a live combination of game analysis and annoying callers during the Iron Bowl.  Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, Marcus Spears and Booger McFarland also participated.

For all the unknowns going in, Cubelic thinks it worked well.  While national media were, as usual, fascinated with the Tammys and Phyllises, he was impressed with how Finebaum managed a live machine with an excess of moving parts — even when the phone system crashed.

“One thing about Paul is he knows how to delegate: how to get more out of somebody, how to cut someone off,” he said.  ”Maybe there was mystery as far as direction and where the game was going to go, but not about content.”

The broadcast also provided Cubelic with his first visit to the SEC Network studios in Charlotte, and he came away impressed with the technology (“like a kid in Toys R Us”) and grateful for the interaction with other former players turned broadcasters.  ”It was the closest thing to a locker room,” he said.

He was referring to media talk more than locker-room banter, of course.  Even away from sports, Cubelic shows a personal media-centrism that fits his career’s choice. His Twitter followers, along with Birmingham residents, remember how he became an instant on-the-scene reporter during the Birmingham icestorm of late January.

Driving from Huntsville to Auburn, Cubelic found himself caught in Birmingham just as the weather turned Shrek-ugly.  He ended up overnighting as his mother’s house, which allowed him to chronicle from Ground Zero for those two days.

On Instagram and Twitter, garnering hundreds of RTs and “likes,” he provided updates to residents whose family members remained stranded. “You feel obligated to continue to document it, and how you made it from Point A to Point B,” he said.  “It was all real time. I know people would be interested in it.”

Such is Cole’s presence on Twitter that his friends even dared him to tweet his own wedding. Which no one would do. But he did, sort of. As his bride, Katherine, entered, and everyone turned to look, Cole pulled his phone from his tux pocket and snapped a photo into a ready-made tweet and sent it off before anyone knew (including her, or worse, his grandmothers). It was almost the perfect crime. As he recalls, “My sister-in-law saw me and gave me the death stare.”

But of course it’s the TV and radio appearances, not the storm or wedding tweets, that build his reputation, and he is doing just that, according to his former broadcast partner, Joe Davis.

Davis has seen Cubelic grow from more of a smart football approach to a relaxed balance.  “When we start out, we want to be perfect, so we start thinking about how we’re supposed to sound,” Davis said.  ”As time goes on, you realize the importance of being yourself and letting your personality show through.”

For Davis, Cubelic’s sports talk radio experience has helped there. “It’s a rare to have the guy who has the combination of being a game analyst and hosting his own show,” he said.

That show, on Huntsville’s WUMP from 6-10 a.m., gives him yet more valuable on-air experience. Balancing guests, callers and commentaries against the need to fill four hours of airtime is a challenge.  But it gives him the opportunity “to get back in front of a listener base that is already familiar to me,” along with the chance to show his stuff.

Throw in a weekly gig on ESPN Pensacola 101.1, from 1-2 p.m. Tuesdays (his only Auburn-centric project), and it’s obvious Cubelic has his bases covered, along with a few outfield spots.

Yes, he has faced disappointments.  Even with the excess of bowl games, he was not able to pick up an analyst’s gig.  And a 2012 DUI arrest (all charges were dropped) provides sporadic social media harassment.

All that, plus he lacks the name recognition of a former national championship QB or a long-time NFL player.  “For him to get the national opportunity that he deserves, he has to fight that,” Davis said.  ”To get those top-level jobs is going to take people taking a chance on him, more than just him being a name.”

But looking ahead and not behind, Cubelic knows that he is building a portfolio that will provide a solid foundation for the sports media roller coaster ride that has found him.