Jay Mariotti’s August 21 arrest inspired a wave of joy in the sports world and blogosphere. A week after the incident, in which Mariotti was charged with domestic assault and released on a $50,000 bail, there is still discussion about Mariotti’s journalistic approach and how it makes this incident so compelling.
It is hard to pinpoint a time in recent years that a journalist has received so much negative feedback following a controversial incident. From athletes and sports figures to bloggers and journalists, people seemed to line up to take their turns stabbing at Mariotti’s various perceived faults. Following news of the arrest, renowned movie critic – and former colleague of Mariotti – Roger Ebert tweeted a link to a column he wrote when Mariotti left the Chicago Sun-Times, saying “Jay Mariotti's arrest makes me fondly remember my farewell column after the rat left the Sun-Times.” That farewell column was titled “Jay the Rat.” For The New York Times, Richard Sandomir reported that columnists and bloggers across the country were not only collating instances of Mariotti’s strong opinions about domestic violence, but they were openly showing their dislike of Mariotti as a person and reporter. More than a week after the incident, Chicago White Sox and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was asked about his “longtime nemesis” and responded that Mariotti was a “pissant.” In the meanwhile, the silence of Mariotti’s colleagues seems almost as loud as the concert of voices taking this opportunity to express their happiness about the situation.
Such strong reaction has to come from somewhere, and some would point to Mariotti’s journalistic approach as the catalyst for all the schadenfreude. In the past, Mariotti has been known for his commentaries about domestic abuse. Perhaps his most infamous comments regarded Jason Kidd, who was taunted with chants of “Wife Beater!” during an NBA game. Of Kidd, Mariotti said he felt bad for his family but didn’t feel bad for Kidd. Only a week before his arrest, Mariotti produced the AOL FanHouse article “For Acts of Violence, MLB Much Too Soft.” In the article, he described a couple of recent instances of “violence” in the MLB and bemoaned the lack of punishment brought upon the players. Francisco Rodriguez’s suspension by the Mets for a post-game incident involving a family member was considered insufficient because it amounted to “1/81st of a 162-game season, which, coupled with a fine of a bit more than $125,000, constitutes a blip.”
Now, Mariotti is on the other side of the fence he helped build.
It’s not that Mariotti is wrong for taking a stance against domestic abuse and violence. Athletes and sports figures are people who are admired and emulated, and domestic violence is an issue that should not be taken lightly. Where Mariotti seemingly goes wrong is in his approach. He has been described as making issues “black and white.” His more emotional commentaries have been known to leave people offended, and he has garnered a reputation for not facing those he criticizes. However, Dan LeBatard of the Miami Herald took a neutral position on the issue, suggesting that in terms of fan response what has happened to Mariotti is frightening. LeBatard suggests that “Mariotti can’t beg and plead for fairness and due process and compassion, and expect to get it, when he is so often reluctant to extend it himself.” What Mariotti and other journalists lack is empathy, and maybe sports media should be more evenhanded and careful when reporting about others’ shortcomings.
That reluctancy and lack of empathy may ultimately be why Mariotti is coming under so much scrutiny. The Bleacher Report offered an article outlining ten ways Mariotti could reclaim his job at ESPN. Of the ten suggestions, many suggest he make a public relations push to improve his image. This issue, however, shouldn’t be about a one-man public relations effort. It should be about assessing how sports pundits and journalists’ approach their trade. Mariotti’s arrest sends the message that he does not practice what he preaches. As a journalist, he should expect to be held to the same standards to which he holds others. For Mariotti, his historical lack of empathy and unwillingness to work with the same people he writes about seemingly makes him even less likely to garner support from his colleagues and audiences. There’s something to be said for standing for issues, but there’s even more to be said for the way in which opinions and stories are presented and critiqued. Based on the overwhelmingly happy response to Mariotti’s current personal issues, one might suggest he’s seeing that the hard way.
– Melanie Formentin