Maybe it’s that defiant grammatical mistake right there in its name, but I always kind of assumed Real Clear Politics was a conservative political website. (Note: If they meant “Real, Clear Politics,” then I withdraw my complaint) (And lodge another one, because that’s a stupid name) And because I can usually figure out what’s going on around the right side of the political scene by just sort of imagining a white guy in a suit yelling the opposite of whatever I already think, I never really bothered to disabuse myself on RCP’s true nature. It turns out to be an aggregator of stories from elsewhere in the world. Albeit a right-leaning one that pays Famously Mustachioed Libertarian hump John Stossel for his insights, but just an aggregator. Oh, and also: there’s a Real Clear Sports. Or, RealClearSports, as they — if not spellcheck — prefer.
I’m kind of working backwards here, though. I got to RealClearSports through a link from Gawker, which highlighted a particularly ill-advised moment from an unbylined RCS interview with Ozzie Guillen’s favorite sportpundit, Jay Mariotti (above, right). And Gawker did indeed highlight a grabber of a quote in which Mariotti allows that Roger Ebert — currently deathly ill with cancer and previously critical of Mariotti’s departure from the Chicago Sun-Times, their former shared place of employment — “can kiss (Mariotti’s impeccably groomed) ass.” But there’s a lot of other good-timey self-contradiction and -admiration in Mariotti’s conversation with RealClearSports Staff.
RCS: Much of your success in the news industry has been based around your focus not on the greatness that we discussed before, but on what you perceive as infamy, incompetence or impotence. No one has ever doubted your ability to turn a phrase, but they have questioned whether your criticisms sometimes crossed the line in describing people in sports as these things. Upon reflection of a very prolific career, do you have any regrets about any of the things you’ve written?
Mariotti: Nope. I cover a multi-billion-dollar industry that appeals to the heartfelt emotions of fans who, incidentally, are asked to pay astronomical prices for tickets. It’s my responsibility to be hard on teams — when necessary. But part of your perception involves spending 17 years in Chicago, where: (a) writers are expected to tell fans what they want to hear, not what they need to know; and (b) teams have a tendency to underachieve.
I’m still waiting for the Cubs to stop choking. I’m still waiting for the Bears to win more than one championship in 45 years. I’m still waiting for the White Sox to stop getting excited about one World Series title — great, one in nine decades — and go get another. I was privileged to cover the Jordan era, but even that was filled with controversy, dissension, Reinsdorf, Krause, Rodman. And look at what has happened there since Jordan retired — nothing. At least the Blackhawks finally awakened — what a wonderful story. As a national columnist, I’ve been extolling the virtues of Tim Tebow and the Arizona Cardinals. I’ve praised Sam Bradford for staying in school. I’m about to write about the football mind of Bill Parcells…
RCS:…How does it affect you when you’re the butt of jokes or receiving criticism?
Mariotti: Hey, if I’m occasionally making people the butts of jokes, how can I complain? A critic who doesn’t think he should be criticized is a hypocrite. All I know is, I’m out and about every day in Chicago and around the country, and people couldn’t be kinder to me. A few fans are going to rip you on the Internet, and that’s fine if they aren’t sick puppies about it. Don’t really follow it: I’m busy doing TV every day, a column most days and traveling to sports events. I like helping college and high-school students who have a chance to use their talents productively.
What might “a critic who doesn’t think he should be criticized” sound like? Something like, “It’s my life, not theirs. I wrote 5,000 columns for them in 17 years. I wrote on holidays, spent massive amounts of time away from home. Roger Ebert, whom I’ve met once, can kiss my ass. No one gave more blood to that place than I did?” Maybe say it like five minutes worth of conversation (or a couple hundred words worth of typing; this reads like an email interview) before talking about how hypocritical said uncriticizable critic would be? (Maybe. But he probably wouldn’t use that many back-to-back rhetoricals if he were a professional.)
Mariotti seems like a lazy, knee-jerk writer to me, and I think his television presence falls somewhere between The Cryptkeeper and Tony Siragusa on the “unsettling” continuum. But I’m loath — almost — to bury the guy for being so ridiculously defensive because I, myself, have never risen to a position that would occasion the criticism his departure from the Sun-Times drew; I don’t know how badly it hurt, but I’m sure it did. I’ve never walked away from a two-year contract anywhere, and if I am to write 5,000 columns on anything in my life — even if 4,700 of them are about how lazy and inept three or four sports franchises are — I had better get the fuck to work. So credit due, there.
But what I find most unappealing about Mariotti’s affect in general, and in this interview in particular, is his painfully palpable willingness-unto-eagerness to make his defiantly wronged and ever-correct self the protagonist, as opposed to merely author, of seemingly every story. Sports, it seems, matters to him insofar as it drives his punchlines and paycheck and continuing quasi-celebrity. This bit of ego-driven displacement seems to afflict sportswriters whose work has been touted as being more than sportswriting — Buzz Bissinger, Bill Simmons, pick a name. But who has made that argument on Mariotti’s behalf? What sports might mean — objectively or ideally or whatever — and why we talk about them are obviously debatable subjects. But I have to believe that sports amount to more than a way for Jay Mariotti to continue to glory in this outsized perception of his own significance.