Why you should care

Sports journalism is filled with controversial and opinionated figures, but provocateur Jason Whitlock is in a league of his own.

If you want to complain about something that ESPN columnist Jason Whitlock has said, tweeted or written, then you’ll need to take a number and get in line.

Perhaps no one embodies the provocateur as well as the hefty, pen-wielding Whitlock, an Indiana native who grew up blocking for future NFL No. 1 pick Jeff George at Warren High School in Indianapolis. In the wide world of sports and sports commentary, which is filled with fans, sycophants, players and player-haters, Whitlock is not afraid to opine in a way that makes many people uncomfortable. But his objective is more than simply to provoke. He takes on taboo subjects — including matters like race that are omnipresent but rarely discussed openly in sports — and adds real insight to the conversation.

Whitlock tweeted at the peak of Linsanity: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.”

But Whitlock’s brash style clashes with the “let’s all go along and get along” approach of most sportswriters, who are happy to criticize surface performance matters but rarely delve into deeper, hot-button issues like race and sex — let alone gun control or the war on drugs.

In August, Whitlock left Fox Sports to return to ESPN, which had fired him in 2006. After just a few weeks, the hell-raiser was making headlines again, this time for calling Sports Illustrated writer Thayer Evans a “hack” and a “gigantic Oklahoma homer” following the former Sooner’s reporting on the scandals affecting Oklahoma State’s football program. Thayer responded that his parents had actually attended Oklahoma State, and ESPN responded by saying that Whitlock’s remarks were “not appropriate,” a response they are undoubtedly prepared to deploy again in the future.

After all, this is not the first time that Whitlock’s has ruffled some feathers. When Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then himself last year, Whitlock wrote a column that concludes: “What I believe is if [Belcher] didn’t possess/own a gun, he and Kasandra Perkins would both be alive today.”

The remark blew up like a stink bomb in a room full of rowdy, gun-loving football fans, particularly after Bob Costas repeated it on national television. When asked for further comment, Whitlock had the audacity to double down, declaring that “the NRA is the new KKK.”

It’s hard to fault Whitlock for his editorial courage, but he certainly has a way of rubbing employers and readers the wrong way. The last time he was at ESPN, he was sacked after publicly criticizing his colleagues, including calling his fellow African-American sportswriter Robert “Scoop” Jackson a “clown” and insisting that the network’s “publishing of [Jackson’s] fake ghetto posturing is an insult to black intelligence.”

Perhaps even more controversial was when Whitlock converted one of the most triumphant sports moments in recent years — Jeremy Lin’s career-high 38 points at Madison Square Garden in February 2012 — into a crude, sophomoric jab at the size of Lin’s penis.

It’s hard to fault Whitlock for his editorial courage, but he certainly has a way of rubbing employers and readers the wrong way.

After 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound phenom Lin led his New York Knicks to victory over Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, Whitlock tweeted at the peak of Linsanity: “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple of inches of pain tonight.”

The uproar was immediate and forcible enough to elicit a rare apology from Whitlock, who said, “I debased a feel-good sports moment. For that, I’m truly sorry.”

Whitlock’s mea culpa was genuine, but don’t expect a whole lot more. That’s because Whitlock is first and foremost a flamethrower — and an informed and intelligent one at that. Just take a look at a recent satirical posting in which he makes the case for why he should win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, even though he is a sportswriter and ineligible, not to mention black. The piece is funny, smart, egocentric and provocative all at the same time. Pure Jason Whitlock, in other words.

But what happens when the writer makes himself the story? And where does the provocateur go once he’s become the primary provocation?

At OZY, we’ll let you know as soon as we find out.

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