Sports and politics: In 2018, the two are inseparable thanks to Donald Trump, because he has gone where no U.S. President before him has gone in the White House. All of his flaws and scars are open wounds, and because of it we have dialogue.
Fire NFL players, he told the owners in 2017, for their protesting during the playing of the national anthem. Sports teams or players on teams that win championships – now Golden State, South Carolina and others – refuse to go to the White House.
O.J. Simpson, Colin Kaepernick, Tiger Woods, LeBron James and Stephen Curry have over the last 20 years reminded us for better or worse what Muhammad Ali stood for. Recently in Los Angeles, while covering the NBA All-Star weekend, I had a conversation with my friend, Chicago’s own Michael Wilbon (MW). The Northwestern graduate and Emmy Award-winning columnist (Washington Post) and TV host of Pardon the Interruption, ESPN’s popular and highly rated show, opened up with me about the landscape and challenges and responsibilities we face today as journalists.
Fitz: Where did you go to high school in Chicago?
MW: St. Ignasuis. I would have gone to Calumet had I gone to the public high school in Chicago that I was assigned to, Larry. But my mother said no, no, that’s not happening. Here’s what you’re going to do.
Fitz: What makes Michael Wilbon go?
MW: Larry, that’s a good question I probably shouldn’t ask myself that question now at this stage after 38 years. I think it’s still just the love of storytelling, and it’s evolved all these new things, and you’re doing all these different things to the different platforms, things that we did not start out aspiring to do at 18 to 22 years old.
But I’m learning how to do that, how to navigate those things. It’s still the love of storytelling, telling the story today whatever that is. Today I’m going to get into this thing on LeBron James and somebody telling him to shut-up and dribble, which is patently offensive and insulting.
So whether the story is purely sports or the lighter side, like watching a certain Larry Fitzgerald, Jr. go out and win at Pebble Beach, or hard stuff that’s difficult to jump into but we do anyway, I think it’s just the love of diving into that material every day and trying to make sense of it.
Fitz: Having the platform that you have, do you get a sense of responsibility and having to do more and recognizing and making some of the athletes aware of the social responsibility that they carry?
MW: In part, I think it’s in making everybody aware of the social responsibilities. Sometimes I think the pendulum might have swung too far and it might be too heavily weighing in on what their responsibilities are, and all of us have those responsibilities. I certainly [do], and you and I have dealt with this over decades.
In terms of our own responsibilities, it’s funny. I think someone was just talking about this, Draymond Green, and the word obligation. Whether or not it’s an obligation for you to want to dive into. It was an interesting topic and conversation they were having, and I was listening in on it.
I don’t think none of us are as aware – or should I say woke – as we should be, and that’s part of the process. And storytelling is examining it and finding new stories myself that may inspire me to be more aware.
Fitz: The juice you carry in covering major sporting events, Super Bowls, NBA Finals, All-Star Games, NCAA Final Fours – talk about how you go into covering games, events, knowing what your responsibilities are, yet trying to get the top story. That’s what our goal is?
MW: There is a juggling act that goes on, and the bigger the event, the more balls that are in the air. And I’m still trying to be true to my work and my employer, as you mentioned the Washington Post and ESPN.
There was a time where they were overlapping. I was doing both employers for nine years… I take the work seriously still, and I feel fortunate to be able to do that. I think we cheat the listener, the viewer or reader if we don’t.
I want to be ready for April, for the playoffs, listening in to LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Damien Lillard, whether it’s the most popular guy or least-known guy, and everybody is popular here at the All-Star weekend. That’s what locker rooms are still for, and I take that responsibility pretty seriously still.
Fitz: The success and chemistry of ESPN’s popular PTI and you and Tony Kornhieser – talk about that.
MW: It’s just a long time we’ve known each other, for 38 years. A lot of that was done at by-play, was started in the newspaper, and Tony would do it. He would refer to me, and someone said they wanted to put it on television, and we were like, what? What are you talking about?
And so people now think they can just pair people and they are going to have chemistry. No no, it’s 30-some years of that, and PTI is a relationship show as much or more than anything else.
It’s grounded in sports, but it’s not as much a sports show as other things. It’s about two people able to do that with somebody, a family member, your child, your parent, your boy, your frat brother, your cousin, and having that type of by-play with somebody. And Tony and I have had that with each other.