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The Familiar Lousiness of the ESPN Layoffs

Major on-air and writing talent was let go at the Worldwide Leader on Wednesday. But it’s not a liberal conspiracy, just business as usual.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

This piece will be updated as news develops.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked to Howie Schwab, the former ESPN producer and oracular star of Stump the Schwab. In 2013, Schwab was laid off. That moment wasn’t the subject of our interview — we were talking about Schwab’s pal Dickie V — but you could tell it was near the top of his mind.

Schwab was still hurt. "The company’s full of shit," he said. When he got the news in 2013, Schwab said he was told he couldn’t say goodbye to his friends in the newsroom. He started to clean out his office and wound up leaving many of his books and other effects behind. He just wanted to get out of there.

It was a gutting, awkward period. People who Schwab had thought were his friends didn’t return his calls asking if they might know of any jobs. "ESPN treated me like a number at the end," he said. "Twenty-six years, and to this day I’ll be honest … I feel like what I gave that company for 26 years just disappeared in one fell swoop. In three minutes."

I thought of Schwab when the names of some of the 100 people ESPN began laying off Wednesday bobbed to the surface on Twitter. Ed Werder. Dana O’Neil. Nearly everyone who wrote about hockey. "We will implement changes in our talent lineup this week," read an email from management that seems to have been drawn from a sample book of icy corporate memos.

In the face of layoffs, I’m against sweeping takes and performative tear-jerking. (There will be plenty of real tears.) So here are five small thoughts as we watch the lousy news together.

1. The ESPN layoffs remind me of the gutting of newspaper sports pages that has been going on in fits and starts for two decades. Talk to people who worked for newspapers in the ’90s and they’ll tell you they thought their paper was as "invincible" as the Worldwide Leader. After all, classified-ad dollars were going to keep rolling in like cable subscriber fees. Newspaper writers were going to do good work, make decent money, and cruise into retirement age.

When the first layoffs came, they didn’t take out the loudmouth columnist, just as ESPN didn’t take out Stephen A. Smith. No, the first layoffs surgically removed the organs of the paper — that feature writer graying at the temples; the horseracing writer; the sports TV columnist. And so ESPN cut Jeremy Crabtree, who covered college recruiting; soccer writer Mike L. Goodman; and the redoubtable Werder, who wore a hole in the ground standing outside the Cowboys’ practice facility in Valley Ranch.

The newspaper sports page left behind after the layoffs may have looked the same. But it was flimsier and more top-heavy and, on a slow news day, it was clear it didn’t have anything resembling a bench. Starting today, I think we’ll think the same thing about ESPN.

2. Libtard ESPN got what it deserved! So goes the take bubbling into the feeds of media critics, and being shot from the elephant gun wielded by Jason Whitlock.

We’ve been here before, too. When the NFL ratings sank last season, it was all Colin Kaepernick’s fault. One of the curses of living in interesting times (Donald Trump Edition) is that every media organization bears the mark of a secret political agenda, according to that one guy on the message board who has figured it all out.

Are ESPN’s layoffs the direct result of Bomani Jones having a particularly righteous night on the radio, or the network showing Michael Sam kissing his partner? No, no, no. Pierre LeBrun does not (as far as I know) wear a pussy hat. If the take comes from someone who works for a competing cable sports network, be twice as skeptical.

"Is ESPN a liberal network?" is a legitimate and interesting question that deserves examination. But if you see someone saying ESPN got comeuppance for its "agenda," they have, in nearly every case, just revealed their own.

3. Howie Schwab wasn’t just haunted by getting laid off. He was haunted by the arduous, months-long, "I can’t confirm anything" dance with management that preceded it. Schwab knew he was a candidate for the ax. His pals at ESPN knew it. And yet his career was in stasis because nobody would tell him anything.

Point being: For the people at ESPN who just lost their jobs, this isn’t just a shitty day. It has probably been a shitty couple of months. Remember that.

4. Jayson Stark — baseball writer-talker and, at least in my dealings with him, a total mensch — is out. Stark started at ESPN in 2000. I bet there are a lot of ESPN viewers having the same thought I am: "Jeez, I’ve been watching him since I was in college."

Until recently, this was one of the niftiest features of ESPN. If you came to the network in the ’90s or the ’80s or even its founding year of ’79, you could still, in present day, find your old pals. It was still the ESPN of your youth.

Love him or loathe him, Chris Berman was still he-could-go-all-the-waying his way through NFL highlights. Linda Cohn was doing SportsCenter. Ed Werder and Sal Paolantonio were walking the battlements on NFL Sundays. If the camera came back too soon from a commercial, you might catch play-by-play man Mike Patrick smoking a cigarette.

That easy familiarity — at least for old people like me — has started to wane. Sure, you can still find Bob Ley and Dick Vitale and Suzy Kolber and Mort. But today’s cuts will claim more familiar faces. We are now in an age when Scott Van Pelt is an elder statesman.

Many of the "new" anchors are way better than the original models — they know a lot more about sports and have just as much TV talent. But as Ley is fond of saying: Other networks had viewers; ESPN had fans. If that goodwill and emotional capital goes away, does ESPN still have fans?

5. And on the other side of the ledger …

Golden State Warriors writer Ethan Strauss is out. Strauss is young(ish), cheap(er), and far more prolific (no modifier needed) than many of the veteran TV types we’ve been hearing about.

This is what’s mind-blowing about the ESPN layoffs. It’s possible that the money the network decided it had to cut is so big that it couldn’t just prune people from fading properties like SportsCenter, or more fully abandon its plan to colonize local sports pages, which had been evident for some time. Here is ESPN cutting a digital reporter covering its biggest growth sport — one of two writers it attached to maybe the most popular sports team on the planet right now.

I got to know Strauss a little when I was writing about the Warriors last winter. He is almost owlish — like a thoughtful postgrad student beamed into an NBA locker room. "He’ll break himself down for 10 minutes," one of his colleagues told me. Strauss told me the first conversation he had with Steve Kerr was about Egyptian Arabic. Mark Jackson, Kerr’s predecessor, was fairly baffled by him.

Strauss had little interest in being on TV. If he was going to be a "personality," he was determined to be a literary one — literary in the stats-friendly, New Sportswriting sense of the word. Strauss was after big ideas, like what he called the "lie of NBA friendship." "You could tell there weren’t a lot of guys who were really close friends last year [2015–16] because James Michael McAdoo and Harrison Barnes actually were," he said. "It put a lot of the other relationships in stark relief. You were like, ‘Oh! That’s what friendship looks like!’"

At another point, he told me: "Think of just the market forces working against Steph and KD getting along right now."

Some sportswriters are supremely, unnaturally happy. At least in our talk, Strauss seemed more thoughtful than happy. "If I’m being totally honest," he said, "I’m sure there are happy beat reporters, but I don’t know any of them." I hope his next gig ends more happily than this one.