Two months ago, just after the end of a long holiday weekend, Jason Whitlock convened a morning meeting at the Los Angeles offices of his ESPN-backed black-interest site, The Undefeated, which is slated to go live this summer. Five days before, to coincide with the NBA All-Star Game, the site had introduced itself with a feature story on Charles Barkley and race written by former AP entertainment editor Jesse Washington. It was the first published proof—a year and a half after the site had been announced as a black-led, black-culture-themed counterpart to ESPN’s prestige outlet, Grantland, built around the personality of sportwriting’s preeminent controversialist—that The Undefeated existed.
Now Whitlock was taking stock of how the preview had gone and laying out plans for the future. He welcomed the site’s East Coast contingent, comprising Washington and two other veteran journalists who were joining the meeting by phone. He began by telling the team that he was proud of what everyone had done so far, and that his patron, ESPN president John Skipper, was excited too. A 12 on a 1-to-10 scale, Whitlock said.
This was in line with what he had told the staff by email a few days before, expressing his “pride and joy” at establishing “a name and a reputation.” Then the meeting took a turn. The most powerful black sportswriter in America launched into a long, strange monologue covering his favorite subjects: himself, his many enemies, and the unfair standards to which he believes he is held.
“If you’re more comfortable working for white people, rather than working for me—and that sounds humorous, but it’s the truth,” he said, according to audio obtained by Deadspin. “Some black people are far more comfortable answering to a white person than a black person no matter how black they like to pass themselves off to be. Far more comfortable, because they know a white person is going to overlook their shortcomings. ‘Eh, it’s good for a Negro.’ I’m not about that. But if you’re more comfortable working for a white person, I will find a white person for you to work for. ... We have a higher standard here. Everybody has to get on board with that or I’m going to find a way to move them someplace else.”
Audio of Jason Whitlock addressing The Undefeated staff on Feb. 17, 2015.
The assembled journalists stayed mostly quiet as Whitlock continued. This was just how things went.
Leon Carter, the longtime ESPNer and newly installed editorial director, was there. So were senior editor Danielle Cadet, whom Whitlock had poached from the Huffington Post’s Black Voices vertical; Ryan Cortes, a young freelancer whom Whitlock’s good friend and ESPN colleague Dan Le Batard had personally recommended; Brando Starkey, a young academic and Harvard Law graduate; and Justin Tinsley, a freelancer with a master’s in sports industry management from Georgetown. Then there were the East Coasters, in by phone: Washington, who had once worked with Whitlock on a story at Vibe; Jerry Bembry, the first black senior editor at ESPN The Magazine; and Mike Wise, the site’s marquee signing and a former Washington Post columnist. (Executive editor Amy DuBois Barnett, a former EBONY editor in chief who had left that job under mysterious circumstances, was notably absent.)
In its way, this whipsawing meeting captured most of everything worth knowing about what Whitlock’s project already has been, what it is, and what it will be: an expression of his grievances and his ambitions, given shape and solidity by the whim of ESPN’s president. The irony, which has expressed itself in many ways, is that it’s precisely Whitlock’s grievances that have thwarted the ambitions.
This staff—the one Whitlock was praising by way of warnings that, if the writers and editors wouldn’t align with his vision, he would get rid of them—wasn’t the one he wanted. The Undefeated was originally meant to attract the best and brightest young black talent in the country, with Whitlock’s aim set so high that he at one point seriously tried to recruit The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates, the sharpest cultural commentator in the business today. As things worked out, though, those young writers comprehensively refused to work with him. So did big-name ESPNers like Howard Bryant, Jemele Hill, and Stephen A. Smith, whom he tried to bring in as contributors. Whitlock and ESPN were nevertheless able to cobble together a staff of talented, ambitious writers and editors, but the story of his site so far is about his complete inability to work with them.
(As I’ve written about before, Whitlock was at one point recruiting me for his site, as well. It didn’t work out.)
Over the last several weeks, Deadspin has, in addition to interviewing a number of people close to the site, acquired more than 100 documents extensively outlining the inner workings of The Undefeated as it prepared for its initial launch: emails, transcripts of staff meetings and phone calls, several versions of the lengthy playbook in which Whitlock outlines his vision for the site, breaking up the text with inspirational quotes from such figures such as Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, and Jason Whitlock; and more.
Thus far, The Undefeated has produced vastly more inward-facing copy than outward-facing copy. Whitlock is big on having detailed notes taken on phone calls and meetings; they are often routed to one of his private email accounts in ways that bypass ESPN servers. But the Whitlock that emerges from these notes is not a flattering portrait. He comes across as a catastrophe as a manager—paranoid, demeaning, oblivious, vindictive, unbelievably self-regarding, and, in some cases, truly destructive. In these documents, for instance, is evidence that Whitlock used a friend’s work in a column without proper attribution, hired her, and then fired her after having asked her, among other things, not to speak unless spoken to in meetings. ESPN later allowed that in his dealings with her, he had violated its conduct policy.
In all, the notes tell a more compelling story about black life in America than anything The Undefeated has produced. And they point to one conclusion: Before it’s even launched, this site is already doomed.
In the early morning hours of Nov. 2, Amy DuBois Barnett, executive editor at the then-nameless Whitlock site, sent Whitlock and senior editor Danielle Cadet a story idea.
At this point, well over a year after the initial announcement, the site was finally starting to staff up. Within the month, ESPN would announce the hirings of Cadet, Jesse Washington, and Ryan Cortes, and active discussions were being had with others, including Brando Simeo Starkey, Mike Wise, and Leon Carter, who was running ESPN’s local interest websites.
These were surprising moves. Carter, a career editor, was already well-stationed in the ESPN hierarchy, and his skills were in theory duplicative of Barnett’s. Starkey was a lawyer and writer whose book In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty was set to be published within months, but he had very little journalism experience. Then there was Wise, an even less obvious fit.
For a site with ambitions of reaching and even saving young minority readers, Wise—who was on his way out at the Washington Post, having few allies left at the paper—didn’t seem to make any kind of sense. It wasn’t so much that he was into his sixth decade and white; it was that, fancying himself a crusader and watchdog of sorts, he enjoyed railing against basketball teams for playing explicit rap songs in their own locker rooms and passionately lecturing black people about how they needed to stop saying the word “nigga.” Middle-aged white men who chastise blacks do not lack for opportunities in sports media, but here was ESPN courting Wise anyway. It said a lot about what Whitlock wanted the site to be.
If he was making a statement by hiring certain people, he was also making one by not hiring others. On the last day of October, he told Barnett that they would almost certainly not be hiring a pop culture writer in time for the site’s launch. Her background—Brown, a master’s in creative writing from Columbia, stints at Essence and Harper’s Bazaar—made her the obvious candidate to lead the site’s culture coverage. It was natural that she would push back.
This is the context within which Barnett made her pitch. At the time, the Marvin Gaye estate was engaged in a lawsuit with singer Robin Thicke and his collaborator Pharrell Williams over their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” which the estate claimed infringed its copyrights; the trial was set for Feb. 10. As Barnett saw it, the landmark case had everything—Marvin Gaye, R&B, hip hop, cultural appropriation, black history, and potential ramifications for the entire music industry—and she wanted it covered.
Here is how Whitlock responded to the proposal, five days after it was sent. (As in all the emails cited in this story, errors are as in the original.)
Your email to me and Danielle late Saturday night/early Sunday morning about Robin Thicke is an example of remaining off-message and tone deaf. On Friday, we had just discussed in significant detail that it is unlikely we would have a pop culture writer at the launch of the site. I ended our discussion saying the best way to fix this is by focusing on great sports content that will win us internal victories between now and launch. I’m sure you will argue that the intention of the email was totally innocent and not meant to contradict the conversation we had just had on Friday. At this point, I’m unconcerned about intention. The email created the impression with me that you did not comprehend my strategy as it relates to the coverage of pop culture or you wanted to file one last objection to my strategy by passive-aggressively arguing (through 2 am email) that it’s essential we cover some music trial. The email was a mistake and further undermines my belief that you can take direction from me.
On Tuesday, I wrote a detailed email explaining how I wanted our small team to interact with Leon Carter and Brando Starkey. The itinerary ended at 4 p.m., leaving everyone plenty of additional time to interact with Leon from 4 pm to 6 pm, at dinner at Flemings or at the Lakers game. I was not pleased that Leon’s time with Brando was compromised and limited because you pulled Leon into a private discussion outside the building. When I’m away, I expect you to represent and execute my strategy/vision. I think everyone caught your vibe that you’re not a fan of Brando. Noted and recorded.
My background is football and team sports. My leadership model is taken from my participation in sports. The head coach of a team often calls plays that the players and assistant coaches second-guess. The great players and assistants — the great leaders — execute those plays as enthusiastically and efficiently as the plays they love because they believe in the head coach. This is an area of weakness for you, or you have very little faith in the head coach. As long as it remains a weakness, do not plan on gaining my confidence. Your current chosen strategy for long-term success within this project and at ESPN is bizarre and unwise. It’s undermining my resolve to help you. I don’t think you want my help.
Less than an hour later, Barnett replied.
I understand that we need wins between now and the site launch; that’s why I keep pushing content brainstorming meetings and why I put together a to-do list for the team that includes pre-launch content. I am executing your strategy.
The Robin Thicke trial starts in Februrary, which is the proposed launch month for the site. I did not suggest covering it before then and I assumed, per your direction, that there might be some limited coverage of culture at launch. The trial (Marvin Gaye v. RobinThicke) has a past/present theme and involves issues of urban culture, race and respect. I thought you would be interested in such topics. I am unclear how pointing out such a potentially meaningful event that will take place during the launch month of the site could be construed as passive aggressive.
Leon and I only meant to take a 15-minute walk, but we got into a deep conversation about how we might interact and how our relationship could work. Knowing that you wanted us to convince him to join the team, I used that time to express confidence in the partnership and to express my enthusiasm for his presence at the site. And Leon was very eager to have that extended conversation with me as he was on his self-expressed “fact-finding mission.” Again, I was executing your strategy. Other than Leon and I returning to the office 15 minutes after the scheduled time, everyone followed your outline of the day to the minute.
I liked Brando after meeting him. Danielle, Leon and I briefly discussed our opinions of him at the Lakers game and that was all. Leon expressed that he was concerned that Brando’s writing was very academic and Danielle was unclear about one of his ideas, but we all agreed that he is very smart and has an interesting and valuable perspective.
I’m not sure how much more I can tow the line, Jason. You seem hell-bent on interpreting everything I say to mean that I do not understand or believe in your vision. This simply couldn’t be more untrue, however it is challenging to have faith in someone who doesn’t value and have faith in you.
Whitlock was well within his rights to veto the idea. What’s incredible here is less the what than the how—the bombast, the self-mythologizing, the casual equation of disagreement with disloyalty.
Given her refusal to fall in line and given Whitlock’s reaction, it isn’t surprising that Barnett, according to sources, now finds herself on the margins of the site.
“She’s there but she’s not there,” one source with direct knowledge of the site’s workings said last month. “She’s been out of the loop for months, and Jason has made it clear that everyone should stay away from her.”
Through the fall and into the winter, Whitlock’s site busily went about filling its masthead. In late December, ESPN announced the hirings of Wise, Jerry Bembry, and Justin Tinsley. Just after the new year, Carter was brought in above Barnett on the organizational chart as vice president and editorial director.
Whitlock, meanwhile, was thinking a great deal about what the site should actually be and how it should work. In practice, this largely took the form of fussing over what he calls “the playbook,” the culmination of all his musings on race and culture and journalism. It first surfaced over a year ago, circulating among both potential recruits and incredulous journalists, as an early glimpse into what was then known publicly as “black Grantland” and internally as Sons of Sam (in honor of the great black sportswriter Sam Lacy). Initially a 1,200-word document that contained two sections—a mission statement and a manifesto he called “The Blueprint”—it would eventually grow to nearly 50 pages. Whitlock passed out the first physical copies to staff on Feb. 2, having spent hours and hours critiquing and rejecting different fonts, ink colors, binding, and even paper thicknesses.
Much of what’s in this document is, in one way or another, about leadership (“Thought Leadership” actually tops a list of the core tenets of the site). This is a subject close to Whitlock’s heart, and something he frequently provides in the form of sports metaphors, references to The Wire, and inspirational quotes. A pep talk he gave his then-assistant, Erin Buker, via email in January is fairly typical:
What got Amy into trouble is coming to work every day trying to score 30 points and grab 18 rebounds. You need to approach this job like all you have to do is score 6 points, get three assists and hustle back on defense.
Great journalists have 2 ears, 2 eyes and 1 mouth. They listen/observe four times as much as they talk. It’s not an accident we have 1 mouth.
He was evidently fond of the variant on an old cliché used in the second paragraph of this email, which he took personal credit for, because later that day he listed it in a staff-wide email with the subject line “Here are some inspiring quotes that I hope will guide us.” There were 16 inspiring quotes in all, under a request for staffers to send along their own favorite journalism quotes. His old heroes Ralph Wiley, Mike Royko, and David Simon were represented, as was his new one, Michelle Alexander. There were quotes from Maya Angelou and Calvin Hill, and from Mike Krzyzewski and Katharine Graham and Margaret Mead. They accounted for nine quotes. The remaining seven, mixed in with the rest, were from Whitlock himself.
Learn the rules so you’ll know when and how to properly break them.
Write on Monday what everyone else will think to write on Friday.
A great journalist is comfortable in situations where everyone else is uncomfortable.
Great journalists realize we have 2 ears, 2 eyes and 1 mouth for a reason. We are intended to listen/observe four times as much as we talk.
A great leader recognizes good leadership and follows.
Great journalism is dependent on great reporting and great research. An editor can help you write well; only a journalist can report and research.
There’s a difference between being a journalist and a TV personality, a difference between being a journalist and a writer. This project is for people who want to be journalists. Great journalists.
All these quotes appear in the March 23 version of Whitlock’s playbook, which he had formatted just before the whole staff trekked to Bristol, Conn., for a two-day summit during which everyone met with ESPN brass, attended workshops, and checked in on the progress of the site. It was presented there, and eventually even trumpeted in The New York Times. It is a remarkable document, important enough to Whitlock that he admonished one staffer for leaving a copy lying around, rather than securing it in a desk. You can read in its entirety here.
The playbook begins with a mission statement announcing that the non-existent site is “the premiere platform for intelligent analysis and celebration of Black culture and the African-American struggle for equality.” After this come short, Wikipedia-style biographies of seven “founding sportswriters”—journalists of color Whitlock considers heroes or friends. All but Wendell Smith’s are accompanied with portraits illustrated by Starkey. (Smith was a late addition; in earlier versions, The New York Times columnist Bill Rhoden was the seventh, but he was eventually scrapped.)
Nearly every other page contains an inspirational quote, more than a third of them from Whitlock himself. One even ended up in there twice:
There are also 10 “core tenets”—Thought Leadership, Impactful Journalism, Original Thinking, Truth Telling, Synergy, Compelling Over Comprehensive, Getting Social, Reflecting The Culture, Developing New Voices, and Strategic Advocacy:
And examples of “great content” from writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jason Whitlock:
And elementary school-level guides on how to construct stories ...
... and write sentences:
Whitlock also includes rough outlines of site sections and future projects:
Most telling of all, though, is the “LeBron Project”:
This is strange for a number of reasons, and the fact that it’s flatly wrong on a conceptual level—LeBron James has in no way transcended Michael Jordan—is the least of them. The only possible explanation of his bizarre misreading of history, which makes claims on LeBron’s behalf that LeBron himself never would, is that allusion at the end to Whitlock’s “close ties” to the superstar’s retinue. Only someone sympathetic to LeBron James’s business interests would suggest the man has anything in common with Muhammad Ali, who is an icon not just because he was a great boxer, but because he risked a prison term for refusing to kill for his government, and who fought for the right to his agency, his religion, even his name.
On the one hand, this is unsurprising; Whitlock has a long record of using the Ali comparison as a sort of meaningless superlative. Athletes as different from each other—and Ali—as Tiger Woods, LaDainian Tomlinson, and even Pat Tillman all got this treatment. (“You would think it would be impossible to find common ground between Tillman and Ali,” the columnist wrote in 2004. “Not for me. They both made tremendous sacrifices.”)
On the other hand, it’s weird, partly because Whitlock has a history of running Ali down. In a 2006 interview with Michael Tillery of The Starting Five, for instance, he said, “Black athletes need to be led. Muhammad Ali was not a leader. He was a follower. Someone told him what to say. No offense to Mr. Ali, but boxers do not moonlight as doctors or rocket scientists.” And in a 2009 Fox Sports column, he wrote, “Jim Brown is the most important athlete in American history. ... The reverence we shower on the self-serving, draft-dodging, Joe Frazier-is-a-monkey Muhammad Ali more appropriately belongs at Jim Brown’s feet.”
In its way, this perfectly encapsulates Whitlock, for whom most everything is malleable. He’s not here to uncover, to teach, or even to learn, but to provoke. And just as calling Ali a self-serving draft-dodger is provocative, so is claiming that LeBron is on his way to transcending Ali. The end goal is, always, to draw attention to himself.
But the LeBron Project reveals something else about The Undefeated beyond the hot-take tendencies of its founder. The site’s keystone has reached a conclusion, built on ludicrous inaccuracies, before even testing its hypothesis. The LeBron Project isn’t so much a misapplication of journalism as a hijacking. It’s native advertising at worst, propaganda at best—not so much for LeBron as for Whitlock’s priors.
“The entire site is a preconceived narrative,” says one exasperated ESPNer. “And if you have a site that’s a preconceived narrative, then that site will fail.”
There was a time when the plan was for The Undefeated to launch the week of Feb. 9, just before the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York. When it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen, the plan changed. ESPN would run three reported, longform stories that week, in what John Skipper termed “a sneak peek” ahead of a summer launch.
Mike Wise, a D.C. guy, was to write a story about Washington Wizards star John Wall and where the point guard came from. Jesse Washington headed to Leeds, Ala., to do the same sort of story about Charles Barkley. And while Jerry Bembry was packing up his life and moving from Baltimore to Los Angeles, he was to write a story on the effects of gentrification in Brooklyn, where he grew up and still owned an apartment.
It perhaps says most of what you need to know about the state of the project at this point (a year and a half after it had been announced) that the man running its day-to-day operations didn’t come on until a week before this sneak peek went live.
On Feb. 2, Whitlock sent out an email to the staff.
Our fearless leader arrives today — Leon “Scandal” Carter. Leon is our VP Editorial Content. In Wire parlance, he’s my Stringer Bell (and I’m just a gangsta I suppose).
For those of you who have not spent much time around Mr. Scandal, please take the morning to introduce yourself and talk with our leader.
One of the open questions related to The Undefeated is the precise nature of the mission that sent Carter to Los Angeles. On paper, he seems like a natural ally, if not agent, of Whitlock. The two are fellow travelers, of the same generation, broadly similar in their temperamental conservativism and backgrounds in hot-take sportswriting. (In an email announcing his hiring, Whitlock called Carter, longtime sports editor of the New York Daily News, “primarily responsible for the handful of good columns Mike Lupica wrote in the 2000s,” which is a damning sort of praise.) ESPN sources, though, describe him as Bristol’s man at The Undefeated, tasked with keeping Whitlock and Barnett from killing one another and, more than that, with actually getting a site going.
One method Carter used from the get-go was the Ripple, a daily meeting taking its name from what happens after you throw a rock in the water. At these meetings, Carter convened the younger half of the staff to make suggestions on the order of drawing up a list of experts and authorities to consult on subjects the site would be covering and discuss what stories the site would actually cover, if it existed. (In his first week, according to a participant’s notes, these included the then-ongoing controversy over Brian Williams’s dodgy memory, the conflict between Chris Paul and referee Lauren Holtkamp, and Kerry Washington’s skin having been digitally lightened on the cover of InStyle.) These meetings soon detoured in strange directions.
One Ripple, for instance, turned into a colloquy on slang and modern music, according to a transcript of the meeting. Prompted by a draft of a story in which Justin Tinsley had used the word “dropped” in reference to the rapper Drake’s new album, Leon Carter picked up his legal pad and dropped it on the floor.
“So Drake,” he said, “he dropped the album. So I’m going to pick it up and I want you”—addressing Justin—“to discuss the album.”
“I mean, he released the album!” said Carter. “But of course, you want to be hip, it has to be ‘dropped.’ He ‘dropped’ it.”
“Released is fine, too,” said Tinsley.
“No, it’s not!” said Carter. “No, it’s not!” The conversation soon turned to ’90s R&B lothario Keith Sweat before Carter decided to hear some of Drake’s music for himself. “Okay, enough!” he said, after hearing the words “nigga” and “fuck.”
Good-natured ribbing is hard to distinguish from true mutual incomprehension, but the sort of generational disconnect on display here was evident from the start. Four days after his arrival, Carter sent out an email to the younger half of the staff expressing enthusiasm over his first week and reminding them to “Be prepared to recite the undefeated quote!!!!!” At their next meeting, Carter announced that the Ripple would be going twice daily, and later that day he indeed had Danielle Cadet, Ryan Cortes, and Justin Tinsley stand up and deliver from memory the Maya Angelou quote that would eventually give the site its name.
“You may encounter many defeats,” goes the line the young writers were made to recite, “but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
That same day, Whitlock continued the new policy of elementary instruction by sending out a communiqué to the full staff under the subject line “The elements necessary for a good story...”
1) Clear, concise writing (Brando can help)
2) Big idea(s) (my favorite)
3) Clever turn of phrases (Mike can help)
4) New information, insight (reporting) (my second favorite)
5) Beautiful writing, painted pictures that take you to the scene (Jesse can help)
6) Emotion of some kind — anger, joy, sadness, reflective, laughter (Leon can help)
7) Hook the reader early (my third favorite)
A good story does not need to have all seven of these. But it better have at least one. If a story touches six, you have a grand slam. Get five and you a home run. Get four and you can definitely get to third base and maybe stretch it to an inside the park homer. Three and you’ve sent the ball off the wall. Two and you’re safely on base. Get one? Well, it depends on which one. Break news and you might have a double. A big idea can definitely carry a story. You might draw a walk with one of the others.. None? Well, better luck next time.
Try to get at least two or three of these in each piece of content we produce.
We can all help each other if we communicate and have the right attitude.
This project is hard. Twice as hard. Hold yourself to a higher standard than you have at any time in your career.
We’re going to shock the world.
As he sent that, his site was, finally, about to give the world the first concrete sign of its existence.
On Feb. 10, ESPN.com published Mike Wise’s John Wall profile, edited by Whitlock. Although not marked as such, this was the world’s first look at “black Grantland.” The story begins thus:
John Wall rubs his scraggly beard and hops on the pool table in the players’ lounge of the Verizon Center, his languid, 6-foot-4, frame unfolding as he leans back. “Shoot,” he says.
All right. Where would you be if the NBA never worked out for you — the money, the fame, the whole package?
“I’d probably be in the streets or in jail,” he responds, emotionless.
From the second paragraph, Wise is retreading the tired dead-or-in-jail narrative so many white writers lean on when profiling black athletes. Even if you haven’t read this piece, you’ve read it. In a piece fat with allusions to black pathology, Wise earnestly chronicles how Wall overcame his family’s criminal history and even his own nature to make something of himself. Much is made, for instance, of the significance of Crazy J and John, the two sides of a teenage Wall. Crazy J broke into cars and argued with refs; John was a good teammate who respected his mama. It seemingly never occurs to Wise that perhaps Crazy J and John bled into one another, or even that he may just have been a rude, rambunctious, arrogant teenager who, as teenagers are known to do, simply grew up.
At the climax of the piece, Wall says this to Wise:
“When I left,” Wall remembers, “a lot of people said, ‘He’ll be back.’ They said, ‘He’ll be in school for four years, and he’ll be back.’ Nobody thought I would make it.”
It would have been much more interesting and much more useful for Wise to interrogate just why the hell anyone, Wall included, would have thought that the top-rated high schooler in the country, on his way to John Calipari’s Kentucky, was anything other than a year from becoming the first overall pick in the NBA draft. Instead, Wise just moved on.
Whitlock, as he would later pronounce to the staff, felt good about the Wall story, but much less so about Bembry’s Brooklyn gentrification piece. It was supposed to run on Friday, Feb. 13, but Whitlock thought the draft was still flat, and needed a lot of work. So he donned his editor’s cap, put Bembry—a 52-year-old father whom Whitlock bullies more than anyone else on staff, per one source—on speakerphone, and went to work.
“We’re not going to run the piece,” he told Bembry. As they spoke, Whitlock’s assistant surreptitiously took notes at her boss’s behest; afterward, she would drive home, type up her transcript, and email it to Whitlock over her home connection.
“Okay,” Bembry said.
“DiNapoli,” Whitlock went on. “He swears he was not at the meeting.”
“He was at the meeting,” said Bembry. “Yeah, the comptroller. Scott Stringer—NYC comptroller. DiNapoli is the state comptroller.”
In Bembry’s draft, he’d confused the names of the two comptrollers, placing DiNapoli at a meeting actually held by Stringer—an error, and the exact sort of thing that the fact-checking process exists to catch.
“We confirmed it,” Whitlock said.
“I was there the whole meeting, Jason,” Bembry said, incredulous. “I can send you tape of the meeting. This is offensive to me because you’re questioning my integrity.”
Even though Bembry insisted he had recordings, Whitlock intimated that the writer may have merely lifted dialogue from online transcripts of the meeting.
“If you Google the meeting all the details pop up and have been available since January 16,” Whitlock said.
“Wow,” said Bembry. “Wow. Wow.”
The two talked about the detail work in the draft for a bit before Whitlock came to the point.
“This is critical to the Whitlock site,” he said. “The story is put together sloppily, lazily. If we had went with this, that’s my ass. On week one, that would have been my ass.”
At this point, Whitlock told Bembry, who was actively in the process of packing up and moving to Los Angeles, that he wanted to “pump the brakes” on him moving at all.
“If we ran your story, we’re toast,” he said. “Whitlock in a clown suit. Look at the Negroes. We don’t know what we’re doing … ”
The two went back and forth over the details of the town hall meeting. Bembry read from his notes. Whitlock answered with details and quotes from the meeting gleaned from reports, as if it were suspicious that details of a public meeting were publicly available, and continually invoked Wise and Washington. In comparison to their work, he said, Bembry’s was a joke.
“So we can’t run the story with the correction to the comptroller?” Bembry asked.
“Why would I?” asked Whitlock.
Two days later, ESPN finally unveiled the Whitlock site—and its name—when they published “Up From Leeds,” a 9,000-word profile of Charles Barkley, on TheUndefeated.com, the Angelou reference having won out over Twice As Hard, a favorite phrase of Whitlock’s. It comes from the old black proverb, “You’ve got to work twice as hard to get half as far as a black person in white America.”
The piece focused on Barkley’s early life in the small town of Leeds, Ala., tracing a line between it and his opinions on race in American life. If Whitlock’s hand had felt perceptible in the Wall story, it slapped the readers in the face here.
The piece essentially positions Barkley as a modern-day version of Booker T. Washington, famously an avatar of what we’d now call respectability politics—the belief that the entire solution to the plight of an oppressed class is to become better and more deserving, and thus win the respect of the dominant class. His argument was that blacks, decades removed from a centuries-long enslavement, should accept the reality of white supremacy and, rather than fight against it, instead focus on self-improvement. The conceit of the profile is that as Washington was the man of his time, so Barkley, with his bromides about personal responsibility, is the man of his. In all, it reads like a typical Whitlock column chopped up and stuffed into an early draft, with glaring Whitlockian flourishes sprinkled across the page.
Throughout, Whitlock and Washington use Barkley as a vehicle through which to convey the columnist’s own opinions, missing most of what was interesting about him as a basketball player and is interesting about him as a public figure and conjuring weak parallels to the past:
Both Barkley and Washington grew up fatherless. Both established themselves in Alabama and authored books penned by others. Both believed, above all, in education and personal responsibility.
Both had their pragmatic solutions belittled as servile and short-sighted by black liberal elites, who launched their arrows from the safety and comfort of leafy college campuses well north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The worst of it may actually be how badly wrong the history is. Barkley and Booker T. Washington might both be connected to a politics of respect, but that’s where the similarities end. Washington was a citizen of an apartheid state, terrified by the looming potential for genocide following the Civil War. Whatever else they were, his arguments were practical. Barkley, by contrast, is an entertainer who, for whatever reasons, just happens not to see the legacy and ongoing reality of white supremacy as an impediment to black success. The two are, if anything, opposites—Washington was explicitly responding to white supremacy, whereas Barkley more or less denies its relevance—and in any case, it’s been nigh-universally accepted for a century now that Washington was wrong. Nowhere does the piece wrestle with the ways in which the civil rights movement was a repudiation of his ideas, or with the way his peer and rival W.E.B. DuBois—dismissed here as a “Northeast liberal”—systematically discredited his ideas as a self-defeating program of submission that “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”
The Undefeated’s story simply asserts, which may be the way in which it’s most obviously a Whitlock production. All of this made it heartbreaking but still worth reading, if only for the ways it foreshadows what’s surely to come.
“If the Barkley piece is reflective of anything,” said one ESPNer, who has watched the excruciating rollout of the site with dismay, “then I’d be very nervous. It ignored so much history.
“If you’re going to write 9,000 words, at least tell the truth.”
The day after the Barkley story ran, Whitlock sent out an email to staff, calling it “the greatest piece of sports journalism I’ve ever been associated with or seen (other than Taylor Branch’s piece on the NCAA amateurism).” The rest of his praise was similarly unrestrained.
I can’t let the week pass without sharing my feelings of pride and joy.
We now have a name and a reputation!!
Thanks to the relentless work of Raphael Poplock and his team, we are The Undefeated. I love this name. I love that it honors Maya Angelou. I love that we have the burden of honoring her reputation. I love that Raph did not sleep so that we could have this name in time for the Barkley piece.
Thanks to the work of Ryan Cortes, Mike Wise, Jesse Washington, Justin Tinsley and Brando Starkey, we have a journalistic reputation established. Our bar is set incredibly high. The two stories we put out this week — John Wall and Charles Barkley — signal to the public and our peers that we are about the business of serious J-ournalism.
Ryan Cortes is The Undefeated’s MVP. Tomorrow he will receive a $1,000 gift card from Amazon in the mail. So far, Ryan embodies everything we need to be successful in this project. He’s selfless. I asked him to assist Jesse with the reporting of the Barkley piece. He did so without ever seeking credit. His reporting on this story allowed Jesse to focus on the big picture stuff. When asked to fly to Leeds, Alabama to do additional reporting, Ryan did so without complaint, leaving his dog with an expensive sitter. I gave Ryan $400 spending money for his three-day trip to Alabama. He brought me back $318 and the receipts for the $82 he did spend. He also brought back valuable information and reporting that greatly enhanced Jesse’s story. Ryan does the small things like they’re big things. He takes pride in the details. He’s the first one in the office most days and one of the last people to leave. He speaks when he has something important to say. He’s embraced the journey of learning from Jesse, Mike, Leon, Brando, the cleaning crew and security. Ryan Cortes wants to be a great journalist. I cry thinking about Ryan and how bad he wants us all to succeed.
Mike Wise had two babies this week. He had a second son and he put together a fantastic story on John Wall. Mike is a great journalist but he wants to be a Hall of Fame journalist. He refused to allow his family situation to stop him from being a big part of our debut. He refused to allow Jesse’s seminal Barkley piece to have all of the spotlight. Mike competed. He offered critical feedback on the Barkley piece, traveled to North Carolina to learn John Wall’s backstory and chased down John Wall and made him talk. Mike was a team player while putting up 30 points himself and welcoming a baby to his nest.
Jesse Washington wrote the greatest piece of sports journalism I’ve ever been associated with or seen (other than Taylor Branch’s piece on the NCAA amateurism). Jesse redefined a cultural icon who has been written about for 30 years. He wrote a story that is relevant to sports fans and historians. He made us look smart. Jesse has no experience as a broadcaster. He flew back to Leeds, Alabama and filmed a video piece that is worthy of appearing on SportsCenter. Jesse jumped into the editing of Mike Wise’s John Wall piece and helped Mike improve it. Jesse took Ryan Cortes to church and school on how to be a J-ournalist.
Justin Tinsley accepted Ryan Cortes’ challenge of being the most valuable utility knife we have when he threw himself into assisting Mike Wise with the Wall piece. Justin’s phone interviews with John Wall’s associates significantly enhanced Mike’s story. Justin chops wood every single day. He reads the books I gave him. He works with Brando Starkey to improve his writing. Justin attends Lakers, Clippers and Kings games because he wants to learn what this profession is really about. Justin’s positive attitude and genuineness are infectious. I started challenging Justin from Day 1 about whether he has what it takes to be a J-ournalist. He ain’t scared. He walks in the door every day trying to get better. Truth is, he lives across the street from our office and probably beats Ryan into the building and he leaves the Lakers, Kings, and Clippers games after I’ve gone to bed. Young brother, I love you.
Brando Starkey’s nickname is Beast Mode. He’s an absolute beast at line editing copy. a BEAST. Ask Jesse and Mike. Brando is a beast as a thinker. He is our last line of defense. He’s Dikembe Mutombo wagging a finger when I think something stupid and suggest putting it in writing. Brando worked all weekend getting the fat out of the Barkley and Wall pieces. He did so without complaint. He’s taken on the responsibility of grooming Justin as a writer and a thinker. Beast Mode is ’bout dat action, boss.
We had five legitimate MVP candidates Week 1.
This is what it takes to remain Undefeated.
Four days after that, Whitlock convened the meeting at which he held forth on unnamed black people who prefer to work for whites and talked to his writers and editors about the work he was willing to put in to get them out. And five days after that, he sent out a staff-wide email to which he appended yet another proclamation about how no one at The Undefeated had yet reached his high standards. “If you think what you’ve done in the past is good enough,” he wrote, “you’re in a state of delusion that will soon be shaken by me.”
This week we’re going to spend a lot of time focusing on ideas for the launch of the site. Tomorrow’s meeting will kick things off. Be on time. We’re going to start promptly at 10 am. Take notes.
Things that will be discussed:
1) Summit meeting in Bristol March 26-27. Leon and Hassan will update us.
2) Quick update on stories for 8 sports writers.
3) Story construction. Idea-Reporting-Conclusion.
4) Mayweather-Manny fight story idea. Brando and Justin. Deadline April 22.
5) Launch story ideas. This is a preliminary list we need to expand. When talking about launch ideas, we need to be thinking about the first month of content.
LeBron James-Muhammad Ali
Booker T the wrestler
South African marathon runner
Baby Cash Money Records
Politics of Respectability
In closing, I’m going to be challenging each of us individually and collectively to think about what we’re willing to do to make this project successful. At the top of the list is an individual willingness to improve at the skill of journalism. If you are not trying to improve as a reporter, writer, editor, leader, journalist, then you are letting all of us down. If you think what you’ve done in the past is good enough, you’re in a state of delusion that will soon be shaken by me (or hopefully someone else on this project). I’m from an athletic background. Coaches and teammates hold each other accountable. Your failure to take responsibility for your improvement shifts a burden onto one of your teammates on this project. That’s not fair. Our team is too small to allow someone to coast and cheat. As teammates, we will help each other improve. But you have to put your ego aside and ask for the help you need, and then use it to grow so you no longer need as much help. We have a chance to do something great. We can only accomplish our goals if we all give maximum effort at reaching our full potential.
“Coasting and cheating”? Whitlock knows whereof he speaks. In September, he asked a friend—whom he described as “a survivor of domestic violence”—to write him an email in the wake of video leaking that showed NFL running back Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious in an elevator. She did; that email made up a substantial portion of his next column. In one paragraph, Whitlock copied her word for word within quotation marks, claiming that she’d relayed the words over the phone, “her voice filled with emotion.” In the next, he presented another passage directly lifted from her email as a paraphrased summary of their conversation.
This is from his friend’s email:
There is no dignity in being a victim.
Janay Rice is a victim of domestic abuse. We all watched her get struck repeatedly on that video....but what comfort does that give her? We can only imagine what it felt like for her to be the recipient of those punches. What must it feel like for her to watch herself in that situation? To know that every single person she has ever known can watch her get beaten by her now-husband, to get dragged out of an elevator, her skirt upturned in a most unflattering way, how must that feel?
... and this is what Whitlock wrote:
“There is no dignity in being a victim,” a friend who is a survivor of domestic violence told me Tuesday afternoon after reading Janay Rice’s heartbreaking Instagram post.
When my friend, the survivor, called, her voice filled with emotion, she explained: “Janay Rice is a victim of domestic abuse. We all watched her get struck repeatedly on that video ... but what comfort does that give her? We can only imagine what it felt like for her to be the recipient of those punches. What must it feel like for her to watch herself in that situation? To know that every single person she has ever known can watch her get beaten by her now-husband, to get dragged out of an elevator, her skirt upturned in a most unflattering way. How must that feel?”
Here is what his friend wrote in her email:
Her private shame is now public spectacle, and so of course she is angry with the media. They’re airing her dirty laundry (this is assault and not dirty laundry of course but it is essential to understand that she is not ready to see it that way) and not only must she be humiliated over and over again by not just the act, but the replaying and analysis of the act, and now she has no choice but to wear the label of victim.
... and here is what he put in his column:
My friend went on to express that Janay’s private shame is now a public spectacle, and so, of course, she is angry with the media. We’re airing her dirty laundry (Janay’s interpretation) and not only must she be humiliated over and over again by not just the act, but the replaying and analysis of it. And now she has no choice but to wear the victim label like a Scarlet Letter.
This is more venial than mortal sin, but fabricating detail and presenting direct quotation as paraphrase in a column would, in many shops, be a firing offense. It is, by any definition, “coasting and cheating.”
Whitlock later hired this friend, Erin Buker, as his assistant. She was fired on March 26, about a month after he asked her to resign for, among other things, speaking aloud without first being spoken to in a meeting he didn’t even attend. ESPN HR investigated and found, according to a letter from employee relations director Robert Gallo, that Whitlock “did not behave at all times in accordance with ESPN’s Conduct Policy, which includes an expectation to treat coworkers in a professional, courteous, and respectful manner.”
Gallo promised to take “appropriate action.” In response to an inquiry on the nature of this action, an ESPN spokesperson simply said, “We are not going to comment on this personnel matter.”
For all Whitlock’s flaws as a manager, it’s the combination of his laziness as a thinker and his instinct for provocation that’s truly pernicious. After all these years, he hasn’t changed a bit.
Last fall, for instance, when white St. Louis Cardinals fans were filmed shouting “Go back to Africa!” and the like at an anti-police brutality demonstration, Whitlock criticized them by noting that “to ignore the obvious inappropriate/trolling behavior of the black protesters is a form of hipster-approved white supremacy that is equally dangerous.” In a December follow-on, he compared coverage of police violence against blacks to that of missing Malaysian Airlines flight 370, ridiculed black parents who have “the talk” with their teenaged sons about how to interact with police, and mused on the benefits of Jim Crow. (This is the one he placed right alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates’s epic case for reparations on his “great content” list.)
These aren’t outliers; they are expressions of the priors—“his stupid black neocon shit,” one ESPN colleague calls it—the site is meant to defend.
Right now, that site exists most concretely as the aspirations laid out in Whitlock’s playbook, especially in the section called The Blueprint, where he shares his theory of the site. It does not suggest that he is going to change any time soon.
The Blueprint begins as follows:
Both in public and private, Whitlock has argued, for more than a year, that The Undefeated is necessary because the end of segregation was in many ways a catastrophe for blacks generally and for black journalism in particular. “What was seen as tough love while working for a black newspaper,” he writes, “is interpreted as selling out when working for a mainstream outlet.”
Read as social history, this makes no sense; read as Whitlock defending and justifying Whitlock, and defining his site principally as a mechanism for doing so, it follows perfectly. When he describes other black-interest sites as “inferior, relying primarily on rehashes of other outlets’ reporting and predictable liberal commentary that refuses to address some of black America’s most debilitating pathologies,” or claims that hip hop promotes outright un-American values, it’s impossible to read it as anything but him trying to hardwire the same old bullshit he’s been preaching forever into the foundation of the site.
This comes out in the most minor ways—in his fixation, for instance, on Jay Z, whom he views as an avatar of black pathology. It’s funny that he doesn’t understand that Jay Z, who pulled himself up by his bootstraps to become a legitimate businessman and champion of capitalism, is something of a Whitlock-ish figure, or why attacking the middle-aged dad and family-friendly entertainer is something like attacking the Rolling Stones in 1985. It also connects up with stuff that isn’t really very funny at all, such as the fact that he wants to make a campaign against black people using the word “nigga” his site’s principal, guiding cause. (Seriously: “We will have causes. We will take a position against use of the N-word, and write stories that hammer home these beliefs.”)
There is no way a room full of intelligent thinkers and writers can be united behind Whitlock’s crass appeal to sports-as-American values, or his far-right dog whistles, or his musings on the inherent sicknesses of black people. The site isn’t for them, though. Rather than a salon for various and varying black voices, The Undefeated is an instrument to trumpet Whitlock’s own. And this, more than anything else, is the problem. By setting the site up as a justification not just for his own unpopular and long-held stances but for himself—by making it the sort of black-interest site that surveys the United States as it is in 2015 and identifies black people using the word “nigga” as the single cause most worth its time and attention—Whitlock has condemned it to irrelevance, his grievances finally winning out over his ambitions.
One person close to the site, who describes Whitlock as “a chocolate echo of vanilla viciousness,” specifically cites this proposed campaign as an indication of all its conceptual failures.
“This might as well be black McCarthyism,” this person says, incredulously. “Of all the corrosive cynicism that exists in the racial dynamics of this era, the n-word? It’s a tragic forfeiture.”
The Undefeated was ESPN president John Skipper’s idea. It was Skipper who approached Whitlock, Skipper who made the deal, and Skipper who supported the site as its nonexistence became an embarrassment. A year and a half later, the why of it all is still a mystery.
“This is not to belittle or diminish anything Jason has accomplished,” said one source at ESPN, pointing out that the network brought Whitlock and Keith Olbermann back around the same time. “But I think we went through a period there, as a company, that they wanted to prove they were not too sensitive to have anyone inside the umbrella.”
Others offer a different theory. They say that there’s a certain sort of person, tending toward old, rich, white, and male, to whom Whitlock’s focus on the supposed cultural failures of black people rather than the structural inequities of American society especially appeals, and note that those are the sort of people who largely run ESPN.
“His views,” says one person close to the site, “put him firmly within the circumference of white comfort.”
These explanations aren’t in conflict, and read together, they make sense of this new site. Whitlock’s discredited ideas would get a white person laughed (or chased) out of the room if uttered in a public forum. As proffered by him, though, they make for a nice bit of public relations, providing both a display of how ESPN can work with apostates and a worthy show of diversity while appealing to an audience that loves to hear from black people what a certain sort of white person thinks yet can’t say. This would paint Whitlock as little more than a pawn, placed in his current role on something other than merits. The strange thing may just be how much he keeps acting like one.
On March 10, in the wake of a video leaking of Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members singing a song that contained the lyrics, “There’ll never be a nigger in SAE,” Whitlock penned his first column in over three months.
It was typical Whitlock. He sidestepped any real criticism of the SAE brothers and instead trained his eye on blacks’ role in provoking white racism. He used a video of an OU linebacker’s profane, pained response to the video as evidence of how a 50-year “unrelenting attack on Dr. King’s dignified, nonviolent strategy to circumvent white supremacy swept up black millennials, too.”
Our history has been so distorted and perverted that feel-good rhetoric (Malcolm X) has been granted equality with strategy and sacrifice (King). I write that having read the autobiography of Malcolm X a half-dozen times. X’s story is truly inspiring. But the truth is Elijah Muhammad built and organized the racially flawed religion that transformed Malcolm Little from criminal to orator.
It’s foolish to celebrate the fruit and ignore the tree.
Martin Luther King Jr. is our tree.
Whitlock went on, blaming Ronald Reagan and, of all people, long-dead rapper Eazy-E for having inspired the “Selfie Generation, the most photographed and least reflective generation of young people America has ever produced.”
Six days later, the columnist followed up with a rare solo appearance on his ESPN podcast, Real Talk. He made it very clear from the beginning that this was to be a Very Special Episode, urging young listeners to “demand that your high school or college or even junior high teacher or history professor play this podcast for your class.” Content everyone was listening, he went on.
I want to start by apologizing to those millennials, to those young people. Because I think—you know, I wrote a column last week—that was pretty hard on millennials. Nothing I said do I regret. Nothing that I said do I find inaccurate. But … there are things that I left out, and I think people heard as me slamming black millennials as if they are worthless, or as if they’re the problem. They’re not the problem. My generation, and the generation before me, we’re the problem. We have let down black millennials. They are and you are our creation. We were tasked with the job of rearing you, and preparing you for this world. And—and I know this does not apply to everyone—but overall, we have let you down. We have not properly prepared you. Now, are there outside forces that have stopped us from properly preparing you? Absolutely. And I don’t in any way ignore those things. But at the end of the day, these young people are a reflection of us, and a strategic error that we have made.
In judging the younger generation a disappointment so profound that they have reversed the course of American history, and then beating his breast over having led them astray, Whitlock constructed perhaps the most outrageous, condescending, egomaniacal, and oblivious non-apology of a long career full of them.
From there, Whitlock decried the way millennials have lost their way somewhere along the path King laid out for future generations; equated Malcolm X, whom he’d dismissed a week before as merely an orator, with King; bemoaned the way millennials have strayed from his path, too; said the younger generation was self-involved because his own generation didn’t show them enough love; said young blacks don’t know black history because of the very integration of schools that King fought for; railed, again, against the word “nigga”; introduced his theory that while King fought against policy, this generation is fighting against feelings; said that he loved his mom, but Twitter not so much; shrugged off police brutality, and police body cameras; took on Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer he at one time would have loved to recruit; divulged that he was a capitalist; and allowed that capitalism is built on unfairness.
All in all, it was batshit—arrogant, diffident, bitter, and resigned in equal measure. He was sulking, yes, but this was also the pained, anguished wail of a jilted lover. Jason Whitlock wants to be crowned a black leader, a black teacher. Even as he lambasts young black people, he yearns for their ear. But he knows he doesn’t have a claim.
“He realizes,” one person at The Undefeated said, “he hasn’t done anything to deserve this site.”
On the way to becoming the most powerful black sportswriter in America, he became the most hated. And now at the summit, he hides himself in a world of his own devising. He glares into shadows, lashes out at his contemporaries, and susses out imagined schemes against him. (He is so paranoid that, according to a source close to him, after the publication of my critical story last year, Whitlock was shaken enough that he took to binge-watching 9/11 conspiracy videos. “Truther shit on Netflix,” was how the source characterized it. “That’s what your first article did to him.”) All the while, he gives no sign of understanding the obvious.
Whitlock is a social commentator with a 15-year-old’s understanding of American history and a 75-year-old’s appreciation for pop culture. He has no experience as an editor or manager; no real constituency among the young writers his site is supposed to develop; and no new ideas to bring people. His career-long aversion to reporting and love of the sound of his voice have left him without the skills necessary to build his new enterprise, and his personal incuriosity and lack of grace have left him unable to develop them or productively manage the people who have them. He is flatly, desperately unqualified for his present position. The question is just how the hell he’s heading up what should be the most important black sports and culture website in the country. And the only answer that makes much sense is that he is nothing more than the instrument of interests that would work against the very people his site is supposed to serve.
Before this site has even launched, it has already failed. The right thing to do now is to tear it down, to start over. After all, it’s foolish to talk about the fruit and ignore the tree.
The Undefeated Playbook
Additional reporting by Deadspin staff; art by Jim Cooke. Know more about this story? Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.