Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Saturday Studmuffins/Fatlock Follies Sandwich; or A Token Response to "The Explanation"

Conflicted is the word to start this post. Conflicted is how I feel regarding Jason Whitlock leaving The Kansas City Star after some 16 years of sports-column contributions. Conflicted is how I feel about the upcoming Kansas City Chiefs football season that will, for the first time in my adult life, lack a Monday morning Whitlock take on Sunday's Chiefs performance. Conflict has been a notion that, in some form or another, has shadowed Whitlock's places of employment since the sporting world, and its publications, took note of who this writer is and how he carries himself. And his Star denouement has been ensconced by -- you guessed it -- conflict.

Whitlock's last column to appear in the Star was published almost three months ago. Four days ago, the Star ran this bit saying the newspaper and the columnist was "leaving the paper to pursue other interests." Earlier in the week, Whitlock, via his Twitter page, announced to the world that he would be appearing on KCSP 610 AM yesterday to proffer what he dubbed The Explanation.

If you're not interested in listening to the podcast (Editor's Note: One friend called it "radio gold" and mentioned that the interview was temporarily cut off "after he said (the) Star editor got drunk in River Market and was kissing on another male employee's neck in front of staff." Naturally, these portions are not in the podcast), hosted by What's Wrong with Ding Dong, Kansas City SB Nation put together a handy summary of the broadcast, and before we go any further, it's worth noting that Whitlock has been given a healthy raise as a FOXSports columnist.

But back to this notion of conflict. Big Matt from Arrowhead Addict touches on a small segment of what I'm saying regarding the columnist/persona paradox that is Jason Whitlock. And I say paradox because Whitlock's role in the sports world has never, in my observations, been single-fold. What I mean by that is this: If you're a columnist, being paid for your printed words and opinions of the sports world, then those words should do your talking for you. When you become a persona, be it attached or removed from your paid-for services, you begin, in varying degrees to dilute the product of your craft. That is, when you, as an artist, forge a relationship with your audience, you are, in my estimation, permanently challenged to uphold a multitude of expectations.

Your fans want the product delivered with consistency and greatness, and to quote the old Speed Stick commercials, "anything less would be uncivilized." With zero interest in bashing -- in at least this very moment -- either Whitlock the journalist or Whitlock the person, I'll go out on a limb and say that, often, he fell short in both criteria. Now, before you send smoke signals out to the lynch mob, understand that I, on many, many occasions, have had tremendous respect and admiration for the work that Whitlock has done and the message(s) he has attempted to convey.

My family has subsribed to the Star for as long as I can remember, and I have had my own subscription since the week I moved back to town 10 years ago. I have, on exactly zero occasions, looked forward to a piece of the paper with more fervor than Whitlock's Monday morning Chiefs column. This, of course, has come with heavy doses of conflict for me the subscriber, reader, and admirer of great writing. I make no secrets of my admiration for former Star sports columnist Joe Posnanski. For the duration in which Pos' and Whit' both penned sports for the Star, the former was always my favorite. He finds the hook in a story and threads it effortlessly into the gills of the reader, and for that, he will always be one of my literary heroes. He also, were it by design or not, assumed the role of the good guy in the Posnanski/Whitlock good guy/bad guy dichotomy. In movies, stories, and even on the TVs, I always root for the good guy. It's just how I'm wired.

My issue with Posnanski, though, was that he seldom covered the Chiefs. That was Whitlock's bag, and that's what I wanted in my paper. So I read him.

As a sports fan, and more specifically, a sports fan in a town where the professional baseball and football teams appear, over periods of time, destined to achieve new and inventive plateaus of terrible, a fan such as myself does not, for the most part, take well to criticisms of the organizations. At least I didn't used to. More plainly, the feeling was always a mix of "It's easy to be an armchair GM/You're not playing/Give them a break -- They're trying/Quit being Mr. Negative." So my appreciation for Whitlock's angles, for some time, was under-developed to say the least.

As his interesting relationship with former Chiefs GM Carl Peterson became something of a soap-opera affair, I began to appreciate it more, and when Peterson hired Herman Edwards, I began to grasp the reality that embodied the idea of the game having passed by Carl Peterson. With nary a slice of ironicality, I began to understand and appreciate the watchdog type of job that Whitlock does, and had been doing all along.

Perhaps at the height of my recognition for his work covering my favorite football club, Mr. Whitlock branched out from the Star and was hired for other endeavors. Having already tried the SportsTalkRadios (fail), he took a post as a Page 2 columnist for (fired), which may or may not have been handcuffed to his, for lack of a better word, removal from ESPN's "The Sports Reporter," and then he signed on with FOXSports. I don't include those parentheticals because I want to highlight shortcomings, but it's important to note that, from an outsider's perspective, beefs appeared to have been brewing in each of those sports kitchens. It's also important to identify that some of these beefs appear to have been for good reason, be they motivated by self-interest, a national sense of civic duty, or a combination of the two.

I commend him for, regardless of intention, marketing himself well enough to have the multiple outlets and to of course, get paid. This era of outsourcing and raises, however, seems to have gone hand in hand with ego inflation and the spawning of this persona that I mentioned.

Which brings us back to conflict. Jason Whitlock used to irritate the hell out of me because he would, so it seemed, always play the race card. For example, he, back in the day, would say things, and I paraphrase, like: Jacksonville Jaguars Head Coach Jack Del Rio makes it a point to have African-Americans as his second- and third-string quarterbacks because it's imperative that the racist fans of Jacksonville must support Byron Leftwich. If they're not going to support him because he's black, they need to know that those that come in to replace him due to injury, will be black as well, so get used to it.

I don't know if this was true. I mean, David Garrard and Quinn Gray are black. This I know. There's a significant part of me, though, that doubts that those two guys were acquired by the franchise, perhaps even over more qualified quarterbacks, solely for support clauses for Byron Leftwich. It's also hard for me to imagine that the Jacksonville Jaguar fan base that has become a poster child for atrocious attendance, even with a white quarterback backing up a black one, can be pegged in their majority as bigot fans. I just didn't see the point in that then, or even more recently when Whitlock posited that (Note: I believe this was in a 05/01/08 FOXSports column regarding Ben Roethlisberger, but his archives don't date back far enough.) that a guy like Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger would've been crucified for the (initial) rape allegations against him were he black.

More recent still is his latest FOXSports column regarding Minnesota Vikings QB Brett Favre, wherein Whitlock dismisses the notion that Old No. 4 would be under heavier scrutiny were he African-American. Quoth Whitlock: "...the felonious charge of a racial double standard as it relates to the future Hall of Famer was unworthy of my court. I dismissed the case.

That was my mindset two years ago. Things have changed."

Here's where things get a little tricky. We expect those whom we respect to evolve, to maybe have a change of opinion over time. With Whitlock, though, it's like he's completing changing hands every three to five years. Ten years ago, black athletes, in Whitlock's book, couldn't catch a break: There were double standards everywhere. Five years ago, he was knee-deep in his anti-bojangling campaign, wherein he was calling out guys like Scoop Jackson for supporting, in some sense, that there are/were not enough positive black, male role models for the youth of today to admire. The hip-hop culture, as I'm certain he's referenced it on numerous occasions, that embodies today's youth only sees adult black males in the NBA, the NFL, and in rap-music videos.

This, I was on board with. This, I felt, wrong or right as my intuition might've been, was a platform in which he had the most potential. For a guy that reaches as wide an audience as he does, he could really pull some strings, or at least get the wheels of cognition spinning for this effort, if, and that's a big if, this was something he was passionate about. Now, today, I'm not certain what he's passionate about, and I find myself thinking with some frequency that he's not certain either. Thus the motif of conflict.

In comes the notion of ego. I used to be a leading complainer in the argument for less of Whitlock's ego in his column. The presence of it, I felt, could only be identified as wasted column-inch space. For example, he'd start off a column about a road Chiefs game by mentioning that he was seated in the press box. Or, in his column about the NBA All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas a couple years ago -- the one in which the infamous Adam Jones make-it-rain weekend happened -- he started off the column, I think, saying something to the effect of his courtside presence. Or more generally speaking, the many KC Star columns over the years in which he simply wrote about himself using an obviously phony visit to he shrink as the vehicle that drives the column, stopping by several sports-story-idea rest stops along the way.

The former situations were insults to the readers' intelligence in that he's stating the already-known, or to paint it in a less-attractive light, pimping himself. The latter always said two things to me: 1) I have only a smattering of ideas for a column today, so this is what you get, and 2) frankly, I like writing about myself.

So, conflict. Who is Jason Whitlock, I find myself asking after all these years. In the excerpts made available in that podcast, he frequently references "those that know me" as the ones certified to stake a claim against his body of work, or pass judgment on whether or not what he's doing has merit, value, and substance. My guess -- and I of course could be way, way off -- is that not that many people do actually know him. And this is why I think it's tricky, in a role like his, to develop, and even push, a persona because it's going to, whether you like it or not, clash with the product that has gotten you credit, respect, and notoriety since entering the world of sports journalism.

I won't claim to know Whitlock. I've certainly never met him, and I definitely haven't read everything the guy's ever published. I still think that the article he wrote for (or published in, however you want to say it) Playboy is the best piece of journalism he's ever produced. I very much looked forward to the issue coming out because I had a hunch it would be top notch, and hey -- free excuse to buy a copy of Playboy...jackpot! Just before it came out, however, he wrote a column in the Star about the issue coming out, and, surprise, the controversy surrounding it. I wrote about it here, and one reader even created a fake Jason Whitlock profile name so that s/he could comment. Basically, though, that column said this: I'm taking this opportunity to write my column about me writing a magazine article.

Then the issue came out, and without going back to read my actual work, I think I did a fairly decent job summarizing it. I do recall three things standing way out with that piece though: 1) It was well-approached, well-researched, crisp, lucid, and well-written; 2) The controversy associated with the headline the magazine gave the piece -- "The Black KKK" -- was largely, if not entirely diminished by the incredible content of the article itself and; 3) This should be this guy's niche. He should be doing investigative, literary journalism on a full-time basis.

I still feel that way about his abilities, talents, and potential for outreach, but that's one person's opinion, and it likely means squat to anyone that reads this. In "The Explanation," Whitlock talks about sports being the concept that brings people together, and he also talks about many of his critics wanting to be him. I won't argue with the first part of that. That's a huge portion of the beauty of sports: By its own existence, it creates a bond, even with rivals and enemies. There's also merit to the latter part, in that, sure -- professionally speaking, I would love to have or have had any of his written-word journalism positions. And of course I would happily accept the compensation package attached to them.

But to say that, outright, people want to actually be him, is another ball of wax too sticky for me to adhere. I don't want to be Jason Whitlock for the same reasons of theme I've been attempting to decode: conflict. Right now, in my adult life, I have zero audience, and zero responsibility for thought conveyance. I don't have a channel for streaming, a frequency for broadcasting, or column inches to fill. And I'm conflicted enough as it is just trying to lead my ordinary, run-of-the-mill routine. Should I skip today's workout? Did I tell the wife I love her enough times this week? Is one more beer too many?

Hell, it's a struggle day in and day out to just attempt to balance happiness, responsibility, and sanity. If I had a massive national presence added to the mix, I'm not certain that I would successfully balance my craft and keep my persona at bay. There's no way I could develop a platform loaded with observation, opinion, and criticism and, in addition, manage those two key elements of consistency and greatness. I mean, I'd certainly try, but how would I react to my critics? Would I have as many as I would fans? Would I really be that different of a personality than the one I've invented for Jason Whitlock?

Difficult to say.

What I do know is this: If there's one blessing about Kansas City, it's that its newspaper, for many years, has hired and retained some talented writers, many of whom have gone on to bigger positions with bigger publications in bigger cities, all of which I imagine are totems of success. In the sports department alone I can think of half a dozen off the top of my head: Jeff Passan, Liz Merrill, Mechelle Voepel, Jason King, Ivan Carter, Posnanski, and now Whitlock. All of their contributions to my paper have been excellent, and obviously, none have had more controversy than Mr. Whitlock's.

And that's really, to me, what "The Explanation" is about. For Whitlock it was, like it often is, about self-promotion and self-preservation. The Star, apparently unbeknownst to him, ran that Whitlock's-leaving piece without informing him, so he's entitled to address his audience of a decade and-a-half however he sees fit. certainly isn't the place to do it, and for someone that calls himself Big Sexy, a couple of tweets certainly weren't going to suffice. But at the end of the day, this LeBron James-modeled bit of satirically titled seriousness wasn't about the Star's editor(s) consuming intoxicants, or kissing in public, and it really wasn't about those editors not seeing eye to eye with his vision for his role in the paper, either.

It was a sendoff. It was the epilogue in a chaptered story. It was, the final frontier of the Whitlock era in Kansas City sports writing. It was a reminder of the fact that, conflict and controversy aside, this town has been graced with some excellent sports columns in the last 16 years. It'll be interesting to see how the Star, struggling financially along with all of its industry counterparts fills this large void. Will another young Sam Mellinger step into the vacated columnist shoes? Will the Star, now free of payroll obligations to Whitlock, rest its accounting heads with more ease each night? We, the readers and subscribers will have to wait and see.

One thing's for certain: My Monday morning routine is going to need some serious adjustment.


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