Jeff Pearlman

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Rob King

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ESPN's senior vice president of SportsCenter remembers Stuart Scott, contemplates the future of sports television, embraces strawberry cream cheese (well, sort of) and explains how a little-known newspaper cartoonist became a media power player. POSTED January 13, 2015

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I believe in the magic of Facebook.

Well, maybe not the magic. But the healing and redemptive powers. The ability to bridge gaps.

The reason—Rob King.

A couple of years ago, I really disliked Rob. Did I know him personally? Eh, no. But back when I was a columnist for ESPN.com, Rob was in charge of the entity. Toward the end of my gig (it was freelance, and I stopped for a reason I can’t actually remember), the website agreed to run an excerpt from my forthcoming Roger Clemens biography. I was psyched, thrilled, euphoric. Then, because I am actually quite stupid, I wrote a post on this blog listing 10 things I disliked about ESPN. It was merely a flip entry. No good reason. Just … because.

Anyhow, the day before the excerpt was scheduled to run, an ESPN.com editor told me that Rob—upset over my blog post—changed his mind. Goodbye Roger Clemens material. Farewell, direct link from ESPN.com to Amazon.

Man, was I pissed. P-I-S-S-E-D. I ripped Rob to my friends and family members; swore off ESPN and … and … and …

I was wrong. Like, not even close to being right. You don’t ask for a favor, then slam the favor giver. It was stupid and short-sighted and—via, Facebook, months and months later—I acknowledged to Rob that he was correct and I was a toad. And, with that, we became Facebook chums.

Rob and I chat from time to time, and he’s great people. He’s also had a tremendous career, rising from newspaper obscurity to the head and overseer of SportsCenter. Here, Rob talks Stuart Scott, The Network and why, in a digital age, ESPN’s signature show still matters.

Rob King, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Before we really get into this, Rob, I’d love to know—with his recent passing—how will you remember Stuart Scott?

ROB KING: A ferociously proud father. A trailblazer. A relentlessly competitive athlete. A kind, generous, courageous man who embraced new friends, cherished old friends and understood our profound responsibility to show humanity to one another.

How will I remember Stuart Scott? Every day. Every single day.

J.P.: OK, Rob, so earlier this year you were named the Senior Vice President, SportsCenter and News, jumping over from digital and news. My question is this: Does SportsCenter still matter and—even if the answer is yes—how can it continue to matter? What I mean is—we have access to information at all times. Smart phone, tablet, laptop—whatever. We don’t need to wait for a broadcast to deliver information. So how do you keep a popular program rolling when, it seems, we don’t really need a popular program?

R.K.: Here’s a shocker: I think SportsCenter still matters! More important, by orders of measure: fans think SportsCenter matters.

It matters because the very idea of SportsCenter has always centered on more than just being “a popular show.” SportsCenter is a promise to fans. Wherever, whenever something happens in the world of sports, our team is driven to serve fans with the very best information, perspective and original content.

We bust it to produce engaging, unforgettable television, but we also expend the same energy to provide that level of service across digital-native environments: social platforms, mobile screens, etc.  And fans hold us to that promise, believe me. My TweetDeck dashboard includes a channel that monitors activity around “@SportsCenter.” Everything we put on air and every piece of content we post online or on our social handles generate immense feedback, positive and negative.

In the end, SportsCenter has a unique and cherished place in the hearts and minds of sports fans. We view this as our dearest possession and our greatest responsibility.

With Tallulah.

With Tallulah.

J.P.: I recently moved to California, and I’m at the gym during the late-night SportsCenter. The two anchors are usually Stan and Neil and—just being honest—they sorta irk me. Actually, lemme rephrase. They don’t irk me. They seem like nice, fun guys. But the schtick irks me. Constant jokes, comments, laughs, catch phrases. Dammit, I just wanna know what happened. My question is: What’s the line between delivering sports news and making it sports news/entertainment?

R.K.: Wait a sec! Your first question just got through explaining that you already know what happened.

Truth is, we’re charged with serving an array of sports fans. Avid fans know much of the news of the day, but still enjoy interacting with the informed perspective and unique personalities on our shows. Casual fans may or may not know every headline or each new development. Some fans receive mobile alerts or see highlight clips shortly after plays happen. Others have heard about the play, or have seen a version of the clip but want to know a little more about the context of the action.

Our anchors accept the challenge of serving the diverse needs of the audience, and they do it with a mixture of authority, humor, and curiosity. Yes, there’s an important level of utility to what SportsCenter provides—scores and highlights, as fast and as complete as possible. But the other imperative—wonder—shouldn’t be ignored. Not only do fans what to know what happened, they also want to know what might happen, or how something happened, or what’s likely to happen next. And because sports routinely delivers an Odell Beckham Jr. catch or a Russell Westbrook lane attack, fans also want to connect with people – our anchors and analysts – who are every bit as excited about these moments as they are.

By the way, you and I see Stan Verrett and Neil Everett very differently. I think they’re amazing. And man, they work hard at what they do.

J.P.: You and I are both print guys. We started at newspapers, worked at newspapers for a long time. I wonder how you feel about the death of print. When you hear of newspapers folding and staffs being cut back and six-page sections, does your heart break? Or do you simply see it as an inevitable transition?

R.K.: So let me go “silver-lining” first. There’s more writing and more reading being done out there than ever before. So when we talk about the death of print, we’re really just talking about a particular form of distribution of the written word. Writers and editors matter and will continue to do so, it says here.

But yes, my heart does break when I hear of the gradual dissolution of newspaper and magazine newsrooms. So many friends have moved away from journalism and storytelling, and that’s an incalculable loss to society, to culture, even to fair, responsible government.

I also ache for those who are attempting to re-imagine the business model against a backdrop of breathtaking volatility. Change may be inevitable, but transition is far too genteel a term for what’s going on these days.

As you know, a hallmark of the business—lousy hours and so-so pay aside—was that it was fun, and you always went to work hopeful to discover a new story or publish something fascinating. I hate watching the hope seep out of newsrooms.

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J.P.: It’s no secret that, in big-time televised sports involving male athletes, women seem to have a marginal role: Perky sideline reporters. Often blonde, often young, often charged with asking a couple of lame questions. Rob, why do you think women aren’t doing play by play or color commentary? Certainly there are women in media who are more than qualified, no?

R.K.: I’m proud to work at a place that has recognized the play-by-play talent of folks like Doris Burke, Beth Mowins and Cara Capuano. Lisa Salters, Julie Foudy and Maria Taylor are unique performers who report with creativity, tenacity and fairness. Across our networks, whip-smart journalists such as Jemele Hill, Heather Dinich, Kate Fagan and Jane McManus are constantly redefining the “margins” within which women can perform.

It’s an honor to have Hannah Storm, Linda Cohn, Suzy Kolber and Chris McKendry—trailblazers who have excelled in each of the roles you mention above – as colleagues and mentors to everyone in our shop.

I don’t mean to duck your question, because its basic premise—that we have miles to go before we can claim true equal opportunity—is one I wholeheartedly agree with. I would simply be remiss if I didn’t point out that our company is committed to leading this necessary change. An important part of that commitment is empowering women in decision-making roles, and that’s an enormous priority across all of ESPN.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t say that blonde hair isn’t a sin, and it doesn’t signal uniformity of intellect. Holly Rowe, Sam Ponder and Britt McHenry are hardly the same people, but each is experienced, talented, informed and essential to our mission.

J.P.: I know you attended Wesleyan and Penn State, know you started at the Commercial-News in Danville, Illinois. But … what’s your path? What I mean is, why journalism? When did you know? What was the bug? The moment? The incident that made you realize, “This is what I want to do with my life?”

R.K.: All I ever wanted to be was a cartoonist. That’s it. You know that Malcolm Gladwell theory about the 10,000 hours? Well, that’s how I spent mine, from the time I was about 4 or 5 until I hung up my brush and pen in 1997. I copied comic book art, swiped “How-to-Draw” books from libraries, won book fair poster contests and pored over newspaper comic strips.

In seventh grade, I read an article about famed St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoonist Bill Maudlin and thought, “That’s it. That’s what I’ll be.” I joined the junior high newsletter and the yearbook committee and began my career.

When I got to Wesleyan, my plan was to major in government and minor in art. I did neither, choosing instead to major in English and waste time clinging to the edge of the men’s basketball team’s bench. When I graduated without a portfolio or an NBA contract, I returned to the ignominy of my parents’ house. Luckily, I got a job sorting mail at the Washington Post, where Ben Bradlee strode the hallways and Herblock, the Post’s legendary editorial cartoonist, took me in as a mentee. The Post newsroom immediately felt like home. On occasional Sundays, Bob Woodward would ask me to accompany him to Baskin-Robbins, where he’d buy ice cream for everybody in the office. Herblock demanded that I draw a cartoon a day and bring it to him each day to review.

So that’s where I first fell in love with newspapers and journalism.

I managed to sell several cartoons at the Post, lucked into a one-year university fellowship at Penn State, and took the first gig that would let me be a cartoonist—in Danville, Illinois. I didn’t pay much attention to the job offer apparently, because once I arrived at the 27,000-circulation paper, I learned that I was also an assignment reporter and a graphic artist, too.

After a year, two weeks and three days in Danville (not that I was counting), I moved on to Gannett newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J. and Louisville. Both places let me do cartoons, including a daily comic strip called “The Family Business.” The strip lasted six years and earned me zero dollars, as both newspapers also required that I also perform real work in the design and photo departments.

The work apart from cartooning introduced me to two new passions: storytelling and working with people. Cartoonists are solitary performers, especially in collegial settings like a newsroom. I found that I’m happier and more productive when I’m part of a team. And writing and editing—key cartooning skills, as it happens—have never felt like actual work.

I “retired” from cartooning when my wife and I moved back east to be closer to family. Again, I lucked into a sports designer role at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which turned into bigger assignments over the ensuing seven years. I left visual journalism for sports in 1998, taking on a deputy sports editor job that had one unforgettable perk: meeting and befriending one Stephen A. Smith. That’s right, I admit it.

I departed the Inquirer as deputy managing editor and joined ESPN, plunging headlong into sports TV in 2004. After three years in studio production, featuring work with Outside the Lines, ESPNews and our golf and NBA studio shows, I moved to ESPN.com as its editor-in-chief. The next six years were a Digital/Print blur that introduced me to a redesign of the web site, oversight of ESPN The Magazine, espnW and the Local sites and a host of product developments.

And now I’m back in studio production, working in an environment where storytelling and teamwork and visual creativity are the lingua franca. Looking back, it almost feels as though there was something of a path. Let’s pretend there was.

J.P.: Serious question—why do we continue to place former athletes in the TV both? With v-e-r-y rare exception, they never add any genuine insight, and oftentimes they speak in clichés and nonsense drivel. I know you’re gonna disagree, but am I REALLY wrong? Are Ray Lewis and Trent Dilfer telling me anything a guy who’s watched tons of football can’t?

R.K.: Yep, I disagree. Trent Dilfer’s breadth of knowledge of how to play the QB position is astonishing, if you ask me. Trevor Matich teaches a master class every time he talks. Cris Carter has been amazing all season long. And I have never heard Tom Jackson offer anything but passionate, genuine, heartfelt insight. I can think of dozens of others, including newer performers like Kara Lawson, Danny Kannell, Taylor Twellman and Brian Griese , who have made a huge difference in our shows. Dag, I forgot Jay Bilas! Curt Schilling! Jalen Rose!

Argh, this question got me all aggravated. Next question!

J.P.: I used to work at Sports Illustrated, and there were, literally, two African-Americans on staff, I mean, it was pathetic—we’re covering fields that are heavily minority represented, yet we didn’t reflect that demographic at all. I’m wondering, as an African-American man, if you’re satisfied with diversity in the sports media. Do you feel like enough strides have been made? Is there still resistance? And have you ever felt, throughout your career, that employers or co-workers viewed you with skepticism or limited respect because of race?

R.K.: The answer here mirrors the earlier discussion about women in sports media. No, much more can be done, and yes, resistance exists in pockets. Happily, at every level at ESPN and across the Disney Company, we’ve embraced Diversity and Inclusion as a core company value. This isn’t just about numbers, it’s about opportunity and education and smart business. It’s about getting the very best out of people. To your point, it’s about positioning ourselves to be reflective of the audience we’re trying to serve.

And yeah, I have encountered skepticism throughout my career. My parents worked hard to prepare my siblings and me for this as we grew up. They emphasized the importance of integrity and intelligence and being willing to burn the last drop of midnight oil. They also emphasized that this wasn’t just about us. It’s also about respecting the sacrifices they and others made for us. And it’s about honoring the colleagues in our current workplaces and the generations to come.

My daughter is the LeBron James of 7-year-old West Hartford, CT soccer, and she deserves a career in sports if she wants one. With that at stake, I can withstand a little skepticism.

J.P.: Do you ever feel dizzy? It just seems like everything in the business changes every five seconds. It’s all about websites! No, Twitter! No, tablets! We need shorter articles! No, we need longer articles! How do you keep up? And how do you know what’s around the corner? Is it even possible to know?

R.K.: Change isn’t a problem in our world, it is our world. Audiences have changing expectations. Technology continually offers solutions to new problems. Consumption of content is constant. So is production. We aren’t going backward, so we may as well buckle up. I think it’s exciting to ask how we should tell stories in a world in which more than half of our audience will a) view them on a tiny screen, b) discover them on a social feed, or c) try to consume the content while in transit, bringing inconsistent mobile data speeds into play.

Earlier, I talked about folks who are attempting to reimagine the business model against a backdrop of breathtaking volatility. Well, that isn’t just the duty of business types. We content folks share that same responsibility.  We should be energized by bold attempts to attack these problems, like Medium and BuzzFeed and Vox. And we need to join in.

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J.P.: Back in 2010 I released a Roger Clemens biography, “The Rocket that Fell to Earth.” You were heading ESPN.com at the time, and the site was going to run an excerpt. Then, a few days beforehand, I wrote a blog post (Top 10 Things That Irk Me About ESPN), and you decided not to run the excerpt. I was bitter at the time—genuinely bitter. I mean, I’d spent the preview two years writing regularly for the site. But, when I really reflected, I understood it was a stupid move on my part—don’t shit on someone doing you a favor. This is my lead in to a long question—how protective are you of ESPN? How important is it to you to defend the company? Its integrity? Its name? Because, lord knows, ESPN gets slammed all the time …

R.K.: ESPN is an amazing place, full of incredible, passionate professionals who love sports and love serving sports fans. I am so grateful to be here. And so, yes, I’m protective of the brand.

But I’m especially protective of our people. As you know, what we do is hard, Jeff. Working here means working day and night, holidays and weekends, pre-game, in-game and post-game. Everywhere I look, I see someone with his or head buried in a screen, busting to get the subject and verb right, to cut the perfect highlight, to surface an amazing stat, to create something fans will never forget.

Our people deserve to believe that their integrity and commitment to excellence is worthy of protection … especially from unwarranted criticism.

Having said all that, I’m personally glad that you and I went from where we were in 2010 to where we are now, especially since it led to our publishing an excerpt from your book on the Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers. Being protective doesn’t mean being vindictive, particularly where it might keep a great piece of writing from fans.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROB KING:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Danville Dans, Reggie Jefferson, Karate Kid II, Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, Central Park, Toledo, blueberry muffins, the Nike campus, neck tattoos, dimples, Maggie Gyllenhaal: Central Park, Nike campus (never been but oh would I love to), Danville Dans, dimples, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dr. Brown’s black cherry soda, Reggie Jefferson, Toledo, blueberry muffins, neck tattoos, Karate Kid II.

• In exactly 15 words, make an argument for or against Tim Raines as a Hall of Famer: Better all-around Expo than Andre Dawson and Gary Carter. And they’re already in The Hall.

• How did you propose to Jennifer?: We met in a Philly tavern/restaurant called The Rose Tattoo, where she was waiting tables. Five years later, as she got off her shift, I got down on one knee right at the very spot we met. We were living together at the time, so a “No” would have been awkward.

• As I write this, someone is spreading strawberry cream cheese on a bagel. This just seems wrong. Thoughts?: Live and let live weirdly.

 • How did you find out Santa Claus wasn’t real?: Wait, what?

• Five reasons one should make Bristol, Conn. his/her home?: I live 20 minutes away, so the only answer I’m really qualified to give is “proximity to the office.”

• What’s the greatest moment of your youth sports career?: Two homer, two double, all-star game MVP performance in the Montgomery County, Md. fourth-grade Cub Scout softball league. And a trip to McDonald’s after. All downhill from there.

This is my favorite TV moment in history. Your thoughts?: That’s tough to beat. Gives a whole new meaning to a “mean tweet.”

• Who wins in a 12-round boxing match between you and a one-armed Ray Lewis? What’s the result?: The bell rings, Ray charges and I soil my trunks. Ref stops the match right there.

• Five greatest sports journalists of your lifetime?: In alphabetical order: Richard Ben Cramer, David Halberstam, Gary Smith, Wright Thompson, Ralph Wiley

  • Ted Mark

    ESPN is great at covering sports they have an economic interest in. The NHL doesn’t exist in ESPN world. NASCAR will cease to exist. So spare me the “whatever, whenever” nonsense. And since ESPN has so much money invested in certain sports, their journalistic integrity is zilch when attempting to report on said sports. Athletes in the booth? This guy hasn’t just drunk the kool-aid, he’s swimming in it. All that said, congrats to this guy for attaining his position. It couldn’t have been easy.

    • Paul C

      I agree with this on the macro level. And really, c’mon. How can anyone honest disagree with Jeff’s observations about the uselessness of retired jocks as sports commentators?

      Conflicts of interest abound. And most of ESPN is entertainment, not journalism.

      BUT, ESPN’s journalism wing did get out in front of the Roger Goodell is a shameless liar meme, and has not shied away from that even after the issuance of the disgraceful Mueller Report. BTW, Al Michaels’s and Chris Collingsworth’s pathetic BJ to Goodell and the NFL after that whitewash job was delivered on NBC, not ESPN.

      There’s a guy named Barry Melrose, who I personally can’t stand, and who still has a sad-looking old-guy mullet, but who I understand talks with a great deal of passion and faux authority about ice hockey pretty regularly on ESPN. Keith Olbermann loves hockey, and his voice will not be denied.

      But overall, yes, there’s been more than a little kool-aid imbibing. What else should we expect? I once met Monty Hall in a restaurant, and I can tell you he defended his show with a straight face and would brook no ridicule. Not just that the show made him a rich man — I can get behind that — but that people dressing up as cheese blintzes and losing control of their bodily functions on camera was socially valuable. Ever listen to Jerry Springer pretend to defend the cultural value and validity of his show? To paraphrase the late, great Stuart Scott, as quoted by Jeff Pearlman, “That’s just how they do.”

  • Cd1515

    since I’ve praised many a Quaz, I have to give an honest opinion here too: this was one of the worst you’ve ever done, Jeff.
    your questions were fine but the guy was completely boring and full of corporate talking points.

    oh and he’s also full of s—.
    Tom Jackson’s the same guy who declared the Patriots “hate their coach” in 2003.
    would that go under the heading of “passionate, genuine, heartfelt insight”?

Showtime Book
Love Me, Hate Me Barry Bonds Book
Sweetness Walter Peyton Book
The Bad Guys Won Book
The Rocket that Fell to Earth Book
Boys Will Be Boys Book

Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life