Jason Whitlock’s career has taken him from the “the hood” in Indianapolis, living with his mom and brother, to the Indiana Sports Writers and Sportscasters Association’s Hall of Fame.
From an offensive lineman on the Warren Central High team, to getting a football scholarship at Ball State. And a journalism degree.
From a long run at the Kansas City Star, then to ESPN.com, AOL Sports, moving to L.A. to join Fox Sports, then back to ESPN. And now, he’s going all in with The Undefeated, a website set to launch officially this summer with ESPN’s backing, a name inspired by a Maya Angelou line of poetry.
ESPN president John Skipper had been to the LA Live offices just the day before to check on the progress, and Whitlock called the visit “excellent” with the launch on target for later this summer.
Following up on Sunday’s media column posted here and after all he’s said and said and said more about the launch of The Undefeated at this point in his career, we were curious that when we caught up with him at his ESPN office space, the 48-year-old was clearing some plastic water bottles off his desk.
That had to be our first question in this edited down Q-and-A exchange:
A: It’s very important. I’m on a diet. It’s funny, I’ve been a columnist my entire life. I never went into the office for maybe 20 years. So I started coming into this office in September. I’ve basically had an eight-month war with the vending machines. And the machines have won. Plus all these restaurants all over here. They’ve slaughtered me. I probably put on 40 pounds. You’re catching me at Day 43 of perfect eating and exercising and a big f#$&-you to the vending machines. I try to drink 12-to-15 servings of water every day, whether I’m on a diet or not. Water is all I drink.
Q: Starting in September and reaching this point in May, do you need a firm launch date or are you OK with how it’s going without getting antsy?
A: At this point I need to make sure we have all the right people in place. What we’re doing is, to me, one of the most difficult things in journalism. We’re going to be debating and discussing and analyzing race and culture. That’s a high risk, high reward endeavor. It requires very smart people. Identifying the right people is very difficult. A lot of people think they can do this, or want to do this, but do they have the skill for it? This isn’t going to be about writing game stories or ‘hot takes.’ It’s about actual journalism and reporting on really big issues. One thing I’ve learned in my short time as a manager and executive is hire really slow and deliberately. There’s a book out by (corporate executive on management) Jeff Fox where he says, “Hire slow, fire fast.” I think he’s right.
Q: What’s the staff size potential?
A: I don’t want to speak for John Skipper, but I think we’ll get as many as we need – 15 to 20 initially. That’s probably the right number.
Q: Is it fair to compare this to the launch of Grantland? Are there parallel business models or game plans here? Also, can you learn from how they did that and how you can do your site?
A: There’s lessons to learn but I think we are trying to, and will, collaborate more with ESPN.com and share resources. At the end of the day, we’re doing something very different than Grantland. We have a great appreciation and respect for what Grantland has done, but we’re doing some heavier stories and topics. We will have fun and the site will be accessible to everyone, but we’re analyzing the intersection of sports, race and culture that’s a little different than a pop culture-and-sports site.
Q: Are you trying to steer away finally from that reference you gave your site, once calling it the “Black Grantland,” if only because no one was sure how else to categorize it?
A: That was something I was trying to say in having a great deal of respect for Bill (Simmons) and Grantland. I was on his podcast trying to convey a message to his listeners. That is not an accurate description of what we’re going to be doing. People ran with it because it sounded good.
Q: What are you feelings about the way Bill went through his whole career at ESPN and now ends up not staying with Grantland from here on? Was he a confidant with you, a good friend, someone you could tap into?
A: Bill was someone I considered a supporter of mine and someone I was friendly with, but I wouldn’t call him a confidant. Dan LeBatard and the crew at “Pardon The Interruption” from Mike (Wilbon), Tony (Kornheiser), Erik Rydholm (the show’s creator and executive producer), Matt Kelliher (the show’s coordinating producer) – those are the people I lean on at ESPN in confidence. As far as Bill, he’s got to make the right choices for Bill, and Bill operated in a way he believed was best for Grantland. I’m going to operate in a way that’s best for me and this team.
You have to remember, I came up proudly in the newspaper industry. Despite whatever controversies that have surrounded me during my career, I have a long track record of working with people in management – the Kansas City Star for 16 straight years – I’m more of a traditional journalist than Bill. That will come through in the work we produce. I see and understand what ESPN.com is trying to do and I value the things that they can do to help me.
Q: Any culture shock for you since moving to L.A. and getting this project going?
A: Keep in mind, I’ve been here since 2010 when I was working for Fox Sports and lived in Westwood. The only shock is how stupid I was for not moving out here 10 years earlier. I love it out here. Now I’m just living across the street (from the ESPN studios), been there since 2013. I love the weather, the time difference, when sports kick off, when they end … and just the freedom to be yourself.
I’ve been a solo act, a columnist and worked from home, only relying on myself. Now I’m part of a team, a leader of a team, and I have to fit in at a big corporation and deal with all the moving parts, all the different personalities. That has been a challenge, to be quite honest, that I’ve embraced. I believe in this project so much that I’m embracing the fact I have to operate completely different than a columnist or solo act. It’s a great challenge. It’s fun to be doing something different.
Q: Have you gotten used to being the so-called ‘face’ of something this big?
A: No, because I’ve always been the face of my own personal brand and column. That’s not different. What’s most different – this is a huge corporation. In order to have something be successful, you’ve got to get a lot of people on your team, get them on board. In order for my column to be successful, I needed to get my ass up and put the work in. If I took care of business, it was good. I have to get a lot of people moving the same direction as me now.
Q: It’s nothing you can compare it to? Never had to open a restaurant or a book store or a lemonade stand?
A: The only thing I can compare it to is being a head football coach at a major university. There’s a lot of moving parts to cooperating with the athletic department, with the school president, and boosters, and sports information department, and these kids’ parents. For better or worse, I’ve been tapping into my football experience and the things I learned as a player individually and as a journalist, the qualities I see the best coaches have, I’m trying to incorporate.
Q: That makes sense that your experience and instinct would be to put together a playbook for this. It’s something that others have ridiculed to some extent. Was putting a playbook together for this team something you’ve always had in your head and wanted to put down on paper? And was it enjoyable to put together?
A: Yes. And listen: For a journalist, maybe it sounds crazy. “A playbook? Who does he think he is?” For me, it’s the most natural thing to do. I believe in the fundamentals. I’ve seen people mocking me – “Whitlock’s preaching about a nut graph, blah, blah, blah …”
Q: In today’s journalism, many don’t even know what a nut graph means.
A: It’s missing. It’s a fundamental of journalism that I believe in. I told Dan LeBatard on his radio show recently: Tom Brady is perhaps the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL. (Coach) Bill Belichek, in training camp, is still going to make him go through the quarterback-center exchange just like he was a rookie, playing Pop Warner for the first time. You reset the fundamentals. This is what athletes do over and over again. As a journalist, I’ve always said, man, we’d be more efficient in all of our businesses if they operated more like a sports team. They are high-level efficient. I’m implementing some of those ideas into the field of journalism. In turn — I want to be careful how I say this because I want it to be in context — but development will be the key to this project. We’re trying to write high-end journalism, sophisticated, high-risk journalism, analyzing things at a really high level and you don’t prepare for that by being a beat writer or doing game stories. You don’t prepare for it by doing 800-word “hot take” columns. So everyone – including me – has to be developed. For me, as a manager and journalist, it’s the process of continuing my development. For everyone who joins this project, they have to be developed to do the things we want to do. I really don’t care what you did in the past. We care about what you’re doing moving forward. Are you willing to grow and develop these skills for us to do this at a high level. We’re going back to fundamentals – bought everyone Strunk and White (“The Elements of Style”). And we talk about those things. It’s necessary.
Q: Do you have an opinion about the way journalism is taught in today’s universities? Does it seem as if it is folded in and lost in “communication” schools or ones that seem to be modified in some ways? I’ve heard you say that social media may be overemphasized in ways that aren’t conducive to storytelling.
A: I don’t want to blame journalism schools. I want to blame the fall of the newspaper industry. That’s always been the training ground for young journalists. For someone like me, getting out of college, I covered high school and Little League sports (at The Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind.) Then I got another job covering high school and Little League sports (at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina). Then I got a job covering the Michigan basketball team (at The Ann Arbor Times). I had to go through this proving grounds before I was ever allowed to write a column. I had to learn some things. Now because of the blogosphere, because newspapers don’t have the time to train anyone, everything is in a microwave. So the next thing you know, 22- and 23- and 24- and 25-year-old people who don’t know what they don’t know are writing scathing opinion pieces and analyzing and interpreting. … I don’t blame them. It sounds like I am. But our whole structure fell apart, and by the grace of God, ESPN and John Skipper letting us go old-school and work at a pace and develop and train people.
Q: There are enough readers for all this long-form, computer-generated content as well? You can convert newspaper or magazine readers to this platform?
A: We’re going to lace ‘em with original ideas and original perspective. I’ve build my own personal brand around that my entire career. We’re going to do that with the website. We’re going to write things that are like, “Damn, I never thought of it that way,” and people are attracted to original ideas. They’re rare. But also, aside from high-end stuff, there are things that will be accessible and is not that much different from what you see in the blogosphere. You go back to 1980 newspapers, you had some great high-end stuff, but you also had cartoons, other things that wasn’t as heavy. We can also be fun and irreverent and make use of modern technology and social media. But we want our reputation as being thoughtful and thought leaders.
Q: Is doing this site in this city most beneficial to you? Would you perhaps consider doing this back in Bristol, Conn., or in Atlanta or Chicago or a different “urban” environment that might give this a different vibe or energy?
A: For me, particularly living in the 213 (area code), this is the most diverse place I’ve ever lived in my life. The building I live in is like the United Nations. L.A.’s diversity, to me, energizes this project. This is the melting pot of American probably more so than any place else. You can find a wide range of people in New York, but I don’t know because they’re kind of segregated in their own communities. Here in L.A., you can find spots where everyone is on top of each other and they’re at the same restaurant or club or whatever. I love L.A. and wish I came here at 35.
Q: Is there more of a creative vibe here for you, a town that thrives on that to make movies and write and paint and photography, music and everything else?
A: I don’t want to be offensive, but having spent 16 years in Kansas City, what I found different about L.A. is there’s no fear or big ideas and creative energy, and no fear of talent. The biggest talent in the history of the world has lived here and operated here and done big things from here. When you’re in the Midwest, you can get intimidated by ambition and creativity. They try to tamp it down. Here they try to maximize it. For me, personally, nothing to do with the website, the thing I like being in L.A. is no one knows me, no one cares, I go around and no one raises their eyebrow. In Kansas City, almost everything I did was analyzed. I walk in someplace and people might be whispering about who I was, what I was doing. People want to come up and have long conversations. Not that it’s terrible, but here, I’m me. I can do me. As long as you’re not Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise, they’re going to leave you alone. I believe in this project so much I would have gone (to ESPN East Coast base in Bristol, Conn.), but I would have been miserable (laughing). I’m here and living in, and in love with, L.A.
Q: So what is it that, if you haven’t already said it, you want readers to know about the site and what it stands for? Good or bad, others have had opinions about what this site is about without having been part of its momentum starting up, Deadspin will do a story, others will write about it … what’s your nut graph of what the site will be?
A: I’m going to answer this differently. If people judge us on the work we put out, we’ll be fine. If people judge us on what people who don’t know me think about me personally, uh, that’ll be a problem. If they judge us on our work, and we’re preparing to do really good work, and we’ve already put out some really good work, we’ll be fine. We’ll be better than fine. We’ll be great.
Q: A mission statement is something that can point you in the right direction but it’s also something they can put on your tombstone if it doesn’t play out. Is the message not to have expectations that aren’t realistic?
A: I don’t fear high expectations. I embrace them. We want to do and believe we can do some of the best sports journalism that’s ever been done. And we understand how difficult that is. And how much work that entails. But I have no fear of that. That’s what’s so comical. I’ve been criticized a lot. It’s all a compliment. Trust me. If people had low expectations of me, they wouldn’t be talking about me. The reason why there’s so much noise is because what I’ve done previously has set some people’s expectations really high. You add in ESPN and people’s expectations go through the roof. If I were harmless and unimportant, people would talk less (laughing). We want to win the Super Bowl every year here.
== Whitlock talks about his life on the “Still No Cheering in the Press Box” section of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism website.
== Whitlock responds on Dan LeBatard’s show about criticism from a Deadspin.com story, and USAToday.com posts it with the last graph: “Sure, Whitlock is a self-promoter. He can be a blowhard. A scathing expose doesn’t change any of that. But The Undefeated has yet to be deemed fit for public consumption, and there’s merit in waiting to judge it until it is.”
== A description of Whitlock in a 2010 profile in the New York Times: “His opinions are as outsize as his body — he has described himself as ‘a fat black man’ — and regularly cut against the grain, especially when he writes about race.”
== A description of Whitlock in a 2015 profile in the New York Times: “So which Whitlock will establish himself at the Undefeated? The freewheeling editorial voice one who accused Scoop Jackson, another black columnist at ESPN, of “fake ghetto posturing” and as someone who will “bojangle for dollars” during an interview with the Big Lead? Or the less outrageous executive with a zeal to inspire great journalism?
” ‘Whatever my critics say, I’ve been a hard-core journalist all my career,’ Whitlock said. ‘Have I been an entertainer, a provocateur and a humorist? Absolutely. But we’ll be about journalism at this site.’ ”
== For those who aren’t prone to read the 10,000-word plus piece critical of him in Deadspin.com in April, AwfulAnnouncing.com’s Matt Yoder tried to boil down in a 1,400-word piece.
== Whitlock does a basic Q-and-A about The Undefeated for DigitalContextNext.com in April.