With seven minutes remaining in the second quarter of the Cleveland Cavaliers game against the Chicago Bulls on Saturday, ESPN color commentator Jeff Van Gundy began his broadside attack on investigative basketball journalists. LeBron James of the Cavaliers scored a layup, with 5:27 left on the clock, when Van Gundy finished. For this uninterrupted 90 seconds of a primetime matchup, one of ESPN’s top broadcasters offered a critique of anonymously sourced reporting and the state of sports media to more than 3.5 million viewers.
His message would warm the heart of New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, an outspoken critic of unnamed sources, and make other journalists’ blood boil. At issue is a fundamental question in sports reporting: Does covering discord inside the locker room require that sources be unidentified?
“I don’t believe readers understand how beholden most of these writers are to their sources,” Van Gundy tells CJR in an interview. “They’re actually the mouthpieces for these people. It’s a quid pro quo.” That bartering of favorable coverage for scoops corrupts sports reporting well beyond this instance, Van Gundy claims, now more than ever.
Saturday’s game was the first since David Blatt, the Cavaliers’ head coach, was abruptly fired, a year after he led the team to the NBA Finals, and—near the midway point this season—to the best record in the East. Blatt’s ouster was slammed by coaches around the league who consider it undeserved, including Van Gundy’s older brother, Stan, who coaches the Detroit Pistons.
Van Gundy coached in the NBA for 11 seasons, seven under the unforgiving New York media microscope while with the Knicks, before joining ESPN in 2007 to provide in-game analysis. On Saturday, he was joined by another former coach, Mark Jackson, who was fired by the Golden State Warriors in 2014.
“Listen, nothing is more predictable,” Van Gundy said in his rambling rant, than news articles that challenge an outgoing coach’s “character and competence” in order to “curry favor” with the team’s new leadership and build relationships for future scoops.
“I mean, that shows a lack of character,” Van Gundy said. “If it’s unsourced and one-sided, it’s a hit job.”
He likened Blatt’s post-ouster takedown to Jackson’s, who was fired despite leading the Warriors to the playoffs. Writers speculated that Jackson brought too much bluster and cockiness to the job.
Ironically, Van Gundy and Jackson attacked unnamed criticism without naming names. Van Gundy tells CJR he’s “disappointed” that he stopped short of calling writers out. “I wimped out because I know at our company you can face disciplinary action for that. I’m not proud that I wimped out.”
After Van Gundy’s comments, Jackson said something under his breath that was a likely dig at a reporter with “a nickname”: “Woj,” or Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, one of the most influential reporters covering basketball. On Twitter, Woj’s unattributed scoops have won him 1.18 million followers. The New Yorker crowned him “Twitter’s N.B.A. Draft Oracle.” He’s a known LeBron critic, and notoriously competitive with ESPN. Wojnarowski established the new normal for national sports “insiders,” whose title is measured by their network of confidants throughout the league.
Wojnarowski broke the news that Blatt was fired. On Friday, he reported an autopsy of the canning, “How David Blatt never stood a chance with LeBron James and his camp.” The story reveals a new layer to the turmoil, suggesting that James and his business representatives initially lobbied for Mark Jackson, the other ESPN sportscaster, to get the job in Cleveland, and when it went to Blatt, they began pushing for his eventual replacement, Associate Head Coach Tyronn Lue. Wojnarowski’s piece is in his distinctive style: part news article, part column, all written matter-of-factly with nothing to support it beyond unnamed “sources.”
Since last season, LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul have been strong advocates of Lue becoming head coach, league sources tell Yahoo.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojVerticalNBA) January 22, 2016
ESPN’s Cavaliers beat writers, Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin, offered a more comprehensive history of Blatt’s undoing. But they, too, relied on anonymous sources, occasionally adding modifiers such as “a team source” or “a source close to Blatt.”
It’s easy to see why this type of journalism would rankle people like Van Gundy. “This idea that you can just run a guy down with unsourced material,” Van Gundy said during Saturday’s game, “David Blatt can’t defend himself because there’s no one to ask the question.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer sports columnist Bill Livingston echoed that criticism in an email to CJR: “I think discrediting a coach with anonymous sources after he has been fired raises the question of why that was not written or said when the coach was around to defend himself.”
But Chris Haynes, the Cavs beat reporter at the Plain Dealer, maintains that there’s usually no alternative. “Does the public want to know what happened, yes or no?” Hayes says. “If they want to know the real, players aren’t going to come out bashing the coach.
“While the coach is at the helm, players aren’t willing to speak, even if we’re going to protect them,” he added. “But once that person is removed, you’re going to get answers.”
The Cavaliers’ general manager confirmed that Blatt was fired because of an internal disconnect with the team. So in this case, stories about locker room trouble, which are typically dismissed as unreliable gossip, turned out to be essential to understanding what happened. That only reinforces the concerns Van Gundy is raising. There may well have been unhappiness in the Cavs locker room, but after-the-fact criticism of Blatt’s competence is suspect.
Reporters depend on leaks. The front office, players’ agents, and players themselves regularly feed reporters scoops, which come with the expectation of favorable coverage. If those sources are not named, there’s no way for readers to gauge their motivations. Sports reporters, meanwhile, are disinclined to suggest that anything might be amiss—if they did, they might be cut off.
“Just because that’s what the readers want and click on more,” Van Gundy tells CJR, “to me does not justify the means that are going into smearing a defenseless person.”
“Do you think on the front page sources go unvetted? Why is it allowed in sports?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly spelled Chris Haynes’ last name and Tyronn Lue’s first.Danny Funt is a former CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @dannyfunt