Sports

ESPN Has Mastered the Art of the Demotion — Just Look at Jason Whitlock

ESPN is part of Disney, one of the biggest companies in the entertainment industry. That means the sports network has a team of public relations people. Part of this role involves spinning negative events into positive ones — and ESPN’s PR crew is exceptional at this.

When ESPN reassigns one of its on-air personalities, even if the new position is a demotion, the PR folks make it sound like it’s a good thing. Jason Whitlock’s experience with the network is a prime example.

Who is Jason Whitlock?

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Whitlock is a sportswriter who began his professional career working part-time for a newspaper in Bloomington, Ind. He continued working for newspapers, getting into bigger markets at papers with higher circulation. His first full-time job was in Charlotte, N.C.

In 1994, Whitlock began writing for the Kansas City Star, a relationship that lasted until he departed in 2010. While Whitlock worked at the Star, he rose to national prominence. Eventually, he got a job with ESPN that saw him writing columns for ESPN.com’s now-defunct Page 2.

Whitlock’s up-and-down ESPN career

Awful Announcing tells us Whitlock had a couple tenures at ESPN. His first lasted four years until 2006. Then, he departed the Worldwide Leader in Sports for AOL and, later, Fox Sports.

Whitlock returned to ESPN in 2013, when it was announced that he would start a new website described to Bill Simmons as “a Black Grantland.” That site, later named The Undefeated, eventually launched in the summer of 2015. But at that point, Whitlock wasn’t running the site as originally intended.

In April 2015, Deadspin published a devastating look at Whitlock’s mismanagement of the site. In June 2015, ESPN issued a statement about Whitlock’s situation with the company. It announced the company “decided to make some structural adjustments that will maximize the skill sets and strengths of our team.”

As for Whitlock, the spin-filled statement said he “will now be entirely focused on what he does best: creating distinctive and compelling content, which will live across various ESPN platforms.” So instead of running his own site under the ESPN banner, which is a pretty nice gig to have,

Whitlock was relegated to continuing to be a columnist and commentator on various ESPN shows — the same stuff he was doing when he first joined ESPN 13 years earlier. But the spinmasters at ESPN made it sound like it was a good thing for Whitlock and his career there. Whitlock left ESPN four months later to return to Fox Sports, recently leaving again.

Other spin-worthy demotions

Whitlock isn’t the only ESPN personality who has been demoted but with a spin that made it seem like a good thing. Here are a couple other examples.

Jessica Mendoza

The most recent example is former softball player Jessica Mendoza, who has spent the last couple seasons working with Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez in the Sunday Night Baseball broadcast booth, ESPN’s most high-profile baseball assignment.

Earlier this year, she was taken off Sunday nights and given what ESPN called an “expanded role,” in which she was getting more assignments — but they were all lower profile than Sunday Night Baseball.

Brent Musberger

Legendary broadcaster Brent Musberger was ESPN’s top college football announcer for a long time. He even called seven national championship games from 2000 to 2014. Following the ’14 title game, Musberger’s contract was up and he re-signed. Then, he was reassigned from ABC’s Saturday Night Football package to become the lead announcer for the SEC Network, which was just launching.

Former ESPN executive John Wildhack referred to the move as “an exciting new chapter in his legendary career,” even though he was going from calling primetime games on ABC to a new network that was largely of regional interest.