On the book tour, one of the most common questions we were asked: "Do you ever talk to any ESPN guys? Do they hate you?" The two people they asked about most often were Bill Simmons and Chris Berman. We're not sure what that says about either of them, or us.
The relationship Deadspin has had with ESPN has been parasitic, in a way, but also mutually beneficial. To state this, again, as if it required more clarification: We have never applied for a job at ESPN, have never wanted to work there and are not engaged in some sort of bitter lashing out. There are plenty of smart folks in Bristol, and we'd just dumb the place down. It was never a vendetta; ESPN was the center of the sports world, and no one ever seemed to treat them as the wooly mammoth they were. But more to the point: We were amazed, pretty early on, just how sensitive to criticism ESPN was. It was as if they had never even considered the possibility that someone might not like Teammates. The first month we did the site, we started picking on "Cold Pizza," because we were home all day and presumably the only people on earth watching "Cold Pizza." ESPN staffers noticed; within a matter of days, we were receiving anonymous emails about the backstage "intrigue."
This, of course, led to the infamous ESPN Memo, to this day one of the most hilarious and terrifying corporate documents we've ever seen. ("No, employees cannot keep the trees.") Whenever we would run into ESPN employees, they always asked us, "How do you get all that stuff?" As if we were breaking into someone's email accounts. Never underestimate people's desire to bitch about their jobs.
The constant tweaking of ESPN, to us, seemed fairly innocuous and ultimately ineffectual. After all, this was the biggest sports media on earth, and we were just a couple of guys with a blog. Surely, Chris Berman's lifetime of "work" was not going to be damaged by an example of his wooing prowess. What's the big deal? A little accountability never hurt anybody.
Well, we're not sure if it was the Scott Van Pelt audio or the Stuart Scott-Daulerio dustup, but at some point, everyone over there started losing their damned minds about Deadspin, which, in their minds (as well as some others), represented the entire internet.
It started at the Super Bowl in Detroit, when ESPN distributed a memo making it clear no one from Deadspin would be allowed at any ESPN parties. (The site, at this point, was three months old.) The next year, they brought out the muscle. Trey Wingo had Daulerio — who was told, if he tried to take a picture of Sean Salisbury, he would be "put through a wall" — thrown out of another Super Bowl party. Berman went after a 15-year-old kid for quoting YWML to him. We received 4,000 words middle-of-the-night missives from angry ESPN.com writers. (Not Simmons, actually, before you ask.) Stephen A. Smith blamed us for his low ratings. (Or something.) One ESPN personality actually went to a private detective to look up information on us, and who our sources were. (He must have been so disappointed; "buys lots of black T-shirts and watches "Love And Death" a lot.") And, of course, February 1, 2007. They must have felt that they were losing some guerilla war they didn't know they were fighting.
This did, and still does, surprise us. ESPN was just not used to criticism, and once they started handling it so poorly, it was only a matter of time until other media outlets, eager to pick on the bully in the room, started piling on. Suddenly, Sports Business Journal is doing "What's wrong with ESPN?" cover stories. We are not claiming to be the impetus for this; we just caught a wave that was coming, and ESPN responded with a crash course in how corporations should not handle bad publicity.
As Deadspin grew, and ESPN began to look more human and vulnerable — that is to say: It needed a hug — fewer people, we think, saw Deadspin as an anti-ESPN site. We find it interesting, actually, how ESPN.com has improved over the last couple of years in a way that the network has not. We think it has something to do with competition; whereas ESPN has Versus and Fox Sports, ESPN.com has Yahoo, SI.com, AOL, Sportsline, Foxsports.com, Sporting News and all the sports blogs. ESPN.com has had to evolve to survive; so far, the network has not had to.
The paranoia is still there (and not just from ESPN media folk either). We still get the 4,000-word emails in the middle of the night, the wounded phone calls, the occasional "you're disgusting." But it feels more muted, as if everyone understands that it's a different world now, that everyone's fair game, that ESPN personalities are public figures in the same way athletes are. We've come around in a way, and so have they. And we all move along our way.
Oh, and the cellphone story is the least of it. But you knew that.