The tale of Jay Mariotti, as sad and vile as it may be on the surface, isn't entirely unique. During his interview with Fox's Jason Whitlock months ago, Mariotti played off the first set of allegations as an isolated moment of rage (he was trying to "help the person [his girlfriend]," he said), and he may not have been lying. But it also represented the last step in a transformation from an acerbic, confrontational sportswriter into a semi-celebrity totally divorced from normal human behavior and whose life was quickly becoming an ongoing exercise in brand management. Like I said, this isn't new. What follows is a little bit of armchair psychology, based on thousands of hours spent monitoring and bullying ESPN personalities about some of their off-screen activities.
Some who've worked with Mariotti during his Around The Horn reign said his private life was somewhat of a mystery. After the first assault charge, many were shocked to know he had a girlfriend; most co-workers assumed he was a comfortably married father who saved his over-the-top bluster for his columns and TV spots. His public persona was manicured schtick, the kind that resulted in a monstrous payday only a handful of newspaper writers would ever see in their lifetime. If thousands of viewers and readers thought he was asshole (when he was paid to be an asshole) it's fairly irrelevant. It's an easy trade-off for the type of financial stability a higher profile provides. Jay Mariotti morphed into a brand and The Brand is lucrative. But when Jay Mariotti the writer became Jay Mariotti The Brand, there was a cosmic shift in his own self-worth, one he may have been completely oblivious to at the time, but is acutely aware of now because it's all gone.
There's a distinct pattern among the ESPN personalities who fall the hardest: The increased visibility is either a first (or second chance) at being the person they have always wanted to be. This is real life version of The Sims for some of these folks. When a desk-chained writer (or former professional athlete) suddenly becomes a talking head with millions of viewers, the fame is disorienting. At first it seems manageable — they deserve this reward for all the hard work and shouldn't be judged by a handful of the mistakes they've made because of it. But they change. They stay out later. They have fans — younger, better-looking female fans who are smitten by success and pseudo-stardom. Those fans are intoxicating. The everyday routine becomes so mundane that it's tough to return to it without a debilitating comedown. Marriages become less interesting, day jobs become less important, interacting with fans and facilitating The Brand becomes the glue that holds all of it in place. Before you know it, The Brand becomes you. The Brand can get away with things you were never able to get away with: excessive flirting, extravagant spending, an active nightlife, girl(s) on the side. Poof!, goes you.
So beware, sportswriters: do not be home when the devil comes calling. You could be next.