Michael Wilbon has a problem. There's been all this winning and fun times going on with DC sports this year, so some major magazines are starting to tout DC's merits as a Great Sports Town. Problem is, when ESPN The Magazine rolled out its DC lovefest this week, we learned that Wilbon supplies the Obvious Contrarian Take on why it's a "terrible" sports town. I mean, who better than a former longtime Washington Post columnist-turned-TV blowhard? Inspired casting, as they say.
Wilbon's comments (apparently culled from a Q&A-type exchange with Tony Kornheiser) aren't online yet, but the snippets that were released have already stoked the fires of DC's fan base and local media. Dan Steinberg of The Washington Post hit back yesterday after Wilbon's comments were made public:
"It doesn't compare," Wilbon says of Washington. "No, it's terrible. It's not even close to New York, Philly, Chicago, Detroit, Boston, LA. It's last….It's because people don't call this home, really. They still call somewhere else home. I've been here 32 years, and I still barely call it home….
"Beyond [the Redskins]? Politics makes sports here No. 2. I'm from Chicago, the place that produced the most recent president of the United States. Sports is still No. 1 there. They'll never, ever make the mistake of thinking that politics or something else is No. 1….Only on Monday mornings, 16 times a year, is sports the No. 1 conversation [in Washington]….
"If you're going to really look at the DC sports scene, what's more important than the Wizards and Capitals to people are Maryland and Georgetown. But think about this: When's the last time you've seen anything that happened in DC lead SportsCenter? RG3 is the first time that's happened in years. So DC, the center of the sports universe? Never, never."
Ok, whatever. Georgetown is not more important to people here than the Capitals - check TV ratings, check attendance, check Web clicks. RGIII is not the first time D.C. has led SportsCenter in years - hello, Stephen Strasburg? Bryce Harper?
More importantly, sure, a whole bunch of people who live here don't call this place home. But hundreds of thousands of people do. They're the core of whatever fan base the local teams have, and I don't know why they deserve national scorn.
It feels like one of Wilbon's hysterical PTI rants, which don't quite work so well on paper. ESPN anchor Bram Weinstein then went on Twitter and called his ESPN colleague a "carpetbagger."
Hours later, Wilbon went to Facebook and begin the inevitable backtrack from what he said in the magazine:
Greater Washington, D.C. is a wonderful place to live; I know because I've been here more than 30 years. It is NOT the country's best sports town, not close. I was quoted as saying that in a current issue of ESPN The Magazine and am taking a lot of flack for it, which is fine. But it's annoying as hell that a couple of colleagues, Dan Steinberg of The Post and Bram Weinstein of ESPN, felt the need to whine like little babies because I didn't speak a company line that agrees with their hypersensitive feelings.
Saying that places like New York, Boston, Philly, Chicago, Detroit and Los Angeles are better sports towns than D.C. is an easy and obvious observation to make, and you'd have to be a cheerleading fraud to be offended with anybody who makes it. It's not an insult to say D.C. isn't among the best sports towns in America. It's a pretty good sports town...but not great. One of the reasons I've chosen to live here since 1980 and loved doing so is that by-and-large most people here don't definte themselves by how the professional teams here do. I've always found that refreshing, enlightened.
Greater Washington is a more literate place than some of those I mentioned as better sports cities, has an greater range of attractions than some of them. It's too bad that Steinberg and Weinstein are so limited that they think making a fair observation about Washington as a sports town is a value judgement on greater Washington itself.
It's refreshing to see that Wilbon's debate tactics rival that of a six-year-old child, no matter the medium. (Also, that Wilbon's primary defense is he made the "easy and obvious observation" that DC "isn't among the best sports towns in America" is utterly hilarious.) He wraps up the clarification by further trashing Weinstein and Steinberg, who responded today with his own, more-thought-out retort:
"It's a pretty good sports town…but not great," Wilbon wrote, a bland and innocuous observation that would have caused exactly zero interest had he used it in his magazine discourse.
Of course, Wilbon chose to cover up his embarrassment at so quickly retreating from the "terrible" description by taking repeated shots at Bram Weinstein and me, which is cool. I get it. Changing the subject is a perfectly appropriate way to divert attention, and one I've frequently used.
I think it's great that Wilbon is still willing to speak truth to power between rounds at Columbia, celebrity roasts and expense-account lunches with Earvin. My only counter would be that it's cool to speak truth to power when the power is a team owner, or a sports network, or a washed-up quarterback living on past accomplishments. Flaming ordinary sports fans in your town for not being passionate enough strikes me as a less noble journalistic mission.
Which, really, was my only point. I've frequently written that D.C.'s passion - measured by television ratings, attendance and so on - is much different than in the cities Wilbon extolls. I think you can make that point without reveling in it.
Weinstein later apologized for using the term "carpetbagger," though he stands by his issues with Wilbon's piece.
So does Wilbon actually believe that DC is a "terrible" sports town? That's "it's last," whatever that means? We may never know completely for sure, but this is the first time in years everyone seems to be debating the merits of something Wilbon said, so I guess it's mission accomplished for him there.
Wilbon photo via