Any sportswriter who’s penned anything more cutting than a velvety love letter has at least one — and probably many more than one — experience of running hard into the rage of an athlete or coach accustomed to adoration. And any athlete or coach who’s ever lost a game has had the wrenching experience of seeing their talent and livelihood questioned by outsiders.
So it’s only natural that there’s friction between the two sides, friction that occasionally flares up into visible flame. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, before cell phone cameras captured everything, players occasionally shoved, punched, or even slammed reporters into lockers. Right now, we’ve got Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in an ongoing cold war against local columnist Berry Tramel, with Westbrook refusing to answer even Tramel’s most innocuous questions.
It’s the latest in a long line of athlete-media feuds, many of which are legendary in sports media circles. This list of confrontations is by definition incomplete — find any sportswriter after a game, buy them a beer, and they’ll tell you five more — but it’s a start. Please enjoy these high-water marks in athlete-media relations.
Jim Rome vs. Jim Everett: The gold standard of athlete-media fights. Provocateur Jim Rome kept calling then-Rams QB Jim Everett “Chrissy” — as in tennis star Chrissy Evert, back when calling a man a woman’s name was a devastating insult — and Everett responded by coming over the table. Who knows if it’s real or staged, but it’s one of the all-time great sports clips.
Mario Soto vs. Jay Mariotti: When a writer rips an athlete in print, it’s generally customary for the writer to go to the clubhouse the next day to defend his or her take — or at least, it was before the internet turned everyone into a national columnist. Back in 1985, Mariotti, then a writer for the Cincinnati Post, tore into the Reds’ Mario Soto, but couldn’t get to the clubhouse immediately because of another assignment. When he finally did arrive, Soto bellowed at him until he was dragged away. A few weeks later, Mariotti made the insane mistake of getting down on the clubhouse floor to leg-wrestle Dave Parker — and was immediately doused with everything from Ben-Gay to mayonnaise to something that smelled suspiciously like urine.
Tim McCarver vs. Deion Sanders: A classic old guard/new guard kind of fight. McCarver criticized Sanders’ decision to play both baseball and football on the same day during the 1992 MLB playoffs, and Sanders responded by dousing McCarver with water during the Braves’ league championship celebration. Nearly 30 years later, the two still haven’t made up.
John Rocker pops off: Back in 1999, Rocker was a fiery, dominating closer for the otherwise sedate Atlanta Braves. During one afternoon, however, Rocker detonated both his reputation and his baseball future by unleashing a series of angry, racist torrents while being profiled by Sports Illustrated reporter Jeff Pearlman. The resulting article infuriated teammates and earned Rocker a suspension from baseball. Pearlman took heat from fans, other ballplayers, and most notably Rocker himself in a loud Turner Field tunnel confrontation, but ended up being correct.
Tiger Woods vs. Dan Jenkins: Back in 1997, Jenkins, a golf writing legend who recently passed away, had heard the tales of this wondrous new 21-year-old storming his way up through the golf ranks. Jenkins reached out to Tiger Woods’ camp to set up an off-the-record, get-to-know-you meeting, the way he’d done with legends from Ben Hogan to Jack Nicklaus. Woods’ team responded that they didn’t see any advantage in such a meeting, and Jenkins didn’t fall in with the contingent of golf media that lionized Woods. (Jenkins famously noted that the only things that could derail Woods from matching Nicklaus’s mark of 18 majors: injury or a bad marriage. Right on both counts.) Woods also hated Jenkins’ mock 2014 interview of Woods, but as Woods had learned in 2009, athletes need the media just as much as the media needs athletes … and it’s not a great idea for either side to dismiss the other out of hand.
Dr. D vs. John Stossel: When 20/20 reporter John Stossel asked David “Dr. D” Schultz if wrestling was fake, Schultz popped Stossel in the ears twice, knocking him to the ground. Schultz was fired by the WWF (precursor to the WWE) and Stossel settled out of court for $425,000.
Floyd Mayweather vs. Larry Merchant: Give HBO’s Larry Merchant credit — at 80 years old, he had no problem asking tough questions of Floyd Mayweather after yet another routine Mayweather knockout. Mayweather talked trash at Merchant, who responded, "I wish I was 50 years younger, and I would kick your ass."
Reporter punches back: There was a time when the Patriots weren’t a world-beating dynasty, believe it or not. Once, in 1979, cornerback Raymond Clayborn was forcing his way through the Pats locker room, deliberately knocking into reporters. When the Boston Globe’s Will McDonough told Clayborn to knock it off, Clayborn got into McDonough’s face … and McDonough knocked him to the ground with a punch to the jaw. The two subsequently became friends, but this maneuver is highly not recommended for today’s NFL journalists.
Ryan Leaf’s locker room rant: Look, it can’t be easy when you’re coming into the NFL and set up as a rival against Peyton freaking Manning, but even so, Ryan Leaf handled everything about his rookie season about as badly as possible. He alienated teammates, flailed on the field, and — in an infamous incident — blew up at San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Jay Posner in the locker room, screaming “Don’t talk to me, all right? Knock it off!” Leaf had to be restrained by teammates including Junior Seau.
Mexican coach goes down swinging: Miguel Herrera, in 2015 the head coach of the Mexican national soccer team, spotted Christian Martinoli, a TV Azteca correspondent and frequent critic, in the security line at the Philadelphia airport. Herrera sucker-punched Martinoli in the neck, and shortly thereafter became the former head coach of the Mexican national soccer team.
And just to wrap it all up, here’s a fine little roundup from a few years back of media-athlete confrontations, including Michael Strahan, Mike Tyson, Bobby Bonilla and Lance Armstrong, capped off with Mike Gundy’s classic “Come at me! I’m 40! I’m a man!” monologue:
It’s a strange little dance that athletes and the media do, but as long as there are athletes to play sports and media to cover them with less-than-worshipful eyes, there’ll be dust-ups. And from here on out, we’ll see most of them in real time.
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