The Media Column: Ex-ESPN reporter spills secrets about the WorldWide Leader’s corrupted NBA coverage

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It was the biggest story in sports on a slow Monday in August. Kevin Durant reportedly delivered an ultimatum to the Nets: choose me, or your coach and general manager. Yet, ESPN didn’t acknowledge the saga until the sun went down, publishing a straight news story with a tame headline about Nets owner Joe Tsai voicing “support for front office, coaches in wake of Kevin Durant's trade demands."

Just as curiously, Adrian Wojnarowski, the networks’ leading NBA Insider, didn’t send out a single tweet about the bombshell report. ESPN buried the story about Durant demanding the Nets fire Steve Nash and Sean Marks. But why?

Ethan Strauss, who covered the Warriors at the height of their dynasty for ESPN, presented a theory on his Substack, House of Strauss: Wojnarowski, either explicitly or implicitly, kiboshed the story to protect Marks.

Former ESPN reporter Ethan Strauss exposes state secrets

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That’s the opposite of how journalism is supposed to work, of course. But it’s the cost of playing the dangerous Insider Game.

“It does have shades of the parasite taking over the host,” said Strauss on Audacy’s Sports Media Mayhem podcast. “You’re supposed to have these good dynamics with your sources so you can get the big story. You don’t then ignore the big story, because you’ve got a good dynamic with your sources.”

Strauss left ESPN in 2017 and spent the next four years covering the Warriors for The Athletic before starting his own Substack last fall. While covering the Warriors at the apex of their success was a dream job — Strauss gained incredible visibility and a book deal — it was also a grind. After years on the beat, he found his passion drifting away from basketball, and started his own newsletter where, in his words, subscribers pay him “to be traitorous to my brethren, committed to entertaining you first, and considering industry pieties last.”

That means exposing industry secrets, and in the case of Wojnarowski, the disturbing steps he takes to cultivate and protect his vast network of league sources. Last year, Strauss published a packet of documents that Woj apparently sends to agents and team employees highlighting his immense social media reach.

At this year’s Summer League, Wojnarowski hosted a special dinner for his league sources, Strauss reports.

ESPN’s other venerated Insider, Adam Schefter, was exposed last fall via an NFL investigation for sending a story about the 2011 lockout to former Washington president Bruce Allen before it was published. In the email, Schefter called Allen “Mr. Editor.”

But that’s child's play compared to how Wojnarowski operates. According to Strauss, Woj chastises other reporters and personalities for covering unflattering news about his closest sources, including Marks. The end result is a culture of silence, and in the case of Durant’s ultimatum, glaring journalistic malpractice.

“In the case of this particular scenario, I don't know whether it was dictated by Woj that you can't touch this story because of Sean Marks. But what I do know is that Woj has jumped on people when they say things that his sources don't want said,” said Strauss. “So perhaps at a certain point, the institution is paralyzed, because they have a sense that certain sources are the sources you don't really mess with.”

ESPN ponied up millions of dollars to snag Wojnarowski from Yahoo!, partially due to his habit of prematurely tweeting out NBA teams’ draft picks, and thus spoiling ESPN’s programming. With Woj and Schefter, ESPN now reports almost every transaction first — big and small — and prioritizes chasing the scoop. The Washington Post’s excellent profile about Schefter reveals that ESPN used to grade its NFL reporters on how many signings they broke.

To defend this all-in strategy, ESPN says internal research shows that Schefter’s reporting results in ratings bumps for its studio shows, which immediately discuss any news that appears on his Twitter feed.

But Strauss is skeptical, considering ESPN ratings have tanked over the last several years.

“I'm a very simple man. I look at the ratings. I see they've gone down massively since they've gone about this agenda,” he said. “If it matters, it's not mattering enough, it's not mattering at scale. I can't do the counter-factual of course, where I can invent some other ESPN that for years pursued a different path and I compare the two. But my suspicion is, this has not been very good for them.”

It was not very good for them last week. Shams Charania’s report about Durant was everywhere, except on the WorldWide Leader. Maybe Wojnarowski will break the Nets’ next free agent signing. But that’s not what consumers want.

If given the choice, they would probably want ESPN to talk about Durant demanding the dismissals of his team’s coach and GM, right?

“They went down the route of trying to beat the press release. I'm just not sure what the demand is for that,” said Strauss. “I think the danger from their perspective that is unseen by perhaps the corporate chieftains who sign off on it, and try to win this game, they can't see the externalities. They can't see the cost of winning this game. They can't see that in order to win the game, you have to compromise so much of all the other stuff you do. You have the biggest news in sports happen, and for the entire day, while it's light out, you have no information about it while everybody is looking to your website and turning on the TV to get some sort of commentary. I don't think the people at ESPN anticipated this might be a cost of trying to win the press release game, but it appears to be so.”

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Covering Durant: Durant’s rabbit ears match his basketball prowess, and few know that more than Strauss, who had several run-ins with the 12-time All-Star while covering the Warriors. With rumors about the Celtics chasing Durant continuing to percolate, it’s fair to wonder how Durant would interact with the notoriously probing Boston media.

While there would probably be some blowups, Strauss says Durant is multi-faceted. There is an innate likability about him, despite his difficult personality.

“There's something to Kevin Durant where, he is so frustrating to deal with in so many ways; and yet, nobody I know who deals with him hates him, including myself,” said Strauss. “This is a guy who in a press conference was basically accusing me of being bad at my job, and trying to embarrass me, and I don't even hate him. So he's a fascinating guy, and there's something likable about him, despite this inward focus -- one could maybe call it narcissism. I wish him the best.”

Team broadcasters pushing Durant to the C’s: Earlier this summer, Celtics TV color analyst Brian Scalabrine said on NBC Sports Boston’s draft show he would trade Jaylen Brown for Durant. This week, radio broadcaster Cedric Maxwell said he would do the same thing.

That’s likely not a coincidence. Team broadcasters aren’t in the business of spreading false rumors. When Scal and Max talk about including Brown in a trade for Durant, it would behoove us to listen.

Red Sox blame game continues: Critical stories about the Red Sox’ direction under Chaim Bloom continue to be published. The latest salvo came from ESPN’s Buster Olney, who quoted a rival exec asking “what the hell” the Red Sox are doing.

In the piece, Olney runs through some of Bloom’s biggest miscalculations, including the abhorrent return he received for Mookie Betts. The question is, who’s leading Olney in that direction? Is it the same sources who told Alex Speier there’s “confusion” in the organization over Bloom’s strategy, or the same sources who told John Tomase there’s “frustration” in the clubhouse?

Watch this space.