I was a lowly web producer at the Chicago Sun-Times when Jay Mariotti famously fired off an "I quit" e-mail to the paper's brass in August 2008.
It wasn't the first time the polarizing columnist had threatened to quit. But, with the company facing yet another round of layoffs, the executive editor accepted the resignation.
It spurred a rash of Mariotti-bashing throughout the sports world. It even prompted the venerable Roger Ebert to pen a column of his own titled "Jay the Rat." Mariotti had his version of what happened that he presented to the public. Everyone at the paper, including the janitors, had the truth.
The backlash lasted about a week, and it was ugly. There was no farewell column. No "thanks for reading." He was there one day, and the next, all that remained in his absence was co-workers' rejoicing.
That, in retrospect, was the wrong way for a sports columnist to leave a newspaper. And depending on whom you ask, it might have been the wrong way for a paper to send a columnist packing after 17 years.
Luckily, the journalism profession has a modern example of how to do it right, thanks to Washington Post columnist and proud Chicagoan Michael Wilbon. The Northwestern grad and South Side native penned his final column for the Post on Tuesday, heading now to take his talents to ESPN full-time.
One of the great things about the proliferation of web journalism is that sports fans have been exposed to writers outside of their immediate markets. Today, you can easily find the work of talented writers from around the country. I was exposed to Wilbon's writing, like most people, through his work on ESPN's "Pardon the Interruption," co-hosted with fellow former Post columnist Tony Kornheiser. Wilbon's take on sports was always a refreshing read. He reached the delicate balance of pragmatism sans pandering that marks a truly talented sports writer.
It's safe to say that columnists like Wilbon are a dying breed. It's become cliché for sports journalism purists to bemoan this fact. It's all too easy now to cry foul that one of the most high profile sports stories of the year had nothing to do with prose but rather (alleged) texted photos of an aging quarterback's swimsuit parts.
In the course of Wilbon's 31 1/2 years at the Washington Post, athletes and their behavior hasn't changed. The public's access to their worst traits has. I've had a few conversations about what our perceptions of certain athletes would be today if blogs like TMZ and Deadspin had existed in previous eras. It's safe to say that our expectations would likely not be dashed as often if they had. Despite all this, sports themselves haven't changed all that much. Sure, it's more business-oriented now, but pitchers still need to throw strikes, linebackers still have to wrap up and centers still need to box out. There's plenty to write about.
So, why wouldn't Wilbon grow old as a Washington Post columnist?
Wilbon wrote in his farewell column on Tuesday that the past 20 years, he's had "the best job in America." It's hard for some to argue this fact. But it's also a job that few will ever hold again. Today's beat writer can't necessarily hope to follow in Wilbon's footsteps and become a nationally recognized sports columnist. With sports journalism's landscape dramatically evolving with each new season and each new way to reach audiences, there's no longer a need for the Michael Wilbons of the world.
The simple fact is that, with few exceptions, a search-engine-optimized headline will attract more readers to a website than a well-penned opinion piece.
Still, it's a job that certainly has its drawbacks. There's the travel. The time away from the family on holidays. Generally speaking, consumers of sports media aren't always the most intelligent, level-headed or tactful. If you criticize a particular team, that fan base labels you a hack. Criticize a beloved player for their on- or off-field actions, and you're labeled a jealous wannabe. Becoming a sports columnist opens you up to a world of hurled insults and prying eyes paralleled only by a life in politics.
If there's ever been a knock on Wilbon in all of this, it wasn't warranted.
Until recently, I thought all guys secretly wanted to be sports reporters. Who wouldn't want to spend their evenings at hanging around locker rooms in a schlubby sports coat talking to world-class athletes and eating salty press box food? Then I spoke to a friend the other day that I consider an average sports fan and an average sports media consumer. I asked him which writers he regularly seeks out and reads. Not a single name came to mind. And yet, he was up on all the major sports story lines of the day.
It told me that big name sports columnists -- the Michael Wilbons of the world -- are a luxury that, in penny-pinching days, newspapers can ill afford.
As he bids farewell to his Washington D.C. readership, one can't help but wonder what impact Wilbon, an avid Bulls, Bears, Cubs and NU Wildcats supporter, would have had on the Chicago sports media landscape had one of its newspapers given him a chance out of college. This town might have had another Royko... instead of a rat.