This is not (totally) a hit piece on Pat McAfee. It’s more about how we should categorize what McAfee does, because The Athletic — you know that sports site owned by The New York Times — named him its Sports Media Person of the Year, and that implies that he’s a journalist.
What McAfee does has notes of journalism. He has a show where he interviews athletes, talks X’s and O’s on ESPN College Gameday, and fills the role of analyst on WWE’s Friday Night Smackdown, which is loosely a sport. (Deadspin covers wrestling like it’s a sport, but nitpicks storylines as if they were prestige TV.)
However, McAfee is just as much a journalist as he was a football player. Punters and kickers are people, too, yet when Jay Feeley calls a game the only time I value what he says is when it relates to the kicking game. The same logic applies to McAfee.
Unless he’s losing his shit over a punter, the rest of what he says — while informed — should be treated as entertainment. He had one groundbreaking moment this year, which I’ll get to, and the way it was handled was not in any class I took. (I have a communications news editorial degree, which is half the reason for this rant.)
I think McAfee is great on Gameday, and that’s a perfect forum for his schtick. He can call Peyton Manning “Sheriff,” co-conduct the UT band, and backflip into the Tennessee River all he wants. Being charismatic doesn’t make him any more of a journalist than Lee Corso.
The Athletic lauding McAfee as this beacon of the industry overlooks the missteps he intentionally makes. Dan Patrick is friendly with a lot of athletes, too. However, when he has one on, they can expect a tough question or two. McAfee has unfettered access to Aaron Rodgers because he lets Rodgers say anything he wants, and McAfee nods like he’s the Green Bay QB’s therapist.
Real journalists would rebuke No. 12 for his stance on the vaccine, and call him out for trying to tie inoculations to the “woke mob.” Just because it’s coming from largely Democrats doesn’t make it woke.
McAfee did break the biggest Rodgers story of the year. The QB first revealed that he’s no more immunized than the next loon taking ivermectin, and should’ve received a shit ton of pushback if not an outright laugh when he said he sought out podcaster Joe Rogan for advice on alternative vaccines.
Who awarded Rogan a Ph.D.? I know he didn’t get one from an accredited university. But no, McAfee looked on with that “I’m listening” face as if it was 3 a.m. and Rodgers was pitching him his idea for a bar and grill.
Other journalists did yeoman’s work in 2022, and a guy like Baxter Holmes — a James Beard Award winner — whose reporting led to Robert Sarver putting the Phoenix Suns up for sale, deserves some acknowledgment. How about the New York Times’ Jenny Vrentas*, who dug up the story detailing Deshaun Watson’s meeting with 66 different masseuses over a 17-month span, and discovering that the Houston Texans enabled their QB’s behavior. The Texans have since settled a suit over the accusations, and all the thorough reporting definitely played a factor in Watson’s suspension being appealed and upped to 11 games.
(*As stated above, the NYT actually owns The Athletic, which is hysterical because they set out to end newspapers. Even if it wasn’t a conflict of interest, Vrentas isn’t winning The Athletic’s award.)
I get that most sports media followers probably have never heard Vrentas speak, or seen her do a gainer off a houseboat. The only time Holmes gets air time is for random hits about pieces he’s penned. In the grand scheme of sports journalism, those stories are significantly more important than McAfee’s brand of reactions.
Now that sports media has devolved from actually reporting stories to reacting to games with inane arguments that will never be settled, the loudest, most likable person gets the award basically for not being overwhelming. (Yes, I’m absolutely aware of how ironic this is as I’m writing it.) So much about how we feel toward broadcasters or personalities comes from whether they’re new or fresh. Tony Romo was great until it became an act. I didn’t fall for it because fuck the Cowboys, but I think even Jim Nantz is getting sick of Romo’s energy.
The best thing about McAfee is he’s tolerable. That’ll get tested soon enough as he becomes increasingly omnipresent. As it stands, he’s fucking unbelievable — that was sarcasm — which is why he was named The Athletic’s People Person Media Person of the Year.
If you’re wondering what’ll draw more clicks: McAfee or hard-nosed investigative journalism? It’s McAfee. I even wrote about him earlier this year, and it skewed positively because he is very good at his job. What exactly is his job — that’s a different story.