Michael Wilbon’s criticism

“I’m tired of journalists, under cover of painting a complete portrait, deciding the world is a better place for knowing whom public figures are sleeping with. This isn’t news, it’s pandering, especially when the man in question has been dead for 12 years and can’t defend himself”

— Michael Wilbon, RE: Sweetness

I’ve been asked, oh, 20 times what I thought about Michael Wilbon’s ESPN.com column about my book.

Today I finally read it.

In a word: Puzzling. For a journalist—a respected journalist—to write the above sentiment is weird/odd/confusing. To begin with, nobody said the world is a better place for knowing that Walter Payton was a wayward husband. What has been said (repeatedly, by me) is that one can’t write a complete, authentic, definitive biography of a life and ignore key portions. Let’s say, for example, that in 1982 Walter Payton cheated on his wife. One time. A slip. A mistake. Do I write about it? Very unlikely. But if a person peddles much of his image based off of a Family Guy persona, and if that persona is largely fictional, and if you’re writing a biography of that person’s life, well, how do you ignore it?

Seriously, I’d love for Wilbon (a guy I respect) to answer this one. You, Michael Wilbon, have agreed to write a definitive biography of Sweetness. You learn that, for the last 10 years of his life, his marriage wasn’t real. Do you ignore that? Really? And what about the depression? The suicice threats? Again—you’re responsible for a definitive, all-encompassing biography. There was this image of the happy, giddy, eternally cheerful Walter Payton—and it turns out that image was a shield. Do you ignore that, too?

And why? Because, when you were a kid growing up in Chicago, you loved him? Because he’s been deceased for 12 years, and thereby unable to defend himself (try telling that one to the biographers of JFK, MLK, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Elvis, Malcolm X, Roberto Clemente, Jim Henson, etc … etc). I’m just … baffled. Beyond baffled.

Truth is, a person’s weaknesses and down times explain significantly more (when it comes to character) than the highs. How a person responds at his lowest speaks to us on what he represents at his highest.

To ignore the struggle, simply because of guilt, would be to ignore the person.

10 thoughts on “Michael Wilbon’s criticism”

  1. All those years of protecting and toadying up to Jordan have paid off. Wilbon is no different than Mary Hart at this point. Take his “journalistic” opinion with a grain of salt.

  2. Wilbon turned his “professional journalist” card a long time ago and has a “professional athlete ass-kisser” card to prove it.

  3. While I don’t doubt Wilbon very well could think the way he comes across let’s also not ignore the ESPN-element and “controversy sells.” Wilbon penning a column (or speaking on PTI) saying “This isn’t a story folks, let’s move on and just read it later” does no good for ESPN’s bottom line. So he didn’t go with that angle. It’s programming hours they have to fill, its clicks on the website. They’ve already pushed this Payton agenda (their agenda) to the max the last 2 weeks and have to continue to milk it as much as they can before people start to wise up. The people with rational brains don’t pay attention to it just like 90% of ESPN programming and “headlines.”

  4. It was well known (to the point it was surprising that Connie was so involved in Walter’s estate) that Walter and Connie were estranged, pick another of your superior fact finding points to brag about.

  5. Neil, that seems like an odd critique. So, if it was so well-know, then why are people

    a) acting so shocked and scandalized


    b) upset that Jeff included it in his book?

    Although you may have known it, the public reaction suggests this was a big surprise for a lot of people. And, finally, your comment just seems to reinforce Jeff’s assertion that this is a critical element of the book that has to be included.

    1. I honestly think people aren’t ‘shocked’ as much as angry that Walter Payton doesn’t get a chance to defend himself, and even though he has been dead for over a decade does have a memory etched in many sports fans. Payton is still seen as a modern figure, one that many have a visual of. If its further removed from our memory, maybe the reaction wouldn’t be as harsh. At least that is my opinion of the anger.

      I plan to read the book, but I understand exactly where Wilbon is coming from. Payton and Nolan Ryan were players I loved as a kid, but would I be shocked if a book came out with allegations Ryan was on something? Had a mistress?


      I also get Jeff’s point that you can’t leave it out. I also get that SI had to put that excerpt in because to me that magazine is irrelevant. I used to enjoy SI about 15 years ago when the media access was much different. Just wasn’t worth continuing my subscription, but worth to the sports guy to pick it off the newsstand that week.

      Is it wrong to say I understand where all sides are coming from and there really isn’t a wrong or right in this? 🙂

  6. Wilbon sold his journalistic soul long ago. His opinions have no credibility anymore. Indeed, it could be argued his opinions and reporting regarding Chicago athletes never had any credibility. Since becoming another ESPN minion, his worth as a journalist is nil.

  7. Wilbon threw a simliar snit a decade ago toward his Post colleage Mike Leahy, whose great book about Michael Jordan’s failed years with the Wizards gently accused Wilbon of being a first-rate jock-sniffer. Wilbon stopped being a journalist long ago; he’s now just another ESPN-slathered media star. The ESPN machine is focused on slamming you and your book, Jeff, so what else do you think Wilbon’s gonna do?

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