What to make of ESPN reporter Adrian Wojnarowski’s exchange with Missouri Senator Josh Hawley

Uncharacteristically, Wojnarowski made a couple of mistakes.

Adrian Wojnarowski ESPN
Adrian Wojnarowski –YouTube

COMMENTARY

Adrian Wojnarowski is well-established as a master of creative word choices.

Years before he developed his brand (and collected more than 4 million Twitter followers on his @wojespn account) as the NBA’s preeminent scoopmaster, Wojnarowski had earned a reputation as superb, stylish writer. Among other achievements, he has won multiple national column writing awards and authored a book on a New Jersey high school basketball program, “The Miracle of St. Anthony” that should be considered on par with Buzz Bissinger’s “Friday Night Lights.”

He’s also proven to be creatively subversive with his verbiage. During the 2018 NBA Draft, reporters were asked not to tip picks in advance. Wojnarowski heeded this request until the New York Times’s Marc Stein began revealing the selections moments before they were announced.

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So Wojnarowski countered by leaning on an assortment of clever verbs and adjectives as his loophole for revealing his scoops: “Source: Portland has a laser on Anfernee Simons,’’ he tweeted. Another: “Source: The Lakers are unlikely to resist Mo Wagner with the 25th pick.” He was right about all of them.

I bring this up because Wojnarowski, as perhaps you have heard, found himself in trouble for a certain other creative word choice over the weekend. His scoops are known as “Woj bombs” in NBA circles. This was a bomb of a more vulgar color.

Wojnarowski was suspended without pay, reportedly for two weeks, for responding to an emailed press release from Missouri Senator Josh Hawley with a two-word reply: [Expletive] you. The email blast from Hawley, a Republican, touted a letter he was planning to send to NBA commissioner Adam Silver complaining that the social-justice messages the league’s players are permitted to wear on their jerseys do not offer a wide enough range of options.

Hawley suggested that players should have been allowed to wear messages supporting police officers and also criticized the league for not allowing messages about China’s human rights violations in Hong Kong. China has been an important NBA business partner, but the delicate and complicated relationship was thrown into flux when Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support of pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong last October.

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Wojnarowski’s blunt-force response to the press release was revealed by Hawley on Twitter Friday: “Don’t criticize #China or express support for law enforcement to @espn. It makes them real mad,’’ he wrote, with a screenshot of Wojnarowski’s email reply.

Hawley’s decision to make Wojnarowski’s response public struck me as an especially pathetic bit of political grandstanding. He made a private email public for the sake of gaining a few easy owning-the-libs points among his followers, many of whom almost certainly believe ESPN leans too liberal, a longtime conservative talking point.

Wojnarowski apologized publicly and to Hawley for the reply, and as calculating as the senator’s tactics may have been, it was the appropriate thing to do. For once, Wojnarowski made the wrong word choice. He could have expressed his sentiments in a less vulgar way – pointing out the hypocrisy of Republicans’ selective concern when it comes to China would have been a more specific way of responding — though I must admit his approach was effective in getting the point across.

Wojnarowski also made a couple of other mistakes: Sending it from his ESPN email account rather than a personal account did not help his cause and probably factored into the decision to suspend him. It’s fair to wonder whether a personality of less prominence would have been fired.

The other mistake was more surprising, because it revealed a naiveté in the veteran reporter. He underestimated – or perhaps did not even consider – that Hawley and his team might use a response from one of the most well-known ESPN personalities for political points.

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Hawley succeeded in his main quest here, which was to enhance his own profile. Short-term consequences aside, this is going to help Wojnarowski, too. It’s clear now, if it wasn’t before, that he’s close to bulletproof at ESPN; his bosses must be well aware that if he went out on his own and charged, say, a $5 per month fee for a newsletter, it would be a massive success. ESPN’s infrastructure helps him somewhat, but he is a lucrative brand unto himself. ESPN, which lured him away from Yahoo! in July 2017 after he kept beating the network’s NBA writers on stories, is well aware of this.

And his credibility among those he covers has only grown. After word of his suspension came down Saturday, several NBA players and personalities, including LeBron James (46.7 million twitter followers) expressed social media support for the reporter. Soon, a hashtag related to his situation began trending: #FreeWoj.

I’m not sure if that counts as one word or two. But it stands as a succinct confirmation of his status in the NBA’s orbit – and perhaps, a subtle collective commendation for the two words that got the whole situation started in the first place.

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