An update for those of you who stopped paying attention years ago: Rick Reilly is still stealing. He’s doing it proudly, in plain sight and on the largest platform in sports media.
It’s never been the same brand of thievery routinely practiced by a career crook like Jim Bollman, who has maddeningly collected generous paychecks while growing thick roots at the statistical bottom of his craft. There also isn’t any crony behind the wheel of a getaway car assisting him in his heist.
No, hard as it is to accept in his current iteration, Reilly legitimately earned the keys to the vault that he’s been looting for all those years.
He is sportswriting’s Bernie Madoff, but with victims numbering in the millions, fewer dollars melted away, no outright corruption and actually he’s nothing at all like Bernie Madoff though it’s conceivable Reilly would playfully use such hyperbole in a cheeky and inaccurate categorization of the literary work he has produced at ESPN for a mere $17MM over five years.
Remember, this is a man who regularly stages photographs of celebrities choking him. It's the signature move of his contrived adversaries.
ESPN has been a slow burn for Reilly, whose audience is increasingly difficult to categorize: Equal parts addicted consumers, rubbernecking fetishists, innocent bystanders and historical admirers. I have been unwillingly carved and portioned into each of those buckets.
Count me among the legion of former Sports Illustrated subscribers who used to start each issue with Reilly's allocutions on the back page. I’m also not the only sports enthusiast who grew fatigued by ESPN's programming direction at large and reduced my consumption, which included his regular contributions to a genre his work used to define.
Dropouts like me are now infrequently reminded that Reilly is still in the business whenever he offers up an especially cringe-worthy contribution to the space, like being first on Twitter or delving into an insipid NY Jets-inspired poetry slam:
Rex Ryan's seat is hot | Mark's been killin' him | What hurts worse is | He makes 8 million
They picked brash Geno | Who's a bit of a diva | He says he'll behave | But who's a believa?
This is not a Long Island seventh-grader's Facebook status. It was published yesterday by the 11-time recipient of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association’s Sportswriter of the Year. And it was delivered on an elevated content perch by the largest media conglomerate in the world.
It's yet another suicide note scribbled by a writer who would love nothing more but to end it all, if not for the salaried commitments.
That poem has been shared on Facebook and Twitter several hundred times, and while not all of those shares come from the rubbernecking fetishists, a lot of them do.
When we last checked in with Reilly here at Eleven Warriors, he was conspicuously preparing to take the second-dumbest angle ever conceived for an article about Aaron Craft. The resulting groans that went viral upon learning of his designs for unmasking Craft as "annoying" may have dissuaded him from following through on his grand plan: The column can't be found.
Reilly is abundantly capable of producing quality content. As his compensation increased to unthinkable levels, he reached satiety with his career and stopped trying. Overcompensation coupled with a comfortable hammock hanging from the spires atop your industry far above the fray can do that.
His decline parallels Jay Leno's, a former standup comedian who used to be very funny. Similar to Reilly's professional peak which is now barely a speck in the rearview mirror, that revelation may be a shock to anyone born too late to know otherwise.
Both men cashed in on reaching the top of their professions by bathing in the sweet, bankable comfort of milquetoast. It's more of a deliberate and unfortunate change in course than an outright decline, like the final decade of Joe Paterno's career when he couldn't be bothered to leave his living room to recruit the future stewards of the Penn State empire he built.
Paterno spent decades becoming a legend, until his job became playing the part of that edifice. Leno has an armada of writers; JoePa had a legion of assistants. Reilly has neither; just a large base of readers who continue to fracture into different categories. He now writes poems about Tim Tebow for ESPN, for a fee.
He is by far the highest-paid scribe at ESPN, which employs an enormous number of talented, hungrier writers whose names combined hold a fraction of the equity that Rick Reilly has. The line of comedians funnier than Leno could circle the globe. When Paterno's career ended, he was near the bottom of his craft. It wasn't always that way.
Regardless, it's difficult to cram all of the hideous bits Reilly has produced just during his ESPN tenure into one piece, so in the spirit of knowing my audience - consider his description of "The Michigan Man" for Nebraska upon its entry into the Big Ten:
The Michigan Man is full of pride in himself and his Michigan degree -- so much so that you're going to want to bring a throw-up bowl along with you. Sadly, the Michigan Man has had to reduce the volume a little lately, having not beaten The Ohio State Man since the debut of the Edsel.
"The Michigan Man" had only beaten "The Ohio State Man" a mere two dozen times since the Edsel's debut when Reilly wrote this in 2011, but failing at hyperbole isn't really the point. It also isn't that he doesn't seem to realize that abundant, effervescent pride toward a Michigan education is the battle cry of Michigan's non-degreed stakeholders, i.e. the essence of the "Michigan Man" punchline that Reilly manages to trample.
The point is that Reilly, one of the most decorated sportswriters in history, now makes millions of dollars producing message board-caliber crap we try to avoid publishing on this site. He was once a custodian for esteemed sports prose whose dual purpose is impassioned narration and a dignified historical timestamp for our most-favored escape.
And now he's not, loudly. That's Reilly's crime.
He's sullying a pulpit any other writer would love to grace. He's no Madoff, but he's still a thief who will serve no time because there isn't a penalty for pillaging your own lectern. Reilly built his brand by himself. He's free to defile it at his convenience.