Phil Mushnick’s Dangerous Game: Work for Murdoch, Blast TV Schlock

“I plan to kill Fox tomorrow.”

Phil Mushnick, the New York Post ‘s sports TV columnist and roving moralist, was on the phone one recent evening in the basement office of his home in Old Bridge, N.J., talking sports.

With Mr. Mushnick, talking sports means talking life, and at this particular moment he was talking about his own. In fact, he was addressing the central contradiction therein: He is the sports world’s self-appointed watchdog, sniffing out greed, hypocrisy and bad taste in both his thrice-a-week Post column and his weekly TV Guide column, condemning corporate bullying, shoddy journalism, eroding sportsmanship and bad camera angles. But who is the master who fills his bowl? None other than Rupert Murdoch, publisher of the Post and TV Guide , the big bad wolf of Fox Sports and, in the eyes of many, no friend of journalism, sports or tasteful TV.

It is the kind of apparent conflict of interest that could, in the hands of Mr. Mushnick, make for some tart columns questioning whether the great arbiter is guilty of pulling his punches.

“I’ve had some stuff that I wanted to pursue that was, shall we say, looked at sideways,” Mr. Mushnick admitted. “There weren’t active pressures. But there were subtle pressures, early in the life of Fox Sports-’Oh yes, mate, you’re the fellow who ripped Fox’- but they have completely disappeared.”

Every year, a few weeks before Christmas, Mr. Murdoch invites a handful of Post staff members to have lunch with him in a conference room in the News Corporation building in midtown Manhattan. Last December, Mr. Murdoch chose about a dozen to dine with him on meager portions of fish, among them Ken Chandler, Fred Dicker, Richard Johnson and Mr. Mushnick. At one point, after extolling the prospects of 20th Century Fox’s (and therefore his) Titanic , Mr. Murdoch asked his charges how they might improve the paper.

“Stop cluttering it up with ads!” Mr. Mushnick volunteered. Mr. Murdoch smiled. The man does have a sense of humor.

Still, Mr. Mushnick has done his best over the years to cleanse the pages of the Post -or at least his page-of both corporate self-promotion and advertising. He has not refrained from hammering Fox Sports and some of the Post ‘s own advertisers in the space Mr. Murdoch pays him to fill.

“I go after Fox all the time,” he said over the phone. “I like to think that the next time Ted Kennedy hauls [News Corporation executives] into a Senate subcommittee on cross-ownership in a major market, that line of questioning would end when someone pointed out: ‘Here, look what Mushnick just wrote about [Fox football commentator] John Madden, who just happens to be the highest-paid employee in the Murdoch realm. He trashed the guy.’”

From Jock to Crusader

Since he started writing about television and radio 16 years ago, Mr. Mushnick, 45, has taken up crusades ranging from cable companies’ gouging of customers to the use of meaningless statistics in football broadcasts. Ten years ago, he was the first to make noise about Nike’s exploitation of inner-city kids and Nike pitchman Michael Jordan’s complicity in it. He was also among the first to criticize the networks and Major League Baseball for broadcasting World Series games so late at night that no child east of the Mississippi could ever hope to watch past the seventh-inning stretch.

At first, Mr. Mushnick was considered a little nuts. But over time, his pet causes have been integrated into the national polemic over the degraded state of sports. He may not be the Last Angry Man. But for a time he was the loneliest, and he remains extremely hard to please.

“I call him Mr. Grumpy,” said David Hill, president of Fox Sports. “He’s a throwback. He sees himself as a knight in shining armor protecting sports fans from the slings and arrows hurled at them by cretinous, unfeeling network sports chiefs.”

“People are afraid of him in the sports business,” said Seth Abraham, president of Time Warner Sports. “He’s the Thomas Nast of the industry.” Nast, of course, was the cartoonist whose caricatures of corrupt Tammany Hall officials helped bring down the Tweed Ring in the early 1870′s. But whatever Boss Tweed and his cronies hauled in from the public treasury, it was chicken feed compared to the multibillion-dollar media pigout that the modern sports business has become, with its tangled webs of ownership and its legions of potentially conflicted employees. Companies like News Corporation, the Walt Disney Company and Time Warner own teams, networks, news outlets and delivery systems, and therefore murk up the issue of who’s covering whom, how and why. Sports journalism may not be a high priority among those who fret about a media universe dominated by a few corporate behemoths, but Mr. Mushnick believes it is a tradition worth fighting for and shouting about.

“The unique thing about Mushnick is that he makes shit happen. It may take 10 years, but eventually people listen,” said one network executive. “The most often used expression among network publicists is ‘Did you see Mushnick today?’”

Everyone sees his column, but not everyone heeds it.

“I have been involved in meetings where people have said, ‘Mushnick will kill us on that,’ but that fact has not really influenced whatever decision was being made,” said a sports executive. “I’m not sure he hasn’t lost some of his influence because he’s always in such a rage. He reminds you of the guy whose face is always red, who’s always screaming, so you just tune him out.”

And you don’t return his calls. Mr. Mushnick’s trashing of NBC’s coverage of the National Basketball Association and the Atlanta Olympics earned him the lasting enmity of NBC sports president Dick Ebersol. Mr. Mushnick has not spoken to Mr. Ebersol since the Atlanta Games ended in 1996. But Mr. Mushnick won’t allow the occasional missed scoop to get in the way of a good rant. “How locked out can you get?” he said. “They’re still on the air.”

Staten Island Nostalgist

Mr. Mushnick’s penchant for nostalgia might be attributed to a childhood spent on Staten Island in the green, pure days before the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge linked the borough to Babylon. He was a sports fanatic early on. He served as a water boy who kept tackle charts for the Wagner College football team, which brought him his first brush with stardom. Former Jet head coach Rich Kotite, then Wagner’s star tight end, once loaned him a windbreaker during a game. Now there was a true sportsman.

Mr. Mushnick left Eden to attend Waynesburg College in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he cultivated a fondness for eccentric jocks and Quaaludes. Then, after graduating in 1973, he got a job as copy clerk at the Post , the only newspaper that would hire him. With the exception of a short stint at Newsday , he has been at the Post ever since.

His disillusionment with the sports world came early. He covered the New York Rangers in the late 1970′s and was assaulted by hockey hero Phil Esposito inside the locker room in response to a critical piece. Before that, Mr. Mushnick recalled, Mr. Esposito “told me not to stir up any crap. He told me that the guy I’d replaced was a homosexual. Then he told the guy who replaced me that I was a homosexual. That was the year I became an Islanders fan.”

In 1983, he gave up the beat life for good. He took over an insignificant TV notes column, moved it to the sports page and gradually turned it into the wide-ranging consumer-watchdog soapbox it is now.

Harvey Araton, a sports columnist for The New York Times , grew up with Mr. Mushnick on Staten Island and worked with him at the Post . “When Phil began to distance himself from the mainstream of sports, as he grew angrier and angrier in his column, he really began to value the legacy of Dick Young,” Mr. Araton said, referring to the late, legendary sports columnist. “Dick Young was great for his day, but Phil is far more enlightened than Dick Young could ever have imagined being.” Young wrote a column called Clubhouse Confidential, which was the ultimate notes column. “Basically, it was all about baseball and boxing,” Mr. Araton said. “But today’s sports world is so much more diverse. In the 80′s, after Young died, the Post and the News tried to replicate that Clubhouse Confidential format. But nobody could do it. The truth was, the TV sports column was now the ultimate notes column, because television ran sports. If you were plugged into the TV sports executives, you were plugged into every sports league.”

Every paper, of course, has its TV sports columnist now. But none brings the passion or wide-ranging outrage to their coverage that Mr. Mushnick does. Other prominent sports columnists, like Mike Lupica of the Daily News , get to denounce the knaves from time to time, but they have to spend a great deal of their time plying the access trade and covering the actual games and athletes. They belong to the scene. And they get to pontificate on television.

Like political commentators, many sports columnists yearn for a regular television gig, which gives them a heightened sense of their own power and a brand name to trade on. One reason Mr. Mushnick is not as well known as Mr. Lupica is Mr. Mushnick’s refusal to go on television. Mr. Hill offered him a spot on a new Fox Sports Net talk show, but in the name of maintaining critical distance and journalistic integrity, he declined.

It might also explain why Mr. Mushnick occasionally suffers slings and arrows from the boys wearing the pancake makeup. He’s not one of theirs.

High and Mighty, Eh?

“I like Phil,” said Dick Schaap, veteran sportswriter and a commentator for ABC and ESPN who hosts The Sports Reporters , a TV talk show. “Generally speaking, I share his instincts, even when he criticizes me. The thing I don’t like is, I hate the newspaper he’s in. Anybody preaching journalism within those pages is tainted. As eloquent a statement as Mushnick can make on behalf of journalism, your statement is diminished when you accept a check from Rupert Murdoch … I don’t think it’s effective to scream at the devil when he’s standing right behind you.”

“I’m glad Dick said this,” Mr. Mushnick replied. “I understand what he’s saying. But what does Dick Schaap do when ESPN Sports Center comes on one day, and there’s a lengthy feature about an obscure yacht race between California and Hawaii, and it just so happens that the winning boat is owned by Roy Disney? [ESPN is part of the Disney empire.] That was on last summer! If Dick doesn’t want to be attached to bad journalism, I would suggest he resign from ABC and ESPN.”

Even without a television presence, Mr. Mushnick believes he’s had some influence on the state of sports as we know it.

“I really don’t want to sound self-absorbed,” he said, “but sometimes, in moments of privacy, I’ll be sitting at a red light, and for an instant I’ll say to myself, ‘You know, you’re doing a pretty good fucking job. You really are. You’ve got some dignity. You’ve stayed clean in a business where you can get pretty dirty pretty friggin’ fast.’ And I’ll say, ‘You know, you got this changed and that changed: The way they shoot tennis now is different because you got on CBS all those years for those switch-cuts in the middle of points. You got NBC to put their graphic in the top right and left during golf broadcasts so that it doesn’t cover up the ball. You’ve raised issues, from Nike to starting times to ticket prices and things’ … But I swear to you: That stuff is fleeting.”

It is fleeting, yes, and perhaps, in the relative scheme of things, insignificant. The transformation of sport from pastime to programming rolls on, heedless of the purists, the nostalgia-mongers and, in Mr. Mushnick’s view, the children.

“I coached an 11-year-old girls’ basketball team last year, and they went 0-12,” he said. “But the good news is that they’re all graduating. They all entered junior high school. So I sleep well at night.”

You do what you can.