Tony Kornheiser may be a rotten bastard, but his ESPN bosses are idiots for suspending him.

Media criticism.
Feb. 23 2010 6:38 PM

Sympathy for Tony Kornheiser

He may be a rotten bastard, but his ESPN bosses are idiots for suspending him.

Tony Kornheiser.
Tony Kornheiser

ESPN has thrown Tony Kornheiser, co-host of the network's Pardon the Interruption show, into the penalty box for the unflattering things he said last week on his Washington, D.C., radio show about fellow ESPN broadcaster Hannah Storm. His suspension began on Monday, Feb. 22, even though he apologized to Storm in person and on-air, says USA Today.

According to The Big Lead, Kornheiser said of Storm:

Hannah Storm in a horrifying, horrifying outfit today. She's got on red go-go boots and a catholic school plaid skirt … way too short for somebody in her 40s or maybe early 50s by now. ... She's got on her typically very, very tight shirt. She looks like she has sausage casing wrapping around her upper body. … I know she's very good, and I'm not supposed to be critical of ESPN people, so I won't … but Hannah Storm … come on now! Stop! What are you doing? … She's what I would call a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point.

If Kornheiser's sordid remarks upset his ESPN bosses, they must not be familiar with his oeuvre. The multimedia motormouth rarely subdues his gift for vivid imagery when something is bugging him.

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Back in 1990, when I used my media column in Washington City Paper to ridicule Kornheiser's work in the Washington Post, he retaliated in his Sunday humor column by having a fictional lifestyle psychiatrist say, "Well, the symptoms were so obvious even my imbecile lab technician Shafer, whom we can't trust with anything more complicated than collecting the urine specimens, could see it."

In 2000, still working at the Post, Kornheiser got Dave McKenna canned as a Post sports stringer for denouncing, in a Washington City Paper piece, Kornheiser's essential "meanness."

In 2005, after Stephen Rodrick gently criticized Kornheiser in Slate, he used his radio show to call for Slate to stop using the freelancer's work.

In 2006, Kornheiser flipped out when Post Style reporter Paul Farhi panned Kornheiser's debut on Monday Night Football. In the next day's Post, Kornheiser shot back, "In critiquing my performance, I think what makes me happiest was that I didn't throw up. (Though if I had, I would have aimed at that putz in Style.)"

On Dan Patrick's radio show, Kornheiser added, "I apparently got ripped in my own newspaper, the Washington Post, you know, by a two-bit weasel slug named Paul Farhi, who I would gladly run over with a Mack truck given the opportunity."

Kornheiser further squealed to Patrick that "I thought my own newspaper would be kinder and I wouldn't be back-stabbed by this guy."

Funny he didn't apply that we're-all-on-the-same-team principle to his treatment of Storm.

Kornheiser is one of those guys whose ugly side is his only side. (See this David Carr column for more examples.) But the fact that ESPN has suddenly taken to punishing Kornheiser for being an oozing bag of pus and venom raises more questions about the network than it does about the employee. I suspect that the network didn't object strongly to Kornheiser's critique of Hannah Storm's red go-go boots and Catholic-school plaid skirt (captured on Slide 7 of this Bleacher Report slide show). Nor do I think that his comments that she wears her skirt too tight or that she dresses younger than is appropriate for her age really infuriated ESPN.

What's probably appalled ESPN is Kornheiser's literary reference about Storm being "a Holden Caulfield fantasy at this point," a reference that probably went over the heads of 99 percent of his listeners. Is Kornheiser referring to Chapter 13 of The Catcher in the Rye, in which Caulfield hires a prostitute but makes the procurer promise not to send him "any old bag"?

I dunno, but if the network is worried that sex talk will damages its reputation, it's sending in its cavalry a little late. See this allegation of sexual harassment at ESPN, or this blowup, or this one, or this firing of a baseball analyst for having an affair with a young production assistant.

Much—but not all—of sports radio relies on frat-boy humor to carry the freight between serious discussions about teams, games, and players. If Kornheiser's TV network bosses are genuinely upset about what their employee said about another employee on the radio, they should fire him. But they won't fire him, because they aren't actually upset. The ESPN brass is punishing Kornheiser for being Kornheiser when they should be punishing themselves for running their network like a high-school locker room.

When ESPN frees Kornheiser from the penalty box—as it surely will soon—I'd like to see it prove its sincerity by stuffing one of the network's executives in the box for a time-out of his own.

Addendum: Deadspin has a Berman theory.

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Kornheiser shares a literary problem with Hollywood screenwriter John Milius. Warren Beatty once told Milius that the problem with his scripts was that he came too soon and he came too often. Send your Kornheiser observations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. Wriggle into something comfortable—a sausage casing if you must—and read my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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