The N-Word According to ESPN’s Michael Wilbon

Mike Wilbon and Harold

By Harold Bell


John Feinstein a former colleague of ESPN’s Michael Wilbon at the Washington Post was on the record saying “Michael Wilbon is the biggest ass kisser in sports media.”  Those words were rather harsh and hard hitting.  In other words, Feinstein was saying, “Wilbon is sports media’s biggest cheerleader!”  This was after Wilbon’s co-host on ESPN’s PTI was suspended for making fun of co-worker Hanna Storm’s dress on national television.

Wilbon’s response to Feinstein:

I don’t need Junior (Feinstein) to get suspended. Junior caught an earful of language and heat that was both deserved and will stay private. I’ll match my credentials as a journalist with John Feinstein anytime. Junior has often mistaken his opinion with fact and with legitimacy. Thing is, my father didn’t raise me to be subservient to Junior, or anybody else. My opinions about Tiger Woods or any other issue are mine and I could give a damn about what Feinstein or anybody else thinks about them. The only thing special about Feinstein’s opinions is that they’re his. And I let him know that in very specific language that best belongs on HBO.

This isn’t the first time Wilbon has been called out for “sucking up” to athletes (he has written books with Charles Barkley and Michael Jordan). In what we think is one of the 10 best sports books we’ve ever read, Michael Leahy of the Washington Post beautifully deconstructed Jordan in “When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback,” and in the process took a shot at Wilbon.

“All along, I thought that Wilbon’s treatment of Jordan highlighted the basic danger in getting too cozy with a subject,” Mr. Leahy writes. The access that Mr. Wilbon prized, Mr. Leahy argues, came at the cost of ever being able to write something critical about his celebrity subject.

Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser are immensely talented individuals and about 15 years ago, they were our sports writing idols. In their prime at the Washington Post, they were among the best sports writers in the country. What they don’t do well is take criticism from colleagues. They’ll definitely make the thin-skinned sports media member list

I missed the initial viewing of ESPN’s Outside the Lines show that aired on Sunday February 23rd.  The show hosted by Bob Levy examined the use of the N-word.  I heard from several different sources that Michael Wilbon lost a lot of credibility when he justified his use of the N-word as a term of endearment.

Since I had not seen or heard the show I held back judgment and waited until it re-aired on Sunday March 2nd.

It is rather ironic that Wilbon and I had a recent conversation about the use of the N-word.  The conversation took place in the Press Room before a Wizard’s game at the Verizon Center.  He told me ESPN wanted to have a conversation on the use of the N-word on Outside the Lines.  The show would be hosted by Bob Levy.  He said, “I am not comfortable doing the show with Levy.” Wilbon cited that he had no problem with Levy as a journalist but he had “No horse in the race” and he refused to participate.” These words out of Wilbon’s mouth got my undivided attention.

I have questioned Wilbon’s mindset on different topics on several occasions as I have questioned others in media.  It has never been anything personal it is a price we all pay for writing or voicing our opinions in public.

He said folks had asked him about our relationship and he said “I told them everything is cool with me and Harold Bell, we have talked.” But what Feinstein said about him sounded real personal.

I first met Wilbon when he became a sports writer for the Washington Post in the 1980s.  He and members of the sports department were often regulars on my radio sports talk show Inside Sports. Sports Editor George Solomon was a regular participant.  Since he was the leader of the staff most of the black writers followed his lead. He even allowed me to write a couple of freelancing articles for the paper.  When the paper established their own television sports show I became a regular guest.  I was up close and personal with the sports department.

Dave Kindred and Norm Chad were talented writers but you could not trust them, Kornheiser and Feintstein’s talent, they easily blended in with the landscape of the paper.  Feinstein called Wilbon the biggest ass kisser in sports media, if that is true he had great teacher in Kornheiser.  When Solomon tried to kick Kornheiser to the curve (fire him) in the 80s he was able to move to the Style section of the paper.  He carried the toilet paper around for Post owner Donald Graham.  One black female Washington Post columnist wrote a book titled “Plantation on the Potomac.”  She was describing her employer.

During his days at the Washington Post Wilbon and I bonded and became good friends.  We often discussed the politics of sports media.  He has called me a mentor.  I was proud of him taking a stand and refusing to participate in the forum on the N-word because I agreed with his logic as it related to Levy.

Wilbon has sought my advice on several important topics, but not since he has become an ESPN celebrity and I don’t take it personal.  I think my friend former NBA player/coach Al Attles said it best recently, “Some people it is not that they forget, they just move on.”

My problem with Wilbon is that he never kept his word after the Washington Post.

I thought to myself, “Why with all the blacks working on the Plantation/Set of ESPN why would they choose Bob Levy a white man to host an important forum on the N Word?”  The bottom line—no respect.  Former 60 Minutes and CBS Investigative Reporter Byron Pitts had a horse in the race but was given only a bit-part in the forum.  Remember, this is the same 60 Minutes that has yet to find a black reporter to replace Ed Bradley.

For example; if I tried to host a forum on the Holocaust with the leaders of the Jewish community—it would never happen.

Bill Rhoden a sports columnist for the New York Times wrote a book several years ago titled “Million Dollar Slaves,” as it related to black athletes in pro sports.  Rhoden could not see the forest for the trees.

When it comes to segregation, a media pressroom at “deadline” is second only to a church on Sunday morning in America.

During the reign of George Solomon as overseer of the Washington Post sports department, there were some great writers and columnist who crossed its threshold.  In the 70s, 80s and 90s, my favorites, the greatest was Shirley Povich, followed by Tom Callahan, Byron Rosen, Donald Huff, Michael Wilbon, Dave Aldridge and Dave Dupree.  The worst, were Leonard Sharpiro, Norman Chad, Dave Kindred, Tom Boswell, John Feinstein and Tony Kornheiser (aka Howdy & Doody).  The common denominator separating the best from the worst, was H&TWW (Honesty & Integrity While Writting).  Huff once told me that Solomon ran the sports department like Adoplh Hitler ran the Nazi Army.
The panel of Common (Rapper/Actor), Jason Whitlock (ESPN writer), Ryan Clark (NFL Player and ESPN Analyst) and Michael Wilbon (ESPN PTI) I found it to be rather odd and not well thought out.

There was no Dr. Harry Edwards, Hank Aaron or Jim Brown who can be a contradiction.  Jim can often be found talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to the black athlete and community involvement.  Especially, when it comes to where the black athlete spends his money.

His rallying cry, “Show me the money.”  The common denominator is that all three black athletes have a track record of being forerunners in the Civil Rights Movement in America.  Hopefully, they were asked to participate and were of the same mindset as Wilbon not comfortable with Mr. Levy as the narrator for the forum.

There were several legit participants like Joe Lapchick a white man who has been in the war zones of the Civil Rights Movement and has the scars to show for it.

Another contradiction, the policing of the N-word by the NFL is hypocritical.  The NFL owners are members of the“Good Old Boy’s Club.”  They have shown in the last few decades that they are not interested in having blacks or other minorities as owners.

How can you police the N-word when in your own background you have one owner say to the media “No matter how offensive the word is I will never change the nickname of the Washington Redskins?  You can put that in CAPITAL LETTERS!”

NFL owners are paying Commissioner Roger Goodell $44 million dollars a year and they think the players are making too much money?  Goodell makes more than any player in the NFL and he never has to make a tackle or catch a pass.

The owners recent pay out to the players for injuries suffered on their watch was peanuts compared to the billions they make year in and year out.  I thought it was an insult as soon as I hear it.  A federal judge denied preliminary approval of a $765 million settlement of NFL concussion claims, fearing it may not be enough to cover 20,000 retired players.  U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody asked for more financial analysis from the parties, a week after players’ lawyers filed a detailed payout plan.

I mean who is zooming who?

I never thought there would be the day when I would see and hear Jason Whitlock sound like he was smarter than Wilbon.  There were two previous blogs I read by Whitlock and one said, “Georgetown Basketball Coach John Thompson had revolutionized college basketball by opening up the game for other black coaches.  The other said, “I see NFL legend Jim Brown to be a hero in the black community?”  Both observations were totally out of focus.  I was thinking that John Feinstein could add Whitlock to his list of bigger than life ass kissers in sports media.

Common and Wilbon cited the use the N-word as a term of endearment and Jason having an opposing view was both logical and smart.  The introduction by Common proves he knows the history of the Civil Rights Movement but has no respect for the sacrifices of those who prepared a way for him.  When he refused a request by his mother to cease using the word and a similar plea by poet Maya Angelo.  The brother just don’t get it—he lost me.

In my conversation with Wilbon back in January I told him I once used the N-word and the MF words as a regular part of my vocabulary.  My wife Hattie stepped in and made me re-think my position.  My work with youth and as a radio personality helped convince me that I needed to make a change and lead by example.

Common’s opening introduction was a compelling reason for all of us to stop using the N-word because it was not our word in the beginning.  It was our oppressors who use the N-word to violently destroy us by any means necessary.

The N-word can still be found in our work place and in organizations that are overrun with black folks.  Thanks to envy, jealousy and self-hate white folks no longer have to take the lead as oppressors, blacks are now their own oppressors.

There are blacks who think since they have two more dollars than their employees or neighbors they have arrived.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  They are just N—–rich.

It has been 50 years since Rev. Martin Luther King’s 1963 march on Washington and 46 years since his assassination in Memphis, Tenn.  The facts: a white man still doubles the salary of a black man, black unemployment doubles that of the white community, 60% of the inmate population is black, segregated schools are returning to American neighborhoods and the list goes on and on.

Stand Your Ground Laws have given whites a license to shoot and kill blacks for no other reason then, “They looked suspicious or the music was too loud.”  Have we forgotten, how the system has use bankruptcy, redlining, white collar crime, crack cocaine laws, minimum wage and now the Stand Your Ground law?  I recently read that Stand Your Ground laws are like bleach, it works miracles for whites and ruins colors.

Use of the N-word is comparable, whites use the N-word to keep their history alive and blacks using the N-word as a term of endearment insures and measures how far we still have to go.  Someone once said, “If you don’t know your history you are bound to repeat it.”

Sticks and stones may never hurt you Wilbon, but the N-word is slowly stunting the growth and progress of our black community.

Harold Bell is the Godfather of Sports Talk radio and television in Washington, DC.  Throughout the mid-sixties, seventies and eighties, Harold embarked upon a relatively new medium–sports talk radio with classic interviews with athletes and sports celebrities.  The show and format became wildly popular. Harold has been an active force fighting for the rights of children for over 40 years with the help of his wife through their charity Kids In Trouble, Inc.   To learn more about Harold Bell visit his official web site The Original Inside


8 Responses to “The N-Word According to ESPN’s Michael Wilbon”

  1. Robert Thompson Says:

    I found it odd that the four letter network that is ESPN chose black history month to have their roundtable discussion of the N word. To be honest i didn’t see black history month being celebrated on network television that much. But being that the major networks are owned by white people why should i be surprised?

  2. thescoop1 Says:

    Great article! Illuminating, informative and objective. It’s most unfortunate however, that the NFL has been thrust in the position of having to deal with Black African Americans use of the n-word.
    This is something the Black community needed to have coped with years ago and as a result of having not done so, we now find ourselves in the position of having the very ones who labeled us with the term in the first place of now having to play devils advocate.

    The only positive about it all is that a light is now being shone on an issue that one way or another needs to be attended to…and resolved…one way or another. It’s disappointing that Blacks as a group have yet to prove and demonstrate that we are more than capable of taking control of our destiny, without assistance from our oppressors.

    • Robert Thompson Says:

      I have had lengthy discussions on a social network about the N word being used and i was told that the N word is our word. How stupid does this sound? Black people say that because the N word is spelled differently by us that it is a form of endearment and greeting. I asked one black person where did the N word first come from and the response was i have no idea. Black people don’t respect themselves as individuals and nor do they respect each other. But yet they get upset when another ethnicity uses the N word. The word ”cracker” is rarely if ever used by whites against each other. But black people have taken to the use of the N word like a duck takes to water. Black people have lost their way and i don’t think they’re interested in finding their way home as a race. Unity and respect are a thing of the past with black people as a race.

  3. Robert, your observation is right on the one when I think of blacks claiming the N word for their own you can bet they have no clue who they are and where they came from. My father-in-law Dr. Charles H. Thomas Jr. and his family were in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement in Orangeburg, SC in the early 50s and got the scars to show for it. I know he wouId roll over in his grave if he knew that was our mentality. I had an incident recently were the young man involved I consider a friend. He wrote a blog that he thought was endearing but I found it rather offensive. The problem, he has not own up to it. He needs to use this as a learning experience talk it out and move on. It is sad the hate that we have for each other is so deeply rooted we don’t even recognize it when we see, hear or write it. I discovered the hard way that folks who have no history don’t want you to have any either. With the haters you have to stick and move. Keep teaching my brother.

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  6. Mr Bell…This might be a little off the point but I am confused about something. I have had the n-word discussion with several of my friends, black and white and Asian, and I get different responses to this question. When a white kid sings along with his hiphop CD which is laced with the n-word, is that acceptable?. My black friend says it is NEVER appropriate for a white person to use that word in any context. But if Im a black artist there is no greater compliment then someone singing along to my music or repeating my lyrics. And what about movies or TV shows with a white actor using the word. ? Also I work in a casino pokerroom and several months ago I asked a black player at my table to stop using a racial slur (the n-word) and he got extremely pissed at me to the point where security was called and he was informed that racials slurs of any kind no matter who was using them were not acceptable here. It all gets very confusing. Your thoughts….

    • Rick, u are right on the money it is never appropriate to use the N word. I even slip and use it sometimes and I know better. It was very difficult for me to weed myself off using MF and the N word but thanks to my wife of 47 years I am much better. My excuse was always, “I am from the mean streets of DC” and I often use the N word as a term of endearment among my boys. When I was an on air personality I never use the N word or any type of profanity and I still made my point. My Inside Sports talk show in the 70s and 80s was ‘Out of Compton’ long before NWA. I called out corrupt and brutal cops with message music such as; Who Shot the Sheriff, Wild, Wild West, What’s Going On, Some Day We All Will Be Free, etc. I was always one step ahead of the FCC without going underground. Corrupt politicians were also on my radar screen. Today’s entertainers and Rap Artist will do or say anything for the almighty dollar. It pisses me off when an intelligent brother like ESPN’s Michael Wilbon thinks its ok to use the N word among family and friends, which means he is also teaching his young children to use the N word that they will take into another generation. Rick, I have no solution except to say ‘We have to be responsible for ourselves!’ I have just started to produce The Legends of Inside Sports on You Tube to address big mouth loud and wrong idiots like Stephen A. Smith and other ignorant brothers of his kind. Thanks for your response and keep asking the question why? The entire ESPN format is a copy of The Original Inside Sports.

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