The Media Column: Curt Schilling's political career is failing, and in desperate need of a second act

Alex Reimer
August 30, 2018 - 12:51 pm

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

It’s early Wednesday morning on a stifling late-summer day, and one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time is sitting in his den ranting into a webcam about Twitter suppressing his follower count. 

“In January of 2017, I had 224,000 Twitter followers,” Schilling tells Iowa-based Christian-radio personality Steve Deace, who’s called into the three-time World Series champ’s impromptu Periscope show to complain about his college football podcast getting bumped from iTunes’ “most popular” list. “I literally took screenshots monthly. From January 2017 to mid-2018, I gained 213,000 followers. I went from 218,000 to 234,000. I’ve never gone over 234,000.”

Two years ago, it seemed like Schilling was on the fast-track towards conservative media superstardom. The hurler was fired from his job at ESPN for a series of politically charged social media posts, including an anti-transgender image that features a burly man in drag. “Let him in to the restroom with your daughter or else you’re a narrow minded, judgmental, unloving, racist bigot who needs to DIE!!!,” the meme reads.

For the last several years, ESPN has been accused in right-wing circles of promoting a radical liberal bias, and Schilling is living proof of the apparent double-standard. He got canned for voicing his political beliefs, while outspoken progressives such as Jemele Hill and Dan Le Batard saw their profiles at the network rise. Making matters worse, ESPN selected gold medalist Jessica Mendoza to replace Schilling on the “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast. Mendoza became the first national female baseball analyst ever. 

It was the perfect storm for martyrdom. Not only was Schilling fired for his politics –– the fact that ESPN kept him on board after a tweet comparing Muslim extremists to Nazis and proclaiming Hillary Clinton should be “buried under a jail somewhere” are conveniently expunged from this narrative –– but he was replaced by a less-qualified woman. Schilling took his grievance tour to the right-wing airwaves in the aftermath of his dismissal, occasionally serving as an unofficial surrogate for Donald Trump during the tail-end of his presidential campaign. Schilling’s most notable TV spot during this period came three weeks before the election, when he defended Trump’s remarks from an unearthed 1992 “Entertainment Tonight” video, in which the President joked he would be dating a young girl beside him on an escalator “in 10 years.” 

“How many times — and I have three boys and a daughter — how many times have you looked at a young man and said, ‘Wow, is he going to be, he’s a beautiful young man,” Schilling said. “‘Wow, he’s a gorgeous young man,’ and that man was 12, 13, 14, 15?”

Fox Business Network host Trish Regan didn’t play along. “I’ll be honest, Curt: zero,” she replied.

Despite that viral snafu, Schilling joined Breitbart News roughly 10 days later to host an online radio show, “Whatever It Takes.” Breitbart was perhaps the most influential media outlet on the right during the 2016 campaign, fervently backing Trump’s candidacy far before its competition, including Fox News. Executive chairman Steve Bannon stepped down in August 2016 to become CEO of Trump’s campaign, and followed Trump into the White House before getting ousted last summer. (Breitbart has since seen its influence wane. Its traffic is in free fall.)

“Curt Schilling had a conservative media stardom path that isn't uncommon,” Right Wing Watch research associate Jared Holt told me in a phone conversation. “There was a flashpoint where he was hoisted up as kind of a martyr for free speech. … He got swooped in and held up as someone they could point to, and they knew he'd be good on camera, on audio, that sort of stuff.”

Schilling’s star power allowed him to attract several big guests in the early days of his program, including Ann Coulter, Penn Jillette and Milo Yiannopoulos. But the former World Series hero failed to gain sustained traction, and his show was discontinued. These days, Schilling hosts a daily podcast on Breitbart, which only has 40 reviews through three months. 

In other words, he’s seemingly faded into right-wing irrelevancy. 

“I think it's pretty clear at this point Schilling is a decidedly second-rate conservative media figure,” Media Matters Senior Fellow Matt Gerz told me on the phone. “When Breitbart picked him up in the first place, they were trying to seize hold of the burning sense among conservative figures that ESPN was excessively liberal, that conservatives couldn't find a place there. Schilling was the case study for them at the time, because he shared an anti-trans image on his Facebook page, and got fired from ESPN. So they were hoping to catch some of that fury. But the reality is he's just not very good at this. He's a little bit better being a conservative media figure than he is at making video games.”

Schilling declined two interview requests for this story –– one through text message and another through CRTV, where he now hosts a 20-minute sports program –– and also didn’t respond to a list of questions sent to him prior to publication. 

As Holt explained to me, Schilling’s downfall came when he failed to develop a unique niche following his initial boost. His program sounds like every other standard conservative talk show, complete with a Trump-dubbed intro song about the “fake media.” At the start of every show, Schilling goes through a headlines segment, playing sound from demonized figures on the Left ™. On Monday, Schilling played clips from Bill Maher and ex-CIA head John Brennan, ranting about the “dementia” of the Left™ and how liberals are “manufacturing division.” It’s Gerry Callahan-lite, without any traces of humor or self-deprecation. The 10-minute monologue is painfully boring, and borders on parody when Schilling evokes Bill Clinton during his boilerplate defense of Trump attorney Michael Cohen making hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels. It's like Schilling is playing all of the right-wing hits from the last 20 years. 

But then, Schilling suddenly veers into crazy town. After a banal diatribe about how Clinton should be in prison “50 times over” for alleged hush money payments, Schilling insinuates the Clinton family has built their fortune on murder. 

Yes, murder. 

“If you look at your life back to the day you were born, and how many people you met or known or been involved with that have been murdered, it would pale in comparison to the number of people affiliated with the Clintons and untimely deaths over the course of their lives,” Schilling says. “It’s a scary, yet fascinating study.”

This summer, Schilling has increasingly dipped his Bloody Sock into the conspiracy waters. In June, he shared a video on his Facebook page promoting the wild QAnon theory, which says, among many other things, Trump is working with the military to eradicate an international child sex trafficking ring that’s been perpetuated by a cabal of liberal elites such as President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Tom Hanks. QAnon first surfaced on the white supremacist message board 4chan in October 2017, when a self-proclaimed government insider with a top security clearance named “Q” started posting circuitous riddles about this fantastical power struggle. In recent weeks, “Q” followers have been spotted at Trump rallies, with the President even taking a picture in the Oval Office with one of the movement’s most ardent messengers. Roseanne Barr also tweeted about “Q” before ABC cancelled her show earlier this summer. 

“I've been asked about ‘Q’ for months now,” Schilling wrote on Facebook June 26. “Never really knew what it was all about, I had my ideas but until recently I hadn't done anything. I started to research this about a month ago and was sent this today. You will not be able to stop watching once you start.”

While pushing outlandish conspiracies can lead to stardom in the alt-right –– hello Alex Jones! –– it’s also a slippery slope. Those who promote these theories are rightfully ostracized from the mainstream media, which is probably why Schilling hasn’t gone all the way. He’s simply “raising the question,” opposed to saying something is true.

“(Schilling) tried to go a little way towards Alex Jones, but not all the way towards Alex Jones, and that's dicey territory that confuses your audience a little bit,” Gerz says. “He’s a Quadruple-A guy. Someone who can't quite make the jump to the majors, is good enough to stick around, but is not someone to build your team around.”

In an ironic twist, Schilling’s best bet for a second act might be returning to sports. Schilling has recently started a new show on the digital subscription platform CRTV, “On the Clock,” which features him debating the sports topics of the day with Deace in a rapid fire PTI-like format. The show's slogan says it wants to "make sports talk great again." 

“Few people exist with Curt’s profile that follow and analyze sports the way he can. He has incredible depth and experience in the sports world,” CRTV President Gaston Mooney told me via email. “Sports fans that are tired of having politics injected into the coverage and want the big stories covered quickly. In the case of ‘On the Clock,’ 20 minutes.”

There’s the pitch: Those who claim they’re tired of ESPN’s supposed unhinged liberalism can get their sports takes from the man who was fired for railing against transgender bathroom laws. At the least, it’s a niche that hasn’t been filled, though finding Schilling may be a problem. CRTV was just launched in October 2016 and boasts 77.7K Twitter followers –– roughly 125,000 fewer than the little-known far-right cable network, One America News

Big Schill is a long ways away from the ESPN broadcast booth. That’s for sure. 

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Patriots broadcast assignments released: The website “506 Sports” has revealed the NFL broadcast assignments for the first six weeks of the season, and it’s looking good for Patriots fans. Dan Fouts is nowhere in sight.

Week 1: Jim Nantz/Tony Romo
Week 2: Nantz/Romo
Week 3: Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth
Week 4: Kevin Harlan/Rich Gannon
Week 5: Joe Buck/Troy Aikman
Week 6: Al Michaels/Cris Collinsworth

It will be interesting to see whether Romo cuts down on the rambunctious chatter this season. As good as he was in his rookie year, he was veering towards self-parody by the end of the playoffs. 

Shut up, Whitlock: On FS1’s lowly watched “Speak for Yourself” Wednesday, host Jason Whitlock trashed LeBron James’ new HBO show, “The Shop,” because he swears a lot.

There are several outrageous statements there, including Whitlock’s suggestion that LeBron should’ve moved after racist graffiti was spray-painted on his Brentwood home last year. Whitlock seems to be one step away from lighting himself on fire. 

Celtics beat star Chris Forsberg opens up about battle with single-sided deafness: As somebody who gets trolled incessantly, I appreciate a good smackdown. That’s what ESPN Boston Celtics reporter Chris Forsberg delivered earlier this week, when a Twitter user mocked him for the way he speaks on TV.

In a tweet, Forsberg revealed he suffers from single-sided deafness, the result of being born three months premature. I chatted with Forsberg about his decision to go public, and got his thoughts on covering this fledging Celtics squad. 

Alex Reimer: Why did you decide to reveal your battle with single-sided deafness?

Chris Forsberg: It’s pretty common (to see comments). People sometimes phrase it nicely and are just curious. But more often than not, it’s Twitter tough guys who kind of don’t put it so nicely. What I’ve found, especially since early on I was kind of defensive about it, but as soon as you feed those trolls, they subsist on that. So I’ve tried to alter that and try to make a positive out of things like that. A lot of people around the Celtics beat probably know about my deafness, just because half the time I probably can’t hear their conversations. But I don’t know for certain how much of my Twitter following would know. I thought about it before the playoffs this year, just putting something out there, because sometimes people are just curious about it, but it felt like this was a good little opportunity to put it out there, and maybe do some good.

AR: Do you have apprehension about going on TV?

CF: I used to be freaked out about doing radio. I remember when I was with the Boston Globe in 2006 as a high school sports reporter, and they threw me on the radio near Thanksgiving to do this radio tour of this new high school sports website we were launching. They’re asking me about all of these different towns and cities and their football programs –– like how am I supposed to know what Weymouth High School is? But like anything, you get comfortable there. There was more apprehension with going on TV, it can be overwhelming, especially when you’re a little self-conscious about people wondering about that. As the reps went up, I probably didn’t think about it as much. But again, the majority of people, especially once they know the situation, have been great about it. 

One day I was googling my name, and I typed in ‘Chris Forberg.’ One of the auto-fills was, ‘Chris Forsberg stroke,’ or ‘Chris Forberg bells palsy.’ I don't think I’ve searched my name and ‘stroke,’ because I don’t think I've had that scare yet. But it did make me think, ‘Oh wow, if this is popping up, there are probably people seeing me on TV and wondering.’ So I don’t know if it ever deserved a full proclamation, but I put it out there.

AR: Thoughts on Jaylen Brown’s transformation and social outspokenness.

CF: Even last year, I was a little surprised by the jump he made. … I think he’s been great embracing his (on-court) development, and even better with the work he’s doing off the court. He's a really smart guy, really curious guy, and that's neat to see. These young guys come in, and sometimes they just become gym rats. It’s neat to see Jaylen explore all of the other things that are out there.

AR: What is it like covering Kyrie Irving on a daily basis?

CF: I do enjoy how he questions everything. … There was this outside perception of, ‘Here’s this guy who makes all of these crazy statements and believes in all of these crazy conspiracy theories,’ but what the Celtics have found out over the last year is he's just really curious and inquisitive. He doesn't just accept the norm. Sometimes that’s hard for fans, because they say, ‘How come Kyrie doesn’t just come out and say, ‘I love the Celtics.’ But that's just not the way he operates. I do think he really enjoys it here, he really appreciates the transparency that Celtics management and Brad Stevens have given him. I think there’s lots of reasons to think he’ll be back next year. But unfortunately, we’re going to spend the next year wondering if he’s going to the Knicks or somewhere else. That’s just part of covering Kyrie –– his wild statements after games. I look forward to hearing more of them this season.

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