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  • Writer's pictureVillanova Sports Law Blog

Lee Jenkins, Making the Move From Writer to Front Office

Updated: Feb 12

By Joe Manganiello:

In a move that begot more questions than answers, Lee Jenkins announced on September 17, 2018, that he was leaving his post as Sports Illustrated’s lead NBA Writer for a newly created front-office position — executive director of research and identity — with the Los Angeles Clippers. Jenkins, who was chosen by LeBron James to assist him in the famous “I’m Coming Home” essay in 2014, told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that he had never considered working for a professional sports team.[1] But Jenkins was pursued by Clippers’ brass for months, and sold the idea that his ability to capture the personalities of his writing subjects was valuable to its front office.[2]

“On a personal level, I came to the realization that no matter how many player profiles I write, I still have a ton to learn about the NBA, and the best way to learn it is through immersion,” Jenkins told Wojnarowski.[3]

Jenkins, 41, is the second writer to leave Sports Illustrated for a professional basketball team in the past 13 months.[4] In August of 2017, the Toronto Raptors hired Luke Winn to be their Director of Prospect Strategy, a move akin to the Jenkins hire as it was a newly created position informed by the unique background of the writer.[5] Sports Illustrated has said and done all of the right things since Jenkins announced his move, and it will have its pick of myriad qualified writers who wish to be the next Jenkins. But what are the legal ramifications, if any, of the Clippers’ successful poaching of Jenkins from Sports Illustrated? As professional basketball continues to rise in global prominence, and NBA teams are continuously appraised at higher values, is it fair for a team purchased by owner Steve Ballmer for $2 billion to hire one of the most respected voices covering the sport?[6]

From John Hollinger leaving ESPN for the Memphis Grizzlies and Bill James joining the Boston Red Sox, there is a long history of professional sports teams hiring writers. Typically, these teams have targeted analytical marvels with models that could be adopted by the front office. [7][8] Recent examples have included teams hiring writers as scouts:

In other arenas, namely in the tech industry and politics, hiring expert journalists away from their writing duties is a common, yet controversial, practice. For years, tensions have swelled between Silicon Valley and the auto industry over the poaching of talent related to the development of automated vehicles.[9]

The Athletic, although itself a journalistic enterprise, has made life difficult for traditional outlets, as the online media conglomerate has aggressively poached local and national newspaper writers. Slate reported in September that, hypothetically, if a high-profile beat writer with 100,000 Twitter followers converted even ten percent of those followers to subscriptions with The Athletic, that could equate to 10,000 new subscribers and roughly $400,000 per year.[10] The Athletic benefits by capitalizing on these writers’ established contacts, reputation, loyal readership, and social media following.[11] The Athletic’s chief content officer, Paul Fichtenbaum, worked for Sports Illustrated for over twenty-five years before joining The Athletic in July, 2017.[12]

The Athletic’s hiring strategies have revealed new legal challenges over who retains ownership of Twitter accounts: the journalist or the former employer? Andy Bitter covered Virginia Tech football for The Roanoke Times before he resigned in July, 2018, to join The Athletic — taking more than 27,000 Twitter followers with him.[13] When Bitter refused to turn over the Twitter account’s login information to the Times, which claims it created the account for Bitter, the Times’s parent company, BH Media Group, filed suit in federal court claiming Misappropriation under the Defend Trade Secrets Act and the Virginia Uniform Trade Secrets Act; Violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, and the Virginia Computer Crimes Act; as well as conversion and breach of fiduciary duty. It is unclear how this case will turn out due to lack of legal precedent.[14] In PhoneDog v. Kravitz, an employee for a tech-news site created a Twitter account to share their work. The employee retained the account after settling with their former employer out of court.[15]

It appears that Jenkins has retained full ownership of his Twitter account, which includes 61,600 followers. But Jenkins’ influence extends far beyond updates on Twitter, and his potential value for the Clippers greatly exceeds whatever literal job duties make up the position of executive director of research and identity. In 2016, Jenkins wrote a feature about Kawhi Leonard, giving Leonard — an immensely talented player but a total enigma — a voice.[16] In addition to speaking with Leonard for the story, Jenkins had access to Leonard’s childhood friend Jeremy Castleberry, as well as Leonard’s trainer Randy Shelton, who began working with Leonard during Leonard’s collegiate career at San Diego State.[17] Presumably, Jenkins’ familiarity with Leonard, and people close to him, will aid in future conversations when Leonard is deciding between the Clippers and many other suitors as an unrestricted free agent. Whether or not hiring Jenkins moves the needle on being able to secure Leonard’s talents next summer, to ignore how the Clippers may have thought Jenkins could improve their chances in the Kawhi sweepstakes is to ignore the potential of a larger trend in professional sports hiring. To truly understand the implications of professional teams poaching notable journalists away from jobs as reporters on the league, one must only imagine if the next “Woj bomb” was not Wojnarowski reporting on a key signing or trade, but him announcing that he was taking his talents to an NBA front office. The Clippers have not broken any rules by hiring Jenkins, but this outside-the-box hire could continue to influence the relationship between professional sports leagues and the media outlets that cover them for years to come.

[1] Adrian Wojnarowski, Sports Illustrated writer Lee Jenkins will join LA Clippers' front office, ESPN (Sept. 17, 2018)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Lee Jenkins to Leave Sports Illustrated, Join Clippers Front Office, Sports Illustrated (Sept. 17, 2018)

[5] Brian Boeke, Raptors add Luke Winn as player prospect rock-turner, Fansided (2017)

[6] Nick Schwartz, Steve Ballmer explains why he paid $2 billion for the Clippers, USA Today (Aug. 12, 2014)

[8] Ben McGrath, The Professor of Baseball, The New Yorker (July 14, 2003)

[9] Doug Newcombe, Apple's Talent Poaching Is Real Threat To Auto Industry, Forbes (Feb. 20, 2015)

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Jonathan Peters, Lawsuits over journalist Twitter accounts may become more common, Columbia Journalism Review (Sept. 10, 2018)

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Lee Jenkins, The Island of Kawhi: Leonard gives second wind to Spurs' dynasty, Sports Illustrated (March 14, 2016)

[17] Id.

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