Sports columnist Reilly loses gig after replaying his work

Rick Reilly
Rick Reilly

Rick Reilly, a noted sports columnist, once wrote about football replays:

Tell me if I’m a crank, but do you notice that every time a football replay comes up—and I mean every time—the color guy goes, “OK, now watch this!” I mean, what else are we gonna do? Suddenly start knitting a sweater? Start collecting for UNICEF? You don’t need to tell us to watch the TV set we’re already watching! OK, maybe I am a crank.

But readers of Reilly might well have wondered why they were being subjected to replays of his work. His bosses at evidently did, because they’ve unplugged the writer’s keyboard in the wake of a self-plagiarism scandal, according to news reports. Such self-plagiarism — more accurately referred to as duplication — is of course a frequent reason for retractions.

Deadspin offers a nice side-by-side of the similarities between a recent Reilly column — titled, ironically, “Don’t act like you’ve been there” — and one from 2009, brought to the publication’s attention by a reader. Some examples:

2009: “If I won a U.S. Freaking Open, I’d go absolutely electroshock, three-alarm, bat-guano nuts!”

2014: “My point is, if I’d just won $1.1 million zops in a PGA Goddang Tour event, forget about my first win in 239 tries, I’d go absolutely electro-shock, three-alarm, bat-guano nuts!”

2009: “If this were football, the guy would be doing the electric chicken right in front of the other team’s bench…”

2014: “If this was the NFL, he’d be twerking in front of the other team’s bench!”

2009: “I’d pick up the flagstick and fire it like a Tommy gun at the crowd.”

2014: “I’d pick up the flagstick and fire it like a Tommy gun at the crowd.”

2009: “I’d make my caddie give me a piggyback ride and I’d whip him like a jockey on a horse.”

2014: “I’d make my caddy give me a piggy back ride and whip him like a jockey on a horse.”

Although we get the outrage, we’re not entirely sure  how this differs from, say, Louis CK doing the same joke on Jimmy Fallon, his TV show and his stand-up routines. But industry standards are industry standards. In science, of course, the two arguments against duplication are that it violates copyright and gives twice (or three times, depending how ambitious the duplicator is) as much credit as a single work deserves.

According to ESPN, Reilly will be working part-time for the network starting in the summer, and focusing more on television — where, we imagine, replays are more welcome. Reilly, for his part, seems to be welcoming the change:

“I’ve been writing sports for a living, non-stop, since I was 20,” said Reilly, 56. “I figured out recently that I’ve published over two million words, all on sports. I’m ready to try something new.”

Update, 6 p.m. Eastern, 3/13/14: Changed “for” to “after” in headline to better reflect sequence of events.

12 thoughts on “Sports columnist Reilly loses gig after replaying his work”

  1. 1) It is not possible to plagiarize yourself.

    2) If the columns were for the same company, there is not copyright violation.

    3) Moving from online to television seems like a promotion.

    I doubt there is anything to see here.

    1. Absolutely agree. The entire “self-plagiarism” issue was made up by publishers. It is NOT an ethical issue. There is nothing bad or unethical about reusing your own work.

  2. The questions for me are: 1) copyright issues aside, whether there is guidance on text reuse in the field of sports journalism or in journalism in general, and 2) assuming no such guidance exists or is vague, whether the outlets where this material was published in are normally held, or should be held, to the same high standards of scholarship as are academic or science journals.

  3. This is a real big stretch to claim self-plagiarism… Those sound more like a conversation piece that one might say over and over again. That’s like someone telling a story at one party and if they ever tell that story again they should be banned from attending parties because they have no new material to discuss. God forbid we ever talk about the weather or say something like ‘it looks like its going to rain’ for fear of being branded. It looks like they were looking for a reason to stick it to him and they picked a really lame excuse.

    1. I agree. There are at least two points one could make:
      – repetion of standard expressions is not unethical;
      – and, repetition of standard expressions is not unethical;
      Now I hope these arguments survive moderation.

  4. Assuming the author owns the copyright, duplication leads to retraction in science/academics because journals explicitly state that work must be original as a condition of submission. Period. This is entirely and utterly different from plagiarism, as the above poster rightly pointed out.

    In fact, duplication *is* perfectly acceptable in specific instances. For example, it is OK to republish an article that you own the copyright to in a book. Most universities allow republication of a journal article in a dissertation, as long as copyright consent is obtained. Some academic journals allow reproduction within a methods section. Text books are often republished with only minor changes. Many journals allow republication of works that were published in preliminary form (either on a pre-print server, as a dissertation or as a meeting abstract).

    In sports journalism/reporting, which often amounts to entertainment, repetition is not only part of the game, trademark lines often make the journalist/reporter’s rep. The point, I guess, is that the guy can’t come up with something new to talk about… well $#*&… try listening to 80+ MLB radio/TV broadcasts a year, or even just a dozen NFL games… and you’ll hear the same tired nonsense over and over again. For an industry that can’t go two weeks without someone having the “should a starting pitcher ever be MVP” fight without EVER adding a new argument (like the one that would end the conversation, “yeah, if he has the most WAR”), rehashing a story only once every five years or so is actually pretty damn impressive.

    (Yes, I realize that the only possible way to respond to this comment is by having the “are defensive metrics sufficiently valid to justify WAR as the end all stat?” debate.)

    1. One rehashing in five years is one thing, and quite a feat in sports commentary, but let’s try to relate another stat to our own field. How about this:
      Two million words (Reilly’s own assertion) means between 300 and 700 papers for plenty of journals that prefer to limit manuscript length by word count rather than page count. Exclusively as sole author. Over 36 years. Roughly one paper per month. We would look upon that as suspicious if it were someone’s scientific output.

      1. But there is a huge difference here, we question researchers who publish unrealistic numbers of paper because it takes time to do experiments or reviews of the literature, but for a columnist, they could potentially write a new column every morning before having breakfast because all they need is content and the talent to craft words… big difference.

    2. In commentary, in humour, in teaching, there are many situations where repetition often desirable and frequently essential. The given example is plain bizarre.

  5. George Will is certainly at risk in this sort of thing. He publishes the same column, over and over, ad nauseum in the WP. Many political columnists have the same problem – they have a favority hobbyhorse, they take it out for a 900-word spin once a month it seems.

  6. A couple of observations: (1) If I was his employer, I’d be a little ticked off that he is reusing stuff when you’re presumably paying him for new material, regardless of ethical/legal implications. (2) His later stuff seemed to be profoundly unpopular on the internet so possibly ESPN was looking for an excuse to cut his column.

    I used to enjoy him in SI and I liked “Who’s Your Caddy”, but I haven’t read him in quite a few years.

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