The brittle relationships of sports writers and team owners are as intricate as setting up a new piece of furniture. You assemble it piece by piece, step by step. Careful to secure each nail and screw into its proper home. If you don’t, it may not fully stay together. Or even worse, irreparable damage is done.
The thing is, there is no instruction manual for a successful working relationship between a sports journalist and a team’s owner. Mike Vaccaro, lead sports columnist for the New York Post, had a tortuous relationship with James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks and New York Rangers. Vaccaro considers their relationship as one of the most complicated throughout his life.
Dolan’s disregard for the media is long documented. His history of knee-jerk reactions and abrupt decision-making has long impacted New York sports fans.
In 2021, Dolan fired Rangers GM Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson after an underwhelming season. The team sent out a letter to fans in 2018 saying that they were starting a rebuild and would likely trade away fan-favorite players. Dolan seemed on board with the rebuild at first then grew impatient at the time Gorton and Davidson needed to reassemble a championship contender.
“I’ll always love the Rangers,” New York fan Joey DiMeglio said. “But they will never have a dynasty like other teams have had if management is impatient.”
The son of Charles Dolan, Vaccaro often referred to James as “DNA Dolan” because he only reached his high-level position thanks to his father. James never reacted to that jab though, interestingly enough.
Even though Vaccaro rarely covers the Rangers, he did write a column on the team that Dolan particularly liked that led to the two meeting for lunch. After the first meeting, their relationship was similar to how you’d think a team owner would want to interact with any media member: at a distance.
Vaccaro kept writing about Dolan. Dolan may or may not have read. Throughout the years, he faced lawsuits and employed bad teams in a cutthroat media market. Vaccaro had no choice but to cover it as he saw.
“I was backing off the cheap shots,” Vaccaro said. “But he still did a lot of stuff that you have no choice, you have to rip the guy to pieces a lot of times because he’s just a bad owner. He does dumb things.”
No matter the state of the Rangers or Knicks, or the media coverage they received, Dolan still asked Vaccaro to lunch occasionally. Dolan even asked him to conduct his only on the record conversation with any New York media outlet in years.
But, their strange synergetic nature took a turn when Vaccaro least expected. Each holiday season, he writes a parody Christmas carol column for the Post.
“It’s a dumb column I did once and people just liked it, so now they expect it.” He said.
The parody column allows for poking fun in a light, impersonal way. Sandwiched between holiday cheer, he included a line insinuating that Dolan should sell the team, which New York sports fans have long clamored for.
Dolan wrote Vaccaro an email the next day, “Never call me again.”
And just like that, his strange relationship with the most polarizing owner in sports was finished. Vaccaro never felt that he had to step on egg shells to protect their surface level connection. Throughout the years, he was critical of Dolan’s actions when necessary. Dolan didn’t seek out Vaccaro’s criticism. Maybe he never looked. Maybe he never got it. But he still called to plan lunch outings and the rare interview.
All throughout, Vaccaro weaved through a tangled web. He hammered each nail and drove each screw into its proper home. But when just one brushed the belly of Dolan’s sensitive skin, there was no coming back.
Now, nothing changes outside of the rare direct line to ownership. Criticism will still come when there is an action to criticize. Praise will be there if there’s anything to praise. But the perspective gained through interacting with the controversial owner: priceless. While steering two major professional sports franchises, Dolan is known for big decisions that stem from quick and illogical reactions. He handled a professional relationship the same way.
“Have you ever been confronted by Dolan?” Young sports writer Joe Celia asked Vaccaro.
He chuckled, reflecting on what he considers one of the most complex relationships throughout his life. But maybe that’s how it was supposed to be.