Behold the Return of Jay Mariotti

Firebrand Chicago columnist back from hiatus, and this time he's at AOL

Perhaps you remember Jay Mariotti. Sure you do. He was the bane of Chicago sportswriting for years, the one guy almost everyone -- fans, athletes, coaches, other sportswriters -- could agree on. Thanks to Mariotti's style, a brash mix of name-calling and invective and the occasionally well-turned phrase, the columnist earned himself public enemy No. 1 status. At the very least, Mariotti could be accused of being more concerned with drawing attention to himself than doing actual journalism, all the while under the guise of being the last honest man in Chicago.

It was quite a high-wire act, and as Mariotti's constant clashes with his editors eventually came to a head, he was fired, and the world moved on. Until today.

Today Mariotti's back, writing for one of those "internet sites" he so proudly proclaimed were the future. Mariotti has landed at AOL Sports, which is soon to be subsumed by its blogging wing, FanHouse, which sort of makes Mariotti a ... blogger? Jay, say it ain't so!

Mariotti's first column went live on the site this morning, and in it, he pretty much covers it all. He starts with the "professional epiphany" he had covering the Olympics in Beijing which, according to him, caused him to refuse an editor's demands that he pre-write two columns about Michael Phelps to get them in on deadline. He then runs the gamut from being slightly intelligent (which could be paraphrased as: Did you know about the internet? It doesn't require paper or a printing press!) to both praising ("We're all writers.") and criticizing the very people he'll be working with ("I just think they should be writing about Steve Smith, not Stephen A. Smith."). It's classic Mariotti: well-written, interesting, provocative, not entirely disagreeable ... but leaves a bad taste in your mouth all the same.

In fact, that's a pretty good way to sum up the business side of AOL's decision to hire Mariotti, just as it converges its AOL Sports wing with its FanHouse blog. (Disclosure: I also write for FanHouse.) On its face, it makes sense -- Mariotti is a suit's dream. He screams "page views." He'll generate buzz for FanHouse, not only through his writing, which is sure to be controversial, but through his national appearances every day on ESPN's "Around the Horn." If he can paste a big "FanHouse" logo behind his head every day, the move makes business sense, and there's no arguing that.

But it leaves a bad taste, all the same. FanHouse used to be a paying bastion of some of the internet's best, most independent bloggers, and most good, indepedent bloggers on the internet made their bones criticizing columnists like Mariotti. What happens to those bloggers? How do they feel about the move? Does it dilute FanHouse's brand? Is Mariotti the kind of hire designed to buttress an up-and-coming platform with scores of unique voices ... or will he cannibalize it?

All to be seen. Maybe Jay's turned over a new leaf. Maybe his writing will be, as he told the Tribune's Phil Rosenthal, more positive. AOL Sports stumbled on a success when it launched FanHouse. Mariotti's hire, for better or worse, signals a new era.

Not to mention, Chicago readers get to read Jay's columns again. Aren't you excited? We know you are.

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