Life, the Sports Media, and Everything
"Tell your old man to drag Walton and Lanier up and down the court for 48 minutes..."
Can anyone be a sports journalist?
The comments section from my last post led me to think some more about Jeff Pearlman's question, why we hate sportswriters. Readers had some good ones in my comments section, to add to the opinions on Pearlman's post. Lazy moralizing. Rehashed, automated content. Boo-ya bluster. Poor judgment as to what is and is not a story, including the practice of taking themselves as the story. Here's my one cent.
The decline of sports journalism is a complicated picture. I am a newspaper lover. And those guys are all fighting for their lives in a decaying industry. Most cities only have one newspaper and I imagine the personnel at sports desks, like all other bureaus, has been whittled down to the skeleton of reporters it takes the publishers to gesture at adequate coverage the sports world. So they are trying to do more with less, in addition to the stress of deadlines. To some extent, they are to blame for being unable to reinvent themselves in the face of the interweb challenge. But we all will lose when sports journalism finally collapses. What happened?
Comment sections happened.
Jock journalism happened.
As the newspaper industry dies, less energy and resources have been put into hiring and grooming competent reporters. And the immediacy of technology makes publications feel stale when they hit the stands. Who reads sports weekly magazines anymore? The attempt to keep up leads to cutting corners and lazy journalism. Thus we get phantom stories, the dubious reduction of sports success to character and grit, and easy moralizing that James hates.
There are few recognizable personalities in the sports reporting biz, and those that gain notoriety seem to be those that grope an intern or become known for spouting inanities. There are also few compelling writers out there who present a memorable personality, whether likable or not. A guy who still pulls this off, more or less, is TJ Simmers in Los Angeles who seems determined to alienate players and his audience at all costs. I hate the Lakers, so despite the shtick, I still get value from the Sports Guy. In college, I read a lot of the Boston Globe, now in the process of going under, and they had a stable of men and women, who, though they occasionally went off the rails, provided Boston's vibrant and competitive sports environment with worthy columns. On the other hand, Wallace Matthews is an example of the total failure of the effort to develop a recognizable personality or insightful perspective.
In lieu of this tedious essay I could have been lazy and just posted this picture with some cuss words.
On the broadcast side, there are also few compelling personalities left. Someone told these guys that being a"personality"had nothing to do with insight. So we have the obligatory ex-jocks, some of them truly idiots, manning every station. My biggest gripe is that almost all broadcasters mail it in. I can't believe that with the backing of what must be an immense production assistance staff,none of them seem to have bothered to PREPARE for a broadcast any more than the viewer has. Thus we get lowest common denominator bullshit, no historical perspective, no meaningful interactions with players,etc. And I can't think of a single sportswriter or broadcaster who can or would bother to put some newer ways of understanding the game, such as PECOTA,or VORP, RUNT, UNCLE or any of the new statistics in context for viewers. They just put on the sportscoat, slick back their hair and mike up. It's totally insulting, especially since there is a "demand" and a "market" for informed and illuminating commentary. What fan doesn't want to learn about the game, or their team's history? Or anything?
I used to learn a lot from what is now the glassy-eyed corpse of Tim McCarver, and I occasionally get that from SNY, when they don't have it on autopilot. I suppose I should really blame the producers of these shows. But the networks and leagues (who work together on the actual broadcasts) seem to have no interest in what we want; they see demand as inelastic and viewers as captive audiences whose preferences are meaningless unless they ratify the status quo. Fans is short for "fanatics" after all. It's true that we fans are not always able to aggregate our demands effectively. For instance, Major League Baseball has taken advantage of the out-of-market demand for baseball, but still doesn't let its most ardent fans see most daytime Saturday games because they sold them to Fox before they sold them to us as part of their "Extra Innings" package. It is often frustrating to wait until enough of us fans vote with our pocketbooks. Perhaps the empty $3000 seats at Citi and Yankee Stadium we see every night on TV are a harbinger.
So the networks and leagues stand ex-jocks up in front of us, and occasionally ex-GMs. But just because you played or managed the game doesn't necessarily mean you have any ability to get insights across, or transcend mere entertainment to enlighten us. Charles Barkley is entertaining, but is he insightful? He's not even coherent. I say give the mic back to the little runt who never was good enough to play, so he or she dedicated their geeky existence to learning everything else about the game in order to "prove" themselves. I find even the average, lowest common denominator football broadcast teaches more about the game than most baseball broadcasts.
As for bloggers vs. the old guard controversies, there is overreaction on both sides. Journalists are fighting for their very lives, and it must be galling to be replaced by a wave of more or less unschooled people working for free; I think some vocal bloggers have no clue about this dynamic. Perhaps Buzz Bissenger is a horse f*cker. But just where is the high ground, my fellow blolleagues? Even the most sophisticated bloggers seem quick to take offense at the anti-blog mutterings of cranky old salts, mostly because of an exaggerated sense of accomplishment. That's why I like to call blogs electronic diaries. We really get full of ourselves sometimes.
Sportswriters must be asking themselves what the hell they could have done to save their profession. But, like the American car industry, they have shot themselves in the foot, and are now unable to complete with Joey from Queens in his moms basement. Though many of them uselessly regurgitate, even the worst blogs pay attention to every detail, making *extreme* 24 hrs/day fandom the norm, and opening up everything for discussion. And they do all the labor as a hobby! Just remember a few years ago when we were all content to read about the game in the paper the next day.
When I was a kid, we were encouraged to read Sports Illustrated because the writing was so good, and librarians figured that at least it would get you to read. I see the generalist, the writer who can competently write across teams and sports, going extinct. If you don't think that's coming, read one of Will Leitch's tone-deaf columns about the Mets, not his team. Blogging doesn't seem to easily translate to a wider view, unless you factor "hottest sideline reporters" into the equation.
RIP good fellow.
There is plenty of room for professional and amateur sportswriting, but now we just have a big scrum of mostly insight-less bandwidth wasting. I really worry about getting my news from an un-credentialed, untrained, ultimately unaccountable source, but like everyone else, more and more I do it anyway. To survive, "establishment" sportswriters in the print media just need to do better and offer a competitive product to the one Larry in Yonkers produces for free. I am less certain about what can be done with the televised sports-entertainment complex. I think that taking a longer view, volunteer journalism is not enough, and it would be best to preserve an institution with traditional reporting, editing, and accountability. So yes, reporters who feel threatened and lash out end up looking silly. But what happens if blogging turns out to be something of a fad, and we eviscerated the whole institution of sports journalism? What happens when mom's basement floods and all the interweb tubes are cracked?
Mets Be-Deviled by the Rays.
Greta Van Susteren stopped by the Fux Booth during Saturday's game. Apparently gnawing on what's left of the bones of Joe Buck, she stole Tim McCarver's soul and mercifully left before she was tempted to eat his heart on live television, which would have scared some, not all, of the Fux audience.
Saturday was a painful game for the Mets, even losing to a good team. This! This is the game that Faux decided to let us West Coasters see? Greta Van Susteren in the booth? I didn't even know she could leave the crypt during daylight hours. The good news is that Santana looked fine, and for once, the pen didn't blow the lead he handed them. But the awfulfence showed up again. Having your best hitters up in the 9th is cold comfort when you have such a streaky bunch. David Wright looks like he is going out of phase, and struck out lamely on a pitch that appeared to bounce off the plate to end the game with Beltran on board down 3-1. I mean we know you're going cold Davy-pants, but I swear that ball bounced on the plate! It bounced!! Beltran himself, like Shefield, is rumored to be in need of medical attention. The whole thing was made more painful by an hour and something rain delay, and less than successful appearances by Bobby Parnell and Sean Green. It's hard for me to be right all the time, but I am, and Omar will probably have to make a move to acquire a bat, costing players and treasure, when he could have done it this winter for mere money. The Philmes can't believe their luck, and plan to lose 17 out of their next 20 just to experiment.
Hall Pass for Cheaters?
Would you change your position on steroid users and the Hall of Fame if you knew that Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, and maybe even Willy Mays were all on drugs or some illegal substances? That's the case Zev Chafets is making, to let the roiders into Cooperstown, in the New York Times on Saturday. One of the points behind Chafets' argument is that keeping roiders out basically wipes out an entire generation of players. If the public and major league baseball ever come to accept Chafets' position as basically right, it will take some time to adjust. Sure they can continue to penalize current players for using known ban substances. But some are sure to ask, what is to prevent a "race to the bottom" sort of competition to see who can cheat the most without getting caught?