We know, however, that that isn't the case. Sports reporters, seemingly more than ever don't report with insight and meaningful opinion—instead on the way to the computer they take a detour into HyperboleLand. Or sometimes, just as bad, they decide rather than reporting clearly and astutely, instead they try to be "funny" or "clever," and instead it just comes out as sensationalistic or mean-spirited, or just plain wrong.
Rush To Judgment
Take for instance, ESPN Page 2 writer, Tim Keown. Earlier this week, practically salivating with glee, Keown wrote a smug little piece about how much he doesn't like the new Yankee Stadium (the first guy to do that, right Tim?). He called it "Trouble At The House That George Built."
Keown doesn't even pretend to be dispassionate, or at the very least, journalistic. Pshhhaw. Instead, he takes every pleasure telling us about what he feels the current circumstances are at the new Stadium. And of course, he tries to be funny.
This whole Yankee Stadium story is just too good. The $1.5 billion stadium turns out to be a ridiculous little bandbox that makes every day seem like Wrigley with 30 mph gusts blowing out to center.
They've thought of everything to explain the 20 homers the Indians and Yankees combined to hit in the first four games (26 in the first six), but here's one I haven't heard: all those empty seats behind home plate. Maybe it's creating an unintended vortex.
OK, he's funny, he's clever. I get it. but what is the point in my reading this. What have I learned? I think that it is "There's a lot of home runs, there aren't a lot of fans. And we're happy about this." Why? Not sure.
Keown goes on to write as if the Yankees were the first team to ever build a new stadium, and then crescendos it off in super-smug style, with a quote from the New Yorker.
The best description of the new park came from Ben McGrath of The New Yorker, who described the Yankees' Opening Day home collapse as "a moral smiting of the fools who spent one and a half billion dollars to build a replica of the world's most famous ballpark across the street from the perfectly serviceable real thing, and then stuffed it with Mohegan Sun Sports Bars and Jim Beam Suite Lounges, on the eve of the steepest recession in decades."
"Moral smiting?" From whom and when? "Collapse?" Well, not sure you could call the Yankee's Opening Day a collapse considering it was sold out for months. And again, the fact that the Yankees wanted to build a new stadium and starting planning it years before this recession hit doesn't seem to phase reporters who seem to take it as a personal mission to slaughter the Yankees for not keeping the Stadium closed until the recession was over. But whatever. Keown took his pot shots, and then closed his laptop. Easy as pie.
The problem with Keown and in fact, the majority of sports journalists, is not just petty potshots in the name of 'morality," but with overstatement. Hyperbole. It's not good enough for an athlete to be good; he has to be the next Joe Dimaggio (Rocco Baldelli—can't imagine why either why sportswriters would pick DiMaggio to compare Baldelli to. Hmmmm...). Likewise, a game can't be great, it has to be "An Instant Classic. (Seemingly every weekend, ther'e an instant classic acording to ESPN.) To whit, the Celtics-Bulls playoff series isn't "great;" no ESPN (in what I’m sure isn't self-interest, considering the playoffs are on their channel) decided to repeatedly, call it the "Best Playoff Series Ever." Vince Young, after his first season wasn't just a promising young quarterback; no, according to CBSsports.com's Clay Travis, he deserved "to have a temple built to him." Greg Oden was inaugurated as the next great NBA center—complete with ESPY appearances, magazine covers and commercials—before he even grabbed one rebound. And how many "Next Michael Jordans" have there been? Penny Hardaway. Vince Carter. Kobe Bryant. Harold Miner. And etc, etc.
Of course, no other team brings out the hyperbole than the Yankees, where every single article must make mention of the team's salaries in some form or another. Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News is no exception. This past Sunday, April 26th, Lupica wrote that the Friday and Saturday Yankee losses to the Red Sox weren't just losses; “Friday night was one kind of April disaster for Girardi's team and Saturday was quite another." Twice Lupica wrote that "The weekend stays a disaster no matter what Andy Pettitte does tonight." So, winning one out of 3 in Fenway would still be a disater. in April? Lupica continued that these are "...the kind of losses that stay with you." Really, Lupe? Should the Yankees just pack it in? On April 26th? Lupica followed that up today with a headline that the "Mets Must Win" this weekend against the Phils. The date today is May 1st.
Lupica is hardly alone in overstatement. In fact, it seems if you aren't ranting and making outrageous statements, then you aren't a real sports analyst. No, more and more sports "personalities" have to be like Adam Schein (from of course, "Loudmouths on Sports Net" naturally), or Lou Holtz, or Mike Patrick, or Chris Berman, where you shout opinions—the more outrageous, the better—at other sports personalities, until the loudest bullies there way to "victory." There is no room for disagreements, only shouting. There's no analysis; there's only a shocking opinion meant to draw in the easily outraged. It's as if sports reporting is turning into a Internet message board where anyone can type in any obscenity-laced rant, free from consequence. And free from logic or substance.
The Yankees are overpriced divas going nowhere and the Steinbrenners are jerks for trying to build a new Stadium!! Barry Bonds is only being investigated because he's black and anyone who says otherwise is a racist!!! Brett Farve is the best quarterback ever, hands down!! Kobe is better than Wade and Jordan!!!! I know it's the 3rd game of the season, but it is a must-win!!! Joba Chamberlain is a reliever and anyone who thinks he should be a starter doesn't know anything about baseball!!! Shut up jerk!!!
Why do sports writers do this? Why do Adam Schein and Jim Rome shout, abuse their guests and make asses of themselves? Why does, for years, Peter Vescey pretend to be an insult comic and write put-downs meant to be "funny" but only seem mean—none of them imparting any information or having anything in common with actual sports journalism—and get to keep on working work for years and years? Why does the New York Post, Daily News, Newsday, ESPN the Magazine and seemingly every print, radio and TV sports reporter opt for the loud, celebrity-laden, A-Rod, Farve type story? Why the reaching for the outrageous, often barely-sports related sensationalist story?
Why? Because they have to. Because we, the readers, the fans, demand it.
Put it this way. On April 30th, an ESPN story regarding A-Rod taking stories in high school was posted to ESPN.com. In under 40 minutes, there were already 510 comments. Likewise, an article about the difficulties of the Celtic's attempts to repeat as NBA champions received 23 comments. On Foxsports.com, a poll asking "Do you believe Alex Rodriguez took steroids in high school, had 38,771 respondents. A similar poll (that had actually been up at least a day longer) asking "Will the Marlins make the playoffs?" got 3,768 answers. On ESPN Sports Nation, the poll regarding Alex Rodriquez drew almost 84,000 votes; the next highest poll response drew about 18,000.
In journalism the old maxim goes: "If it bleeds, it leads." In sports, it’s no different. Reporters will push the story they feel will draw the most interest. And again, because they have to. If they want to compete in the sports media market, natural selection demands that they push the stories that will sell the best. Unfortunately, those stories aren't about the dying art of pitching inside, or the changing nature of offensive line blocking. More often they are about Mark Teixeira’s outrageous salary, Ben Roethlisberger’s new tattoo or Shawn Kemp's legal dispute with the mother of his child. And it will be that way until we say we're not interested.
A New Hope
Luckily, there are some out there who feel that sports reporting could be better; who aren't afraid to point out when sportswriters are ham-boning their points. Enter the internet; one of the wonderful aspects to the web is its democratic nature. In short it offers a voice to those who feel that things could be better; in this case, that sometimes in the sports reporting world, they would like a change.
In the mid 2000s, ESPN decided to hire sports personality, Steven A. Smith. Well, they did more than that, they wanted to make him a star.
"Stephen A. is ringing a bell," said Mark Shapiro, an executive vice president of ESPN. "People like him and dislike him, but they still watch him. These days, it's hard to find a talent who strikes a chord that way. Polarization is a commodity." He added: "We're in the hit-making business. And Stephen A. is a game-changer."
Actually, I thought you were in the sports reporting business. In any event, When ESPN pushed Smith to the front of almost every broadcast—including his own show, Quite Frankly (which Smith described as a cross between Bill O'Reilly and Larry King)—complete with his loud, bombastic style, viewers took note. And more often than not, they hated him.
A number of web sites popped up attesting to that fact that he was an awful journalist (including some whose names I can't write here). AwfulAnnouncing.com, Deadspin.com and many other web sites and blogs wrote copious amounts of type on how dreadful Smith was and what an insult it was fro ESPN to think so little of its viewer. In addition, a series of Youtube.com videos showed him getting heckled at the NBA draft; another series of videos had a sock puppet heckling people as Smith. And Quite Frankly, ratings-wise tanked. His radio show also failed, and this week, Steven A. Smith left ESPN after they refused to renew his contract.
There are a number of good blogs and sports sites out there (as well as a whole heck of a lot of pure detritus) outside of the big media conglomerates. And what's more, what these sites might not have in actual breaking news and access to athletes, they make in what used be the domain of the journalists, and that's actual insight and thoughtful criticism of the game we love.
In fact, there was a nice, little article on a popular sports blog, FireJoeMorgan.com, a few years back criticizing the writing of...Tim Keown. Back in 2005, the web site did a point-by-point critique of Keown's evisceration of every sports journalist's favorite target, Alex Rodriguez. Using common sense and statistical analysis, FireJoeMorgan proved what we all know; that Tim Keown—and a great many sports journalists (not all, but many)—don't analyze or report, they take pot shots. They don't let the sport itself stand on its own, they hype and exaggerate and overstate till all meaning is lost from the game. Until, like Stephen A. Smith, they become the show, and not the sport they are suppossedly covering. They do it because its easy, and because people will respond to their bluster and derisiveness by continuing to read their articles.
Hopefully though, there will soon come a day, as with Smith, when we don't.