Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sports Journalism Ethos

Do sports media have a credo for practicing their craft? Obviously, they report to their section editor or management, want to sell their product, and work within legal confines to avoid libel or slander. If they have a working relationship with a professional sports team, you'd think they'd want to preserve access to both management and players. Making dinner with last week's groceries isn't easier for writers than coaches.

On one hand, you have true 'homers', guys who carry water for everyone and everything in an organization. On the other, we have guys who, sources or not, frequently write in the spirit of the 'hatchet man'. Somewhere in the middle exist those who inform, entertain, and maintain balance, reporting good news and bad, providing perspective and rationality in an irrational world.

Pure shills are few and far between. Growing up on the East Coast, I've seen far more of the latter, where writers theme may be, "we eat our young". Ken Harrelson, broadcaster for the White Sox, seems like a good example of the penultimate homer. Should we have a problem with that, or does lacking objectivity violate some code? I can't imagine any broadcaster more intolerant of the opposition than the late Johnny Most of the Celtics. The gravel-voiced Most often waxed eloquent about C's players being 'mugged' by the opposition or referees abusing the locals.

In the pastoral middle live legends like Peter Gammons. Gammons' lengthy career and many contacts allow for content and context which flow naturally from his artistic energies. He can report limitations or trends of players and teams authoritatively without sounding mean-spirited or conspiratorial. He distributes praise without hyperbole.

And at the extreme for Boston fans are Ron Borges and Dan Shaughnessy. Borges' curare-like genuine distaste for the Patriots and Bill Belichick flies from his keyboard, as he takes every opportunity to question a franchise that has achieved greatness both off the field (now ranked second in franchise value by Forbes magazine at over 1 billion dollars) and on, with three Super Bowl victories in five seasons. Although one can never know motive, readers can only speculate Macchiavellian intent in Borges attacks. Borges simply and proudly functions as a pit bull. Shaughnessy presents a different approach - talented, aloof, lacking a better description, narcissistic. His columns often highlight players and management weakness, not from Shakespearean destiny or human frailty, but seem to say, "I am smarter than you are." Maybe if management or players were indeed smarter, then they would win every day or at least have some immunity from Shaughnessy's diatribes.

Frankly, I wonder why either players or management offer anything up to certain writers. I will omit the names, but know of one player (engaged in conversation with a fan) in an airport, whom a writer badgered for a story. The player asked the writer to wait until he had finished speaking with the fan. The player then awoke to find personal attacks about his character by the writer. Very professional, right?

When is a story 'off limits' or just 'bad taste'? The Margo Adams/Wade Boggs set to from the 80's certainly generated some interest, but in the world of sports philandering doesn't strike me as 'man bites dog' material. For the most part, celebrities sexual foibles remain taboo, until the players go far over the line or seek exposure (Dick Williams)? Far more players are likely challenging the records of Wilt Chamberlain off the court than on it.

Performance enhancing drug use captures only one element of athletic substance use. Drug testing programs identify habitual offenders (e.g. Steve Howe) but many name players have lived under clouds of suspicion (Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield) more than suffered any real physical or financial consequences of suspected or real cheating. If 5-10 percent of the general population are alcoholics, why should professional athletes, with means and opportunity be less representative or accountable?

If you're the beat writer for the Punxatawnee Post, and you find, Johnny Superstar face down in the gutter at two A.M. and take him back to the hotel, can you write about his drunken exploits when he gets an ofer the next day? If you catch Johnny hitting on every woman in town while being praised as 'a great family guy', do you bite your tongue? If you know thirty-something Johnny got caught in a woman's dormroom, do you destroy his legend?

Sports media, like the clergy, doctors, and lawyers surely maintain an element of confidentiality to protect the guilty. I understand that and endorse it. What puzzles me is why they often feel compelled to 'back up over a skunk'. Sports fans can connect the dots. Can sports media?

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