When I was a teen I loved sports and wanted to write about them. I became Co-Sports Editor of my high school newspaper and was able to get a job as a stringer at my home town newspaper, the Times-Picayune. My job was to attend sporting events and gather statistics so a story could be written.Visiting the newspaper office, seeing my heroes at work trying to beat deadlines, it was exhilarating. Every time I showed my press pass the stadium gates would magically open for me. I was a professional.
When I went to college I became the sports editor of our newspaper and took a journalism class. I also worked as an assistant to our Sports Information Director. I sat on arena floors and in the press box. During that time my interests drifted to coaching but I never forgot the important tenets of journalism, Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. I had an Associated Press style book that was my guide. When I wrote stories I stuck to the facts and conjecture was reserved for an occasional editorial. When I did author an editorial I used reliable sources to to support my conclusions.
My most memorable editorial came when I wrote an article supporting my college’s basketball coaching staff. The year before the head coach had been abruptly fired. He was replaced by an assistant coach with less experience than the other coach on that staff. The following year a few players became disgruntled an were openly talking about transferring. Since I heard many of these player remarks first hand I felt I was in a strong position to write an opinion piece.
My editorial was essentially an admonishment of those players. I expressed that for the sake of seniors on the team, the student body, the morale of the team and the school, that such remarks should be kept in the locker room. My take was that if you were unhappy leave, but leave with dignity. I never mentioned any players names, but the piece was controversial. One player called my editor accusing me of yellow journalism and damage to his reputation. My editor responded by saying that until he called she had no idea who I was writing about, and that if people were treating him differently, or saying things to him, it was because he must have actually been one of the players complaining. To make things worse for me the players in question were friends of mine. Never the less I exercised my right of free speech and did not quote these young men directly, since I was not given permission to do so. I protected my sources but was writing about actual things I had heard. In the end some of those players did transfer, but those that remained behind, along with many students, felt I had done a good service to our school with my editorial. More importantly I did not express an uninformed opinion. I had facts supporting me.
Over the years I have watched sports journalism evolve and change. Rather than inform the emphasis seems to be more on inciting emotion and strong feelings by using speculation rather than facts. In my opinion this is all news reporting now, but as a sports fan I find it particularly vexing. Howard Cosell, a lawyer by education, was the first to start this trend. Now there are hundreds, if not thousands, like him assaulting us in print, on air, and through the web.
I played and coached high school sports. I also spent time with collegiate coaches at clinics I attended. What I took away from those experiences is that managing player performance from one level to the next is an extremely complex endeavor. College athletes were the best players at their high schools. Elite college players were among the best in their region. Professional athletes were among the best in the country, and in some cases depending on the sport, the world. The expertise required to manage performance at the highest collegiate or professional levels is not something that can be understood from a distance. The untrained eye only sees what occurs in the game and the eventual outcome.
The media has mitigated this somewhat by hiring past players and coaches to offer commentary and insight. Because of their life experiences their observations in my opinion are worthwhile. Their delivery or style may or may not be to my liking, but their credibility is sound. Unfortunately there are numerous journalists who now prefer to exist exclusively in the world of conjecture and for the most part I feel they are unqualified to do so.
As I type this blog post I understand fully that in this day everyone has a platform. The goal is to get an audience, and the best way to get an audience is to create controversy. This approach has spawned a whole new breed of journalist. Rather than report facts they speculate on them. They offer their insights as to why teams play well or not, why coaches made their decisions or not, and why teams are winning or not. They make predictions that they are never held accountable for, unless they happen to somehow come true. You probably won’t see a sports journalist write about the things they missed or got wrong. My issue is that by and large in the print media these so called experts are ill equipped to write those views. They lack the experience and insight needed to give validity to their conjecture.
Now I am not without sin. I have gone on tirades on Facebook, Twitter, texts, you name it, about coaching decisions, player performance, play selection, etc. My only solace is that these rants are out of frustration because deep down I want those players, coaches, and teams to be successful. Just because I played and coached high school basketball doesn’t give me the right to judge anybody performing on a bigger stage. I’m just a fan, which is short for fanatic, which in part explains my behavior. Fans have done this forever, and players and coaches understand the pendulum of emotions they feel. I have argued on line with other fans. It’s what we do. We are not paid to do it, and in reality our views often have no credibility.
I expect a higher standard from a professional sports journalist but I’m not always going to get it. The smaller market print journalists I read are going to keep on writing about the dismal failures or glowing successes of the teams they are assigned to cover while still subjecting us to their so called insights. If a team is doing well you can trust them to tell you why they think that team is having success. If a team is faltering you can turn to this oracle and find out exactly what they are doing wrong. I have to believe that if you could ask any player or coach the one thing they would like to be rid of it would be the post game press conference. These men and women, who are at the height of their professions, have to endure the inane and sometimes asinine questions and remarks these so called experts have for them. I would think going through this exercise on a regular basis would be excruciatingly painful. I’m a banker now and I can only imagine what my life would be if the press came in and questioned me on loan decisions. As an aside we do undergo this with government audits, but those questions are based on their real knowledge and understanding of credit risk. But if I had to endure questions from the uninformed.. well let’s give it a try.
Banker: Any questions?
Sports Journalist: What would you attribute your decline in your lines of credit for the year end? Are your customers unhappy with the service your bank is providing.
Banker: Not at all. Many companies pay down their outstanding lines prior to year end.
Sports Journalist: How come a financial institution will fix a residential mortgage for thirty years but on a commercial building they will require a much quicker pay back. A building is a building.. right?
Banker: Not at all. Home mortgages are a totally different market and product. Commercial buildings have a whole different level of rate risk and their values can fluctuate much more dramatically.
Sports Journalist: It seems you bankers are requiring a lot more paperwork these days. I remember when a person could walk into a bank and just get a loan with a handshake. It seems like overkill to me.
Banker: Do you have a question?
Sports Journalist: Uh yeah, why all the paperwork?
Banker: Banking is a highly regulated business. We are mandated to disclose and provide information to the client to insure their protection. All those documents are required by law.
You get the picture. Instead of forming relationships and reporting facts sports journalists are just critics now, bestowing harsh assessments or glowing accolades based on their own intuitive rationale. Good sports journalists obtain reputable sources to support their allegations, but now if a writer thinks something he can just write it and mask it as fact rather than what it is, an uniformed opinion. Maybe some day the tables can turn and the players and coaches can get these print journalists in a room and ask them why they wrote certain things, or made certain remarks. That would be a press conference worth hearing.