Tuesday, July 23, 2019

When Did Sports Journalism Lose its Way?

In an ideal world, reporters would report facts/news, commentators would offer their opinions about the facts/news and entertainers would not pretend to be reporters or commentators. That ideal world never existed in reality, but there were times and places where it came closer to existing than it does in our current time and place.

The issue is much broader than sports, but here we will focus on the decline of sports journalism. Anyone under 45 years old probably does not remember that there was a time when Tony Kornheiser, Mike Wilbon and other television personalities were first-rate sportswriters/commentators.

Here is an example of an excellent Wilbon column: Lacy Leaves Towering Legacy.

Here is an example of an excellent Kornheiser column: Astros' Ryan Going Out In Glory, if Not a Blaze.

Wilbon, Kornheiser and other talented reporters and columnists traded in their newspaper bylines for the fame and riches they could acquire by screaming at each other on television. Maybe most people who were offered fame and riches would have made the same Faustian bargain, but the deal comes with a price--for them, and for us. I discussed this with Woody Paige more than a decade ago and he readily acknowledged that he did not derive the same satisfaction or meaning from appearing on television that he did from writing a great article or column.

T.J. Simers, a long-time co-panelist with Paige on ESPN's "Around the Horn," once said that he hated the show but "I hear a cash register going off in my head when I do it. TV makes us do this. They want us to be stupid, to try to top ourselves. On 'Around the Horn,' if you're low-key and sensible, you aren't going to be on the show anymore. You have to be over the top. ESPN will hire you for your credibility, but after a minute they've had enough of that...The producer is yelling 'Conflict! Conflict!' in your ear. TV wants conflict. TV wants outrageous opinions."

It does not have to be that way, though I do not have much hope that things will substantially change any time in the near future. ESPN and its imitators have dumbed down sports discourse, and there is no clear path out of the murky swamp back to dry, sane land. Many of the top sportswriters traded in their credibility for TV's cash, and as a result we are now cursed with both low quality TV and with a large amount of low quality sportswriting. There are very few great all-around sports writers now, as the few who know sports often lack writing chops and the few who have writing chops often do not know sports. Someone who has a deep understanding of sports--the strategy, the personalities, the psychology of competition--and the capacity to tell a coherent and compelling story is rare indeed. That combination has always been uncommon, but if you look at an old copy of Sport--particularly when it was edited by Dick Schaap--or Sports Illustrated you will find many articles and columns that are thoughtful and thought-provoking. Sadly, there is no publication or online site that has that cachet now, or that deserves it.

Speaking of Schaap, he was perhaps the first great sportswriter to transition successfully to television, but Schaap found a way to conform to the limitations of that medium while also retaining his intelligence and wit. When he hosted the Sports Reporters there was more light than heat--more substance than hot air, more intelligent debating as opposed to mindless screaming and bickering.

It is too much to expect anyone to be another Dick Schaap, but it should not be too much to expect writers to get their facts straight, commentators to provide intelligent opinions about those facts and TV personalities to scream less and think more. I hope that the general public is not as dumb as ESPN and its imitators think but I fear otherwise.