There are even fewer truths in sports reporting than in political news. Because access is everything and the advertising world is so tied up within sports, nothing is going to change in the future of sports journalism. The problem with sports reporting is that professional sports have become more refined as a form of entertainment which in turn blurs the line between the athlete being a competitor or entertainer, creating unrealistic expectations. Professional and even amateur sports themselves would need to change in order for sports reporting to change. In the meantime, writers can begin to foster some positive change by no longer using terms like warrior or hero when writing about men, women and the games that they play.
As big as the news universe is, sports reporting takes up a large part of it and is growing. In an article by Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson that appeared in a compilation entitled Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights: the Collapse of Journalism and What Can Be Done to Fix It, they report that while local, national and international news coverage declined by 11 percent between 1964 and 1999, sports coverage increased from 16 to 21 percent in that same time. The rise of the internet in the intervening years has only sent sports reporting and its self-importance through the roof. Leading the way is ESPN, valued at 40 billion dollars. The website Sportsbusinessdaily.com reported that for the Super Bowl in 2009, 633 media outlets requested 4,589 credentials for the game that was broadcast to 98 million viewers around the world.
While writing had long been a career choice, sport reporting was a new invention, as editors looked to fill the empty space around advertising in their newspapers. College athletics were the primary athletic entertainment at the turn of the 20th century. There wasn’t much of a career in pro sports one hundred years ago but the writers were instrumental in the growth of sport in not only America, but around the world as well in the twentieth century.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, lent his pen to coverage of the 1908 London Olympics for the Daily Mail. He was motivated not by the nobility of the competitors but by the ultimate perk of sports reporting which is access.
“I do not often do journalistic work,” he wrote in his memoirs. “But on the occasion of the Olympic Games of 1908 I was tempted, chiefly by the offer of an excellent seat, to do the Marathon Race for the ‘Daily Mail”’
In one line about that race, Doyle managed to distill the entire human fascination with sport that thousands of scribes have since tried to find a new way to say.
“It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.”
The history of sports reporting is full of writers who took their literary training to sport for hobby and favor, raising mortals of flesh and blood to the status of heroes and gods. Baseball had not yet been saved by Babe Ruth, Dr. James Naismith only invented the game of basketball just over 20 years earlier and the NHL was still four years off from being formed in 1917. Just under a century later, the average minimum salary of the four major sports is $448,000.
Many of the early writers careers grew as the games did; aided and propelled in importance by the very work they were doing. Grantland Rice helped set the template with his impressive writing. One of his more notable contributions to the American style was dubbing the famed Notre Dame’s backfield The Four Horseman in 1924 after the bringers of the Apocalypse written about in Revelation.
Robert Lipsyte divined the reality of this kind of writing and hero creating in his book, Sportsworld American Dreamland.
“The writer who likens a ballplayer to Hercules or Grendel’s mother is displaying the ultimate contempt – the ballplayer no longer exists as a person or a performer, but as an object, a piece of matter to be used, in this case, for the furtherance of the sportswriters career by pandering to the emotional titillation of the reader/fan. Rice populated the press boxes with lesser talents who insisted, like the old master, that they were just sunny fellows who loved kids’ games and the jolly apes who played them.”
The story of Manti Te’o has exposed the ‘athlete as hero’ as an extremely flawed ideal. The last few months have also seen the fall from grace of Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pistorious who were once held up as the shining example of the best of the human spirit and body. Both careers are now in tatters as Armstrong sits in exile while Pistorious waits for his murder trial to begin.
An act of true emotion played out on the football field at Notre Dame almost 90 years after Grantland Rice wrote of the coming apocalypse coming from South Bend, Indiana. Senior linebacker Manti Te’o looked up in to the crowd and saw thousands of lei’s being waved in support for him after delivering an inspirational performance on the field just days after losing his grandmother and girlfriend to illnesses. The movement itself, nicknamed “Wear lei for Manti” sprang up out of social media communication that wanted to acknowledge the strength Te’o was displaying. Every media outlet went with the story and Te’o became a national phenomenon and part of the conversation for the Heisman Trophy award for best college player of the year.
The nation was shocked to find out months later when Deadspin.com reported on the eve of Notre Dame’s national championship game that the story about the girlfriend was a hoax possibly played on or by Te’o. His name became a punch line and a career that seemed blessed was now in question.
In the days following the Deadspin.com’s original story about the hoax, the sports reporting world discussed how this slipped through. Ultimately, personal sensitivity displayed by the writer is what allowed this story to happen. The moment of failure was when ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski, who knew nothing about Te’o’s girlfriend beyond what Te’o had told him, did not go further in finding out more about the girlfriend when writing the original story. He asked Te’o if he could speak with the girlfriend’s family but Te’o said they wouldn’t want to talk.
“Short of asking to see a death certificate,” Wojciechowski defended himself on Sportscenter. “I’m not sure what most people would do differently.”
On the strength of seven Tour de France championships after beating cancer, bicyclist Lance Armstrong built a media machine that launched his name in to the stratosphere of the sports world. Journalists played along as they wrote his name to the top. That name and his Livestrong charity organization were synonymous with courage and determination. All of it was built on the lie. While winning all of those races, doping allegations chased Armstrong which he vehemently denied, often through court action. As years went by, evidence continued to build against Armstrong and the US Anti-Doping Agency moved to strip him of his titles. At the end of last summer, Armstrong stopped fighting the charges against the USADA and this spring he confessed to Oprah Winfrey that he did actually use the PEDS.
Buzz Bissinger is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. His novel Friday Night Lights is widely viewed to be a top work of sports writing and is called ‘the best book about sports in the last 25 years.’ Needless to say, he knows a thing or two about building heroes. He defended Lance Armstrong even after the Texan gave up the fight against the doping charges last August. It was Oscar Pistorious shooting and killing his girlfriend that brought Bissinger around.
“I was obviously shocked when I read that Pistorious had been arrested,” Bissinger wrote in his column on February 15. “…Until I came to my senses five seconds later and realized the whole notion of heroes in sports is absurd and always has been and we all have to stop the hyperventilated hyperventilating.”
The 24/7 sports media giant ESPN has ridden that glorifying style to the top. A Forbes article entitled “Why ESPN is the World’s Most Valuable Media Property” explains ESPN’s growth within the context of the current media.
“The reality is that the value of sports on television is only increasing, as much of the viewing public moves to watching programs on delay, limiting the effectiveness of advertising. It is a problem that ESPN does not have to worry about as 99.4 % of sports events are watched live.”
In the last thirty years, ESPN has risen above the pack in the 24/7 sports news world. Owned by Disney, ESPN is in TV, radio, print, on a national scale as well as its internet presence. Disney bought ESPN as part of the ABC takeover in 1996 when the ABC network and stations were worth just 11 billion dollars. While Disney is now valued at 84 billion dollars, ESPN alone accounts for 40 billion through affiliate fees and ad revenues. The organization does have a pay-wall in place on its website with the ESPN Insider. For just under nine dollars a month, the subscriber is promised more coverage by the professional experts to put the customer on the cutting edge of sports information. ESPN is essentially a direct descendant of the large news organizations that could afford to have a stable of writers that could turn out content and the getting is still good.
‘Only ESPN Insider gives you access to exclusive analysis and insights, latest rumors, breaking recruiting news, fantasy tools and custom game simulators.’
On the other end of the online spectrum is Bleacher Report. The small amount of money that BR has goes to editors while content is generated by unpaid contributors. Bleacher Report often advertises for writers on Craigslist. Generally speaking, if you can write and talk about sports, they will take you on. Much of the content is lists and rewrites of other breaking news that comes from far above on the chain.
Gawker.com is a news site that prides itself in its honesty. On its homepage, gawker uses one of its senior staffers to best describe themselves.
“The thing I like most about Gawker is that we are able to dispense with all of the politesse bullshit that surrounds so much establishment journalism and just speak the truth (as we see it, at least). We’re not required to hem and haw and couch what we want to say in euphemisms. If something is bullshit, we can say, ‘this is bullshit’.”
Deadspin.com is the sports arm of gawker. When you begin to type the name in to a browser, the tag at the end of the site address is ‘Sports News without Access, Favor or discretion. Deadspin uses its fringe status to approach sports reporting with a biting wit, an apparent reliance on profanity and no fear of losing the access it doesn’t have. When they broke the Manti Te’o story, with a well-researched and written article, it seemed that much more effective considering what they were most known for.
With websites and airwaves to fill, extensive coverage of college sports has turned the college game into an operation worth billions. Exposure is everything for a university and a surefire way to do that has been through sports. Appearance is everything and every year brings a new story of a school that has betrayed its image. It was Rutgers University’s turn this year as events in New Brunswick have illuminated the intricacies of truth and displayed the depths that those in power would go to in order to preserve the images and reputations of their respective schools and offices, making sure that their version of the truth is what was remembered
In December of 2012, Mike Rice, Rutgers men’s basketball head coach, was suspended for three games by the university over what was officially called inappropriate behavior and language after an internal investigation.
In an AP report that was written after Rice’s suspension, athletes, administrators and Rice danced around the subject, using terms like leadership, accountability, standards, high intensity and failure.
Other reports like this one in ESPN referred to Rice’s behavior as inappropriate but made no mention of the actual events other than to say that ‘transgressions occurred during practice but Rutgers declined to give further details.’
Brendan Prunty of The Star-Ledger, NJ’s largest paper, reported these details on December 13th.
“The decision, which was announced early this afternoon via press release from athletic director Tim Pernetti, followed an internal investigation that revealed abusive, profane language used by Rice toward his players and an incident during his first or second season in which Rice threw basketballs at some players’ heads during practice, according to multiple people with knowledge of the findings and the video evidence presented to Rice.”
Another Star-Ledger reporter, Steve Politi challenged the university for what appeared to be a track record of coaches fired for bad behavior but Rutgers dismissed the issue as resolved and marched forward, the whole issue a mere speed bump on the road to progress instead of the total failure of any leadership that it was. Publicly, the story died right there. No one in the media made enough noise demanding to know if what Prunty wrote for the Ledger was true. Rice quietly returned to the bench as the head coach on January 2nd and the team finished a troubling season both on and off the court without incident and a 15-16 record.
Behind the scenes, the story continued to grow. A former assistant coach was to be featured on an ESPN story and the video of Coach Rice in practice would be aired. Rutgers officials decided to release the video on April 2nd. Once the video went viral and burned its way across the media landscape, he might as well been conducting a fight club in the quad. Rice was fired the next morning. Athletic Director Tim Pernetti lost his job on Thursday.
“Video is what gets people’s s attention,” says Chris Kowalczyk, the Director of Creative Content for VCU Athletics at Virginia Commonwealth University. “The content we post with video consistently gets more attention than what we do without. “
The video images are what made this story a job killer. It all begs the question; is a story without video ever going to be considered the best version of the truth? How much more of the ‘most accurate version of the truth’ did Prunty need to write for the story to get the attention it apparently deserved?
Rutgers President Robert Barchi described the situation he found himself in as a ‘failure of process.’ Once he finally saw the video hours after the press did on April 2nd, Barchi knew immediately that Rice needed to go. Public professionals, some better than others, have learned to use the media and language in specific ways instead of speaking honestly. Rutgers is just the latest example of what happens when institutions and organizations work so hard to craft a public image more than focusing on staffing its positions with qualified and quality people that won’t behave in a way can so easily cause trouble. Hall of Fame head coach Bob Knight made his career with a fiery attitude and a track record of winning. Eventually his brutal ways cost him a job when practice video showed the coach putting his hands around a player’s throat but he’s still featured in TV commercials, cracking jokes about the right way to toss a chair. Winning forgives everything and the truth doesn’t make a sound.
When placed in front of the people in black and white, consumers still don’t want to pay attention. Why did Wojciechowski not contact Stanford University where the girl allegedly attended to try to fill in the picture of this young girl’s tragic story? If he finds that Stanford has no record of the girl, well then that makes for an entirely different story that is closer to the truth; even more than the one Te’o was telling, which may have been ‘true’ as well. The whole narrative that followed Te’o throughout Notre Dame’s season would have been different. It may just be sports but the same rules of journalism need to apply. You can’t just write a story that is only informed from one side.
Perhaps what is needed is amnesty or this will continue to go on. Everywhere in the world we see people who look to get over. We are animals and it is in our inherent nature to make things as easy as possible for us. Ironically, some will work very hard to do this. Give everyone a chance to step up and admit to how and why they might have cheated, lied or gotten over on the system some other way. Maybe it is the the mechanic who figures out his side hustle, a lawyer who double bills his clients, a politician who takes a handshake and an envelope full of cash, or an athlete who takes some kind of PED. We all do it. Admit your sins and be forgiven. After this you are on your own. If you are going to cheat, just admit it. They’re already doing the consumers a disservice. Maybe then it will be easier for the sports fan to find out what is real.
Sports journalism, entertainment and programming are going to continue to grow. As mentioned above, pro and college sports may well be the last bastion of live entertainment left in modern media. In many ways, ESPN has become too big to fail. As long as the hype of sports continues to feed the populations appetite, the cycle will continue. Like regular news, sports journalists plow ahead, treating mistakes like mere speed bumps as we careen towards the next tip off and the headlines that are guaranteed to follow.