The Decline of Sports Journalism

As I was reading this piece by Bill Simmons at Grantland, I was struck by this paragraph:

Something of a disconnect had emerged between my private conversations and the things I wrote for Grantland/ESPN. In essence, I had turned into two people. There’s Sports Fan Me, and there’s ESPN Me.

Sports Fan Me is candid, jaded, suspicious of everyone. Sports Fan Me repeatedly gets involved in arguments and e-mail chains centered on the question, “Do you think he’s cheating?” Sports Fan Me has Googled athletes’ heads and jawlines, studied their sizes, then mailed before/after pictures to friends with the subject heading, “CHECK THIS OUT.” Sports Fan Me has learned to trust his inner shit detector, to swiftly question any accomplishment that seems extraordinary or superhuman. Sports Fan Me hates that he feels this way, but he does, and there’s just no way around it.

ESPN Me sticks his head in the sand and doesn’t say anything.

ESPN Me occasionally pushes narratives that he doesn’t totally believe in. (Emphasis mine)

It appeared as if, without directly saying it, Simmons was admitting that he often refuses to do his job.  That as a sports journalist he actually declines to do investigative, and sometimes, uncomfortable reporting, and simply “sticks his head in the sand.”  I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon for a while.  Sports journalism isn’t really journalism anymore.  It’s become just simple reporting.  It’s cliches, mediocrity, and fluff.

Simmons again:

Sports Fan Me spent most of November and December debating the Lewis/Peterson topics with friends and coworkers, so Sports Fan Me wanted to run those e-mails. ESPN Me overruled him, believing it was unfair to speculate without any real proof … even though ongoing speculation has become as big a part of sports fandom as purchasing tickets or buying a replica jersey. That’s the disconnect.

Before those Miami New Times/Sports Illustrated bombshells dropped this week and we started joking about deer-antler spray, I would have wagered anything that God didn’t miraculously heal Ray Lewis’s torn tricep. I never actually wrote this. Alluded to it, danced around it, joked about it … just never actually came out and wrote it. (Again, emphasis mine)

I should note here that he’s referring to the fact that Adrian Peterson nearly broke one of the greatest NFL records less than 12 months after tearing both his ACL and MCL, and that Ray Lewis returned from a completely torn triceps muscle in a matter of weeks.  In the world of real journalism that would naturally raise some suspicions.  But in the land of sports journalism, it took the investigative work of the Miami New Times to break the stories of A-Rod, Nelson Cruz, and others having appeared in investigations into PED distribution.  If Simmons was privately questioning these things, why did he not feel it was his job as a sports journalist to actually investigate?  Why did he stick his head in the sand?

Simmons is not alone in this.  It seems to be the MO of journalists/reporters/commentators/analysts at ESPN and other networks.  They refuse to ask the hard questions.  They refuse to do the digging that other outlets are doing.  ESPN had the Manti Te’o story and sat on it.  According to them there was to much debate about whether they had enough information to run with it.  They got scooped by Deadspin and then spent weeks having to say, “The story broken on Deadspin.com…”  I can’t imagine the suits at ESPN were happy to have to give credit to a controversial sports blog for breaking a story that they chose to sit on.  Why?  Because they were part of the story.  ESPN and other sports media outlets helped perpetuate the myth.  They happily pushed the dying girlfriend story all through the college football season.  Not one journalist thought to ask even simple questions.  Those questions would be uncomfortable.  Those questions would require real journalistic work.  Those questions could potentially shatter the narrative.  Those questions could end the fantasy.  Simmons on Peterson again:

Then again, I like Adrian Peterson. I thought watching him carry footballs was just about the most exciting thing that happened last year. I liked living in something of a sports-movie fantasy world in which our hero gets maimed, defies the odds, and returns better than ever (and sooner than we ever imagined). I wanted to believe in the notion that someone could be noticeably better at playing running back than anyone else. I loved the thought of telling my grandkids someday, “Yes, I was there for Adrian Peterson.” (Emphasis mine again)

And that’s the kicker.  Sports journalists are just a bunch of fanboys (and girls).  They want these great stories to happen because it makes their job easy.  Digging, investigating, doing the “dirty work” of real journalism, that’s hard.  And a lot of people working for ESPN don’t want to have to do hard.  They aren’t very good at doing the hard work.  When they have a compelling, “fantasy world” story like T’eo, or Adrian Peterson’s comeback, it makes their job easy.  They get to write lovely stories about how wonderful these sports personalities are.  They get to do big sweeping dramatic personal interest pieces on the air.  They don’t have to ask tough questions.  They get to pander.  They get to feel as if they are part of the story.  As Simmons transparently claims, “Yes I was there for Adrian Peterson.”

This isn’t new, either.  This is why no one bothered to really ask questions during the baseball steroid era.  “Journalists” like Rick Reilly stood by for years and defended Lance Armstrong, when even the most casual observer knew he was lying.  Simmons again:

We have a tendency to look the other way as long as those great games and great moments keep coming.

Yep, you do.  And that’s why sports journalism is gradually losing its credibility.

You should really read the “We look the other way” section of his piece. He covers a number of things including the fact that the NBA has NEVER had a player suspended or even suspected of using PEDs.

This is not always unique to ESPN either, and this goes hand-in-hand with another point made on Deadspin yesterday.  One of the problems is these networks continue to hire ex-athletes to report/comment on the sports world.  They have no journalistic background, they have no desire to do anything difficult, and they have systematically dumbed down sports coverage.  I haven’t watched ESPN Sportscenter, on purpose, in years, because of this.  As Drew Magary points out:

The entire system needs to be blown up and rethought from scratch…Why is a billion-dollar network hosting the most important game of the year relying on Shannon Sharpe for comic relief? That’s insanity. And yet, this is common practice. Swap out CBS’s crew for Fox’s crew and Fox’s crew for ESPN’s crew and there’s no difference. It’s all the same show. They all do things the exact same way because … well because they’ve always done it that way. And now they can’t stop.

This is what happens when a network throws away its own brain. Ray Lewis is joining this shapeless blob next season. Will that improve anything? NO. Will anything useful that Ray Lewis might say get washed away in a sea of melodramatic self-aggrandizement? YES…We’ve all tolerated this for far too long.

As a guy in the comments of the article aptly put:

1) Your pre-game shows consist entirely of setups for the human interest narratives centered, whenever possible, around a high profile offensive skill position player or players from each team and

2) In game color analysts lack the ability to think and respond in the rapid fire manner required to be productive additions to the game. They also don’t know the rules and, even worse, fill in the void by pushing whatever narrative is foisted upon them by a producer.

It wasn’t always like this, but this is why people like Dick Vitale, Lee Corso, and others have become shells of their former selves.  They have been slowly drained of the ability to do anything but be caricatures of what they used to be.  They have become cartoons.  They have no substance, nothing valuable to add.  And they will slowly become irrelevant.

Another commentor at Deadspin:

When they do a go-around the table for their final thoughts on strategy and it sounds like this-

Dan Marino: They have to execute, and not make mistakes

Bill Cowher: This will be won in the trenches – whoever wins the battle on the line wins the game.

Boomer: They have to establish their own tempo.

Shanno Sharpe: Whoever wants it more will win.

– you realize that you just read 4 pages from an inspiration-a-day desk calendar and didn’t hear any football analysis.

Sound familiar?

This is really two separate things:  1) A lack of quality investigative journalism behind the scenes, and 2) a lack of quality reporting, analysis, and commentary on TV.  And, it’s destroying sports coverage across the board.  As I’ve often said, I’m pretty sure that myself and two of my buddies could provide better REAL sports commentary, analysis, and reporting than 4/5 of the guys at ESPN, CBS, ABC, or NBC.  But really, that’s not saying much.  Not much at all.

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One Response to The Decline of Sports Journalism

  1. Ben says:

    My thought on this is that so many NFL fans liked listening to John Madden over the years that they’ve become accustomed to garbage analysis. Where would the world be today without cankles and tur-duck-en? Or how about “at the end of the day…”?

    I don’t know if I have a proper version of an analyst for football. I’ve got several for baseball. They make watching the game better because you learn some meaningful things about the game.

    As for sports reporting, I’m at odds. Mike Greenberg does it right, but he’s no longer in the print circuit. I thought Peter Gammons was an ace with his work. He always had something new to report that nobody else had bothered to investigate. I don’t follow many reporters these days, and it may be because they’re not telling me anything that’s worth reading/ listening to. Or maybe I hate the fact that MLB relies on the writers to decide on HOF induction. I’ll save that for another post.

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