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When sports journalism goes bad



Veteran Sports Illustrated pro football writer Paul Zimmerman, known as Dr. Z, once caused a problem for the Bills' media relations staff during training camp at St. John Fisher. He ventured from the media-designated sideline to watch a drill on the opposite sideline, which was empty enough to have comfortably fit the state of Rhode Island.

            But for whatever reason, media people weren't permitted there, so a Bills media assistant told him to move.

            I often attended Buffalo's mini-camps, which were closed to the public. Occasionally I'd quote a coach explaining something to a player because that gave insight into his development. Unfortunately, a team official told me coaches and players could only be quoted during the sanctioned media period.

Welcome to sports media relations, where the objective has evolved from accommodating media to controlling them. Sports organizations limit access and pander to TV so well, they practically run sports journalism.

            There's no greater evidence than the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Reporters' access to players and coaches is primarily through televised press conferences, where the questions and answers tend to be weak simply because of the impersonal environment.

            That's followed by a 30-minute post-game locker room access period. Unfortunately, with so many cameras and TV reporters looking for sound bites, there is seldom any meaningful conversation between the interview subject and the reporter. The interviewee just delivers the same BS he hears on SportsCenter, thinking that's how he's supposed to talk.

            Yet, press conferences are sports organizations' communication tool of choice. Why? First, they really don't want you to know the athlete, except for his statistics and community service.

            Second, the podium is a shield that suggests civility. It limits potential confrontation because people don't want to look stupid on TV... unless it's reality TV. Thus, no negativity surfaces; and if it does, the media relations people have already pre-programmed the interviewee to handle it.

            Overall, the press conference is for the uncritical eye of television. That's why sports organizations love them. The less detail, the less likely trouble will occur.

            It's just regrettable that TV and print media get lumped together. Each has different needs. The TV people want sound bites based on four or five themes easily identifiable in 10 seconds. Print journalists want specifics, because stories are seldom as simple as TV implies. But print people are only going to get those specifics by talking to someone for 20 to 30 minutes, which rarely happens.

            Ultimately, what the fan gets is garbage, nothing remotely similar to the classic work by renowned sports writers Jimmy Cannon and Red Smith.

            When 12th-seeded Manhattan upset fifth-seeded Florida, 75-60, in the NCAA's first round on March 18, the media's questions focused on why Florida lacked competitiveness. What did Manhattan say about the strategy it employed during the contest's pivotal points? Who knows? That question wasn't asked because it's apparently not sound-bite friendly.

My favorite press conference question is: "Talk about [subject]." Properly translated, this means, "Say anything about [subject] for 20 seconds and I don't care what it is."

            My second favorite question is: "How important was [something]?" Over the years, among the things that I've learned were important: Adam Vinatieri's Super Bowl-winning kicks; Josh Beckett's five-hit shutout for the Marlins in Game 7 of last year's World Series; Tampa Bay's five interceptions and three defensive touchdowns in Super Bowl XXXVII.

            In the meantime, we haven't learned anything.

            Paul Zimmerman tells me he's still waiting for someone to explain to him how US hockey upset the Russians in the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games. He argues that the media captured the drama, but said little of the strategies that pulled off that shocker.

            I won't tell him, because I don't want to embarrass him. But we all know it was a miracle, a victory of good over evil and God's way of punishing the USSR for being communist. I thought that was obvious.

            What is most obvious is that television has shaped today's sports journalism because sports organizations cater to TV. They know there's much more money to be made on the tens of millions who watch TV than on the sliver of people who read. No print publication ever paid the NFL $17.6 billion to cover its games.

            Consequently, discerning print journalists and fans suffer through the inanity. Only a few writers contest it, such as Zimmerman. He's unwilling to allow, as he says, "the characters with their mics and mini-cams, searching for the eternal and damnable sound bite," ruin sports journalism. He fights for better NFL access, but league officials don't seem to pay any attention.

            Legendary New York sports columnist Dick Young hated TV reporters and camera people with such fervor, he sometimes fought with and swore at them. In fact, the disgust was so intense, it even earned mention in his New York Times obituary.

            Obviously, vitriol existed once, but that's fading, partly because ESPN has curried favor with today's print media by hiring many big-city columnists for shows such as Pardon the Interruption and Around the Horn. Evidently, ESPN is buying print people off, interested in control, like the sports leagues.

            Man, they're just made for each other. And we all lose in the end.

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