On Curt Schilling, free coolers and the state of sportswriting (cont.)
You could ask me how I feel about all this, but the truth is it is a bit like asking me how I feel about gravity. It is all I know. I remember being 21 years old, green as Kermit, and going to something called the "SAC-8 Rouser" as a "reporter" for The Charlotte Observer. The SAC-8 was the "South Atlantic Conference," and it included small colleges like Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne, Elon, Mars Hill and so on. And the rouser was a media gathering designed to give the conference a bit of publicity. I remember all the coaches were there, and I got to interview them, and then, at the end, rather unexpectedly, there was a raffle. I remember that early on in the raffle, I won a rather nice cooler. I thought that was pretty cool, to be honest: I NEVER win raffles. So, I had my cooler, and I felt good, and then all of a sudden they were auctioning off the big prize (which I recall was something like a free three-day golf vacation) and, lo and behold, I won again.
I was quite shocked. I remember going back to my editor at The Charlotte Observer and saying to him that I had won TWO prizes from a raffle I had not even entered, and that one of those prizes was a nice golf package. He smiled and told me I couldn't take those prizes.
Me: Why not?
The cooler went to charity. The golf vacation was returned. The lesson was learned.
That was more than 20 years ago, and the lesson of that day has been pummeled into me so thoroughly, so intently, so entirely that I honestly cannot see straight on the subject. I have never believed anything except that sportswriters must stay separate, that we must keep a healthy distance, that we must report on sports using the same tools and techniques and strategies that every journalist is taught at a very young age: Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, ask the five questions, follow the money, challenge authority, get both sides, fight for the little guy, eliminate bias (to the best of your ability), dig a little deeper, report what you know, get it right. I honestly did not ever consider there was another side to the argument.
This is progress. And, as with all progress, there are some very obvious things that the sports pages do better now than ever before. There are more stories broken now than ever before. There is more intense analysis now than ever before. The box scores are so much more complete now than ever before. And I know that there are many Web sites today that mock sportswriters' cliches and bizarre thought processes, but believe me when I tell you that if you go back and read newspapers from around the country in 1975, or 1955, or 1935 ... you will find stuff that would have made the Fire Joe Morgan writers' heads explode. There has always been good and bad sportswriting, of course, but all you have to do is go back and read some of the racially charged, sexually charged, cliche-ridden half truths of a different America* and you will admit that sportswriting doesn't come close to hitting the lows that it once hit. Sportswriting -- and I think this is unquestionable -- is more professional than ever before.
*I always loved Frank Deford's description of Boston sportswriting when he was writing about the Celtics in the 1960s: "One step up from illiteracy, one decibel down from shouting."
But that's a charged word: professional. Here again I quote Leonard Koppett (and it should be noted that Koppett -- a sportswriter for about 60 years -- finished this essay just before he died in 2003):
"Athletes and promoters are not government officials dispensing tax dollars, patronage and punishment, backed up by the judicial and coercive powers of the state. It's entertainment of a totally voluntary type for participant and follower. The admirable American journalistic tradition of 'watchdog' applies to government and other socially powerful entities, not blindly to accounts of ball games, movie reviews, comics and (need it be said?) the content of advertisements. There has to be a sense of proportion about any kind of blanket rule. Ethics depend on conscience, not formula."
And you know, that makes some sense to me. This is not to say that we should go back to the days when teams paid for sportswriters to travel with them*, but I will admit that maybe our newspapers and us sportswriters, in some ways, have lost some of the point. I think about Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, and what makes him so popular. Bill is a talented guy. He's a very funny writer. He has a real knack for connecting and seeing things in a fresh way and he still makes the best Shawshank Redemption references in the business.
*Though, in many ways, we ARE going back to those days as team Web sites become more prominent.
But the other thing Bill has done is break down those walls that have been built up. He's a fan. And he writes with the passion of a fan. That's not to say that Bill is everyone's style -- nobody is everyone's style -- but it seems to me that his writing speaks to a lot of people who grew tired of the distance that has widened between sportswriting and sports. The distance is not all our doing ... it is not even MOSTLY our doing. Money has changed the game. Television has changed the game. Money has changed the game. Talk radio has changed the game. The Internet has changed the game. Money has changed the game. And a million other things. Also, money.
But I believe too that sportswriting has shifted on its own. There is still great, great sportswriting being done in newspapers, I believe this with all my heart. But that professional thing -- maybe in places, there is a lack of joy. Maybe in places, there is an honorable distance. Maybe in places, the professional skepticism that we have built up through the years turns our coverage of games into hard-nosed city hall reporting. And last I checked, nobody wears jerseys that say "City Hall" on them.
I don't know: It's just something I have been thinking a lot about. No, I don't believe newspapers should go back to the days when teams paid sportswriters to travel to games. No, I don't think sportswriters should take free golf vacations in exchange for a little more coverage. No I don't believe sportswriters should stop trying to get closer to what's real -- it's more important now than ever. But, in the fight for survival, I'm not sure that we should be spending a lot of energy worrying about the blurry ethical lines of contract bonuses for Cy Young votes. Yes, sports are big business. But there is a lesson in the grand history of sportswriting that might be worth remembering: Sports are games, too.
Joe Posnanski is a columnist for the Kansas City Star and the author of joeposnanski.com.