On Curt Schilling, free coolers and the state of sportswriting
There was a time when sportswriting was nothing at all like news reporting
Today's sportswriters are separate from fans and from the teams they cover
Most media people today, especially the younger ones, sincerely believe the ethical standards today are much higher than they once were, and have been taught that in many journalism classes. I want to be on record disputing that view. Different? Certainly. Higher? By what measure? Lower? In many respects. One thing I can report as a fact, from personal experience: We were definitely less pretentious about it then.
Curt Schilling announced his retirement on Monday, which has kicked off numerous discussions about his bloody sock game, his postseason brilliance, his Hall of Fame candidacy and so on. I have thoughts about all these things and then some: Curt Schilling has always been one of the more fascinating characters in the game for me, and not only because he sent me a thank you e-mail about eight hours after he won Game 1 of the 2001 World Series.
But, as is probably obvious, I have been thinking a lot about newspapers lately, the ever-changing media landscape, and so the first thing I thought about when Schilling retired was the now semi-famous clause in his contract that would have earned him $1 million for receiving even a single third-place Cy Young Award vote.
The Schilling Clause created a bit of stir for a while -- many people (myself included) felt that the clause created a new and troubling ethical line. Many newspapers already had real problems with their writers voting on baseball awards because of the overriding feeling that a journalist's mission is to report the news, not make the news. And there are money implications too: Players who win the MVP awards and Cy Young Awards get large bonuses for it, and many in the journalism business are bothered by that.
The Schilling Clause took it all to another level. At least before, there was the comfort of crowds -- one voter could not DECIDE who won the MVP award or Cy Young Award, could not singlehandedly make a pile of money change hands. He/she could only be a part of the larger process.
With this new kind of bonus, though, suddenly one voter could trigger a huge bonus with a fairly trivial third-place vote. It opened up a whole new ethical wasteland, and all sorts of handwringing and negotiation followed.
I came out pretty strong on the Schilling Clause, and I don't disagree with what I wrote back then. But I must admit that the trials of newspapers the last 18 months or so has made me think a lot about the way American newspapers cover sports in the 21st Century. What I have been thinking about is probably summed up in a single, simple question: Have newspapers tried too hard to make sports reporting like news reporting?
A very brief history is probably in order: There was a time in the not-so-distant-past when sportswriting was nothing at all like news reporting. It was, as famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said, the "Toy Department" of a newspaper. More than that, sportswriting was very much tied together with the sports themselves. Promoters would get a little publicity by throwing a few bucks at sportswriters, who were barely making enough money to survive at their papers. Baseball teams would pay for the travel of baseball writers (and many baseball writers made a few extra bucks serving as official scorers). Horse racing writers would supplement their meager salaries by using insider tips at the track. Sports columnists were often movers and shakers who worked behind the scenes to get things done -- in Kansas City, for instance, Joe McGuff played a prominent political role in bringing the Royals to town, in San Diego the old baseball stadium was named for sports editor Jack Murphy. And sportswriters did indeed get free tickets; people still believe we do.*
*To clarify: I mean free tickets for others. Sportswriters do still get free access to games.
There was, looking back, a pleasing rhythm to those days. Sportswriters got better access (and most of them were careful not to "abuse" that access), teams and promoters were relatively pleased by the publicity, athletes and writers generally tolerated each other, and fans got sports stories of varying quality (some of the best- and worst-written sportswriting comes from that time) and the overall impression that their heroes drank milk, their baseball managers said witty things in broken English and the fans shouted "hurrah!" in the stands.
To a sportswriter raised in today's world -- and I'm being bluntly honest here -- a lot of that is mortifying ... a past we would rather forget. Sportswriters have been raised to believe that we are entirely separate from the teams we cover. Koppett is right. I will quote quite a bit from the fascinating essay in the back of the late Leonard Koppett's book, an essay called: Ethics and Responsibilities.
He wrote: "... an underlying general agreement was reached. The 'adversary relationship' between reporter and subject must be demanded, made clear and flaunted. The time-honored practice of simply running a press release (on some routine announcement, like appointment of a business executive) became taboo; it had to be reworded. And any official pronouncement by a manager, coach or club official ought to be regarded with suspicion by any 'tough' reporter."
That's right. Koppett lived through the changes, which he believed came out of the Watergate '70s, when newspapers started worrying not only about conflict of interest but also the APPEARANCE of conflict of interest. Sportswriters were expected to live up to the same ethical standards as reporters covering city government or the local school board. There was to be no more graft. And, by extension, sportswriters were expected (within reason) to do their jobs with the same distance and skepticism as reporters covering city government and the local school board. That was the day athletes stopped drinking milk.