Robert Gilbert

Playing on the Same Page

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Publicity, 1. Journalism, 0. Why sports writers shouldn't be another member of the home team

It’s mid-afternoon, about the only downtime in a sportswriter’s long working day. Damien Cox, The Toronto Star’s hockey columnist, is sitting in the paper’s cafeteria, talking about what’s wrong with the sports pages. At 39, Cox looks in good enough shape to skate with the athletes he covers, but his concern at the moment isn’t about fitness but about what’s fitting in his line of work. “It’s easy,” he’s saying, “to become a booster of a sports franchise. It’s something you have to fight against all the time.” Cox is as good as his word. He resists the daily pressure to plug the Maple Leafs and the NHL. Even among his outspoken colleagues in theStar‘s sports department, he stands out for his critical reporting. He despises consensus and thrives on the contrary view. How is it, then, that Damien Cox, along with the best of his sportswriting colleagues, can still be considered a shill for commercial professional sports? The answer lies not so much in what Cox and company have to say but where they say it.

“Ever see a team advertise?” asks Roy MacGregor of the National Post, and one of Canada’s most respected hockey writers. “Why would you advertise when you have a daily advertisement called the newspaper?” Though pro teams do occasionally buy ads, MacGregor’s point is well taken: the sports pages are just another cog in the publicity machine of professional sports. The machine itself is greased by a symbiotic relationship in which the sports pages need the pro franchises as much as the franchises need the sports pages. “I’m thankful for newspapers getting the message out to the public,” says Howard Starkman, media relations director for the Toronto Blue Jays. “If we weren’t covered by the media, there would be no need to be in business.”

It’s a quid pro quo, of course. The newspapers, in turn, use their coverage of big-league sports to attract the demographically desirable readers (18- to 49-year-old men) they need to sell to their advertisers. This audience wants to read all about the latest Leafs’ game, not what’s happening in amateur rowing or cycling. So that’s what they get-in abundance. And when they don’t, as The Globe and Mail found out in 1990, reader rage is sure to follow. The Globe’s editor at the time, William Thorsell, a culture maven who’s now head of the Royal Ontario Museum, decided to slash the paper’s sports coverage from four pages a day to two. Readership survey after readership survey showed he’d made a serious miscalculation. By the fall of 1997, the missing pages were back and The Globe and Mail was heralding its revamped sports section.

“Sports journalism is an oxymoron.” So says Mark Lowes, a communications professor at the University of Ottawa. In his view, its underlying purpose is not so much to inform and entertain as to market pro franchises. It doesn’t matter how much criticism Damien Cox heaps on the Leafs and the NHL or how troubled the Globe‘s Stephen Brunt gets about everything from the fate of baseball to the fall of boxing; they and their colleagues are still in the business of keeping pro sports on the lips of fans across the continent.

This public buzz, or, as Prof. Lowes would have it, this discourse, is indispensable to the franchise owners whose profits depend on filling their stands with paying customers and selling the whole spectacle to television. “The sports section is a finely tuned, high-performance promotional vehicle for the North American (and increasingly global) sports entertainment industry,” writes Lowes in his book Inside the Sports Pages. “As long as the sports press continues to deliver such effective service to the relatively concentrated group of corporations and individuals who own and control the major-league sports industry, its profitable synergy with the industry will continue apace. And that means the continued saturation of the sports pages with news about the big-time sports.”

“As a newspaper trying to do business,” asks Damien Cox, “should we then go cover amateur rowing because it’s ‘the right thing to do’ and ignore the Leafs?” That’s not really the choice. There’s a big difference between ignoring the Leafs-or any other commercial sports franchise-and showering them with space. A glance through the sports sections of Toronto’s four dailies shows that the amount of ink devoted to pro sports, especially the NHL, the NBA, the NFL and major-league baseball, could easily be cut back. The endless number of game stories, previews of coming games, player articles and columns make for repetitive and often boring reading.

At times, this stuff amounts to little more than cheerleading. When a team loses or ties, the excuses start flowing. The Toronto Sun‘s account of the Leafs against New Jersey last January 14 is typical. “If they could have overcome a few earlier brain cramps, they might have tamed their playoff nemesis, the New Jersey Devils. But the Leafs contented themselves with a 4-4 draw last night.” When the home team does well, the tone can get downright celebratory. “Start spreadin’ the news,” wrote the Star‘s baseball columnist, Richard Griffin, after David Wells won his 20th game. “The Jays are alive. They’re alive. The race to be the best second-place team in the AL is alive and well.”

There’s a lot of ambivalence among sportswriters and editors about this kind of rah-rah writing. “If a team’s going well, the columnist can say that and it’s not cheerleading,” says Pat Grier, associate sports editor at the Sun. But if the columnist were to write, “Let’s all get behind the Jays,” and “Go Jays Go,” Grier adds, it would be. That’s too fine a line for the Star‘s Cox. “I can’t stand the Sun,” he says. “Once upon a time they did a great job in sports and now they’re still trying to believe that they still do when in fact they don’t. I think whether it’s the Leafs or the Raptors or the Blue Jays, the way that the paper approaches coverage is that they’re behind the home team.” But, in the end, these differences scarcely matter. In the ambivalent world of the sports pages, Cox gets to keep his integrity, Grier gets to keep his hype and big-league sports get to keep on reaping the benefits of all that attention.

“Sure, it’s about winning and losing, plus how you market your product,” Grant Kerr of the Globe wrote in early 2001. Sports journalists give practically the same answer when asked if their pages have a marketing function. Most agree they do, but insist it’s unintended. The sports pages themselves, however, provide a different answer. When zealous coaches, including the Leafs’ Pat Quinn, decide to protect their players from the pestering press by dictating who can talk after games, the press protests-loudly. Not so much because the fans are being deprived of their right to absorb still more locker-room clich?s, but because the teams are hurting their chances to promote their product. “What’s odd is that the management types seem to be oblivious to the practical side of this,” wrote the Globe‘s David Shoalts for Fox Sports’ website. “By denying the media access to their players, they’re denying themselves millions of dollars of free publicity.”

In fact, there is almost as much marketing news in the sports pages these days as in the business section. Writers unabashedly comment on putting a quality product on the ice or the field or the court. When Mario Lemieux returned to the NHL last December, ecstatic press response rivalled the second coming of Michael Jordan-and for the same reason: such superstars make it easier to sell the game. “The financial and business elements of his return are obvious, especially to a man whose future security is tied up in the Penguins’ franchise,” wrote the Sun‘s Ken Fidlin. “So what? Isn’t just about everything in modern pro sport rooted in the almighty buck?” More often than not, then, Lemieux’s heroics were gauged not by the fans’ delight but by his contribution to the private profit of professional franchise owners, including himself.

“What is cast in stone, though, is the obligation for reporters to write something about their beat every day. This is not negotiable-the newspaper has too much invested in its sports beats for them to sit idle.” Mark Lowes made that observation in a chapter of Inside the Sports Pages on beat reporters. They’re the rank and file, file, file of sports departments, forever under the gun to come up with any morsel of information that might be remotely interesting, while making sure the competition doesn’t scoop them. They spend 13- to 15-hour days trying to reconcile the irreconcilable: struggling to be balanced and fair when their mainstream sources want them to be anything but. Team management and the athletes themselves expect a positive spin-and if they don’t get it, they’re prepared to make it very difficult for writers to do their job.

To combat this kind of bullying, beat reporters develop an arsenal of inside sources, who provide juicy tidbits that the team’s PR department would never give out. Cultivating confidential relationships with general managers, lesser bureaucrats and player agents allows them to break stories that go beyond the company line. But these relationships are tricky; sources can swiftly clam up if a reporter writes something they don’t appreciate. Since beat reporters without inside sources are sunk, they constantly have to weigh the importance of a story against the chance of losing a key contact if they go ahead and write it. Sometimes they write the piece, sometimes they censor themselves-and the reader’s the loser.

Operating under such a demanding system can make cynics of the best reporters. “The more you see behind the scenes,” says the Globe‘s Stephen Brunt, “the less majestic it gets.” The beat reporter’s daily ritual of trying to make the often mundane events of pro sports fresh and absorbing can lead some writers to question the value of what they’re doing.

In the Columbia Journalism Review last year, Gene Collier, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, explained why he left the sports beat after 22 years. He found himself hanging around in a locker room, waiting to interview a young quarterback who was as uninterested in talking to Collier as Collier was in talking to him. They both had ritual roles to play, which would result in placing a hero’s mantle on still another pampered athlete. “The joke,” Collier wrote, “is this: an actual living hero is 10 times as likely to walk down your street, sit next to you on a bus, or hold the door for you at the library than to appear on your television between the never-varying pre-game yammer and the post-game lament.”

“It’s not fun and games for the sports journalist anymore,” says former Globe columnist Marty York, “and anyone who tells you otherwise is woefully mistaken or lying.” York’s right: before television sports and all-sports television, a reporter’s job consisted mainly of finding out who won and who scored. Those were the days of myth making when the florid prose of sportswriters turned Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio into cultural icons. “The Ruth is mighty and shall prevail,” wrote Heywood Broun in 1923. “You built up the hockey players,” says Trent Frayne whose remarkable sportswriting career began in 1938. “They were brave, tall and tremendous. They were 10 feet tall. Later on in my career I found out they were guys who spit.”

Nowadays, when readers already know who won and who scored and what the highlights were, the premium is on analysis and opinion. What’s news has spilled over into business (management and marketing), labour (strikes, threats of strikes, peripatetic players and stratospheric salaries), and cops and courts (out-of-control athletes). You can’t tell the players without an annual report-or a police blotter.

Back when Trent Frayne was starting out in the 1930s and ’40s, the relationship with pro athletes was easygoing. All a reporter had to do was stroll over to a player and ask, “What do you think about this?” Writers and players would play cards in the clubhouse and hang out together in bars. They weren’t all that far apart in status and salary. Now the young millionaires of pro sports disdain the working press. “They’re so rich they don’t have much time to talk to a lowly scribe,” says Frayne. Mitch Albom, of the Detroit Free Press, puts it much more specifically: “Baseball players are the biggest assholes on the planet,” he once told a GQ magazine writer.

By consensus among Albom’s peers, he could have added football players, basketball players and, to a lesser extent, hockey players. These role models have been known to grab reporters and oust them from the dressing room, fart in reply to an innocent question and curse out any writer who crosses them-or simply makes them cross. “Fuck you, you fucking jerk. Get the fuck out of here,” the Leafs’ designated hitter, Tie Domi, demurred to Damien Cox in front of a dressing room full of players and media during the 1999 Eastern Conference finals. It seems Cox’s reporting was too accurate for Domi’s tastes.

The mistreatment of Marty York is legendary. He defines what it is to be a despised writer. Over his 28 years in the business, players have visited upon him “everything from threatening to murder me, literally, to throwing things at me on team flights or just deciding to give me the cold shoulder.” That’s what he gets for sticking his neck out to gather, without fear or favour, anything he feels will be of interest to his readers. He lists among his career highlights a 1985 confrontation with former Blue Jays slugger Cliff Johnson in the Jays’ dressing room. York had written that Johnson had been caught having a beer in the team’s clubhouse during a game when he was with the Texas Rangers. “Hey [expletive],” yelled Johnson. “Where do you come off writing that bull about me?” When York tried to walk away, Johnson wrapped his arm around him and had to be restrained by his teammates.

That kind of intimidation is rare, but scorn for sportswriters is the order of the day. It makes it hard for the writers to do their job, which is, among other things, to help make these guys get even wealthier.

“Any person with half a brain should know if they should get rid of a coach,” says Laura Robinson, a former national team cyclist and now a crusading author. “Anyone can be an armchair athlete.” She thinks most sportswriting is that superficial; it also supports the violent nature of male professional sports. In her bookCrossing the Line: Violence and Sexual Assault in Canada’s National Sport, Robinson paints a picture of the dark side of junior hockey, the breeding ground for the NHL, that the sports pages wouldn’t show-until they had to. It’s a picture of institutionalized abuse in which it’s common for the players to sexually assault female fans. So much for the apprenticeship of tomorrow’s stars.

The papers sometimes come close to this kind of reporting. For instance, while all others were losing their heads over the last days of Maple Leaf Gardens-Stanley cups! legendary players!-Damien Cox was keeping his. In a column entitled “Why I Won’t Miss the Joint,” he wrote of the “hockey shrine” where, among other scandals, nearly 90 kids were sexually abused: “The Gardens, then, to me represents failure, greed, mistakes, selfishness and a near total absence of class and consideration for the past. It is a powerful symbol of waste and sadness and, above all, the vicious exploitation of Toronto hockey fans.”

No one should be surprised that there’s so little of this kind of work being done. It isn’t in the interests of the Toronto papers or the city’s three major-league teams. In fact, as Lowes points out, the prevailing ideology of the sports pages is really “a means not to know.” He writes, “The routine work practices and professional ideologies that constitute sports newswork-while eminently successful in capturing the goings-on of the major-league commercial sports world with precision and in admirable detail-are principally ‘a means not to know’ about another, more expansive world: the world of noncommercial spectator sports.” Laura Robinson would applaud that notion. She passionately believes that the papers should give much more space to amateur sports, particularly women’s sports. “Why do they run five articles on why the Leafs lost a game?” she asks. “Why is that space devoted to men who lose?”

Because others, mostly men, stand to gain: owners, management, players, players’ agents, union leaders, sports equipment companies, ad agencies-everything that’s integral to the professional sports behemoth, including the sports press. Seen that way, it didn’t much matter if, say, Eric Lindros did or didn’t come to Toronto; his big play in the papers was much more vital to the NHL than any he’ll ever make on the ice.

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