Doing (Sports) Journalism Right
My baseline assumption about sports journalists is that they’re essentially glorified stenographers engaged in nothing more than elaborate public relations campaigns dedicated to the preservation and exultation of athletic institutions. I am as confused by their desire to produce that work as I am by the musician who seeks nothing more than the production of elevator music. But so it goes. Sports is a business, and businesses need advertising, and who better to provide that advertising than those with the most access?
If you’d like an example of the model that I’m describing, you can read Sally Jenkins’s tribute to Joe Paterno before his death. When it had become clear to most people that Paterno’s hands were dirty, there was Jenkins, going to bat for the man. Then he died, and Jenkins attempted to save face, saying things that she could have said earlier and doing so at a time when she risked paying no professional cost for doing so. There is a word to describe her behavior: gutless.
Delightfully though, this model occasionally breaks down, leaving us with actual, bona fide, real-deal reportage. Rather than standing behind the powerful and saying, “I’ve already jumped! How high do you want me to go?” a journalist yesterday pounced on an opportunity to report the news in such a way as to make a critical point about an athletic institution.
The journalist (Mike Sielski) in question works for the Wall Street Journal. Sielski covers the New York Jets. He was told earlier this week that while he was allowed to watch the team practice, he wasn’t allowed to write about what he was seeing, especially the parts wherein Tim Tebow was practicing the Wildcat Formation favored by new Jets Offensive Coordinator Tony Sparano. So Sielski didn’t. Instead, he published prefaced with this:
The Jets closed their practice Monday to the public—a 2½-hour session that included the team’s first extensive use of the “Wildcat” alignment and quarterback Tim Tebow’s role in it. To maintain a competitive advantage against their opponents—and as a condition of allowing media members to watch the workout—the team forbade reporters from revealing specific details about the Jets’ formations and schemes. The following story has been written and edited to reflect those restrictions.
And then, he fleshed out his column with paragraphs that looked like this:
Questions linger about how often the Jets will use the formation and whether quarterback Mark Sanchez’s role in the offense will recede because of Tebow’s versatility. On multiple occasions while Tebow was playing quarterback Monday, Sanchez [REDACTED] to the [REDACTED] and [REDACTED]. And in one surprising sequence, Sanchez [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] Tebow, who instead of lining up at [REDACTED] had [REDACTED].
The Jets got Tebow knowing that he’d only rarely throw the ball. He’s awful at throwing the ball, despite being a quarterback, so his only practical value is running. The Wildcat formation is potentially perfect for a quarterback like Tebow, a guy who often seems indestructible. So possessing this asset (Tebow) and a coach who is perfect for him (Sparano), the Jets have decided that they’ll be successful this season as long as they can maintain some secrecy about what they’re about to unleash on the NFL. So they demanded that Sielski keep quiet, and he did, producing that column. It should be noted that the Jets strategy is in every way a solid plan except for the following small problem.
That One Small Problem
This is the Miami Dolphins running the Wildcat offense. This is the Dolphins then head coach, Tony Sparano. This is Gus Malzahn, the offense’s creator, talking about how it works. Here are the Dolphins again. Here’s a DVD about the Wildcat. Here’s an actual wildcat, although I don’t think it is related. Here’s ESPN video showing Tebow at a Jets practice running the Wildcat. Here’s more, this time from a coach at the University of Arkansas.
The Wildcat Offense and what Tim Tebow can do aren’t exactly state secrets. Insisting that Sielski note write about what he was seeing didn’t produce any sort of tangible benefit for the Jets. It just produced a journalist whose reaction to the situation was an appropriate level of smacked-gob. So he wrote about the absurdity of the situation in such a way as to make clear his disgust with what the Jets were attempting to do. Disdain dripped from the article, culminating in final paragraphs to make clear that what the Jets were insisting on covering up was common knowledge to everyone.
Despite his affection for the Wildcat, Ryan reiterated that Sanchez—not Tebow—was the team’s starter, opening himself up to the suggestion that the Jets are relying on a gimmick offense because they don’t have an elite quarterback like Tom [REDACTED] or Peyton [REDACTED].
“I don’t think so,” Ryan said. “If Bill [REDACTED] had Tim Tebow, he might consider it. Who knows? You’d have to ask him.”
If only more journalists did precisely this sort of critical work. If only more reporters didn’t automatically assume that might made right. If only more media outlets had the courage to describe as stupid things that were stupid.
While I think just how wonderful a switch like that might be (and while I thank the heavens that we have sports bloggers who exist solely to question authority), I also wonder if a report like this would ever be written about a politician. Another thought for another day, perhaps.