The Mating Call of Roger Goodell — Or, What’s Really Happening to Sports Journalism Today
That sports journalism is changing seems a fairly universally agreed upon maxim by both those who produce and consume it. What’s not always so agreed upon is exactly what it is about sports journalism that is changing.
Over at Grantland, Bryan Curtis puts rather succinctly and bluntly a theory I have heard sports writers, analysts, and talk show hosts nudge up against rather continuously the past few years. In an article discussing the media’s coverage of Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse scandal, Curtis laments,
During the Donald Sterling fiasco, I argued that the sportswriting class had gone from holding a range of political opinions to fusing into a single, united liberal bloc. You can see that in the coverage of Goodell, too. Reading sports this week is like being on a Nation magazine cruise.
Of course, no one expects a sportswriter to stick up for domestic abuse. But it’s striking that there’s a near consensus not just that Goodell’s two-game suspension of Ray Rice was too lenient, but that Goodell ought to resign. You’d expect such a call from the National Organization for Women. Now it’s shared by ESPNers… What happened to the sports press? Two things. The lethal snipers at Deadspin and other sites give covering fire to lefty sportswriters who might leave behind the old nonpartisan tone…. Moreover, writers who don’t toe the line know they’ll be punished for speaking up…
More on this story, comrade, as it becomes available.
As I said, this is a sentiment I have heard repeated again and again over the past several years throughout the world of sports journalism. Sidestepping for the moment the question of how it is that a subject that sports writers, analysts and talk shows talk about incessantly can be tagged by those very same people as verboten, it’s worth taking a closer look at this line of reasoning. Because Curtis is entirely wrong about how sports journalism is changing, and as consumers of his craft it’s important to understand why.
In January of 2000, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar were on their way home from a Superbowl Party in Atlanta when they encountered another group of men and got into a scuffle. Baker and Lollar were each stabbed, beaten and left to die. Eleven days later, three men were indicted. One of them was a then three-time Pro Bowl linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens, Ray Lewis; the other two were members of Lewis’s entourage.
Traces of Baker’s blood were found in Lewis’s limousine. Lewis was been seen throughout the evening wearing an expensive white linen suit, and witnesses claimed it had been covered in the victims’ blood. The police were never able to find the suit, and it was subsequently assumed destroyed by Lewis. Lewis would eventually roll over and testify against his friends in exchange for having the murder and aggravated assault charges against him reduced to a misdemeanor obstruction of justice charge. He was given a year’s probation.
One year later he would win the first of his two Super Bowls, and was declared that year’s Super Bowl MVP by the designated 16-member panel of sports writers and broadcasters. He was subsequently featured in countless television ads, multiple music videos, and as a guest star in television series such as The Wire; in 2006 he was chosen to be the NFL’s emblematic figure on the coveted cover of Madden NFL. Two weeks ago, a statue of Lewis was erected outside the Raven’s M&T Bank Stadium. He retired a champion whose “storied and heroic career” was the focal point of almost every sports journalist’s coverage of Super Bowl XLVII in 2013.
As no less a source that ESPN glowingly noted at the time,
On the Mount Rushmore of the NFL, it could be argued that three of the faces should be Manning, Tom Brady and Ray Lewis. The fact Lewis, a defensive player, is in the conversation is a testament to his physical dominance, longevity and personality. But most of all, it’s proof of his resiliency. Consider where he was 13 years ago: in an orange jumpsuit and facing prison time as one of three men charged in connection with a double murder during Super Bowl week in Atlanta in January 2000. Today, Lewis dresses impeccably in three-piece pinstripe suits, mentors younger players and is considered sort of the godfather of the NFL.
In the NFL, his credibility is undisputed.
If you’re not a follower of professional sports — or if you’re under a certain age — you would be forgiven for wondering what steps, exactly, Lewis had undertaken to go from being a murderer-turned-stoolie to the “storied and heroic” good-guy face of the NFL. Anger management courses, perhaps? A religious conversion? Years of therapy? A bonding with the families of Baker and Lollar? Fine guesses all, but in fact none is correct. The truth is that Lewis, the Ravens, and the NFL simply used an exceptional public relations team to remake his image into something that could continue to be bankable. And their biggest ally in this cynical PR whitewash? Sports journalists.
The common image of sports journalism is that it is a force somewhat in opposition to professional sports leagues, and indeed sports journalists themselves love to foster this image. The image however, is a false one. True, sports journalists do often criticize players, coaches, teams, and even leagues. But all of this is done with a fairly barker-esque quality. Villains sell tickets just as well as heroes, and sports journalism’s primary job is to create a mythic feel to their subjects in a way that gets you excited about watching. Grantland’s founder Bill Simmons might generate a lot of pixels of snark making fun of various facets of the NFL, NBA and MLBA, but he does so in a way designed to get you very pumped about the next televised product coming down the chute.
While covering the Ray Rice spousal abuse scandal, ESPN anchor Hannah Storm asked this week, “What exactly does the NFL stand for?” Were you to go back and listen to ESPN television and radio broadcasts over the past twenty years, you might think the answer to her question was Competition, Diversity, the Human Spirit, Excellence, and Patriotism. In fact, however, the NFL stands for the same thing ESPN does: Making lots of money. It’s just as much in ESPN’s interest — or Hannah Storm’s — that you be a rabid NFL fan as it is in the NFL’s. Which is why in a few weeks when this story is yesterday’s news, Hannah will be back leading the cheers for professional football as if Ray Ray’s wife had never been knocked out in an elevator on video and the commissioner had not lied about it to keep him on the field as a ratings draw.
Or if Rice’s situation carries too much baggage, consider Michael Jordan’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009.
For the previous quarter century Jordan had been portrayed by sports journalism as the epitome of a “class act.” Not only was he the consummate winner, he was also charismatic, jovial, friendly, great with kids, generous, and in every single way imaginable the kind of human being each and every one of us should strive to be. His Hall of Fame acceptance speech came as something of a shock to many of us, therefore, when Jordan revealed that without a pre-written script and orchestrated cover from the press, he was a bitter, vindictive, and terrible person whose drive to a very real and unparalleled excellence might have actually been fueled by something approaching mental illness. I remember watching the speech live, my jaw on the floor.
More than his speech, however, I remember the commentary from beat writers, sportscasters, and ESPN anchors in the days to come. Jordan had always been that way, they all agreed; they had seen it time and time again over the years. Every sports journalist and reporting agency that covered the NBA had known that his public persona never matched the real man. They all said this casually, matter-of-factly, and none seemed to understand as they were saying it that the reason the public bought it hook, line, and sinker is because they themselves had conspired with other business interests to hide it from us.
The real purpose of sports journalism over my adult life hasn’t been to perform journalism. It’s been to act as the PR arm of businesses sports journalism needed to succeed in order to make money for sports journalism.
Over the past few years, it might seem to the casual fan that the world of professional sports is somehow suddenly rotting from within. Two NFL players have been put in the public spotlight for domestic violence. Football’s greatest running back has been indicted for child abuse with at least one child. The owner of an NBA team was caught on tape making the kinds of racial slurs most of us would have associated with David Duke. Last year, a white player making homophobic and racial slurs drove an NFL player away from his team — and then was largely defended by NFL players and coaches. A legendary quarterback who was still being talked about on ESPN nightly and who could presumably have had any one of a thousand single women in any city to which he travelled was caught sexually harassing a lower-ranking and unwilling employee just for the fun of it.
But while the degree of rot is arguable, the fact is that while today’s degree of heavy coverage of scandals related to domestic violence, abuse, racism, and sexual harassment are somewhat new, the actual behaviors by professional athletes are not. If you have any doubt, witness how whenever one of these scandals comes to light those within the inner circle caution those on the outside that we simply “don’t understand” the special rules professional athletes have always had (read: been allowed) to play by.
Grantland’s Bryan Curtis believes that this new non-glorifying coverage is a sign that sports journalism is now suddenly “liberal,” as if my father — a life-long Republican, NRA member, and Limbaugh-letter subscriber — was somehow pro-wife beating, or oft lamenting how they didn’t have the kind of phones that could send dick-pics to female staff members who worked for you back in the day. By blaming liberalism, Curtis misses the mark here rather badly.
The biggest difference in the scandals of today that Curtis focuses on is how technology separates the question of a sports professional’s guilt from our tribal desire to believe in his or her innocence. Previous generations’ athletes and sports executives were often every bit as loathsome as Rice, Sterling, Incognito and Farve. But their accusers lacked proof of their claims, and so sports journalists would go through their cynical routine: play the scandal out for a while, then go back to venerating those at the scandal’s heart — even in cases such as Michael Jordan and Ray Lewis, where they knew they were helping to erect public statues of terrible human beings.
In fact, the very nomenclature of Curtis’s industry obscures the real truth about the phenomena he himself is describing:
Technology is forcing today’s sports journalism into doing actual journalism.