The sports media was never intended to be part of the proverbial fourth estate. Sportswriters historically were not meant to serve as adversaries for the professional sports leagues, but partners with a common goal.
“All sides now recognize that their interests are identical,” a newly formed baseball writers association declared in 1887. “The reporters have found in the game a thing of beauty and a source of actual employment. The game has found in the reporters its best ally and most powerful supporter. Hence the good feeling all along the line.”
The reporter-as-shill still has a role in the modern sports media, but is usually shunned by his or her colleagues. Over the course of more than a century, the sports media has strived to achieve at least a veneer of credibility – even as most writers and news organizations are loathe to bite the hands that feed them.
One strategy that seems evident is to single out a bad apple or two for criticism, such as Terrell Owens, Barry Bonds, or LeBron James. All the while, the fundamental elements of the sport itself — the owners’ economic practices, for example — are unchallenged. There are exceptions when issues surface that are too serious to ignore, such as player safety in the NFL. By and large, however, few sportswriters or their employers are willing to lob truly damaging criticisms at the leagues and universities. It would make little sense for a for-profit news organization to harm the golden goose that attracts readers and advertisers.
Essentially, the modern sports media mixes fierce criticism of a few problematic individuals with a vestigial fawning over the game and select personalities. Heroes exist to promote and market; villains exist to maintain a professional distance.
Which brings to mind two recent dramatic failings within the U.S. sports media – the bizarre Manti Te’o hoax and the saga of admitted doper and bully Lance Armstrong.
In a sports media industry that fundamentally acts as a promoter for the events it covers, Te’o and Armstrong provided tantalizing human-interest stories. Te’o overcame the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend within days of each other to persevere on the field, finishing second in the Heisman race and leading Notre Dame to a berth in the BCS title game. Armstrong overcame cancer to win the Tour de France seven years in a row. Both athletes were treated to adoring praise — Te’o for months, Armstrong for more than a decade. The mea culpas given by sportswriters after both stories fell apart offer a window into the mindset of the sports media.
“I let myself admire him for his story,” Rick Reilly said of Lance Armstrong on “SportsCenter” Friday. The same man who challenged Sammy Sosa to get tested for steroid use in 2002 admitted that he did not scrutinize Lance Armstrong because he admired him. For years, Reilly was one of Armstrong’s best allies and most powerful supporters. When he found out that he had been duped – a conclusion other journalists made more than a decade prior – he reacted the same way as when he found out Joe Paterno‘s image was a lie. He wrote a self-serving essay on ESPN.com.
ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowski said on “SportsCenter” Wednesday that he was “moved” by Teo’s story, that it was “heartbreaking and it was heartwarming” (ESPN, 1/15). In an editorial posted on ESPN.com, he wrote that until Deadspin reported the hoax, Te’o “was considered to be all that was right and good about college football. He was more than an All-American linebacker from Notre Dame; he was an ideal, a template for integrity, compassion and humility” (ESPN, 1/17).
Conveniently left out of that passage is why Te’o was considered all of those things. As much as Te’o’s girlfriend was constructed – either by a group of pranksters or by Te’o himself – so was his image by the media. His courage, his integrity, all part of a convenient media narrative.
There are very few real heroes in sports. There are very few real villains either. However, there are athletes members of the media like, and there are other athletes members of the media do not like. The former are used as examples of why sport has value – why people should watch the games in person and on television or read the newspapers and websites. The latter are a convenient target for those who want to show that they are legitimate, skeptical journalists.
Praise Armstrong, implicate Sosa. Balance admiration of one with condemnation of another. It is a good way to balance both the inherent nature of the sports media with the need to be seen as more than mere water carriers for the leagues and players.
For years, members of the media seemed to anticipate and revel in Barry Bonds’ downfall. During the same period, not only was Lance Armstrong held up as an unimpeachable hero, but so were Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens. While innuendo and skepticism dogged Bonds for years, McGwire, Clemens and Armstrong did not face questions from the U.S. media – Armstrong, of course, was implicated in European publications – until the evidence was too overwhelming to ignore.
McGwire had to conspicuously avoid ‘talking about the past’ in 2005. Even after Androstenedione was found in his locker during his 1998 home run chase, he still elicited a request for an on-air hug by Joe Buck after breaking the single-season run record.
Clemens had to be named in the Mitchell Report before he faced real scrutiny. Even up to the morning of the Mitchell Report’s release, ESPN was still airing ads featuring “the Rocket.”
In Armstrong’s case, it was not until he admitted his steroid use that his last defenders in the media realized the ship was sinking. Even after years of scrutiny overseas, Armstrong’s reputation was sacrosanct in the U.S. During the height of the Iraq War debate in 2003, scrutiny of Armstrong by the French was used as a ‘Freedom Fries’-esque rallying cry against traitorous cowards.
For Bonds, however, scrutiny preceded the evidence. Consider this passage in a 2002 New York Times article, more than two years before the leak of Bonds’ BALCO testimony in which he admitted – in his words – unknowingly using steroids:
It would have been great if Bonds said that he did not do steroids, but he did not say that and has never said it publicly. It would have been nice if Bonds addressed questions by stressing that any rumors about him and steroids were baseless. Instead, Bonds took the predictable route and blamed the news media for exacerbating the situation.
He avoided the message and took a vicious hack at the messengers.
“I think that’s all you guys do is overblow everything,” Bonds said. “That’s how you make a living. It’s unfortunate that I had to put it that way, but it’s true. It’s the more blood you can drain, the more successful you can be. Unfortunately, you say we cheat and lie. Look at yourself a little bit. Some of the stories you write, you need to look at yourselves in the mirror because I think it’s bad and sad.”
Bonds was certainly not friendly to the sports media – and considering the way he was covered, he had no obligation to be – but it is hard to imagine that Bonds was somehow a worse bully than Lance Armstrong. After all, Armstrong also targeted journalists. David Walsh can attest to that. Whereas Bonds belittled those covering him, Armstrong threatened his detractors and in some cases sued them. In fact, he told Oprah Winfrey in an interview this week, he sued so many people he can hardly remember all of the names.
Yet critiquing Armstrong was off-limits in the U.S. sports media for years and years. There was too much of that good feeling. And this business was not created to be critical.
The media’s failure on the Te’o story, wrote Newsday’s Neil Best, “invited the public to forget the vast evidence that sports journalists are as committed and professional as any others and instead revived an old stereotype of myth-building lap dogs more interested in press box catering than fact-checking and healthy cynicism” (Newsday, 1/17).
Though there are exceptions, that old stereotype is, and has always been, a reality.