Friday, April 3

The Evolution of the Press in Sports

In the most bountiful age of information, the citizen sports fans of this country face an unprecedented age of censorship in the media. With the death of newspapers across the country, the primary media outlets are run by mega-corporations that are billion dollar “stock holders” in the very leagues they are expected to report on. Freedom of the press was intended to protect the people even at the cost of dragging the government through the mud, but in today's society that has flipped to protecting the power brokers at the expense of the individuals. The forefathers did not place restrictions on the press, because finding the line between use and abuse was too difficult, but now the media imposes that very line on itself. For this discussion, sports cannot be just considered an escapist activity, but rather a business no different than any other on Wall Street. Sports reporting may not be as important as government oversight, but it is not difficult to see the same sin of commission that Jon Stewart recently accused CNBC of having in regards to the market collapse, in the coverage of all the major sports leagues.

In today's landscape of sports media, the only outlet with the means and the mettle to go after stories of consequence is Yahoo!. Having a company whose name ends in an exclamation point, being the only investigative entity and more importantly having only one such entity, cannot be a positive. Outside the Lines, a show that should be the 60 Minutes of ESPN, has been reduced to virtual irrelevance because of the stories they cover, the time slot, and the lack of cross-promotion (a first for ESPN). They cover controversial historic topics, but almost none that could upset any of the power brokers their network depends on for programming, ratings, and advertising dollars. While Yahoo! uncovers cheating at a major college basketball power, the only pseudo-relevant story OTL covers is bus safety of Division One programs. Even when ESPN decides to target a story of consequence it benefits the owners of the various leagues. ESPN's investigative show, E:60 was short-lived (although expected to return) and its primary contribution was the story of baseball players from Latin America lying about their age, again to the advantage of the establishment. The amount of coverage Bills wide receiver, Terrell Owens, warrants weekly far outweighs the networks entire coverage of the hijacking of the Supersonics franchise by Clay Bennett and David Stern (with the notable exception of one writer). ESPN pioneered this type of sports journalism that publicly chastises every misstep by the players and coaches while ignoring the transgressions of the permanent tenants of the establishment. Elgin Baylor's lawsuit accusing Clippers owner Donald Sterling of, “embracing a vision of a Southern plantation-type structure" for his NBA franchise (LAT) garnered little attention from the network other than to acknowledge that it occurred. Similarly, the network eagerly reports on Alex Rodriguez's every move, but turns a blind eye to much of the Yankee organization's fraudulent activities in building their new stadium. Taking a look back at all of the various work stoppages over the last two decades, the Players Association reps have always taken the biggest publicity hits, with the possible exception of Bud Selig, but Donald Fehr's not looked upon with any reverence either and Selig's negative image is more tied to other failings. NBA commissioner David Stern was nearly deified for his dealings with the players in 1999, despite his salary cap facing some serious critics in this new economic climate. By protecting the establishment, these networks have abandoned a basic tenant of their responsibility in the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

Perhaps no story better illustrates this point than the issue of steroids in baseball. Use of anabolic steroids had been a part of the NFL and Olympic landscape for years before The Steroids Era began in baseball, but due to a collective public naivety and the willingness of the sports media to ignore the signs, the public was fooled into believing we were watching some of the greatest baseball players in the history of the game, instead of frauds. Baseball needed to come back following the work stoppage in 1994 and the writers who covered it needed to prove their relevance once again to their employers who were footing the bill for their travels. Following his 50 homerun outburst the previous season, Sports Illustrated did a story about Brady Anderson and his immense upper arms “with veins that look like swollen rivers running across them in every direction.” On the very next page, was a special report on steroids use, but how did they justify a sudden increase in production from a player that did not change his swing, stance or approach? A juiced ball and poor pitching. Anderson has been the focus of suspicion in years following the acknowledgement of the steroids era, but never tested positive and this is not to suggest he did. Yet when his sudden power surge is a mere flip of a magazine page away from a poll of athletes that stated nearly 100% of athletes asked said they would take a performance-enhancing substance if they knew they would not be caught and would win it is hard to comprehend how some of the nation's best sports writers failed to make the leap in logic that players in a league that guaranteed they would not be caught, would be noble enough to forgo that option. A year later, SI would give us the Sportsmen of the Year, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, under the auspices that they, “treated the nation to a home run race that was as refreshing as a day at the beach.” That summer was magical, but like most magic tricks it was illusion. In 2001, with Barry Bonds chasing Mark McGwire's record, there was more discussion of intentional walks than performance enhancers, despite the unprecedented increase in power by a player towards the end of his career. Perhaps most telling is that Bonds has been featured on SI's cover five times since the steroids scandal broke, but only three times prior. Bonds breaking of McGwire's record did not even warrant a cover and his pursuit only one, after McGwire was featured five times in 1998. Had the homerun chase lost its luster? The nightly cut-ins and must see TV that were Bonds's at-bats that season would argue otherwise, so what reason would they have to ignore such a monumental achievement, unless they thought something was not on the straight and narrow. If that was the case, they chose to ignore it instead of reporting it. With steroid accusations flying around and the 1996 Summer Olympics being referred to jokingly as the "Growth Hormone Games", the media chose to ignore the usage (or possibility of usage) in baseball, because it was in their best interest, even at the expense of the sports integrity and the public's wallet.

Balancing between reporting the news and protecting their investments is undoubtedly difficult. If they are too harsh, they will not be in a position to renew those deals, and if they are too soft they abandon the basic tenant of the press as a whole, to protect the people. ESPN acknowledges it has a fine line to walk, but far too often they're fearful to even tread near the line for fear of upsetting the balance. The power networks are willing to be critical of daily events in leagues, but are unwilling to pursue the larger issues. Unless Roger Goddell or David Stern were to pile up a body count, there is minimal chance of any whistle-blowing on the very networks that profit from their leagues. ESPN allows their website writers and radio hosts to be far more critical of these leagues, but always under the glaring light of internal censorship. A media outlet that censors itself for the protection of the establishment at the expense of the truth should no longer be considered a news outlet. Perhaps the network now needs the same “sports entertainment” title that professional wrestling carries, because it is impossible to be completely forthright while protecting the establishment and your own company's long-term viability. Their addition of an ombudsman points to the conflicts of interest that their organization now faces. I do not blame ESPN for the change, they are the industry standard, they have many conflicting interests and do a fair job of balancing them, but it is time to acknowledge that they cannot be the police that the press is relied upon to be.

"From forty years' experience of the wretched guess-work of the newspapers of what is not done in open daylight, and of their falsehood even as to that, I rarely think them worth reading, and almost never worth notice."

That was how Thomas Jefferson described the press in a correspondence with James Monroe. The same press he fought to protect, despite his visceral disdain for them. The irony of his opinion is that today, it represents many in the "mainstream media's" opinion of bloggers and internet writers. The one free voice in this current landscape to write and it is shunned by the very people who are constitutionally protected to be free of censor. Many sports organizations refuse to allow “internet based media” access to press passes or players, instead preferring to only dole them out to their business partners. This is not to suggest that any “Johnny Come Lately” with a blogger or wordpress account should have free reign, but some of the representation should be from dedicated outlets without direct ties to the league being covered. If taxpayers are going to be asked to foot the bill for new arenas, if citizens are being depended upon to support the organizations, if people are being laid off as the leagues sign monstrous television deals, the people also deserve competent, unfiltered coverage. The mainstream media has abandoned that post in pursuit of higher profits and left it to the anti-establishment, living in their mom's basement with the inability to pay their bills, demanding credit for their work crowd or as Thomas Jefferson might call them, The Press.

1 comment:

Pest said...

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