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There is No Joy in Covering Mudville

GQ Magazine (October 1993) 

It was a beautiful spring day at the ballpark.  The kind of day that makes a ballplayer feel like he could bat .400 every year of his life.  The kind of day that makes a sports reporter certain that he would never trade his job for any other.

On this particular spring day, Dick Schaap of ABC News was out at the stadium to interview the Detroit Tigers, the surprise team of the young baseball season.  The Tigers had been the consensus pre-season pick to finish last in the American League East, but now here it was six weeks past Opening day and Detroit was comfortably ensconced in first place.  For Schaap this story would be a breeze.  All he needed were a few quick interviews with the players, a few “sound-bites” about how much fun it was to be winning, about how much better each meal tasted after a victory than it did after a defeat.  Nothing to it.  After all, ballplayers love talking to Schaap, one of the most high-profile sports journalists in the country, a man well known among athletes for his knowledge of their games, his sense of humor and his almost always positive reporting.  Even athletes who consider journalists to be a form of jock-itch regularly go out of their way to talk to Schaap.

Camera crew in tow the newsman walked over to Tony Phillips, the Tigers’ third baseman, as he was warming up on the field.  “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” he said.  Phillips responded with a snarl.  “Where were you for the last ten years?” the Tiger snapped with such hostility that Schaap was sure Phillips had to be putting him on.  But Phillips was dead serious.  

“Where were you before?” Phillips growled at Schaap again.  “All you fucking guys picked us to finish last!”  Stunned, Schaap began slinging verbal arrows of his own.  “What do you want me to do?” he asked, “Do a story about the year you hit .210?”  Next thing, Schaap recalls, “we were both quietly shouting at each other.  After that, his teammates wouldn’t talk to me, to support him.”

Somehow, in a matter of moments, the most innocuous of interviews had become the most obnoxious of confrontations.  

Just another afternoon in sports paradise.  

    Quick: What was the number one news story 

during last spring’s NBA playoffs?  

    No, it wasn’t the Chicago Bulls quest to become 

only the third team in NBA history to win three 

consecutive championships.  

    It was that Michael Jordan, the NBA’s corporate 

logo, was boycotting the press because of what he 

viewed as unfair coverage of his off the court 

gambling habits.

More and more it seems athletes and the press are at each others throats, both sides biting and bitter.  Today’s sports stars even introduce themselves by calling attention to their deteriorating relationship with reporters.  

At his inaugural press conference as a New York Met, Bobby Bonilla laughingly challenged the assembled media:  “I know you all are gonna try,” chimed Bonilla, “but you’re not gonna be able to wipe the smile off my face.”  And the press ate it up.  After all, not since Gary Hart had dared reporters to follow him around in the wee hours of the night had they received such an enticing invitation.  

In the end it took the Fourth Estate less than a single season to severely wipe Bonilla’s smile.  Today Bobby Bo’s relationship with the press ranks right up there with Sean Penn’s.  Earlier this year he ended a post-game interview session by physically threatening Bob Klapisch, a New York Daily News reporter who had just written a scathing book on the Mets entitled, “The Worst Team Money Could Buy.”  

Not that there was ever much love lost between jocks and journalists to begin with.  Ted Williams long ago declared, “Pourhot water on a sportswriter and you’ll get instant shit.”  Athletes have always considered reporters to be the green flies at their picnic.  Jock sniffers.  Frustrated athletes.  “They wish that they could do what we do but they can’t,” scoffs Bo Jackson of the Chicago White Sox.  “So the way they stay close to the game is with a pad and pencil.”  For their part sportswriters have long viewed athletes as overgrown adolescents, big boys with high octane glands who, as Bob Lipsyte of the New York Times puts it, “just want to play their games, watch each other shower, slap each other on the ass, and go out and fuck women in groups, which is a socially acceptable way of fucking each other.”  Both Jackson and Lipsyte are quick to point out that they’re not talking about all sportswriters and all athletes, but we all get the picture.

Over the past few seasons, though, the relationship between jocks and journalists has gone from bad to ballistic.  Locker rooms have become battle fields, training rooms have become hideouts, and word processors have become get-even machines.  All of which has made it less fun to be either an athlete or a sports reporter than it used to be.  More importantly, it’s made it far less fun to be a fan, as the animus between the two sides has affected both the athletes’ play and the media’s coverage.  

The forces driving this new hostility are complex, but much of the cause can be traced to a confluence of changes in the media and changes in the athlete’s bank accounts.  Mostly it’s a matter of volume: more money and more media.

Twenty five years ago the average salary made by a major league baseball player was $19,000 a year.  Twenty years ago it was under $37,000.  Today the average is over a million dollars a year.  Meanwhile, Michael Jordan’s yearly income is estimated to be over $30 million dollars, give or take a few golf strokes.  One of the major by-products of this hyper-inflation in sports salaries has been a hyper-sense of pressure on the athletes to perform.  “Athletes feel they have to justify the money that they’re getting with super-human feats,” observes Tim McCarver, who broadcasts baseball for CBS Sports, “and they’re not capable of doing that.”  Which is why so many of them have developed personalities that are bordered on one side by a wall of arrogance and on the other side by a deep pit of insecurity and a hyper-sensitivity to any criticism whatsoever.  

The press, for their part, has responded to the current fiscal state of affairs with a resentment that far exceeds the fans’.  After all, as Lipsyte points out, “I don't think anyone really minded that Babe Ruth was making all that money, or Reggie Jackson or Joe Montana, because if athletes are our royalty and our gods then we want them to live like that, we don't want them to live like us.  It's the media that seems pissed off, supposedly reflecting the fans, but I believe it’s a lie.  The media is pissed off because they're being brushed off by these guys.”

There’s the rub, there’s what’s driving the press box absolutely nuts.  It’s not just that the average reporter’s salary is somewhere in the neighborhood of $60,000 while the all-star he’s interviewing is making over a hundred times that; what’s killing them is that athletes, thanks to their mega-fortunes and new sources of public exposure, simply no longer need the press the way they used to.  

“To indulge the press,” says Phil Mushnick, the media critic for the New York Post, “is to indulge an entity that has no provable tangible financial reward.”  In other words, more and more stars are now saying, “Screw ‘em.  I don’t have to talk to anyone as long as my highlights are on ESPN.”  

“They don’t have scrap books anymore, they have clip reels.  Their mothers save tapes on them,” notes Schaap, who penned Bo Jackson’s best selling autobiography five years ago.  “Bo plays those for his children.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen him show one of his children a clipping about him.”

And if the athlete of today does want something longer lasting than a four second highlight, something more filling, something that will capture his true essence and sing his praises for generations to come, well, then screw Red Smith and Grantland Rice, and even Dick Schaap too.  Those boys are obsolete.  The new story tellers are named Nike, Reebok, Coke, and Pepsi.

Think about it from the athlete’s perspective and it all makes perfect sense:  Why subject yourself to constant grilling from a pack of hacks who are probably going to misquote you anyway?  Instead, why not spend a day or two with the folks from Nike who will put together a bitching looking commercial that will paint your portrait in the colors of your choice?

Case in point: The Michael Jordan commercial that 

had its debut during last spring’s NBA playoffs — the 

one in which his Airness ponders the question of 

whether he could even imagine being just an 

ordinary basketball player.  

It's a fabricated moment, far more intimate than any 

authentic one he would ever share with a reporter.

                                                      (See the commercial on YouTube)

It’s not an interview.  It’s art.  An illustrated poetry reading.  It’s Michael’s story told directly to his fans.  

And best of all, he doesn’t have to share it with the press.   He doesn’t need anyone to mediate his thoughts, or put anything in perspective, or clarify any context.  And he doesn’t have to worry about some putz deciding at the last second that the story won’t be journalistically complete unless it mentions his gambling problems at least once.

As for impact, hell, nothing else comes close to generating the kind of cosmic zap that reverberates through the zeitgeist every time a new Nike commercial hits the air.  For years, whenever Charles Barkley was taken to task for his outrageous behavior, his response was: “I am not a role model.”  Big deal.  No one cared.  This year he said it in a commercial and it was a humongous deal, debated on every Op-Ed page of every paper read by man, woman or child.

And that in a nutshell is why, as soon as they can get away with it, many top athletes, in Bo Jackson’s words, choose to “feed the press with a long handled spoon.”  

Like all big corporations, athletes today want the greatest bang for their buck and they want to control their image.  “It’s gotten to the point now where I don’t do any one-on-ones anymore,” says Jackson.  Reporters, he explains, “try and read between the lines instead of printing what they write down.”  So now interview requests for Jackson are strictly screened.  Ordinary scribes on a deadline who just walk up to him at the ballpark to ask a few quick questions receive nothing more than a polite “No.”  

“My whole day is planned, so in order to do something you have to call two or three days in advance.  You get some guys who understand.  And you get some guys who go back and tell their colleagues, `I just walked up to his locker and he just said he couldn’t talk, and he’s an asshole.’  We hear that.  I as an athlete get called an asshole everyday.  It’s like a household word for me.  It’s like saying `hi Bo’.  It don’t bother me.  It don’t bother me at all.”  But it certainly bothers the press.

“I’m really angry with Bo Jackson.  He’s got no right, zero right, to behave the way he does towards the press.”  The words could have come from almost anyone who’s ever been turned down for an interview by any athlete, but in this case they come from Jimmy Roberts, a correspondent for ESPN’s SportsCenter.  “This is a man who’s become a millionaire many times over because of the attention he’s courted.  And he’s just the type of person who sets an example for other athletes.  It makes me sick that a guy who has basically gotten fat off of the publicity now wants nothing to do with it.  It’s just wrong.  Here’s a guy who wants to pull his chair up to the table and have the biggest meal, the biggest feast that he possibly could, and now he just doesn’t want to do the dishes.”

Deep down most reporters feel like Roberts.  We may not swing a bat or throw a ball, the thinking goes, but without us Mr. Big Leaguer your sport would quickly turn into lacrosse — a very exciting game that combines tremendous athleticism with virtually no spectators.  And no spectators means no multi-million dollar contracts.  For that you owe us a little access, at the very least.  Unfortunately, fewer and fewer athletes these days agree.

Largely in retaliation for being brushed off, sportswriters have begun turning their word processors into Velociraptors.  The barbed and slashing phrase, the cynical tone, and the constant harping about the money athletes make have all become staples of the trade.  And the nastier the better.  Slam them in your column and then go on the radio and slam them again.  “After all, these athletes have sold their souls to become little more than shallow, selfish, arrogant billboards in sneakers and cleats.  I’m just part of the price they pay.”  And the animus just escalates from there.

Ironically, for many athletes the problem is not just that the media’s mad at them.  It’s that the media’s mad about them, too.  Just as they’ve gotten to the point where they feel they no longer need the press, athletes now find themselves surrounded by more reporters than stalked Roger Maris the year he lost his hair chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record.  Indeed, after a regular dose of today’s crowd, Maris would probably look like Yul Brynner in a baseball cap.  That’s because everyone’s pumping up the volume.

An athlete used to be able to walk into a locker room before a game and sit down quietly with a couple of reporters who were out looking for a few of good quotes.  That was before the fall of 1979.  That was before ESPN.  This year the network of sportsoholics will broadcast over 1,200 hours of sports “news and information” programming in the form of SportsCenter and other studio shows.  That’s a lot of requests for talking heads in cleats.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  CNNTNT and TBSSports will pump out around 700 hours of studio programming this year.  Meanwhile, the sports and news divisions at ABCNBC and CBS have their own requests.  And let’s not forget all those local TV sports mannequins who, thanks to satellite technology, can now broadcast their live-shots from any locker room on the planet.  Then there are the regional cable networks like Prime Sports ChannelPrime Ticket and MSGwith their studio shows.  And HBO Sports.  And NBA Entertainment.  And NFL Films.  And Major League Baseball Magazine.  And syndicated sports shows like The Sports Machine.  Not to mention those television magazine shows that delve into sportsworld every now and again.  It’s getting a little bit crowded in the locker room, don’t you think?  

Okay, now let’s add in the radio explosion:

Just three years ago there were only three all-sports radio stations.  Now there are over 50.  Each with three or four producers competing with one another for phone interviews and locker room sound-bites for their own shows.

“When I started working with the Chicago Bulls in 1978 our media contingent might have been fifteen, including out of towners,” recalls Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s Vice President for Public Relations.  “Now, you go to a regular season Knicks game and you’ll have 150 reporters.  You go to a regular season game in Sacramento and you’ll have 75 or 80.  Then you have our big events.  At the Finals we had 1,040 people credentialed.”  

Naturally, all those reporters are trying to ride the same elevator to the sportsworld penthouse, and that’s jacked up the competition to push the buttons, something fierce.  Think about it: 1,040 people, all of them dying for a couple of minutes with Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley.  All of them dying to see who can make the most noise — I mean news.  No wonder athletes feel like they’re living in a state of siege.  It’s enough to make a guy want to talk to Ahmad Rashad.

Now, on top of all that cut-throat competition, let’s add one more ingredient, the technical sophistication of today’s game coverage by television, and you’ll soon begin to see yet another reason why the tone of sportswriting has become so nasty and threatening to athletes.

“In the 1950s and 60s,” points out Bob Costas of NBC Sports, “you didn’t see five or six replays that gave you a definitive point of view, and you didn’t have the type of pre- and post-game shows and surrounding talk shows and analysis.  And so, back then a sportswriter could provide a vivid account of a game with appropriate baseball type reaction, not soap opera reaction but baseball reaction: `I threw him the curve ball, he was expecting it, he hit it out, just like the one I threw him in Cleveland last week that he struck out on.’  Today that ability to be able to tell the story of an event and flesh it out has all but been taken from sportswriters by television.  So how do you distinguish yourself?  Ideally to break stories.  And less than ideally sometimes to make stories out of lesser events.  To get in behind the scenes.  To go along for the ride on this athlete as celebrity train.”  In short, to go tabloid.

Which is exactly what happened during last spring’s Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks playoff series when the biggest celebrity train on the sports line, Michael Jordan, pulled into Bally’s Atlantic City Casino for some late night gambling.  Two days later the New York Times ran a story based on a conversation with two Knick fans who claimed to have witnessed Jordan playing the tables as late as 2:30 a.m. on the morning of the Game 2 of the series.  The fact that the Bulls subsequently lost that game, with Jordan shooting miserably in the fourth quarter — the quarter in which all athletes’ failures are habitually blamed on fatigue — combined with Jordan’s history of high-stakes gaming, made this a particularly juicy story.  Indeed, for the tabloid papers, local TV reporters and sports radio call in shows, it was an orgasmically juicy story:  Worlds Greatest Sports Star’s Tragic Addiction To Gambling — The Greatest Nightmare Vice In All Of Sports — Could Costs His Team The Championship!  Even the network news shows ran the story that night.

The following day after practice Jordan was surrounded by a mob of reporters circling him in a feeding frenzy.  He admitted he’d gone gambling — with his father — but vehemently swore that he’d left the casino at 11 p.m. and was back at his hotel room by 1 a.m., and he threatened to “lay a lawsuit” on any reporter who said otherwise.  

After Jordan spoke his piece the festivities quickly took on the atmosphere of a medieval bear baiting when Chuck Goudie, a local Chicago television reporter, began badgering Jordan by asking him (a) if this was the way he normally prepared for a game, (b) if he liked to go to Joliet (a suburb of Chicago with a riverboat casino) before home games, and (c) if he thought his “gambling problem” was escalating.  When Goudie next brought up the name of a convicted drug trafficker to whom Jordan had once paid $57,000 in gambling debts, Jordan walked out on the press.  It was great TV.  The next day it was great talk radio and great copy for the tabloids.

Although Goudie is a general assignment reporter — “I’m normally covering whatever is the hot story of the day.  I do a lot of multi-part specials during the ratings” — he’s also proud to be on the cutting edge of today’s sports coverage.  After Magic Johnson retired from basketball because he had the HIV virus that causes AIDs, Goudie provided his viewers with special insight into the pressures that modern athletes endure on the road by secretly video taping a number of the Chicago Bears walking into a Minneapolis strip club and then naming them on the air.  

“It seems like the press sits and waits on something negative to happen with professional athletes,” says Bo Jackson.  “Then everybody swarms on it like vultures on a dead carcass, they swarm on it until there’s nothing left but bones.  And then they go back and perch in their trees and wait till something else happens.”

“I think that the overall concept of the media has changed,” sighs Howie Long, the perennial all-pro defensive lineman of the Los Angeles Raiders.  “Unfortunately we’re in a time of shock journalism, like a Hard Copy or something like that.  It seems like every show has to be critical and no one is safe from it.  Instead of sending in a roving reporter you send in Inspector Clouseau.  We don't want to know what the guy hit, we want to know what he does when he leaves the house and he checks into that motor lodge.  And I think what you have now is no one is safe.  Anywhere, anytime, anyhow.  Your fault, my fault, who it affects, who it doesn't affect, it's not important, the story is printed.”

And that sports fans is why many of you now dread turning to the sports page.

Earl Warren, when he was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, once said that when he picked up his morning newspaper he always checked out the sports section first.  “The sports page records people’s accomplishments; the front page nothing but man’s failures.”  Not any more Earl.  Today the only part of the paper where we can consistently read about people’s accomplishments is the obituary section.  As for the sports page, we can read it for weeks before we’ll find the sort of story that used to be there regularly, the sort of story that would thrill and inspire us by introducing us to men and women whose achievements far transcended their games, the sort of story that could stir us to a larger understanding not only of sports but of ourselves.  The sort of story that made us proud to be sports fans.

Maybe there are fewer of those heroic people around today to write about.  But that’s probably not the case.  Most likely they’re still out there, they just want no part of the athlete-media war.  

“The guy who’s smart enough to perceive how the game is played usually becomes overly cautious.  It’s the only way to play it,” laments Costas.  “So you’re deprived of potentially insightful conversations with that person because he’s always wondering, `Is some fragment of what I say going to be taken out of context and become the tabloid headline?’  So all those conversations that sports figures and managers and coaches used to have more or less on background with writers — where stuff wouldn’t be directly attributed but it helped you get the shading, helped them get the whole lay of the land, and helped educate the writer about the game and about the circumstances surrounding it — that sort of thing doesn’t happen nearly as much.”

“You can’t trust the folks that you’re talking to, so you’re guarded in your statements,” says Hal McRae, the Kansas City Royals manager, who earlier this season trashed his office while it was full of reporters and then watched the incident replayed over and over again on every news and sports highlights show coast to coast.  “Everybody’s going for the home run, something spicy, juicy.  They’re going for the sensational story.”  Ten years ago, McRae says, he used to enjoy shooting the shit with the guy from the press box, but not anymore.  “You gave him a lot of information but he wasn’t going to burn you in the article because of something you said.  If you said `so-and-so’s an asshole,’ he wasn’t going to put that in.  But the guys today, you better not say anything that you don’t want to read about.”

This gun-shy feeling on the part of the athletes combined with the gun-slinging approach of the press has put a bullet through the heart of sports:  Both sides have shot the joy right out of it.  Whether it’s because athletes aren’t showing it or because sportswriters don’t care to write about it — and you can chicken and egg this thing all night — that wonderful sense of joy and abandon that makes us want to watch and play these games in the first place has almost completely vanished.  

Sure there are wonderful exceptions.  Charles Barkley for one.  That’s why we love him.  Did you see his face during the triple-overtime game in last spring’s NBA Finals?  Even when Phoenix missed shot attempts that could have won the game at the end of the first overtime, and again at the end of the second overtime, Charles was all smiles.  He knew he was in a great game.  He was loving the moment.  He was having fun.

So, what if anything can be done about the current state of affairs?  Maybe nothing.  But here are a few elementary suggestions, starting with the jocks:

“There ought to be an orientation for professional ball players as soon as they sign a contract,” says Jim Bouton, who 23 years ago wrote Ball Four, a book that was highly critical of the baseball establishment but still managed to capture the intense joy of being a major league ballplayer.  “The first spring training with their first minor league team, somebody ought to wise them up:  Okay kids, here’s the deal.  Sportswriters are our advertising guys.  They’re going to advertise and promote you, our product.  Be nice to these guys.  Throw them a ball once and a while, give ‘em an old glove, you’ll own ‘em for life.  They’re basically fans who want to suck around, okay.  You don’t have to give them much, just talk a lot.  They’ll love you.  Just don’t pee on them, that’s all, and you’ll be fine with most of them.”

The National Basketball Association already has a media orientation program for it’s rookies and it’s one of the big reasons why the vast majority of their players are a pleasure to deal with, which in turn is an enormous reason why the NBA gets such positive coverage from the press.  The NFL has its players watch a short tape on dealing with the media and distributes a brochure and an audio cassette to them during training camp, but there’s no special rookie program.  A few major league baseball teams employ professional media consultants to work with their athletes but nothing is done on a league wide basis, and boy does it show.  Whoever’s running baseball this week should legislate a program for every team, and they should make sure they get to their players early, in the minors before they become major assholes.

As for the boys and girls in the press box:  No one’s asking them to stop writing critically, analytically or intelligently, but it wouldn’t hurt if they stopped treating their subjects like rental cars.  It also might help if they stopped fixating on the money and compulsively detailing every single twist and turn of every contract squabble.  

And, Dear Editors:  Everyone in the locker room would be able to breathe a lot easier if you stopped sending four or five reporters to cover one game.  You probably do it because you don’t want to miss the one big controversial quote that’s doomed to be warped into tomorrow's screaming headline, but if you can’t cover even a playoff game with three reporters, then you’ve hired the wrong three guys.  And, please, at least think twice before running those vicious, smart-ass headlines that trumpet controversy even when there is none.  Today’s athletes are hyper-sensitive and spoiled, but they’re well within their rights to complain about the tabloid treatment they’ve been getting.

“As long as there is this antagonistic attitude people are going to write antagonistically as well as act antagonistically and it’s going to widen the breech and you’ll get a distorted picture of what reality is,” warns Dick Schaap. “Eventually it’s got to hurt the sports in that they’re not going to get exposure in a favorable light, or perhaps in any light if they keep pushing people away.”

The currents on both sides of the stream are only going to get stronger.  The money, the pressure, the microscope, and even the hidden camera are all here to stay.  For athletes and the press, the time has come to pump down the volume. 


GQ Magazine (October 1993)    

There is No Joy in Covering Mudville

Alas, the original published piece is not available online. This is my final version of the story; the hardcopy version was trimmed (slightly) for space.