The finish of this year’s Daytona 500 on Sunday was one of the greatest upsets in the history of NASCAR, a stunning story that brought an entire sport to its feet in appreciation of a 20-year-old kid seizing the sport’s grandest trophy. I was not only at the track, I was close enough to feel the thrum of Trevor Bayne’s engine in my chest as he whipped out of Turn 4 and down that final straightaway. All around me, nearly 200,000 people cheered in unison. And you know what I did?
Not a damn thing.
Okay, that’s not quite true. I smiled to myself at the kid’s good fortune and good driving (and the thought of getting to write a great story)…and then I turned around and tried to cadge a decent quote out of the wrecked-and-out-of-the-race Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Worked well enough, as you can see here.)
It wasn’t until later that I found out the race’s finish had caused a mini-controversy in the media center. (I was in the garage area and watched the end of the race on one of the Jumbotrons.) Apparently, much of the press corps in attendance broke out in applause.
If you don’t understand why that’s a problem and you’re not in the media, I can understand that. If you don’t understand why that’s a problem and you ARE in the media … well, that’s a bigger problem.
You don’t cheer in the press box. You just don’t. No matter how fascinating or astonishing or holy-crap-did-you-see-that, you keep your mind on why you’re there, and you keep your mouth shut. I won’t go into the ethical reasons behind not cheering; USA Today’s Nate Ryan did a fine job of that right here, and Chris Jones laid down some immutable rules about press-box cheering right here. An excerpt:
Cheering in a press box is the moral equivalent of shitting on the floor beside a delicious Chinese buffet that’s hosting a children’s birthday party and then going outside and killing a kindly, mystical hobo and using his stiffened corpse to derail a speeding locomotive, spilling a tanker filled with toxic chemicals into the world’s last pristine river and killing all the fish, including the aged and orphans among them.
Still, the applause at the end of the race, I can almost excuse as spontaneous, the equivalent of an “OHHHHH!” which often happens during a wreck. What really galled me was the cheering after Bayne finished his press conference. The kid did a fine job; I said as much on Twitter. But to cheer him as he left the stage? To rush up and high-five him, as some did? Come on, what the hell are you thinking?
Look, it’s very simple. When you’re paid to do a job, or (in the case of some of NASCAR’s “citizen journalist” unpaid bloggers) when you’re invited into the media center, your loyalties are to that job first and foremost. Can you be a fan and still do the job? Of course. It’s helpful, in fact, to give you insight into the mind and heart of the fans, the people who expect you to bring them the news and accounts of the day.
But there’s passion and there’s professionalism, and if you have your priorities as a journalist in order, never the twain shall mix. Nate, NASCAR.com’s David Caraviello, my Yahoo! colleague Jenna Fryer and I tried to make this point after the 500 on Twitter, and we got absolutely hammered by some. I can understand why people like the many Twitter followers who tweet-yelled at us (twelled? whatever.) would do so–what are we, heartless bastards?
More annoying was this column by Bryan Davis Keith, in which he figuratively waved the bloody firesuit of Dale Earnhardt in our faces in an oversimplified straw-man argument. To that, I’d respond with this: when Ed Hinton, perhaps the finest NASCAR journalist still working, learned that Dale Earnhardt had died, he turned out this classic in 40 minutes. Forty minutes. He may have been crying, his heart may have been broken, but he was enough of a professional to put emotion aside and do the damn work.
Hey, let’s be honest: it’s a great gig we have here. I’ve gotten to ride around Daytona Speedway, walk fairways next to Tiger Woods, sit in the Braves dugout and talk baseball with Bobby Cox, goad Shaquille O’Neal into ripping on Kobe Bryant, stand on an NFL sideline as holycrapMarshallFaulkiscomingrightatmeandhe’snotslowingdown…amazing moments, times I wouldn’t have had if I had done what I’d initially planned out of college and gone to law school. And everyone who’s ever had a media pass to cover even a high-school football game gets that kind of access and insight. It’s okay to enjoy that. It’s almost okay to name-drop like a fiend, like I just did there.
And I’ve had my own ethical slip-ups; I related my asking-Penny-Hardaway-for-an-autograph incident here a few months back. And at one of the first Braves games I attended as a member of the working press, Chipper Jones fouled a ball up that nearly smashed my laptop. I picked up the ball, looked it over, and tucked it into my laptop bag … for about two seconds, until at least three writers virtually yelled at me to throw it out. (I tossed it to a kid below, and nearly hit him in the face with it. Sorry, kid.)
But all the benefits come with a price: you put on the credential, you leave fandom behind. No excuses, no rationalizations, no ethical just-this-once’s. There’s a line, and it’s not hard to see.
One other note on why I didn’t cheer: I carry a stigma/burden/scarlet letter that Nate, Jenna and David don’t: I’m a “blogger.” And while we all know that now encompasses (or at least, I MAKE it encompass) actual visits to actual sporting events where I have actual conversations with the actual people I write about, the “mother’s basement” stereotype still persists. I go whooping and cheering, it makes me look like a total amateur and cements the perception of bloggers as the text equivalent of sports talk callers. It’s hard enough for us to be taken seriously — my travails with some in the golf media are a whole other issue — but why make it harder on myself and my colleagues by cheering?
Reporters: enjoy the moment, appreciate it, but don’t get caught up in it. That’s what the after-filing bar blowouts are for.
[Photo courtesy Hammer_Hands]