Jock-Sniffing For A Living

I do a pretty fair amount of sportswriting, probably something on the order of 50 articles a year. All of those are done on what’s known as a “stringer” basis, meaning I’m not employed by any one publication, but instead pitch ideas-slash-get assignments from several magazines. While this arrangement makes it tough for me to get sufficient seniority to wangle a press pass to a big-time postseason game, it does mean that with a little planning and the right target publication, I can go to pretty much any regular-season game I want. It’s a good gig–I’ve gotten to stand at the Turner Field batting cage as Mark McGwire launched batting-practice homers that landed somewhere in South Carolina; talk golf for half an hour with Greg Maddux in the Braves’ clubhouse; and shoot the bull with Shaq, who is so much larger than you could believe–I’m six-three, and getting my tape recorder near his mouth was like trying to reach up and touch the ceiling.

But those are the cool parts. There’s also the drudgery–the endless waits to be “received” by the pros after the game, the teams’ obsequious little PR toadies, and of course the athletes who refuse to play ball (ha! get it?) and just half-ass their way through interviews. (Worst interview I’ve ever had: Dwyane Wade, a budding star for the Miami Heat. I caught him last November, at that exact moment in his career when he was tired of answering media questions but not yet savvy enough to have a couple dozen boilerplate clauses to string together.)

I’m not sure how it’s done at most publications, but I know that for me, dealing with athletes was a thrown-in-the-deep-water kind of thing. I was the sports editor of my paper in college, but that didn’t require a whole lot of preparation–it wasn’t real intimidating to go ask questions of a guy who you’d seen two days ago hanging out at the Caf eating Cap’n Crunch. The first experience I had with pro athletes was at a charity basketball game run by Penny Hardaway in Memphis. I got a press pass from the local alt-weekly, and immediately proceeded to violate every single tenet of journalistic ethics. I found out who would be at the game, and took a whole stack of basketball cards to get signed. Almost all the guys were happy to sign–except for former Michigan Fab Fiver Jimmy King, who wasn’t real pleased that I didn’t recognize him and handed him a card of the Bucks’ Shawn Respert to sign–until I got to Penny himself, who, when I asked, just shook his head and said, “Not for media,” and proceeded to sign a ton of stuff for kids. I was pissed at the time; only later did I realize he was completely in the right. There’s a code of conduct and behavior that exists between athletes and the media, and all too often both sides forget that. For every despicable whiner like Barry Bonds, who blames the media for problems that are entirely of his own making, there are fifty enablers like Stuart Scott, the ESPN “boo-yah!” guy who’s such a suckup that he could sniff LeBron’s jock and tell you what team he’d been playing. The media has a hard enough time getting taken seriously as it is without halfwit journalists undercutting the profession. So here–at last–is the point of this posting, a list of recommendations for the sportswriters of tomorrow. Read it…know it…live it.

1. Remember–This Is A Job
Yeah, it’s cool walking into a locker room that’s more nicely appointed than your apartment and seeing that athlete you’ve always idolized. Stare for a second, then get over it. There’s nothing worse than a sportswriter standing gape-mouthed–and I have seen this many times–as the athletes maneuver around him like he was a piece of the furniture. You’ve got work to do here.

2. These Guys Are NOT Your Friends
Okay, let’s be honest. It would indeed be cool if, while you’re interviewing Michael Vick, he says, “Hey, man. I got a Hummerful of bitches waitin’ out back. Pack your shit up and join us.” But it ain’t gonna happen. One of the worst things I’ve ever seen in a locker room came when Andruw Jones and Eddie Perez of the Braves were trading some pregame tales about some escapades with some ladies. They’re hollering across the locker room, and some earnest, chubby journalist–I think he was in radio–chimes in with–I kid you not–“You gotta hate when the shorties do that!” Jones stopped, looked at him, sniffed in disgust, then went on continuing the conversation.

3. They Probably Won’t Bite…
In our celebrity-driven culture, there’s a natural inclination to sit back and idolize these folks that we’ve seen all over the tv, throwing them softball questions to keep them happy. The Barry Bonds press conference yesterday was a perfect example of that. He’s whining about how he’s tired of the media treatment, and nobody thinks to ask him a question like, “Barry, don’t you think that there’s a tradeoff involved here, that anyone who ascends to the heights of athletic stardom needs to accept that they’ll face more media scrutiny?” Force him out of his little whiny blame-everybody-else shell, make him account for his actions. But if you do ask that, you gotta be prepared…

4. …But If They Do, Man The Hell Up
Here’s the thing with athletes–they get paid a lot of money to be physically intimidating. And they know it, and they use it. As a writer, you’ve gotta know that every now and then, you’re going to write something that’s gonna piss somebody off. And if you do, STAND UP FOR WHAT YOU WRITE. This is the core of sportswriting; this is the essential maxim that preserves the integrity of the profession. Example: I was covering a Hawks game a couple months ago when Jon Barry, a journeyman guard who’s not a whole lot more intimidating than I am, started going off on some writer for writing that Barry had been staring around the stands during a huddle. Barry snarled to the writer that if he wasn’t in the game, he didn’t want to see his name in the paper. (By that standard, you’d go months between seeing his name.) And the writer first denied that he’d written that, and then–amid the hoots of other Hawks, who were giggling “uh…uh…uh…” in imitation as the writer stumbled for an answer–completely knuckled under, apologized, and slunk out of the locker room. The rest of us shook our heads and rolled our eyes. His wussiness made our jobs that much harder, since the Hawks–who, as a team, are about as tough as wet Charmin–now saw that they could push around the media without reprisal. Don’t be like that guy–if you’re afraid of what your subject is going to say to you, stick to writing press releases or ad copy.

Writing in general is one of the coolest jobs on earth, and sportswriters are among the most fortunate of writers. (Which is why I get pissed when they whine about, say, the Super Bowl host city…but that’s another story.) But like the rest of the media, they’re taking more and more hits to their rep these days. There’s more to journalism than the suckup coverage of ESPN, Fox Sports, and more than a few magazines out there. Check out any issue of The Best American Sports Writing, an annual anthology, for sportswriting that can stand toe-to-toe with any journalism in any field. (I was nominated for inclusion in this year’s edition for this profile of Penny Hardaway–ain’t no way in hell I’ll make it in, though. These cats are good.) My next sports assignment is an April profile of the Bulls’ Luol Deng. It’ll be linked here as soon as it’s up. Till then–as Hunter Thompson used to say–mahalo.

Jay

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