Friday, December 4, 2009

Why Sportswriting Sucks

In my last post, I attacked sports columnist Rick Reilly pretty aggressively, basically implying that he had wasted his writing career accumulating a portfolio of schmaltzy sob stories about parentless little league pitchers and goalies with one arm who overcome the odds. That's a little harsh, in hindsight. For one thing, the guy has also written three (no doubt mediocre) novels. And after reading his Wikipedia page, I found out he encouraged people to donate money to a charity that fights malaria in Africa. He might generally suck, but he's not evil or anything. More importantly, he doesn't suck any more or less than the current crop of mainstream sportswriters.

Some highlights of sportswriting history: in the beginning, there was The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and local newspaper sports sections. That was pretty much it for print sports media. You could also watch some games on television--but not many, because cable didn't exist—and listen to games on the radio. Suffice to say, information oversaturation was not a problem. Then in 1979, ESPN debuted, and slowly grew into a four-channel monstrosity. The NFL became overwhelmingly popular thanks to TV. Athletes starting earning very, very large amounts of money and becoming celebrities separated from their fans by cameras. Talk radio let people yell at each other and for unclear reasons became incredibly popular. Then: the Internet! Fan websites developed where local constituencies could grouse about their lazy, overpaid players and incompetent front offices. Bill James introduced statistical analysis to baseball and it spread to other sports thanks to a small army of tech-savvy, number-loving geeks. Somewhere along the line, we lost interest in horse racing and boxing, formerly the most literary sports. ESPN began televising press conferences and athletes began Twittering complaints that used to be told to sportswriters. The steroid scandal made everyone angry and self-righteous and the media focus on athletes became more intense, to the point where the only difference between ESPN and TMZ is that they follow different people around (for an example of this, see Woods, Tiger).

What's the end result of this exponential expansion of sports media since the 70s? I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated.I would argue it has made the average fan more sophisticated. We can now watch every minute of every game our team plays, whereas before we could only listen to them on the radio. We have access not just to the local sports columnists' views but to a gigantic universe of opinion from fans, old-media types gone digital, and number-crunching Jamesians. We pay attention to how much our teams are paying the players and criticize their contracts. We have invented entirely new statistics, like Football Outsiders' DVOA. When an announcer tells us what happened on a football play, some of us know better than he does. When a writer gushes about a baseball player's “grit” or “leadership” we can snap back, on a fan site's messageboard, “What about his .306 OBP?!”

But what about the newspaper sports columnist? After all, he's still writing for the general public, not the fanatic fans or the stat geeks. So despite all this upheaval in the industry, the sportswriter's job hasn't changed a whole lot. Watch the game from the press box, go get a couple standard-issue quotes from the players and coaches (“We gave it our all, but at the end, we came up a little short. We can't think about this game, we have to move on to the next one”), type up your story. Repeat for years. If you get a column: praise charity work, grit, players that come from rough homes or poverty; denounce bad coaching decisions, drugs, the flaunting of wealth, “me-first attitudes.”

The problem with this system is that reading the articles that get produced this way is like watching Olympic Diving—the same exact thing happens over and over. It's not a coincidence that my three favorite sports books (Ball Four, Moneyball, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) weren't written by sportswriters, nor is it all that strange that Bill Simmons, the most popular sportswriter on the planet, dodged this system entirely and came out a more interesting writer because of it. The sportswriting sausage factory produces the same kind of article again and again. It's not a terrible article, but we don't need so much of it. (This not-exactly-spectacularly-interesting profile of Saints receiver Marques Colston is a fair example.) If we want to find out what happened in a given game, there's the play-by-play of every game available on the internet. People who write about sports in that traditional, cliche-ridden, analysis-free style so popular on ESPN and in newspapers are becoming the appendixes of media: once probably useful, now vestigial, and should probably be removed by medical professionals for everyone's safety.

Which brings us to Mr. Reilly, who started writing about sports in 1981, for a newspaper, before the media landscape changed. In comparison to some of the articles published during his tenure at Sports Illustrated, he's actually pretty good. He finds interesting, off-the-beaten track stories, and usually avoids rehashing the topic of the week like so many of his contemporaries. (Really? Steroids and cheating are bad? Who would have known without our country's Sports Columnists?) He seems to genuinely believe in the old cliches about sportsmanship, and there are worse things to believe in.

On the other hand, those cliches have a way of winding up in his columns, and he reduces every story to good guy versus bad guy. If you are an actual sports fan hoping to read something that sheds light on an aspect of the game, he will disappoint you every time. Distressingly, his website has a quote from Publisher's Weekly praising him as “One of the funniest humans on the planet,” which can only mean that his website comes from a dimension where very few humans remain on Earth, and one of them is Rick Reilly. And that column of his I linked to on Wednesday is simply an inexcusable, naive piece of garbage from someone who does nothing but sit around and watch Field of Dreams all day.

But this is supposed to be an apology of sorts to the guy. So, Rick, it's not you. It's not me, either. It's just that your industry and the boring style it spawned is dying. Thank God.

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