Friday, September 19, 2008

The Problem with Sportswriting.

I guess I'll preface this by saying that this is a rare serious post for this site, and something that bothers me about sports. I ranted this morning to my girlfriend about this topic, because it came up in the combination of the Jay Mariotti situation, and the resolve of A-Rod's divorce.

The fact of the matter is that sportswriting has changed drastically over the last 20 years or so. It's driven too much by sensationalism and the desperate need to sell newspapers and draw ratings.

Historically, sportswriters had access to athletes because there was a rapport and a trust. These days, players are mandated by their respective leagues to talk to reporters and typically fined when they refuse... but why would anybody WANT to talk to the media? The vast majority of what's written about athletes is negative, and in the cases of writers like Mike Lupica and Jay Mariotti, even articles that claim to "praise" an athlete come with backhanded attacks at that player's shortcomings and failures. It's as if it's genuinely impossible for this crop of writers to actually LIKE ANYBODY!

And moreso, the eagerness of these people to break the next big story, whether it's extramarital affairs, steroids, or unfounded and unproven accusations against someone, has exposed us to a world of things that we probably never needed to know, and that we'd probably enjoy the games better if we didn't.

Mickey Mantle was a rampant alcoholic and Babe Ruth frequented prostitutes, and the guys who made their living following them around never made a peep about it. Why? For two reasons:

1) A trust existed. Writers were given access by the players and teams because they trusted that certain things, especially the embarrassing stuff, would be kept quiet. A sportswriter's very living depended on being trusted enough to be allowed to travel with the team, and being able to get close to those guys. If a writer embarrassed the players on his home team unnecessarily, he had to deal with those players, and the consequences of his actions.

2) More importantly, there was a sense of responsibility. Children idolized Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth. They were role models. And while they might not have been exemplary human beings, nobody needed to know that. It was better to let everybody think they were model citizens.

Everybody points to the fact that athletes can't be role models any more, that they fail miserably. Do you really believe that this is the product of "today's athletes?" The stars of days past were just as big of assholes as the guys we've got today. The difference is that you didn't hear about it. Private matters were kept private.

As "morally reprehensible" as the steroid situation may have been, who's business was it really? People point to the health risks... but who's going to have to deal with those health risks? The players who choose to take steroids! If Roger Clemens wants to shoot himself in the ass with poison so that he can play one more year of baseball, and do the only thing he's ever loved a little longer, who am I to criticize that? He's risking his own health and well-being, not mine.

People say that it encourages kids to take steroids... but until the story was broken, kids didn't know it was happening! So who's really doing the harm here?

If Alex Rodriguez cheats on his wife, is that really any of my business? Isn't that a private matter between Alex and Cynthia Rodriguez? Is he really the first professional athlete to ever do this? Why does his image have to be tainted over it?

The bottom line is that people are less interested and passionate about sports these days. And it's not the fault of stat-geeks. It's the fault of the mass media. They taint and destroy our heroes in favor of selling a few papers or driving up their ratings. The fact of the matter is that we're too involved in the private lives of strangers, and it's taking the fun out of sports.

As I've said before, I'm a Yankee fan, and I can remember what it was like to cheer for my team, and not feel guilty about it.

These days, I watch a Yankee game, and I feel like a moron for cheering for Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte because they used steroids. And I feel stupid for pulling for A-Rod, because he cheats on his wife. And then Jeter comes up to bat, and I worry that he's too busy dating models to hit a baseball. Then Cano boots a ground ball and I wonder if it's because he's too busy thinking about ways to spend the money from his new contract!

We know too much about these people. I remember watching games and being 100% behind the guys on my team, being completely unaware of all the other bullshit, because it didn't matter. It wasn't too long ago. Was it?

I remember a story that I heard not too long ago, but for the life of me, I can't remember the name of the photographer involved. It centers around the 1971 "Fight of the Century" between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Frazier won the fight, handing Ali his first professional defeat that night.

And this photographer was in Ali's dressing room after the fight, look at a beaten Ali, a sight that the world had never seen before, and might never get the chance to see again. The self-proclaimed "Greatest of All-Time" had just been humbled, and several people in the room told this guy that he should take a picture, because it'd probably be worth "a million bucks."

The photographer refused, telling the people in the room that the world didn't need to see it.

Think about that for a second. Will something like that ever happen again?

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