What passes for journalism today, in particular sports journalism, is a shadow of its glorious past. Gone are the days of brilliant wordsmiths like Grantland Rice and Furman Bisher. Instead, spurred on by the demands of a 24/7 news culture, writers covering our games have become scandal-mongers. Once described as legendary by crafted writers, performances by players and coaches are now boiled down to what will fit in between ESPN’s coverage of Brett Favre’s latest bowel movement or what will get the most hits on youtube. Sportswriters, no longer able to grab their readers with learned and florid game recaps, now depend on unearthing the latest scandal to attract readers. This has led to a culture where lurid allegations and flashy narratives have superseded the games themselves. Moreover, it’s the allegations that get the “hits,” facts be damned. More and more, sports journalism has become a competitive contest between writers seeking to throw out the next big bombshell that takes down an icon. Witness two current coverage patterns.
Jim Tressel, the iconic sweater-vested football coach at Ohio State, has recently come under fire for not disclosing an e-mail sent to him by an erstwhile “booster” warning him of violations being perpetrated by five of his players. While the investigation into this matter is not complete, the media’s coverage of this event already has Tressel tried and convicted. Debates about his now “tarnished” legacy rule the sidebars and the airwaves. That this is a monumental rush to judgment is an understatement. Yahoo Sports, who broke the story, laid out an impressive, well-researched article detailing the facts of the case from their sources. They performed their due diligence and broke a story. No problem there. The issue I have is with a journalistic culture that, sensing blood in the water, has now engaged in a feeding frenzy of speculation and judgment about Tressel’s character and motives. That’s not journalism. That’s a group of hens gossiping by the clothesline. Tressel has proven himself a winner, both on the field and off. His players unanimously praise him for his mentorship and his presence as a positive force in the Columbus community is well documented. Even if this violation proves to be the worst (the 10.1 “unethical conduct” as laid out by the NCAA), does that diminish everything else this man has done? Have we become so graceless that one indiscretion can undo a lifetime of service? While Tressel roasts on the media’s spit, we pay little attention to Kirk Ferentz presiding over a workout regime that sent several of his players to the hospital, or Matt Painter’s current extortion attempt at Purdue. No, coaches being negligent or pitting universities against each other to extract millions of dollars are passe in today’s culture. The compelling narrative is the “Senator” being caught withholding an email.
This culture of narrative overriding reality is no more evident than in the coverage of this week’s Final Four. On one side of the bracket is a matchup of two coaches who have had public run-ins with the NCAA. One of these coaches, Jim Calhoun, will serve a five-game suspension next season for presiding over a program which was found to have improper contact with recruits (Kelvin Sampson was fired for that), improperly distributed game tickets to AAU and high school coaches (a major recruiting violation), and did not monitor activity between a player and an agent. The NCAA found Calhoun responsible for these violations and oversights. On the other side, John Calipari presides over a once renegade program, Kentucky, that has now gone over 20 years without even a sniff of NCAA violations. Calipari himself infamously coached Marcus Camby, who was found to take money from an agent without Calipari’s knowledge or complicity, and Derrick Rose, whom the NCAA ruled ineligible for a fishy SAT after they had cleared him on three separate occasions. These incidents resulted in both players being declared retroactively ineligible and the season’s accomplishments (Final Four appearances) being vacated. The NCAA explicitly absolved Calipari from any wrongdoing in both cases. Which narrative captures the media’s attention this week, the coach currently awaiting a suspension from the NCAA, or the coach who has never been sanctioned by the NCAA? That’s right, Calipari. Why? It makes for a much more compelling narrative to “credit” Calipari with vacated Final Fours (big penalty) than to focus on the coach who actually committed smaller (?) violations. The hypocrisy in all this was best illustrated with the analysis of Bob Knight, that bastion of selective integrity, who now being an analyst, continues to hound John Calipari for his “unethical” behavior, falsely saying that Calipari has “put two schools on probation.” Meanwhile, Knight’s friend, Calhoun, is absolved of wrongdoing in Knight’s eyes.
That’s the sorry state of sports reporting today. With writers turning their once noble trade into cheap tabloid gossip and columnists and analysts competing to say the next outrageous thing so they can get a headshot on PTI, the sports fan must wade deeper, past the driftwood of today’s substandard journalism to the deeper waters where facts exist independent of the most current narrative being created.