The fun-and-games department

Story by Chris Graham

It is not as if the steroids scandal that has been the talk of the baseball world for the past year or so was a recent revelation.

“Every single sports reporter covering the San Francisco Giants in the late 1990s and the early part of this decade thought that Barry Bonds was on steroids,” said Will Leitch, the editor of Deadspin.com, referring to the scandal du jour in baseball involving Bonds, the Giants slugger, whose alleged steroid use and abuse is chronicled in a book that was released last month.

“They were all talking about this amongst themselves – but it was not something that they shared with their readers. And one reason was that they were afraid of getting in trouble with the press-relations department and having their press passes pulled,” Leitch told The Augusta Free Press.

It is hard to imagine a similar scenario playing itself out in, say, the world of politics – where threats from press officers morph into front-page news and op-ed fodder in a vermilion flash. But then, it seems that the rules of the game in sports journalism have long been different from those in other segments of the media trade.

“They don’t necessarily practice traditional journalism ethics,” said Steve Outing, a media columnist for Editor and Publisher.

“The more I talk to people, the more they confirm that both inside and outside of sports journalism there’s a fair amount of awareness that it’s not journalism as it’s supposed to be,” said Neil deMause, a freelance sports columnist and the author of Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money Into Private Profit.

“That’s probably a valid observation – that people who work in the sports department, whether it be at a newspaper or a radio or TV station, probably operate under some different expectations, if not guidelines, than do the more traditional hard- and soft-news reporters,” said Tim Wulfemeyer, the coordinator of the journalism program at San Diego State University.

But Wulfemeyer, for one, sees movement in the direction of the adoption of the practice of more traditional journalism approaches in the print and broadcast sports media.

“With the intrusion, and maybe rightly so, of legal concerns, medical concerns, business concerns, maybe some of that might be changing sports journalism a little bit – and maybe should change. The sports reporters of today – the good ones, anyway, working for good news organizations – shouldn’t be held to any less stringent professional and ethical standards than any other journalist,” Wulfemeyer said.

“The good ol’ days of going to every event free that you possibly could and bringing your friends and family along perhaps are part of the golden age of sports reporting – and probably doesn’t have a real place these days,” Wulfemeyer told the AFP.

DeMause agrees that there shouldn’t be a place for kid-gloves sportswriting in today’s media climate – but that said, we have the steroids-in-baseball issue that went uncovered for how long again?

“Absolutely these things don’t get covered – whether it’s steroids or domestic-violence issues or business issues. Sports journalism in particular tends to either approach serious issues as a scandal to play up or sensationalize, or it doesn’t talk about them at all,” deMause said.

“That’s why you didn’t see, for example, the use of amphetamines discussed by sports journalists for decades – because it was something that wasn’t in the public awareness. If somebody had started writing about the fact that athletes were popping amphetamines left and right, they would have been in serious trouble, and no one would have talked to them. That would have put their ability to do the rest of their job at risk,” deMause told the AFP.

Issues of access are still key considerations for sports reporters and sports editors, said Steve Klein, the coordinator of the electronic-journalism program at George Mason University and the former on-line sports editor at USA Today.“The denial of access in sports is almost commonplace. And that has an impact on reporters and sports editors,” Klein said.

This is very much the case at small- and medium-sized papers, said Klein, the former sports editor at The Lansing State Journal, a Michigan-based daily with circulation in the 70,000-papers-a-day range.

“My beat reporter was also our main columnist. That’s not a good combination – because of the nature of what a columnist does is different from what a reporter or enterprise reporter does. It was not good staffing – it was necessitated by staff size. But it isn’t smart,” Klein said.

“Very often, he would take a more lenient side in his opinion on something – and I had to play the bad guy all the time. He was the good guy, I was the bad guy,” Klein said.

“I thought that a good deal of his coverage was dictated by fear of losing access. And I think that a lot of sportswriters, especially at community papers, are concerned about that – and it’s a legitimate concern, and a legitimate problem,” Klein told the AFP.

Chris Simmons, the long-time sports editor at The Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, a 31,000-paper circulation daily, has been fighting that battle on the front lines of the Shenandoah Valley sports scene for 21 years.

“If you talk to most high-school ADs in our coverage area, they would not be happy with a lot of the stuff that we do,” Simmons said. “We try not to wait for the press conference to find out who the coach is or who the next AD is going to be – and they don’t like that. They want to conduct their business in secret.

“In a lot of small communities, they’re able to do that – because they either don’t have a big-enough paper or the sports staff is more game-oriented or feature-oriented,” Simmons said.

Simmons said his goal is to have a daily mix of game and feature stories along with hard-news stories on issues of interest on the local sports scene.

“That’s not always the case at a lot of small papers. When you get to the big-league level, a lot of news staffs are more news-oriented and cover things like the other departments. And that’s one of the things that we’ve stressed here,” Simmons said.

“Even when I hire reporters, in my ads, I often will put, ‘News-oriented sportswriter’ – to make it clear that I don’t want a jock-sniffer. I don’t want a guy that wants to work in sports just because he likes sports. I want somebody who has all the tools of a news reporter. Because in sports journalism now, you’ve got to be able to do all of that,” Simmons told the AFP.

Increasingly, though, it is the well-tooled reporters and columnists outside of the mainstream who are breaking the sports-news stories of the day.

“It’s not as if I’m writing anything radical on the Web site – but everyone seems to think that it is, because there’s no sense of the structure that everyone is so used to,” Leitch said.

“So much of the culture of sportswriting is set up in the idea of, well, we go to the games, we eat our free buffet food, and after the game, the press-relations people bring us up to players and coaches, and then we file our stories. There’s nothing difficult to it at all,” Leitch said.

“The problem is that sportswriting has been evolving in this way for so long that the notion of challenging authority or challenging the status quo doesn’t even come up for discussion,” Leitch said.

“A lot of people tell me, ‘Wow, you’re reporting on so much stuff that nobody else will report on.’ I answer them, ‘Not really. I just report on stuff that regular people are talking about. And I don’t have to worry about, Oh, no, is my press pass going to get revoked?’ ” Leitch said.

Significantly, teams and leagues seem to be catching on to this trend as well – and are using the World Wide Web to bypass the filter of the sports media to connect directly to fans.

“More and more, if I want to find out the results of the Denver Broncos game, I can go to one of the local newspapers – or I can get the same information by going to the Broncos Web site. If you’re not necessarily a really savvy media consumer, you very well might be inclined to do that,” Outing said.

“Over the years, the team Web sites have become media entities in their own right – and for a lot of them, that’s a strategy. They see their Web sites as more than just a promotional tool – but actually as a news source,” Outing said. “I’ve seen some team sites where they’ll actually have a columnist – who is maybe even writing in a similar style as a columnist from the local newspaper might write. But this person is obviously paid by the team, and is obviously never going to utter a discouraging word about the team.

“The interesting thing will be if the public sees through that – and thinks, I’ll get a little more balanced view if I go over to my local news outlet and get the information there. Because the columnist that I read there is going to be a little more balanced than the guy who’s paid by the team,” Outing told the AFP.

That these sites are popular with sports fans is not a surprise to Wulfemeyer – who senses that there is a decent-sized subset of the sports-consuming community that never had a problem with sports being treated as the fun-and-games department by newspaper editors and radio and television news directors.

“Many people look at the sports pages or watch the sportscast to try to get away from the grim realities of life – and most of your hard-core sports fans would just as soon not have as much of the realities of life intruding into their little escapist area as we see today,” Wulfemeyer said.

“But sadly, the grim realities of life have started intruding into the fun and games – as is true in other areas, for example, the entertainment business, music, art, TV programming, movies. It’s the same kind of issue for reporters in those areas. Entertainment reporters operated with some different standards as well up until fairly recently,” Wulfemeyer said.

“Now the playing field is getting leveled for all reporters. If you’re a sports reporter, you’re very likely to be covering legal, ethical, business, health issues – as often as your colleague covering the courts or city government or the political beat,” Wulfemeyer said.

And this is a good thing, Wulfemeyer said.

“The traditional role of journalism is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” Wulfemeyer said.

“Maybe athletes and others in sports got a free ride for too long. Maybe it’s good that they’re being treated like everyone else in the world. One of the major roles of journalism is to be a watchdog of big business and big government and big celebrities. Why should sports be any different?” Wulfemeyer said.

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