We Shouldn’t Worry About Sports Journalism Being Aggregated Because Sports Journalism Isn’t Journalism

I work in public relations. I worked on a sports desk for a major metro daily for five years. Let me tell you something you may already suspect: the two are mostly one and the same.

I say this as context for this week’s pearl clutching and handwringing from The Big Lead, bemoaning the piss-poor state of things at CBS Sportsline.com.

I remember a lifetime ago, working the sports desk at the Miami Herald and fantasizing about a world where I’d be freed from the soul-crushing resource bereft daily paper game for greener digital pastures. And in those days, all pastures seemed greener than the Herald’s.

CBS Sportsline.com was one of those pastures. They frequently advertised open positions on JournalismJobs.com, and the dynamic of their digital newsroom sounded innovative, fresh, and cool. All of us would apply for nearly any position with the hopes of being “called up.”

The well-sourced Big Lead piece details the erosion of coverage in golf and other sports, citing some reporters as an anecdotal example of the larger move to fewer reporters and more aggregation of events.

The piece is right in that it is kind of sinister to fire a writer and replace him with retweets of his own Twitter account. There are absolutely smaller contingents of coverage today at golf, tennis and other sporting events than in decades past.

But there’s a funny thing sports journalists like to do when they talk about sports journalism: they like to pretend it is actually journalism. One of the classical tenets of journalism, perhaps the most crucial definition of the profession’s mission, is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Sports reporting invariably does the opposite: rewarding the winners with positive, unquestioning coverage, critiquing (or worse, ignoring) losers. Sports journalism plays the results. It doesn’t look below the surface. It rarely looks beyond the field of play, and when it does, those few brave souls are exhorted to stay in their lanes.

Journalism is skeptical of those in power and gives the benefit of the doubt to those who oppose it. Sports journalism gives the benefit of the doubt to those in power—leagues, commissioners, owners, networks and players—and eschews the controversial individuals who oppose the power structure.

Sports journalism looks sidelong at reports of brain disease as a result of repeated concussions, until they’re proven true. Sports journalism scoffs at reports of dishonest officiating, until they’re proven true. Sports journalism refuses to address the issue of race in sports and the inherent imbalance of power it represents, until they’re proven true.

If Woodward and Bernstein were working a sports beat, they likely wouldn’t have returned Deep Throats calls.

To call the average sports reporter a journalist is to call the hosts of Entertainment Tonight journalists, which is an insult to journalists.

Here’s a litmus test to see if you’re a journalist and not just a sportswriter: Have you bylined a story that was not reported from a game or a practice in the past month? If yes, was that story a glowing profile? Do your sources use you exclusively for their own financial gain, leaking news that will help them secure better contracts for their clients? If not, you might be a journalist.

Conversely, have you filed a story in the past month that was mostly already written but simply required some fill-in-the-blank quotes from a postgame presser? Have you filed anything titled “gamer,” “notebook,” “rail,” or “practice report?” If so, you probably aren’t a journalist.

(Incidentally, lest sportswriters think I’m picking on them, the same logic holds true for the White House press corps, who themselves are little more than glorified PR professionals. Emphasis on “glorified.”)

I remember when, at a major regional paper down here, a sportswriter covering college football was preparing a puffy profile on a university booster, the kind of callow, wide-eyed drivel that you can find on any given day in the sports section or on ESPN.com.

The sportswriter, in researching the subject, found he had been recently arrested for a pretty serious drug violation. A booster hanging around a major college football program, allegedly trafficking narcotics: In the hands of a capable metro writer, or even a hungry intern covering the general assignment beat, this could have been a compelling story.

But sportswriters are usually not journalists, not really. This particular sportswriter was less concerned with the story, and more concerned with how pursuing it would affect their privileged access. Would they be frozen out? Would their cherished relationships die on the vine? Would coaches direct players not to speak to the writer, effectively making the writer’s job impossible?

Those concerns are valid. Consider the case of my former colleague, David J. Neal, who happens to be one of the exceptions to my “sportswriters aren’t journalists” contention, thereby proving the rule. There are absolutely journalists in the world of sports reporting—just not as many as The Big Lead would have you believe.

Neal is a veteran reporter with the Miami Herald who covers Florida International University athletics. In the summer of 2014, after publishing a few stories that FIU’s athletic director did not like, Neal’s credential was pulled in a craven, desperate power play by the aforementioned AD, Pete Garcia.

The sportswriter in my prior example—obviously not David J. Neal—didn’t write their piece. This happens far more often than you would think, and often in far more subtle ways—FIU and Garcia are rank amateurs in comparison. Publish unfavorable pieces, and you may find yourself frozen out of interview sessions, late to team flights, unaware of availability schedule changes, and generally hamstrung professionally.

Almost every reporting decision sportswriters make comes through the lens that a.) their beat generates revenue for the outlet, and b.) it is therefore crucial to protect the relationships with those teams.

In most intersections between corporate communications and the media, the revolving door only swings one way—if you covered politics for the Washington Post, then jumped ship to work for the administration you covered, it’s a good bet you wouldn’t be welcome back at your former beat. Who would trust you?

But in sports, it is not uncommon to see former PR pros transition into reporting roles at newspapers, digital outlets and broadcasters. In other cases, sportswriters moonlight as color commentators, sideline reporters or radio hosts for broadcasters owned by the team. This means they are effectively covering their own employers’ product. Would you trust coverage about Halliburton or GE that was produced by journalists who were taking money from those companies?

Let me be clear that I see no problem with this. I’m no purist. This system works, and these guys are generally great at getting the scoops on trades, figuring out who’s injured versus who’s suiting up, teasing entertaining quotes out of athletes and coaches, who are powerfully boring and trained to be even more so. Also, a sportswriter’s job is not easy. It’s competitive, packed with rejection and disrespect, soul crushing, at once over-stimulating and boring, bad for your physical and mental health, and far from lucrative.

But, many aspects of the sporting world deserve critical coverage, and it’s unrealistic for us to expect that kind of coverage from people invested in the outcome. Before CTE was in our national lexicon, the NFL countered the earliest blips of evidence of head trauma with derision, disbelief and fake science. In the national press corps that covers the league, that is heavily invested in its well-being, the NFL found comfort and support.

Journalists would not have disregarded that evidence without thorough investigation. Journalists would not have dutifully parroted Roger Goodell’s talking points. Journalists would not have feared the lack of access or potential career implications in covering a public health story. Journalists would not have comforted the NFL during this time. Sportswriters, by and large, did.

Yesterday, Outside the Lines published a powerful follow-up on how the NFL is guiding the conversation on brain research by funding and influencing scientists. Don’t look for any reporting like that in your local paper or on CBS Sportsline.com. Those outlets have their role in the sports media universe, and journalism it ain’t.