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Sports Journalism Sucks

media_rantsBy Tony Palmeri

Mainstream American journalism, as the Media Rants column has been ranting about for more than 12 years, occasionally meets standards of excellence but more typically runs on a spectrum from mediocre to insanely bad. Political journalism is probably the worst of the lot (too often it meets Joseph Goebbels definition of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play) with science and business reporting tied for second. That CareerCast recently ranked newspaper reporter as the worst job of 2015 (#200 out of 200), with broadcaster coming in at #196 is no excuse.

Mainstream sports journalism? I wish I could wax eloquently about it with a verbal dexterity and grace equivalent to the awesomeness of a Lebron James layup. Unfortunately the quality of sports journalism (to the extent that such a thing even exists) requires only one blunt descriptor: SUCKS. Unless of course your idea of quality sports journalism is mindless cheerleading, bland press conferences, inability to tell the difference between real and manufactured scandals, and so-called experts screaming at each other on cable television. If that’s what we mean by quality sports journalism, then without question we have the best in the world.

Poor sports journalism is not strictly a modern phenomenon. The late Howard Cosell complained about it in the 1970’s. Cosell is most remembered for being one-third of the original ABC Monday Night Football broadcast team and for his theatrical banter with heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Less remembered is the fact that Cosell saw sports as more than just entertainment or distraction. His interviews with Ali during the champ’s Vietnam War draft refusal period and subsequent suspension from boxing raised the bar for what should be legitimate sports news; in his 1973 autobiography Cosell recounts how the ABC network received complaints along the lines of, ‘Get that nigger-lovin Jew bastard off the air.’

Cosell in 1973 lamented the general absence of journalism in sports coverage, both in broadcast and in print. Not much has changed, as can be seen in the treatment of three recent sports stories that cry out for competent journalism: (1) Chris Borland’s retirement from football, (2) The Chicago Cubs treatment of prospect Kris Bryant, (3) The NCAA final four basketball tournament in Indianapolis.

Chris Borland’s Retirement: Refusal to Tackle the Elephant in the Room. When 24-year-old Chris Borland announced his retirement from the San Francisco 49ers this year (he was one of four players under age 30 to retire in 2015) after citing the possibility of future head trauma and diminished quality of life, he presented the mass media with a golden opportunity to give urgency to the issue of the National Football Leagues many decades long attempt to cover up the dangers associated with the sport. Remember how the major media for decades minimized or ignored the dangers associated with cigarettes? The rush to get Borland and others out of the headlines as quickly as possible is eerily similar.

Kris Bryant: The Media’s Uncritical Acceptance of the Business of Sports. Baseball’s spring training is supposed to be the time when players compete for spots on the major league roster. So when Chicago Cub third base prospect Kris Bryant hit 9 home runs in spring, he appeared to be a lock to make the big league squad. Bryant may be on the team by the time you read this, yet the Cubs sent him down to the minor leagues for at least the first 12 days of the season so as to guarantee that he could not become an unrestricted free agent until 2021 at the earliest. In other words, the integrity of the game came in second to the owner’s bottom line. This is of course not unique to the Cubs; in fact it is typical across franchises in all professional sports. What’s distressing is the media’s almost uncritical acceptance of the business side of sports, resulting not only in lower quality play (i.e. delaying the big league arrival of prospects like Bryant), but also making it easier for owners to raise ticket prices at will while having the audacity to ask taxpayers for money to refurbish stadiums or build new ones. Absent a critical media, sports team owners can get away with just about anything.

The NCAA Final Four: Sports Media Called For Blocking Foul. In an epic case of bad timing, the Indiana legislature passed a homophobic version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act during the height of March Madness in Indianapolis. The legislation in its original form would allow private businesses to refuse to serve gay, lesbian, and transgender persons on religious grounds. Massive protests erupted in Indianapolis, and even all four Final Four coaches signed on to a statement rejecting discrimination in any form. Yet moving the games out of Indianapolis was never seriously considered. Why? Because sports reporting mostly blocked any serious discussion of that issue, leaving it for the serious news to handle.

There are some great sports journalists out there. Mark Fainaru-Wadas and Steve Fainarus work on football’s concussion crisis and other issues is extremely well researched, provocative, and powerful. Dave Zirins Edge of Sports column brings a sense of social justice and moral clarity to sports. Regrettably, the Fainarus and Zirin are the glaring exceptions to the general rule of suckiness.

Tony Palmeri (palmeri.tony@gmail.com) is a professor of communication studies at UW Oshkosh.

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