Friday, January 18, 2013

Why I'm Glad I'm Not a Sportswriter

Posted By on Fri, Jan 18, 2013 at 10:50 AM

We don't call journalism the first rough draft of history for nothing.

The Lance Armstrong and Manti Te'o and Chip Kelly stories are being analyzed by some brilliant columnists. See Rick Reilly on his 14-years covering Armstrong, Gail Collins on Armstrong, Rob Moseley on Kelly leaving Oregon for Philadelphia, and Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman on Te'o and the online girlfriend hoax. All I can say is, wow. And whew.

One of the toughest assignments in journalism is covering someone you know is not being completely truthful, while they fire back at you with angry denials, accusations, and hired lawyers and flacks. But their biggest weapon is silence. Sports columnists and reporters depend on regular access. I feel for the reporters with daily deadlines who get cut off by athletes and coaches for trying to do their job honestly. They can be placed at a competitive disadvantage when the stars favor other reporters who are more compliant. It's all about the "gets" — the exclusive interview, the one-on-one, the personal details in a profile. I think of former Memphis Tigers basketball coach John Calipari and the Derrick Rose college admissions test story or former Tiger basketball coach Dana Kirk, who went from toast of the town to convicted felon in the space of three years. Professional careers of journalists as well as basketball players were made and broken by both coaches.

I started this blog a year ago to write primarily about racquet sports and other minor sports from a fan's perspective. Among other things, I thought it would be a relief from the saturation coverage of football and basketball. I tried to develop a regular panel of insiders and former pros. But when I broached the subject of appearance fees or use of performance-enhancing drugs, my sources mostly took a pass. Not, I believe, because they had anything personally to hide but because those subjects are fraught with so much uncertainty, misinformation, wink-and-nod, and potential reprisals. No sport is pure. Better to not go there. Just focus on the events and scores.

But money, cheating, and melodrama keep shouldering their way into the sports report, and last week's Armstrong-Te'o-Kelly trifecta was a perfect example. I am fascinated by it as a fan and a reporter and columnist. It must be hard enough to cover grumpy Memphis Grizzlies when they're on a losing streak. But covering cover-ups, when you know they're staring you in the face, is harder. I'm glad I don't have to do it. For my money, Rick Reilly is still the greatest. My hat is off to Deadspin, too, but the job of the beat reporter is a lot different from that of the analyst.

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