Sunday, January 27, 2008

Raising the Level of Discussion

I don't have much of a stake in this whole new sports media landscape. I don't even know how to find out how many page views I've had. I assure you it's not very many. I haven't a told a single person I know that I took up writing a blog - until today. 

I've been living in New York City almost two years now. I'm not sure if I just got lucky, but immediately, I took interest in two web sites, The Big Lead and Deadspin. Today, I think most would describe them as the two most relevant sports media sites out there that aren't owned by a massive media conglomerate (Nick Denton's Gawker not yet qualifying). I've got a very modest writing background – it’s not my profession – but I felt compelled to offer my services to the editors of both sites. I wanted to be involved. I got polite responses from both: an offer to write a San Diego Padres season preview from Deadspin' s Will Leitch (I didn't take him up on it), and a short time later, I guestblogged for TBL. Guestblogging was an enjoyable experience, and offered me an opportunity to revisit one of my most favorite subjects: what would happen if the NFL and NBA squared off in a football game (the NBA would win, naturally). I read both sites often; I still comment occasionally on The Big Lead.

All this introduction is a way of saying: I'm disappointed. This week - the week that Leitch's book was released and TBL gets a mention in the first paragraph in the lead story on by one of the best writers currently writing about sports - the most popular subjects on the respective sites are Dana Jacobson's poor decision-making at a silly ESPN function, and whether or not a particular Univ. of Florida co-ed is dating Heisman winner Tim Tebow.

I got hooked on Deadspin and TBL because I was pretty much spent on ESPN's perspective of sports. They just didn't seem relevant anymore. My mornings are now spent with a bowl of cereal in front of my computer, not my television. ESPN isn't presenting stories that my friends and I talk about. The topics that interest us most are usually ignored or covered poorly. Stories brought about on TBL or Deadspin closely resemble the conversations I've always had with my friends. In high school, it was Jim Rome's "takes" being broadcasted locally on San Diego's now-defunct XTRA Sports 690 (we're talking 1994, people). In college we emailed Bill Simmons’ writing around when it first started showing up on - when he was "Special to Page 2", and not an over-worked variety entertainer stumping for Disney. That stuff resonated.

Given the response that compromising photos of athletes and journalists alike have created on Deadspin, I'm now positive that I'm not the only person out there who finds a picture of an obviously sloshed Eli Manning funny. I can't help it. Somehow it resonates, also. Maybe this reaction is my generation of sports fans' (I'm 27) collectively asking themselves "What the heck are we doing with all this information?" It seems an appropriate response to being so invested in something you (seemingly) cannot possibly change. You can only spend so much time rehashing Dusty Baker's destruction of the Cubs pitching staff because of his inability to grasp the finer points of PAP before wondering what the heck Kyle Orton does with his free time. 

A decent portion of the content on ESPN is a joke; it's the product of the 24/7 news cycle. Both print (on-line) and television. I don't think anybody disputes that. Probably not even higher-ups at ESPN would fight that point very vigorously. To witness five minutes of banter between Skip Bayless and the unfortunate soul seated across from him is to know that ESPN is not in the business of presenting a high-level discussion. And Bayless is a bright guy. He knows his role.

Observing the de-construction of these people: Bayless,
Woody Paige, and Sean Salisbury, brings with it a certain amount of satisfaction. I can't say I wasn't pleased to find that somebody was covering the worst behavior of ESPN's most poignant personalities. Accountability, at last! Though after a few years of observation, it seems that this coverage just feeds the machine. ESPN's current ombudsman Le Anne Schreiber - she took the reins from the decidedly less tenacious George Solomon - has turned into one of the only must-reads at Strangely, for me, reading about office politics and the journalistic misses of a sports network have proven more interesting than reading about the sports themselves. And I don't think I'm alone. 

That's not to say I don't enjoy sports. Through HGH, NCAA recruiting violations, Bud Selig, the BCS Championship, and everything else, I find myself caring about the outcomes and storylines. And I find myself wishing that TBL ran more interviews with media types. Got more "journalisty" more often. And that Leitch would lend his much-needed perspective on the absurdity of the NCAA and the on-going steroids controversy more often. The first sports website I check every morning is still The Big Lead and I don't see that changing any time soon. Nobody gives me a better rundown more quickly. But I think it’s worth remembering that chasing eyeballs is what got ESPN to where it is today. Listen to this interview with Leitch,
aired Saturday on NPR. Towards the 3:30 mark Leitch is asked to explain a glossary entry about Tony Dungy in his latest book. The interviewer found it to be in poor taste. Leitch backpedals a little saying the bit about Dungy "may be a bad example" and that it was a "cheap joke". The interviewer then goes on to suggest that Leitch is perpetuating the same stereotypes he is presently roasting advertisers for in the text of "God Save the Sports Fan". 

The pressures one faces when trying to sell something (a book perhaps; or advertising, whether it be on a television channel, or a popular sports blog) to an expecting audience are nearly universal... and we are the audience. The same people that used to watch the 11 o'clock SportsCenter religiously and found Jim Rome's Fax of the Day to be the cleverest of commentary. And don't get me started on the Ewing Theory. 

I'm going to keep hope alive that Will Leitch is right. That we (sports fans) are not all as dumb as Anheuser-Busch thinks we are. But, if we're not, why are we so captivated by Jacobson swilling vodka?