Each exhale that escaped my lips hung visibly in the Appalachia air. It was the wee hours of Dec. 19, 2009 and I stood outside a fieldhouse at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium. Villanova had just defeated Montana for the former’s first NCAA football championship, and muffled jubilation of the Wildcats singing in unison escaped the building.
Outside were two people: me, and another young reporter representing the Sports Network. From the party scene emerged the title game’s Most Valuable Player, Matt Szczur. Villanova’s star wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback/returner/insert position here had spoken with media at the press conference about a half-hour prior — a press conference in which yours truly inundated the interviewees with questions, I might add.
Szczur had no obligation to speak further in sub-freezing temperatures. And believe me, it was frigid. Before kickoff, light snow fell. It was an evening fit for Christmas week. And yet, there was the game’s star, a soon-to-be Major League Baseball talent braving the chill to talk with two young reporters.
The 15 or 20 minutes Szczur spent out there provided more detail into the game than anything that could have been passively observed from the press box. He was more candid than in the zoo-animal-on-display atmosphere of a post-game presser, talking about his NFL and MLB prospects, Chris Whitney’s killer block to free up a big Szczur run, and his future bone marrow donation to a little girl in his home New Jersey.
Certainly, it was an experience that would have eluded the readers of my championship coverage had I been on a warm, cozy couch rather than standing on the wet, frigid Finley Stadium turf. Sure, it was not an event the level of the NBA Playoffs and thus of interest to a smaller readership. But I would like to hope that candid moment was something that resonated with that readership beyond my own inferences of the game and guarded press conference quotes.
Grantland.com featured a discussion between Bill Simmons and Malcolm Gladwell this past week that tackled, in part, the state of sports media. Each is a respected contributor to the industry for vastly different reasons, but seemed to share a common bond in their mutual malaise toward modern reporting practices.
If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven’t we experimented at all? Any “improvements” in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It’s like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There’s Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99!
The most famous and widely read sportswriter in the United States ascended to the industry’s pinnacle without having to bear the post-game frenzy, pick through cliched quotes or hear the 10,000th “question” that started with “Talk about…” His assertion that the
Telecommunications have put journalism at a crossroads. Newspaper staffs shrink by the day, as web-based media outlets keep springing up exponentially. However, the internet is not necessarily replacing newspapers in that the former’s access is sparse. We’re at a point in human history when the world is its smallest, yet the gap between media and newsmaker is expanding.
Elements of sports journalism could persist with the majority of writers embedded on their couches, but the
I feel inclined to state upfront that none of the preceding or following is intended as a take-down. Firstly, me trying to take down either Simmons or Gladwell is the equivalent of the Carlsbad 10-and-under Pop Warner club calling out Nick Saban and Alabama. I would allow my tone and argument to imply this, but so much of today’s media critiquing has descended into vitriolic, if not sophomoric name-calling . Furthermore, the sentiment discussed in their exchange is a common one with certain validity.
I have attended my share of bad press conferences. Hell, most of them are. I have been one of three, two of us reporters and the third an interviewee who wants to be there less than we did. I have been packed shoulder-to-shoulder alongside TV and radio talking heads asking Bob Knight intentionally incendiary questions with the sole goal of generating a soundbite.
The majority of pressers provide no insight into the games or the athletes. There are instances when the reporters on hand don’t ask the right ask questions, or fail to coax a worthwhile response of the athlete. There are instances when I asked a question I thought was a home run, only to get a reply that made me feel I should retreat to the corner with a cone-shaped “Dunce” cap on.
Sometimes though, the story is about so much more than what is said. Standing inches from LenDale White on the Coliseum field in October 2005, I got hardly any usable quotes and none that genuinely enhanced coverage. However, just being amid the scene that was 2005 USC football with one of its stars detailed enough for a thesis. There is this hulk of a man, fresh off yet another win, swarms of reporters huddled around him and 93,000 still in their seats, cheering. The game had been over and the Coliseum was still packed — this was Los Angeles! A city famous for abandoning the venue early to beat traffic.
Other moments are captured in something as simple as a facial expression. That same season, I covered Arizona vs. Washington. It was mid-November, both teams were out of the bowl picture but playing for pride. Just before the half, quarterback Isaiah Stanback evaded tackles and launched a 50-yard bomb that was good for a touchdown, breaking a tie and giving UW a momentum shift it would not relent.
I asked UA defensive end Copeland Bryan about the play and the defense’s breakdown. Bryan was always a favorite interviewee of mine because of his well explained, detailed answers. In this instance, the always personable Bryan’s face went stone. He stared into the desert night for a few seconds. Those five or so seconds before he answered felt like an eternity, and an eternity’s worth of material could be extracted from that one look.
Sports journalism may be one industry, but many different styles shape it. CBS gets much different content from Gregg Doyel than Brett McMurphy on the same topic. Yahoo! Sports thrives with Charles Robinson doing something different from Dan Wetzel who does something different from Graham Watson. ESPN is no different. Just because a writer can spin an interesting feature doesn’t mean that same writer composes compelling columns. Each can glean something completely unique from the same thing, which results in a more enriching experience for the reader, and now is the time to dig more for such uniqueness, not relent for cut-and-paste material.
Gems are there to be mined. And as more inviting as a warm sofa and HDTV is than 30 degree Appalachia air, the latter is what produces gems.