I've got a confession to make to you.
I am a professional sportswriter, and I've interviewed hundreds of athletes in my life. I've interviewed athletes for several days over several months, I've interviewed athletes as they've fallen asleep in the back of an SUV, I've interviewed athletes for one minute a day for 15 consecutive days, I've even interviewed athletes while doing shots in the back of a Lower East Side bar while said athlete sucked down Mandarin Absolutes and Red Bulls. But here's something I've never done: I've never asked a question at a press conference.
This is a ridiculous confession for a professional sportswriter to make because, in many ways, press conferences are the only time most people see any of their favorite athletes answer questions in the first place. The postgame press conference has become part of sporting lore, where athletes theoretically face the music or, more likely of late, play around with their cute kid. The postgame press conference is such a staple of how we experience sports that you can actually simulate it in a video game.
I'm not sure I can make a strong argument for the utility of an institution that can be so easily simulated in a video game. There's even a "heartwarming" question that requests the (fictional) athlete to talk about his connection to a (fictional) childhood friend who (fictionally) died earlier that year. The (fictional) athlete is then instructed to tell a (fictional) anecdote about all the (fictional) good times they had together. The questions have the same cadence, pivots and transitions; they're Mad Libs questions: simply add in your proper nouns and statistics.
And I think that's why I never ask a question. The setting is so artificial, so obviously constructed for dramatic moments -- or moments of confrontation, a tripe so warmed over that the video game interview actually has the player frustratingly snap, "Write whatever y'all want!" at the assembled press core -- that press conferences are not so much interviews as they are players following their assigned roles. It feels like Kabuki. It feels like everybody's pretending.
I thought about this during the post-Masters media scramble for Jordan Spieth yesterday, who appeared to have his second consecutive green jacket in hand before collapsing down the stretch. As The Masters wound down and you realized that Spieth -- previously thought to be unflappable and preternaturally steady -- was choking the lead away, thoughts turned to the press conference afterward. We didn't want to hear what he had to say, though; it's not like he was going to say anything particularly enlightening about why he lost. We just wanted to see how he was going to handle it.
It seems that reactions like these are the only thing that people look for out of postgame press conferences now. We want to see someone who lost, and how they handle it. This has always been part of the dynamic, but of late, we appear to have collectively decided that we can tell something about a person's soul by how they respond when 100 middle-aged (mostly) white people gather in a small room and ask about how you feel. This didn't start with Cam Newton at the Super Bowl. But that's when it officially became a referendum. That's when this became public theater.
Thus, Spieth stood there, and everybody got to take a swing. The questions were phrased differently, but they all essentially asked the same thing: "Can you give us an emotional public moment after that embarrassing spectacle?" This is what the press gaggle did to Newton, and in their eyes he failed, walking off after one too many questions in which he had to explain the most devastating moment of his professional life.
Spieth definitely passed this test, for what it's worth. He handled every question with calm, poise and composure. He even handled this little bit of awkward questioning, which is what happens when a reporter is trying to write a positive story -- hey, Jordan Spieth is still a really good golfer despite the collapse! -- but forgets to ask anything and instead simply states the premise of his piece out loud.
Spieth should have just walked off. Unreal. pic.twitter.com/y4dLLMLDob- Chris Hrabe (@chrabe) April 10, 2016
This response is what we expect of Spieth, and you'll hear a lot of people call it "classy," a word that is guaranteed to make me suspicious when you use it. Calling someone "classy" always seems to be less about the people you're saying that about and more about the people you aren't. And one person's "classy" is another person's "full of shit." Most of the time when we call someone "classy" for their responses, it means they've muted their obvious emotions and given us canned answers. Isn't that supposedly the opposite of the reason for why anyone asks questions?
Spieth is comfortable and measured and relaxed, and he doesn't betray any emotion. He just answers and keeps his chin up. And good for him, I guess. But I don't think it tells us a single damned thing about him, in the same way that Newton walking off tells us nothing in particular about him, either. Or, more to the point, the only thing it tells us is that Spieth is able to project a percent corporate-friendly image after a crushing professional defeat, and Newton is unable to do so. Is this what we're testing them on? Is that what we have press conferences for?
I hope Cam Newton is watching Jordan Spieth's interview right now. To be a true professional you have to be able to face the music- mark schlereth (@markschlereth) April 10, 2016
Here are the only real responses we were looking for from Spieth:
• "Classy." In other words, gives us zero sense of how he is actually feeling.
• "Angry." Stomps out of the room. Lets us all call him a jerk until he wins another title, at which time we will say he has "overcome adversity" and "matured."
• "Crying." This would make for a terrific meme, which we could use against him for the next several decades!
We were looking for a public spectacle, and because Spieth didn't give us one, he is deemed "classy." (Even as we're all secretly disappointed.) Spieth is not an interview subject. He is a public specimen that we are all hoping will dance for our benefit.
Look, I claim no moral high ground in this. Even if the fodder I got from Newton's post-Super Bowl press conference was used to defend Newton, it was still quite useful fodder. We're all just feeding the machine as fast as we can so that it won't eat us. But let's not pretend we're doing anything all that particularly useful.
Now, I understand that this is, in many ways, the only access to athletes available, and I'm not saying it should be taken away. (Though with the creeping lack of access to reporters growing in all sports, we might not be that far away.) But I'm just saying that I often don't understand what the utility of press conferences is supposed to be. Everybody is on camera, everybody knows it, and the idea that you can find any truth there is a bit baffling
Look, I don't avoid asking questions at press conferences because I'm above it, like I've somehow got all these Super Serious Deep Thoughts Questions™ just hankering to be asked and answered. The reason I avoid it is because I honestly don't know what to say; I have no idea what question I could ask that would elicit any sort of meaningful, introspective, enlightening answer that would tell us much about the event we just witnessed; to help explain to us why Jordan Spieth collapsed down the stretch; to help answer why Cam Newton played the worst game of his career. Any question I'd ask would simply be a request for the athlete to make writing a story easier for me. Except I'd be doing it for everyone to watch.
These press conferences are not about sports -- they're about how athletes deal with the media. Those two things are slightly connected -- but only slightly. And I'm beginning to worry that they're not telling us a damned thing other than what we already want to think we know.