One of the best pieces of sports journalism I’ve read in the last 10 years was, perhaps predictably, not written by a sportswriter at all. In May 2011, The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin wrote “Madoff’s Curveball,” a sharp, funny, even sad profile of Mets owner Fred Wilpon and how his life’s work was threatened by his unfortunate relationship with disgraced Ponzi schemer Bernie Madoff. It told the story of Wilpon’s childhood in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, of his friendship with Sandy Koufax, and how his relationship with Madoff started innocently and turned into two decades of intricate, bewildered deceit.
It was a complex, riveting story -- with serious, deep, open access to a Major League Baseball owner, a rarity on the scale of capturing a Bubal Hartebeest in the wild -- of a complex, riveting man. It is precisely the sort of story we’re always claiming we want to see more of, 10,800 words on a serious, vital topic done with craft, humor and attention to detail. It is sports journalism at its finest.
Here’s how the rest of the sports world reacted to this well-researched, enlightening piece: “Fred Disses Players.” (All that’s missing there is a subhead that says, “Wilpon’s EPIC FAIL ZOMG!”) At one point in the story, Wilpon said that soon-to-be-free-agent Jose Reyes “thinks he’s going to get Carl Crawford money … he won’t.” (And he didn’t.) He also said that David Wright isn’t a superstar and made fun of himself for overpaying Carlos Beltran. These were small, humanizing tidbits mostly irrelevant to the larger story, meant to help us understand Wilpon as a regular human being and fan, at least as much a regular human being as a baseball owner can be. The real story was Madoff, and Wilpon’s journey and predicament. But no one in our sports media world had interest in, or the patience for, that. Thus: FRED SEZ METS SUCK!
I’m not near the journalist Jeffrey Toobin is, but this has happened to me a couple of times as well, most recently just last week, when my story about the Brooklyn Nets’ impending arrival turned into “Nets owner smacks Knicks!” because of a playful, minor joke that Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made when he referred to James Dolan as “that little man.” Those were three words from a 4,200 piece -- one that had nothing to do with the Nets-Knicks “rivalry” -- and it’s all anyone cared about. There were those who criticized the story on its own merits, and I found them a relief: Finally, someone had at least read the whole thing.
It’s the sports media lather-rinse-repeat cycle, the notion that that there’s no room or space or time for nuance. No story should contain more than one point that can be repeated over and over until people are tired of it. Then you get “reaction” to that point that is repeated over and over until people are tired of that, and then everyone moves on and finds the next, “new” point. ESPN is, of course, the primary purveyor of this -- thanks to a multi-channel ravenous beast that now requires constant, to-the-second feeding -- but it’s not like the rest of us are somehow standing above the fray. Everything is about aggregation and ultra-simplicity and repetition, repetition, repetition. In a phrase, “It’s the tweet.”
That’s the wording that Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith -- a man I’ve met and whose work I admire -- used to describe “the tiny morsel that [he] felt had the best chance of getting attention on Twitter,” according to Marc Tracy in his terrific story about Buzzfeed in the new issue of The New Republic. He’s describing the way Buzzfeed covers politics: It scans long(ish) news stories, looks for the immediate takeaway and pounces on that. Buzzfeed does more than this -- its sports department is better than you think, and political reporter Michael Hastings is among the best in the business -- but this is their bread and butter, how they pay the bills.
I’m not sure what they’re doing is all that revolutionary, though: This is the way sports media has worked for years now. We’ve put it in different formats, from sports radio segments to blog posts to “breaking news” updates. There’s so much going on so often that no one stops to look at any context. Sports news is much more easily consumed in small bits than in large chunks. Large chunks take too long. We’d prefer to spend that time, you know, watching games. Sports coverage is generally facile, in part because there’s just so much of it.
We can wring our hands and lament this dumbing-down of America, pretend that back in the ’60s, when all the baby boomers were allegedly innocent, America was full of smart, mannered folk immune to the crass idiocy of today. But I think the real reason for this is the only people who take sports all that seriously are sportswriters. (This includes most athletes, I might add.) The average human being has real-world business to care about -- their job (or lack thereof), house payments, their kids’ school, that guy across the street who hasn’t mowed his lawn in weeks, the nagging sense that life is simply nothing but random emptiness with the darkness of death creeping in from all sides -- and sees sport as an escape from all that.
When you work in sports, you think sports are far more important than the rest of the planet does. I can write a long story about the Nets, and Jeffrey Toobin can write a long story about the Mets, and the average person -- who couldn’t care less about how the Nets built their arena or how Fred Wilpon grew up -- is just looking for something to chat about when they’re killing time at a sports bar or, more likely, online. “It’s the Tweet” isn’t a pithy epithet about killing journalism. It’s essentially the way most human beings think on a basic level.
It bothers me a lot more in politics -- which, as much as we might like to pretend otherwise, is in fact more important than sports, even if it’s still adjusting to its “post-truth period.” We can write and comment and fill airtime and pixels all we want, and nothing is going to match the experience of physically watching a sporting event. The best we can hope for is to try to elevate the discourse when we have the chance. We can just be grateful if someone reads the whole thing.
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And hey, if you're reading this, you made it to the end! Thanks! Remember: This column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email, or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.