One of the things I've learned covering New York City sports teams over the last four years at New York magazine is just how much our sports teams are, in many ways, the company in a company town. You can do your best to write about a franchise with fairness and impartiality -- and those two things are always just illusions to strive for, not actual concrete goals you can achieve -- but deep down, the average consumer is always going to be on the side of the team, not the reporter.
Criticize Carmelo Anthony, and you're a hater. Talk about Derek Jeter's range at shortstop, and you're just jealous and anti-Yankee. Talk about the Mets' inability to do anything right, and … well, all right, no one really cares about that. But as much as people want sports media to cover stories and set up our storylines, they'll pick players over media every time. Hell, every time I watch the ESPYs or even see some site scream about its EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ATHLETE ABOUT HIS NEW FRAGRANCE/CHARITY/HORRIBLE SPORTS BEVERAGE, I'm reminded that most of the time, media pick players over media. They play; we don't. Rick Reilly and Bill Simmons might be making "ballplayer money," but few real people care about who they are. They like athletes, not people who type or talk about them.
With these inherent marketplace preferences, there are bound to be imbalances and abuses, and there's not much any reporter can do about it. You certainly can't complain when a sports figure is mean to you; a few years ago, Hartford Courant columnist Jeff Jacobs went public with how much of a big jerk-head then-Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun was to him and succeeded only in making himself look like a whining ingrate. You can't win: In the world of sports, media are at best referees … and everybody hates referees.
But that said: What is going on with South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier and The State columnist Ron Morris is downright terrifying.
FITSnews.com, Saturday Down South and Deadspin all have the full run-down, but here's the short version: Last year, Spurrier refused to talk to Morris and publicly accused him of making up stories. But last week, Morris wrote a column arguing that Spurrier shouldn't have played quarterback Connor Shaw in a win over UAB, that he might have caused the player long-term damage. Spurrier was so angry about the piece that he refused to talk to the media at all last week. Again, annoying, a bad precedent, but not a huge issue, and certainly not unprecedented. (Morris didn't make a good case for himself by comparing Spurrier and South Carolina to Joe Paterno and Penn State.)
What was unprecedented was what happened next. Spurrier admitted that the reason he wasn't talking to the press was Morris' column, and then took it one step further. After a strange "apology column" from Morris, Spurrier sensed weakness and took it a step further on his radio show:
"I think we need to make some changes. I think some positive changes are going to happen," he said. "They have a little problem over there [at the newspaper] that we know about, but they're working on it. Our president and our athletic director, they're all backing me in this.
"We're winning. It used to be cool to try to trash and bash the head coach, from what I've learned. But it's not cool anymore. I don't think I have to put up with that anymore. I'm not taking any more of this stuff that's coming out of our local paper anymore. If that's part of the job, I'll head to the beach. That's not part of the job. So, we're going to get it straightened out."
I'm no expert on such matters, but that sounds to me like a threat: Nice column you've got there … it'd be a shame if something would happen to it. Think I'm reading too much into it? The day after Spurrier's comments, the Columbia, S.C., ABC affiliate that had been employing Morris to do segments about the Gamecocks fired him, saying: "In light of the recent friction between Ron and other parties, I made the decision to eliminate his weekly segment in our news. … [Free speech] does not, however, protect the writer from consequences in the realm of public opinion or the marketplace." (Sheesh: Remind me never to work for that guy.)
To recap: Columnist criticizes coach. Coach, feeling empowered because of a winning streak, calls for firing of columnist. Columnist is then fired.
Sure, the State hasn't fired Morris (yet), but that "apology" column last week reeks of internal pressure. The sort of pressure you're feeling when a coach who feels more powerful than ever because his team is winning starts to bring the hammer down in a small football-crazy town. And more to the point: The type of pressure you feel when your industry is weaker than it has ever been, covering an industry that is stronger than it has ever been.
That times are difficult for newspapers right now is hardly news. But we're starting to see concrete effects of the newspaper industry meltdown in our regular sports coverage now: It's getting nearer to the point that more apologists and boosters are covering the teams than outside, uninterested parties. We've seen incremental moves in this direction already, with the number of journalists who are employed by the leagues and teams they cover. This hasn't been a problem so far; the reporters who cover teams for MLB.com, and Alan Hahn at MSG.com, for example, are, from this view, as fair and critical of those teams as anyone from outside organizations.
But this is how it starts. Someone has to bankroll journalism, and as time goes by, teams and leagues are in far better financial position to do that than publishers are. (For example: The site you're reading right now. Half of it, anyway.) So far, I haven't seen any crossing of the streams at reputable organizations. But eventually, there will be fewer of these newspaper reporters, and thus fewer people remembering just how the separation of church and state should work. And the line will creep more and more toward "shill, or no paycheck."
This is just a logical next step. This example is particularly brazen and ugly -- a coach actually pulling weight to have a critical sportswriter fired -- but that might brand it less as "an anomaly" and more as "ahead of its time." In the past, a publisher or editor might have a reporter fired for being too much of a house organ for the team he/she covered. But those people don't have the power anymore; they're often too busy trying to keep the lights on. So the ones running the teams, the ones who hold the cards now, step in to fill the void. And the average fan doesn't care. Who's he going to side with, some random dude who gets to watch sports for free all the time and therefore has The Greatest Job In The World yet still is so busy hatin', or Steve Spurrier, the guy who has the Gamecocks in the AP Top 10? (Or, as it'll be called in 10 years, "the GoDaddy.com Top 10.") The public isn't on the media's side in this.
The foundation of journalism is disinterested parties. That's in a perfect world, and rarely exists in the real planet we inhabit … but it hasn't been this brazen in decades. I'm telling you: This is how it starts. His columns might not be the most stirring things I've ever read, but seriously, before it's too late: Free Ron Morris.
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Remind me not apply for a job with WOLO-TV, ABC's Columbia, S.C. affiliate. Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? 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.