In terms of one’s place on the social status spectrum, being a sportswriter is a pretty demoralizing experience. Fans always think you’re trying to screw their favorite team and resent you for getting to go to games for free. The teams you cover would rather you and your industry just go away already. The players you write about think your job is vaguely pathetic and spend most of their time nodding their way through your annoying questions while trying to get dressed. (Or sometimes, in the purest distillation of where they think you stand on this planet, they fart in your face.) The only real perk is rewards points at hotel chains. It’s not the most glamorous job in the world.
Unless you’re a superstar. Superstar sportswriters, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, are not like you or me. They have long since done away with the endless road trips and the editorial pressures from up high and the khakis covered in mustard stains and black ink. They are at the Top Of Their Field, standing above it all, having ascended to the highest level the profession can attain: Nationally Recognizable On Television. There aren’t many of these guys: The first might have been Frank Deford -- who was famous enough to do Miller Lite ads -- or, in the TV sports age, Rick Reilly, who was also famous enough to do Miller Lite ads. But I’m not sure he’s there anymore; same goes with Mitch Albom, who’s only ostensibly a sportswriter anymore, choosing instead to peddle New Age claptrap. I’d think the list now is probably: Tony Kornheiser. Jay Glazer. Bill Simmons. Peter King. And, perhaps the most pertinent to this discussion: Michael Wilbon.
Last week, Wilbon got in an online tussle with Washington Post blogger/columnist/all-around gadfly Dan Steinberg. The details of it, the substance of the argument, are mostly boring, a, “You hate Washington, D.C.! No I don’t! Yes you do!” sort of thing. What I took away from the incident was something I’d suspected about Wilbon for a while: He’s not really a sportswriter at all anymore. He’s now on the side of people sportswriters write about. He has crossed over.
If you didn’t know this already, the culmination of the “feud” -- an angry Facebook screed by Wilbon directed at Steinberg -- confirmed it. In the post, Wilbon does the two things that the subjects of sportswriters always do to denigrate media: He talks about how popular he is, and how unpopular Steinberg is. The two money quotes:
“I’ve seen increasingly how impressed Dan Steinberg is with himself and his non-column.” (I was a real columnist at the paper. Not you.)
“Anytime, anyplace you want to post and compare résumés or career highlights I'm more than happy to engage.”
That last one is the big one: It’s basically the equivalent of yelling “Scoreboard!” This is like when anyone in any field uses how much money they make as a signifier of their self-worth. It is not for nothing that when Rick Reilly signed with ESPN a few years ago, he said he was making “ballplayer money;” that resentment, that vast gulf between writer and subject, changed sportswriting forever, and most of the old-timers (who dream of the days when they’d just go have beers with players and coaches) still fuels a lot of guys.
Wilbon, thanks to “Pardon the Interruption” -- a show that felt revolutionary when it began, back before we realized it would essentially ruin sports television -- and his work on ESPN’s NBA shows, is now superfamous in a way that no sportswriter could ever be. Because of that, he’s now talking like a celebrity. He boasts of fancy parties he goes to, dismisses his critics as haters who just aren’t smart enough to become as successful as he has and, most noteworthy, strikes up lasting, close friendships with the people he ostensibly is supposed to be covering because, now that you’re famous, you think you are one of them. The most obvious example is Wilbon’s closeness with Magic Johnson, his ESPN cohort, but this has been an issue for a while, from Tiger Woods to Michael Jordan to Charles Barkley. Now, Wilbon has a right to be friends with whomever he wants; for crying out loud, those three guys are a lot more respectable than any of my friends. But when you are exclusively in that circle, you can start losing touch with why you went into this. It starts to look like this fame is all you ever wanted all along.
This is hardly something specific to sports. It’s perhaps most pervasive in politics, where eventually people just start crossing over from their newspapers to working for the candidates they cover. (Jay Carney, the former Time reporter who’s now President Obama’s press secretary, is the most obvious example.) Television has warped the profession just as much there, though if you don’t watch “Morning Joe,” you might not know it. (I say that as a big fan of “Morning Joe” and a colleague of New York’s John Heilemann, whom I believe to not have this problem.) And at least in politics, those journalists still actually write columns; I’m not sure Wilbon has seen a Microsoft Word document in years. Why would he have to? He’s on TV now!
I mean this not to be specifically critical of Wilbon as a professional or as a person -- I have only met Wilbon once and was frankly taken aback by how warm, friendly and welcoming he was -- but instead to point out the phenomenon. What was noteworthy about Wilbon’s rant was not that he was so angry with Steinberg; what was noteworthy was that he spoke it from the mountaintop, going after Steinberg the way a celebrity would go after the paparazzi. Wilbon seemed to see it simply as this nobody nipping at the heels of his greatness.
I generally enjoy Wilbon on television and will take him over some former athlete with nothing interesting to say and few camera skills any day. (Like, say, some of the other people on the NBA on ESPN panel with him.) I have no resentment of his success; I’m honestly happy for him. And good lord, I wouldn’t want his level of fame anyway; thank heavens I’m so bad on television I won’t have to worry about it. But there’s still something sad about seeing Wilbon like this, like this aloof ultracelebrity tossing down thunderbolts at the plebeians down below. I find it sad not because of Wilbon specifically. The fear is that this is a universal condition: When you become that famous, you grow to believe that you are different, that the decisions you made are now justified, that you are indeed special. And you forget who you once were, and those who were there with you. I think I find it sad because, deep down, I fear he might be right: Most sportswriters might indeed envy him and, if they were in his position, would turn the exact same way. I hope not. But I have my doubts.
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You think this is bad: Wait until ESPN finally DOES give Bill Simmons ESPN8. 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.