The archetype in the public consciousness of the American sportswriter was probably secured by Jack Klugman’s portrayal of Oscar Madison in the television version of “The Odd Couple,” the mustard-stained rumpled cynic. (For decades, this archetype allowed sportswriters the illusion that it was somehow acceptable for their personal appearances to reflect a total lack of self-respect.) Then there was the Raymond of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” a slight upgrade but still a schlump with a forgiving wife, grating parents and lovable/wacky/rotund neighbors and friends. It is worth noting that the primary reason for either one of these characters to be sportswriters was so the network could cast real-life sports stars in walk-on parts. Needless to say, it’s rare that a scribe has Terry Bradshaw or Bobby Riggs over for dinner.
These caricatures -- along with the actual caricatures you see on ESPN every day -- might make those who work in sports media believe that the general public has a somewhat positive view of them, at least in concept, rather than individually. But rest assured, they don’t.
Back in August, I was at New York Jets camp working on what would eventually become a feature for New York magazine. This was right before “SportsCenter” started broadcasting live from there every day -- aka the Sal Paolantonio Cortland Quarantine -- but it was still ridiculous. You would not believe the number of paid professionals there to watch Tim Tebow pretend to block the air out of punt formations.
Some of the practices were open to the public, and a surprisingly high number of people showed up in the rain to watch anonymous grown men in shorts run calisthenics. The way the Jets had set up the stands, though, they had placed the front row of fans directly behind where they had set up the media to observe. In other words, those fans who were so devoted that they showed up to get the best seats but couldn’t see, because reporters were in their way. As you might expect, a lot of fans didn’t like this, and two of them yelled at three reporters to get out of their way.
Those three reporters were Rich Cimini and Jane McManus of ESPN New York, and me. There are three ways to handle this situation, and we ran the gamut:
• Cimini: [facing straight forward, growling] “Hey, we’re trying to do our jobs here. We ain’t movin’.”
• McManus: [turning around, kindly] “Actually, I know. I’m sorry. This is a problem every year. The Jets put us in a situation where we’re all on one side of the field, and unfortunately, that means we’re in the way of some fans. We’ll be out of the way soon, but it’s probably something to take up with the Jets. We’ve asked them to change it. But I am sorry.”
• Leitch: [pretending he doesn’t hear anything] [sticks ostrich head in ground] [cries]
McManus’ technique was the correct one, but it didn’t matter: They grumbled at us anyway. And why not? The average fan sees media people as not only freeloaders who don’t know how good they’ve got it, but also as people who, in fact, stand directly in the way of their sports fan experience. All they’re doing is trying to muck up trouble, or to invent a story that is not there. (Tim Tebow, New York Jet, is helping no one’s cause here.)
Media people are seen, essentially, as just people who get into games for free. (And are given free food.) As people who “get” to hang out with athletes, rather than interview (and sometimes be belittled by) them. And as people who have ulterior motives: troublemakers. I want to make it clear that, on the whole, I think most fans are wrong about this. But when you consider the way most media people think of fans -- either as face-painting mouth-breathers, Twitter trolls, or both -- well, most media people are wrong about that too.
Fans are suspicious of media. And media are suspicions of fans. I have personally tried to bridge this gap in my career, but I’m not sure I’m particularly successful at it, unless you count “yelling at Giants fans over Twitter during the NLCS” as “successful.” But every time I see a sportswriter retweet something offensive a fan has said to him or her, or a fan asks a sportswriter if he can get him an autograph from a player, I feel like the gap is getting wider than it should be.
The odd thing is that the gap between sports media person and sports fan is, in fact, closer than it has ever been. That probably just makes each side more annoyed with the other.
But let there be no doubt: No one considers this a real job. I wish sports media people would treat fans more like McManus did. But I wish fans wouldn’t boo people for doing their jobs either. I suppose this will all just end up working out when everyone works for Bleacher Report.
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My dad is an electrician and my mom is a nurse. So they KNOW I don’t have a real job. 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.