I have a dream that one day, in a postgame presser, a coach or manager will explain away a loss with the kind of rationalizations that kids in high school come up with for their poor SAT scores: "Yeah, we coulda ouplayed them, but, you know, screw it. We were hungover. Some of us played it drunk. In fact, I'm drunk right now. IDGAF."
My emotional maturity might be stuck at "unruly teen," but what should seem more unrealistic is the ceremonial seriousness with which we attend postgame press conferences. While coaches avoid providing significant information, they face almost exclusively negative outcomes for doing anything else. We should be surprised that every coach isn't surly or tongue-in-cheek all the time. Honestly, they should mess with us as a rule.
Every coach knows the minimum that reporters need to file a story -- a reaction quote, some insider detail, "we're disappointed," "his arm hurt." Done. While the coach would probably love to break down the game and punk fools, and while reporters would have a collective wordgasm in response, both sides long ago struck this acceptable bargain of minimal compliance.
We've slouched toward this mutually dissatisfactory arrangement because the alternative route contains too many pitfalls. Honest opinions hurt players' feelings and give opponents bulletin board material. Analysis exposes the game plan. When it comes to a coach's primary job responsibility -- winning games -- honesty hurts. Meanwhile, fattening reporters on a high-content diet breeds resentment the moment coaches withhold something from them. If resentment is inevitable, better to not be a hypocrite later and consistently keep a tight lip from the start.
The coaches' remaining incentives are at best inconsequential. They know their jobs depend on the pleasure of ownership/GMs, and those people never say, "Great job in that press conference!" Thus, fines for non-attendance at pressers present the only coercive measure in sports. While they can be fined for profanity or blaming officiating, real negative reinforcement comes via compelling them to merely occupy physical space.
A coach could burn reporter after reporter like Don Rickles without repercussions:
"Great question, man. Did you think that up this morning while putting on your pedometer?"
"I don't wanna go on too long and hold up y'all from making Trip No. 4 to the buffet."
"I can't see who's asking that question because with all the bright lights in my face it just looks like a Van Heusen outlet exploded from the inside." "
"Hang on, everyone stay still, I wanna Snapchat my wife a picture of what wasting my time looks like."
If a coach did that, the average fan might see days of sports shouting and steaming hot takes. But, by and large, the average fan considers most journalists the lowest of the low. Someone trying to wring a drop of truth from your coach is cursed to suck. He either writes too soft a feature on a crappy player or goes too critically after a good one. He asks too many or too few questions at any given time, and he carries too much or not enough water for the team. He is the Heisenberg Suck Principle: Whatever sports-chemistry reaction is going on, you only have to open the paper or turn on the TV to see that he has transformed into something wrong. And he's always there, breeding contempt with years-long familiarity. This is why even fans who hate Gregg Popovich enjoy watching him verbally roundhouse kick reporter after reporter as they verbally come after him black-ninja style: There are no people involved.
At that point, a coach zinging the press corps faces only two outcomes, assuming he possesses a record of competence. One, he makes fans chuckle, complicit in annoyance with that guy who has a column photo that looks like a "BEFORE" picture in an antacid commercial. Two, if he really goes off the rails with anger or condescension, he winds up in a beer ad in 10 years. He faces the agonizing choice between short-term fan-service and eventual pop-culture immortality.
Funny and surly coaches don't even have to wait that long. Look at this season's NBA Playoffs on TNT. Ernie, Chuck and the gang routinely interrupted postgame recaps to run video of Popovich no-selling or burning journalists. Instant hilarity and instant approval. No matter how respectable the journalist, he was the straight man to Pop. Sometimes it seemed to be funnier the better the writer was. As Krusty the Clown once said, "The pie gag only works if the sap's got dignity."
I am on the record as enjoying the intransigence of coaches like Pop and Bill Belichick, and their open disregard for the fundamental emptiness of the press conference format pays significant dividends. With Belichick, his refusal to disclose information on almost any level of importance, classifying as much data as possible, results in analysis that can impeach itself. Like Kremlinologists latching onto the limited information that leaked from the Politburo, Patriots writers have to try to extrude meaning from data that could be monumentally important or, in the full light of day, fairly trivial. If they guess wrong, then, through no fault of their own (they've gotta write something after all) they look bad. Then, down the road, readers might doubt a reporter's next story even if it turns out he was right all along.
Popovich has elevated this contempt for the presser to something like an art form. He's not so churlish or clipped as Belichick, and he's more emotional, which gives him a sense of accessibility instead of robotic negation. It's style more than substance, but it pays off far more.
While Chuck and Kenny and Ernie laugh at his punking reporters, reporters nonetheless sing his praises. Joe Posnanski wrote a piece last year that revealed Pop's fundamental, almost Washingtonian grasp of press corps management. One, his being combative gets applied evenly, without bias. Two, he makes it part of the cost of doing business, a pro forma thing created by the terms of a presser. Three, off the record, he's gracious and sometimes revealing. Pop knows that there are very few journalists on Earth who won't put up with Job Face if you let them see your People Face in the off hours and let them know that you see theirs too.
While Belichick practices off-the-record charm far more reservedly, Pop gives the sense to reporters that their relationship is like the old Warner Brothers cartoon of the wolf and the sheepdog clocking in at the beginning of the day and saying, "Mornin', Ralph," "Mornin', Sam." Everyone is doing their job, even if sometimes that job is clowning on a dozen people who have to listen to you.
Being aware of the dynamic even helps journalists praise it. On Sunday night, a native Spanish-speaking reporter for ESPN Deportes asked Pop a good question that came out poorly. He misconjugated a verb, seemed to get lost in noun-verb agreement while translating on-the-fly in his head, then made his way haltingly toward an end he didn't seem satisfied with.
Had a native English speaker asked it, Pop probably would have unloaded. Maybe a withering question: "Do you want me to wait until you know what your question is?" Or maybe just answering with as few words as possible. Instead, the coach appeared to soften a little, recognizing that this writer had to go to extra effort to ask the same question that native English speakers do, and he responded with a quote that was almost florid by Popovichan standards. He broke down the Spurs' game failures in a concise but comprehensive paragraph, something that gave the reporter a genuinely solid quote. Moments later, I watched people in my "sports" Twitter timeline give Pop various degrees of attaboys, while I thanked him for working to climb over a potential language barrier.
This was a cool and decent thing for Pop to do. He made an extra effort for someone else who, by dint of mother tongue, has to make a constant effort just for showing up in an American media landscape. But when you look at the transcript, Pop's going the extra mile is indistinguishable from what basically every other coach does in basically every other presser. Such is the power of context. The virtue of not treating every question with the same level of saccharine engagement is that a genuinely thoughtful professional move doesn't drown in a sea of insincerity.
Every coach can't become a curmudgeon. There aren't enough good ones for us to tolerate that as a baseline behavior. But talented coaches should feel free to stretch their legs and burst the bubble of self-seriousness around these exercises. We all know they can't call out their players without causing problems in the locker room. We all know that calling out opponents only puts targets on themselves. We all know that detailed plans or analysis come fraught with the potential to become a Trojan horse, used against the team itself.
Given that, we know we won't learn anything. We know three quotes will come out, and a herd of journos will go off to file their stories. We all know that we won't enjoy it. Pop and the Hoodie could show up dressed like mimes and pretend to be stuck in a box for an entire press conference, and, just for the sheer screw-you novelty, we would all put aside our natural inclination to murder every mime. And they should. Anything is better than a compulsory information-starved standoff that we all know only exists under penalty of fine.