Knowing when not to be a fan (in response to @jakeleber10 re @mellinger and @dan_shaughnessy)
I dropped off the media radar to spend time with family in Detroit this week, but escaped to spend a few hours on Friday afternoon to work on my classes for next semester. IntroSports is going to be a lot of fun, even if I can’t tag-team with Vicki Michaelis.
One of the things we say over and over again to our students is that when you’re a professional—whether it’s in broadcast, communications/PR, or journalism—you can’t be a fan. You can turn your fan-ness back on after the event, but to be a professional is to be dispassionate until your work is finished. That’s why we ban sports-logo clothing, hats, gear etc. in class. It befuddles students, but it’s a simple example of what we mean by being professional.
A couple of columnists made this point much more eloquently late last year. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe wrote about why he as a columnist doesn’t “want” the Patriots to win, a form of treason to fans he meets:
I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. I love football. I love the story. The story can be great, win or lose. But I am not emotional about the outcome. Overall, of course, it’s better to work in a region with good teams, and Boston has more than any other city. Most of the time it’s a great story if they win. It’s even good for the city. Money flows. Strangers talk with each other. Sometimes it’s a good story even if they lose.
Patriots at Ravens Sunday is a good example. If the living-on-the-edge Patriots win, it’s off to the playoffs. If they lose to the surging, cocky world champs, the pressure mounts. It’s a good story either way. The game is suddenly bigger than it was. I can’t wait for the game. And I don’t care who wins.
This is a variation on the sportswriter’s old saw, “I’m not rooting for the team, I’m rooting for the story.” Reporters, especially in the post-Watergate era, want the good story, especially the big story. But not in a salacious, tabloid-y kind of way. I think what Shaughnessy is saying is that he wants the best true story, regardless of whether the team located in the same town as his paper wins or loses.
In response, Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star made a similar but more personal point about what it’s like to cover the teams he grew up watching:
[Kansas] played Northern Iowa in the second round, and that was The Ali Farokhmanesh Game. If you don’t recall, click that link. Farokhmanesh, this little guard and the son of a former Iranian volleyball player, not only took a shot that NO coach would want taken (there were like 32 seconds on the shot clock) but hit it, sealing the game. My only critique is that he didn’t do the Sam Cassell dance after.
But the milemarker came when Farokhmanesh’s shot went in. My first reaction wasn’t, “Oh, crap, the school I went to lost!” It was, “Holy crap, what a freaking shot and this will be a great story!”
This can be a hard lesson to learn. I had four students in the press box at Sanford Stadium for Georgia’s Senior Night game against Kentucky, when beatified quarterback Aaron Murray tore his ACL in the second quarter. It was a wretched end to a blameless career, and I watched my kids battle the need to be professional for the assignment (writing a running gamer) and wanting to share their anguish with the 12,000 or so of their friends who were watching on the other side of the stadium.
In the end, they did fine. They learned the lesson that Prof. Michaelis and I wanted to teach—that the essence of being a sports media professional is being able to do your job without cheering or sobbing, taking in and understanding the significance of the moment without wallowing in your own emotions.
Sportswriters and broadcasters get accused all the time of favoring the teams they root for in their coverage, or picking on their enemies. The most recent example is the vitriol heaped on Thayer Evans of SI, for the investigative package he helped write on Oklahoma State. That kind of abuse from fans just comes with the territory; former Athens Banner-Herald sports editor Chris White has gotten grief for being a Florida alum.
Many of the blog networks—SBNation.com, BleacherReport.com, ESPN’s TrueHoop network—intentionally hire (recruit might be a better word; we’re not talking about full-time jobs) bloggers from the fanbases of the teams they want to cover on the theory that passionate fans will be steeped in the history and culture of their teams, and that their passionate opinions about the ups and downs of a given team will attract other fans to debate, criticize, and, most importantly, drive up pageviews. As a business play, that makes a fair amount of sense, especially when the content is cheap.
But I think and hope that there will be a market for expert storytelling and analysis, the kind that doesn’t come cheap. Not just long-form narrative, but news, features, blog posts, and storyforms that represent both good reporting and well-developed expertise. You can get that from Mellinger, Shaughnessy, Evans, and any number of other good writers. And not just from classically-trained journalists: Nate Silver fits this mold as well or better than any of the other folks I’ve mentioned.
And one small bit of this is something everyone who works in sports learns sooner or later: At work, you’re a professional. You can have fun, but your job comes first. Being a fan comes later.