Sports reporting will survive Woods’ affair

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Most sports fans get far more excited about fantasy leagues and analysis than by an athlete’s personal fantasies. Yet, Mitch Albom believes sports journalism is devolving into gossip, rumor and paparazzi.

Tiger Woods

Seems like a lot of people are angered by how Tiger Woods has been treated in the media during the past month. Woods’ affairs have certainly been reported rather heavily. But I do not share Albom’s fears about sports reporting.

Unlike Albom, I do not believe this coverage is going to send sports journalism spiraling. We are not going to see stories about cheating offensive linemen, point guards and second basemen plastered across sports pages.

Why? Because they are not Tiger Woods.

So why is it okay to report on Woods’ affair?

Woods does make most of his money from public endorsements of products, thanks largely (of course) to the fact he plays golf like no one since Jack Nicklaus. He actively seeks the spotlight, making him a public figure. Like any other public figure, Woods’ personal affairs are going to get reported. (Although Woods was able to persuade the National Enquirer not to publish a story on his infidelities in 2007, according to the Wall Street Journal. Now that’s power.)

Back to Albom’s premise: That journalists will spend more time looking for juicy tidbits on athletes, much like the paparazzi does with Jennifer and Brad and Angelina. In some ways, he’s right.

Sex sells. Gossip sells. Bad behavior sells. The TMZ approach of capturing your worst moments and splashing them around the world will be a hard thing for more conservative news outlets to ignore. It’s a giant sucking force, a steamy, melting pot of celebrity where being the major league home run leader is the same as being a “real housewife” of Atlanta.

On the other hand, Albom goes nostalgic, saying old-time journalism is preferential:

Once upon a time, we looked away from the other stuff. Now we never stop staring, following, snapping and gossiping. Maybe the old method wasn’t telling the whole story. But at least we weren’t manufacturing it.

But the good old days were not always so good.

In the 1920s, during the alleged ‘Golden Age of Sports,’ sports writers like Grantland Rice and Fred Lieb sought to create heroes for a variety of reasons. Mostly, though, creating larger-than-life characters sold newspapers. So they did not report on Babe Ruth’s indiscretions.

Yet, the media did heavily report on Jack Johnson, the world’s first black heavyweight boxing champion a few decades before that. Why? Because, in 1909, you could sell an awful lot of newspapers by writing about a black man romping through houses of ‘ill repute’ and then keeping a white woman as a ‘companion.’ Babe Didrikson, arguably the greatest female athlete of all time, was also treated poorly for having the audacity to be a lesbian. She was used as a bogeyman by mothers who warned their tomboys: Play sports and you’ll be a masculine same-sex lover like Didrikson. “It would be much better if she and her ilk stayed at home, got themselves prettied up and waited for the phone to ring,” Joe Williams wrote in the New York World-Telegram.

Conflict sells – books, plays, movies, TV shows, sports events, short stories, newspapers and blogs. Conflict is at the heart of storytelling. So how could the media not write a story when the world’s most prominent, most successful athlete cheats on his wife? With, perhaps, a dozen or more women!

Albom wonders: where does this gossipfest end? With TMZ launching a sports website? That’s a start. Unlike Albom, I am not bothered by paparazzi coverage – mostly because I usually don’t read it. I really don’t care whether an actor is cheating on his wife, or whether a ‘personality’ is tramping around with several guys. I also won’t care if TMZ starts reporting on indiscretions by a middle infielder in Seattle or Pittsburgh. That’s not really where my sports tastes go. I’m pretty dull, like many sports fans who prefer to read a story dissecting the ‘Wildcat’ offense that’s now growing more popular in the NFL, or a story analyzing how stats like on base plus slugging (OPS) are growing more valuable to baseball general managers. Or even give me stories where athletes face difficult challenges.

Most sports journalism is going to revolve around game coverage – precedes, game stories, glogs and folos – and not on gossip. Instead, sports journalists are going to analyze performance, point out trends, describe key plays, offer quotes from those involve, and offer commentary.

I’m not bothered that some publications and websites may spend far more time checking into the personal lives of those who play these games because, as a reader, I can select those things I want to read and discard those I choose not to read. You know, the whole marketplace of ideas thing, where “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution.” Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that in 1919. This still rings true.

Arguing against public tastes is like screaming into the wind. Nobody really hears you and the wind doesn’t care.

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