Mike Lynn, the former Minnesota Vikings general manager in the 1970s and ’80s who was as much an impresario as he was a football man or a corporate executive, shared his vision one day of major sports coverage in America.
“There won’t be any of these postgame interviews, any of that stuff,” Lynn said, after deigning again to meet with a few Twin Cities reporters one crisp fall afternoon at Winter Park. Lynn always made a game of it, sitting behind a desk, and in an office chair, that you swore was 6 inches higher than the armchairs in which you sat. He enjoyed the banter.
“Covering a game will be like reviewing a movie or a Broadway show,” Lynn said. “No one goes backstage to talk to the actors after the play, right?” With that, he waved his hand dismissively at the rabble before him.
This was nearly 20 years ago, remember, back before the Internet, long before ESPN had become the World Wide Leader and at a time when sports-talk radio was in its relative infancy. Yet even then, Lynn, as the proprietor of an NFL team, was itching for more control of its message. In time, he and those like him across most major sports would get it.
And fans have been worse off ever since.
Access, in the beginning, was about Dick Young beating his contemporaries by trudging down from the press box in search of athletes’ comments. Young, who covered the Brooklyn Dodgers for the New York Daily News in the late 1940s, generally is credited with nudging sports writing beyond its purple-prose, pseudo-poetic, myth-making roots. (Until then, it was a bunch of Damon Runyons cracking wise and Grantland Rices waxing about those four linemen in South Bend “outlined against a blue-gray October sky.”)
The sporting press, mind you, always had enjoyed access to the people it covered. Writers rode the same trains, stayed in the same hotels, caroused in the same speakeasies, lived in the same neighborhoods, took the same flights. There was the story, probably apocryphal, of a naked Babe Ruth bursting through one door of a railroad car, running down the aisle, then exiting at the far end, a sprint repeated seconds later by a scantily clad woman wielding a knife. “Did you see that?” one Yankees writer asked the other scribes in his card game. “See what?” came his answer.
What was new, with Young and those who followed, was the professional, official, on-the-record access, which eventually bled into all sorts of unofficial on-the-record access. Hanging around together — in locker rooms after practice, at airport gates waiting for early-morning flights, in hotel bars — writers got to know athletes as people. It was the best of both worlds: New standards in the media world snuffed a lot of the cronyism — the (ahem) “close personal friends” approach to covering sports — but the familiarity provided valuable context.
That’s what keeps shrinking. There are numerous reasons why sports folk and media folk run in separate circles (salary disparity, race and age differences are a few), but distrust and unfamiliarity head the list. Players and teams, somewhere along the line, felt burned by athletes giving up too much information. Maybe a clubhouse skirmish or a screaming match in a practice was made public. In football, coaches needlessly fret about out-of-town reporters “spying” on strategy (when they should have been watching Bill Belichick’s staff instead). So locker room doors get closed, practices are put off-limits and interview sessions long enough for more than a “sound bite” or two all but vanish.
No longer dependent on old media to get their stories out, most NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL teams host Web sites and pay staffers to put out features, stats and, when needed, heavy spin on tougher stories. Blogs, when written by fans who never actually talk with or ask questions of the principals, only encourage more detachment.
And the coverage just gets harsher.
See, in its attempt to control the story by limiting access, a team mostly just changes the story. Now, instead of writing about people — a father of three, a guy who grew up in Hooterville, a gal who feels embarrassed at her shallow fame or a lucky kid whose parents sacrificed everything for his athletic pursuits — we’re left to cover players. Or worse, positions. And it’s a lot easier to criticize the power forward who just missed two crucial free throws with three seconds left than it is to get snarky about a fellow who was up all night with his sick 3-year-old, just hours before he stepped to the foul line with his team trailing by one point.
Will sports coverage ever get as detached and pre-packaged as Lynn suggested almost two decades ago? Not until the outcomes are scripted like the movies and the plays. Till then, access is king, and sports writers will need to be there, asking questions as the fans’ surrogates, not watching on TV somewhere. (Oops, almost forgot the obligatory shots at the blogosphere. Here goes…) In their underwear. From Mom’s basement.