If readers take away any one thing from this blog, I would like it to be this: sports journalism, at least in the mainstream media, is irreparably damaged. Good sportswriting can still be found on the fringes: in blogs and in niche publications, but the vast majority of columns, analysis and reporting that’s out there is utter dreck. Writers either run cheap attention grabbers meant to be heard over the din of PTI and Around the Horn, or they churn out the same tired stories that were stale in the late ’80s, before print media had begun its death spiral.
So, throughout 2011, we’re going to track the worst sportswriting we can find, to put together a year-end Hall of Shame — writers and outlets whom we will know to avoid at all costs going forward. Some very early nominees have already rolled in.
1) When Brett Favre ostensibly retired again on Sunday, we were bound to see a rush of sentimental wrap-ups of the ol’ gunslinger’s career. But I thought that maybe, just maybe, Favre’s terrible last season and rampant dong-photo texts might quell the wave just a little bit.
Well, we can always count on the Worldwide Leader. Check out the lede from this column about Favre announcing his retirement. Keep in mind that the byline is “ESPN News Services,” so it’s not like this can be written off as subjective treacle from the likes of Rick Reilly.
Brett Favre was the NFL’s ultimate iron man for 19 years, inspiring coaches and teammates with unparalleled toughness and thrilling fans with a daredevil’s verve and a showman’s sense of the moment.
Then there’s this: Mr. or Ms. News Services calls Favre “perhaps the toughest man to ever play in the NFL.” Uh huh. The NFL’s all-time toughest dude wasn’t an offensive lineman getting banged around and gouged on every play. Or a vicious, hard-hitting safety. Or a wide receiver renowned for going over the middle and taking blind, concussing shots. It was a prima donna, Wrangler-wearing quarterback who happened to play in a lot of consecutive games, likely costing his team with his insistence on playing through injuries. Now that Favre’s gone (fingers crossed), Peyton Manning boasts the longest games-started streak. Does that mean he’s now the toughest current player? Give me a fucking break.
2) But we’ve all heard enough about Favre, so let’s move on to another fun, timely sports media topic: the debate over which players should be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Perhaps no other hot-button issue has more potential to tempt sportswriters onto their pulpits, to bring forth their venom, piety and disdain.
Now, when you couple the Hall of Fame with the steroids issue, you’ve really got something to keep an eye on.
Enter Jeff Pearlman, who has argued in a multi-part opus that Jeff Bagwell should not be a Hall of Famer because some people suspect that we might have done steroids. Pearlman’s argument represents everything that’s wrong with most baseball writing today.
He claims that the steroids issue should be held against Bagwell because: a) he became very muscular over the course of his career, b) because MLB created an environment where players got away with taking steroids, we can not blame players we suspect might have taken them (what?) and c) “If he didn’t use, Jeff Bagwell, stood by and watched his sport morph into WWE nonsense.”
Oh, dear Lord. By that final criteria, no player whose career overlapped with the so-called Steroids Era at all can ever be a Hall of Famer. The first criteria is obviously so shaky and witch-hunty that it doesn’t even need to be addressed. But the second one, the one about baseball fostering the environment that allows writers to point and cast judgement — that’s the worst one of all.
Here’s the killer part:
I covered baseball for Sports Illustrated from 1997 through 2002. I loved the experience. Loved it. In hindsight, I feel robbed. It was, largely bullshit. Bonds’ records? Bullshit. Clemens’ records? Bullshit. Fiction. A joke. And yeah, did people use greenies in the past? Did Babe Ruth never play against an African-American? Yes, yes, yes. But those weren’t the eras I covered.
This was my era.
Again, maybe Jeff Bagwell didn’t use. But based on the era—and based on everything we know about baseball during that time period—I have the right to be suspicious and skeptical.
This is the most evil and insidious implication sportswriters make about the steroid years: “we were fooled!” The fuck you were. “How dare MLB rob us of the magical 1998 home run chase and all our wonderful memories!” I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, but it remains true: ANYONE WHO WAS WATCHING BASEBALL IN 1998 KNEW STEROIDS WERE AN ISSUE. You are lying to yourself if you claim you didn’t know. Not suspect — know. Fans were relatively powerless to do anything — all they could do was deprive themselves of going to the games they loved. It’s also been proven over and over again that steroids is a writer-driven issue and fans don’t really care.
So yes, Bud Selig and his band of merry yes-men are largely to blame for burying their heads in the sand all those years. But the media — isn’t it the media’s job in a free country to perform checks and balances on our major institutions? That’s where the real failure happened here — with SI putting McGwire, Bonds and Sosa on its cover repeatedly without breathing a word of suspicion, and ESPN doing the same. And for Pearlman and his ilk to claim innocence, to claim they were wronged, is so disingenuous it makes me sick.
3) More baseball, and I’ll present this quote without comment, from Eric Ortiz’s NESN column about how the 2011 Red Sox are going to challenge the 1927 Yankees for the title of the sport’s all-time best team(!):
[In regard to the team’s supposedly great bench]
Youth, experience and versatility will ride the pine like lions waiting to hunt.
Eric Ortiz, welcome to the nominating process for the 2011 Sportswriting Hall of Shame!