Do we really want our sports (coverage) to be this stupid?

In an interview with The Blizzard former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson declared: “I don’t think the media are actually that interested in what happens in game of football”.

This is significant – the narratives which dominate media coverage of sporting events, generally, do not mirror the conversations that elite sports people or those interested in the factors which actually contribute to sporting success have with one another.

The vast majority of the media is interested in polemics; big victories and big defeats. Indeed, the uniformity of sports writing would make Stalin blush. Instead of a better understanding of how games are being won or lost, fans are presented with condensed narratives of extremes. Do we really want our sports (coverage) to be this stupid?

José Mourinho echoed the theme in September 2013: “We have work to do. The work I have to do doesn’t sell papers. What sells papers is big victories or big defeats. A normal process doesn’t sell papers, but I have to believe in my work, the players’ work and wait for the results to arrive”.

There is a world of fascinating stories out there worth telling and yet we are routinely presented with sports content which reads like it has been written by a nine-year-old with a ten-year-old in mind – a talking head culture has left us with a (largely) bland, decrepit, depressing and unrelenting sports news culture with the push for the inside scoop often reducing coverage to mere gossip. Indeed, the vast majority of football commentary is embarrassingly childish.

Dutch football coach Co Adriaanse, having lost his patience with a journalist’s determination to ignore what had actually happened in a game and let the result dictate his story, described such work as “scoreboard journalism”.

Here hard evidence is not permitted to get in the way of a random opinion or an opportunity to highlight conspicuous effort as opposed to a systematic approach and thereby play up to a tradition of anti-intellectualism.

How Carol Blue described her husband Christopher Hitchens for a 2006 profile in the New Yorker springs to mind: “one of those men who were never really in battle and wished they had been”.

In The Black Swan Nassim Taleb addresses narrative fallacy – here ‘narrative’ refers to natural post-hoc explanations for success (or failure).

Psychologically an individual cannot help but build a game story based on limited information – paradoxically the less you know the easier it is to construct a palatable narrative. Such games stories, however, miss the nuances of a contest.

Dustin Parkes is right – the vast majority of sports writing is terrible and no one cares: “I’ve learned that most of what’s written and spoken about sports is absolute nonsense. The typical sports journalist isn’t particularly talented at insight or analysis. Their skill rests in reducing news and outcomes to clichés, either telling fans what they want to hear or shaping words to elicit a reaction”.

In his 2004 book, The Man Who Hated Football, Will Buckley questioned whether sports writing could actually tell us anything new. Is there, Will Buckley asked, really anything else to say in sports writing?

“You don’t have to interview too many moderate central defenders before concluding that both of you are wasting your lives. They have nothing to say; you have nothing to ask,” Will Buckley wrote.

If you carve through the thicket, however, there is a means to better explain performance – through analytics, for example, you can get beyond the white noise of banal player quotes and instant judgments to discover why whatever happened did happen.

The key issue at play here is truth.

Harry G Frankfurt’s 2005 bestseller, deliciously entitled On Bullshit, is worth your time. Eleven years ago Frankfurt asserted that our culture was defined by bullshit and a lack of concern for the truth. Indeed, Frankfurt argued that bullshit is a far greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Too much of modern sports writing is geared towards telling sports fans what happened, even though that has less and less value. What we need is journalism which reveals something or alternatively gives us an insight into tomorrow.

Achieving that, of course, is hard, not to mention expensive.

With such financial pressure on sports media and on journalists to justify their very existence it is understandable that it is hard for journalists to be brave in the circumstances – Paul Hayward for example, Tweeted in 2013 “a truth about interviewing: players don’t respect you for asking soft questions and don’t like you for asking hard ones”.

The comment is probably fairly instructive on how sports journalists feel on a day-to-day basis, but we would remind everyone to bear in mind what political reporter Theodore White once said: “When a reporter sits down to write, he has no friends”.

Critically, journalism is something you do not something you are.

David Griner argues here that sports journalism faces a moment of truth: “It is my hope that this week sports journalists across the country will have vigourous debates among themselves and their colleagues about how they should approach their work. That process begins by admitting there is a problem – several, in fact”.

Griner was inspired to make this (reasonable) call to arms following the Lance Armstrong fiasco – the disgraced Armstrong won the Tour de France seven times, but could not shake off Irish journalist David Walsh who was convinced that the American cyclist was doping and hunted the truth for thirteen years.

Simply, we need more sports writers who are prepared to spit in the soup – more like Elizabeth Merrill who wrote this powerful piece for ESPN questioning the performances of NFL linebacker Ray Lewis.

When David Walsh was named British ‘Sports Journalist of the Year’ and ‘Journalist of the Year’ in December 2012 he received a rapturous reception at the British journalism awards ceremony.

Speaking at the ceremony David Walsh revealed that “this is the story I always knew was going to define my life as a journalist . . . I did feel it was worthwhile . . . and I just thought it was worth doing”.

Following their deliberations the judges chose to highlight the fact that his “thirteen-year investigation was dogged, determined and brave. He could have lost everything but persisted against the odds”.

Walsh’s motivation to go to such lengths was best captured in a Limerick Leader article.

Here Alan Owens explains that David Walsh had “no truck with the mentality of winning at all costs”. Instead, the Sunday Times’ chief sports writer believed that “standards should be observed in the process of trying to win” and when these standards are not observed the “victory means less” – “in other words when people were doping in sport they were trying to convince you afterwards that this victory meant as much to them as if they had been clean, but it didn’t. The meaning for me of the Armstrong story is that how you win does matter, it really does”.

The famed Jimmy Cannon first described the sports department as the ‘toy department’ of a newspaper – if sport, the argument goes, is play then sports journalism is also a form of play.

There is more to life than sport, there is no denying that. That said if we accept that any sphere of cultural activity, be that music or art, is worthy of analysis since it can provide us with an insight into what it is to be human than sport deserves similar respect. So, if you say art is worth studying then so is sport; it deserves a similar effort to determine what the truth is.

JA Adande captured the desire to write about sport beautifully in this terrific piece: “I write about sports because they somehow manage to incorporate every aspect of our world: life, death, hope, disappointment, victories, losses, politics, rules, crimes, fair play, cheating, health, drugs, love, hate. I write about sports because you never know how the story will end”.

David Walsh, one supposes, would argue otherwise.

Walsh demands that sports journalists ask the right questions – “for too long sports writing has been unrestrained cheerleading, suspending legitimate doubts and settling for stories of sporting heroism”.

In Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong David Walsh reflected on the reality of sports journalists not doing their jobs. Walsh warned that we will be “cheering a sport all the way in the door of the hospice” and warns not “to be a fool just because of my love for sport”.

It’s an issue that Bill Simmons also touched upon in a magnificent article which addressed the use of performance-enhancing drugs for the now (sadly) defunct Grantland.com.

Simmons asked if “sport is just bigger than the truth?”

“We have a tendency,” wrote Simmons, “to look the other way as long as those great games and great moments keep coming”.

The significance of the issue was not lost on Michael Moynihan who, in one of his excellent columns for the Irish Examiner, asserted that “if David Walsh’s long struggle tells you anything it’s to take a step back and not to drink the Kool-Aid; and question the hysteria at every turn”.

The NewsWhip team once carried out an interesting project when they (cleverly) illustrated how editors were not in tune with what people want – Here’s what happens when the readers choose the front page story.

Main stream media are missing what many people want from their sports media. It’s not just about analytics and improving how you tell the story of a game it is the fact that the mainstream media are telling the wrong story entirely.

There is a demand there for smart(er) sport stories.

A large portion of the legacy media still do not appear to understand that a growing percentage of the sports-loving public wish to consume contemplative journalism.

You can find bits and pieces of sophisticated content strewn across the media, but surely a centralised resource would prosper.

Right now the vast majority of mainstream sports media are simply adding to the noise.

The internet excels at serving up plenty of content which sits at one level below real quality, real insight, however, is relatively rare.

Arianna Huffington insisted that “self-expression is the new entertainment”, but if you want to sell journalism you have to do journalism.

Jessica E Lessin, the founder and editor-in-chief of The Information, has written a superb piece on how the future of news organisations will be defined by how well that news organisation knows its audience: “We believe the best way to build a brand is to be indispensable to some people, rather than try to appeal to everyone. The business model aligned with that mission is a subscription business where our only incentive is to write articles our customers want so badly they are willing to pay for them”.

There is (still) room for a new media organ to emerge and build a bankable brand synonymous with quality and depth, a brand which does not publish stories based on how many clicks a headline might generate, but on engaging people’s attention over a meaningful period of time.

Such a publication could achieve that rare confluence of pop cultural success: being commercially successful, critically praised and culturally significant.

Further Reading
Sports journalism faces moment of truth in week of Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o hoax by David Griner

Who to follow?
The Blizzard – a quarterly publication & weekly podcast, giving writers the freedom to tell the football stories that matter to them. Digital & hard-copy. Pay-what-you-like.

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