Ignite the Revolution: Let's Stop the "Bristolization" of Sports

March 15, 2009

The concept of the 24-hour sports news cycle at first glance seems to be a positive invention for the average sports fan. Before that development, past sports news was limited to live game coverage, with the standard post-game analysis in newspapers or magazines a day or week later. Unquestionably, those gaps in both pre-game and post-game coverage created a demand among fans for more frequent sports news. As a result, ESPN was born.

Since the formation of that 24/7 news corporation in Bristol, Connecticut, sports "information" for the average fan has multiplied thanks to sports talk radio and the internet.

Ideally, all this information should be beneficial, as it theoretically should produce a generation of better-informed fans. In reality, however, the 24-hour access may be having another effect -- the creation of an emotional, amnesia-filled sports mentality among both fans and journalists.

Sport is perhaps the last frontier in our society where a person is forced to "come correct" when publicly giving his opinion. In other words, when a so-called expert is given a platform to speak on topics such as politics or economics, the average layperson might not necessarily question him. Because that listener might not have an interest in the topic, or because he might feel that he lacks the same education as the speaker, the expert's authority will often go unquestioned.

However, when a sports expert asserts his opinion, he is subject to attacks from all fronts by any number of fans who do care about the topic, and who do feel properly informed about the subject matter. Regardless of one's education or station in life, in the realm of sports, fans are just as capable of analysis as any "expert," and thus, will not hesitate to question a sports pundit on his opinions.

In fact, this self-assuredness among sports fans goes even one step further, as non-sports experts tend to be given zero respect when they go outside their field and begin to talk about sports. An example of this can be seen when a broadcaster might do a courtside interview of a famous celebrity attending a game. Should that singer, politician, or U.S. President begin to comment about the game at hand, one can almost hear the skeptical television audience screaming, "What does that chump know?!"

Because of this passion among fans, journalists historically have been forced to step up their game. Since fans care deeply about their teams, it was the journalists' duty to provide them with some information or insight that they might not have had already.

Now with the 24-hour programming, a shift has occurred in the journalist-fan dynamic. Fans are devolving into simplistic, reactionary observers, rather than critical thinkers. This in turn, has caused journalists to become more fixated on provoking fan emotions than uncovering truths. The net result has been more sports coverage, but of a lesser quality.

Although the 24-hour cycle is here to stay, a few subtle changes can return some intelligence back to the sports world. By implementing these changes, we can hopefully prevent the sports dialogue from going the way of the nation's "follow-the-expert" sheep mentality found in economics, politics, and other social topics.

Here are some symptoms of the disease, as well as the cures:

Symptom #1: Amnesia + Reactionary Viewpoints

Journalism has always had some inherent degree of sensationalism in its content, as reporters are in the business of selling news. So, even before ESPN, newspaper headlines were slanted in a way to grab the readers' attention.

Now, however, the stories have become more extreme.

Exhibit A: Brett Favre

When Brett Favre got off to a rough start with the Jets, all the naysayers came out and declared that he was over-the-hill. Then, Favre's performance improved, the Jets enjoyed some mid-season success, and the talk shifted to Favre's ability to amaze. Finally, Favre suffered an arm injury, performed poorly down the stretch, and the talk again changed to "Brett must retire."

What all this schizophrenic back and forth opinion shows is that the media's "what have you done for me lately" analysis was based primarily upon Favre's most recently completed game. When Favre labored near the end, there was no attempt to revisit the solid stretch he enjoyed earlier within the same season. Apparently, the media had suffered either some kind of collective memory loss as to his earlier games, or was too emotionally hell-bent on making their in-the-moment proclamations.

Exhibit B: The Pittsburgh Steelers

After the Steelers won the Super Bowl, many at Bristol immediately made the knee-jerk reaction that Pittsburgh should be crowned the greatest franchise of the sporting world.

Nevermind that Pittsburgh was a virtual non-factor during the 1980's. Nevermind that another football franchise, the Dallas Cowboys, had more Super Bowl appearances, more playoff appearances, more historical star power, and only one less Lombardi. And nevermind that the Los Angeles Lakers had dwarfed the Steelers championship victory total during the same time period since the NFL merger.

Again, it marked another extremist claim which threw aside any sense of historical perspective.

Exhibit C: Jon Barry

During a 2007 Suns-Lakers playoff broadcast, Steve Nash was approaching Magic Johnson and John Stockton's single-game playoff record of 24 assists. Nash's productivity caused ESPN analyst Jon Barry to absurdly gush like a fool that Nash was the greatest passer in the history of the game. Although Nash ended up tallying a career-high 23 assists, he fell short of the record, and merely equaled the second-place mark also held by both Magic and John Stockton.

Once more, a media member had decided to abandon all historical perspective, just for the sake of making an extreme, provocative statement in the heat of the moment.

Ultimately, these reactionary statements have the effect of provoking only the other extremists into the debate, as the more rational fans just see the silliness of it all and abstain from participation. As a result, the dialogue itself becomes similar to our national political conversation - skewed and unintelligent.

Symptom #2: The Creation of Non-Stories as News

This problem is primarily found in sports talk radio.

Because not every day of the year produces 24 hours worth of news, the media must provide some filler time. Fortunately, a television station such as ESPN can repeat the days highlights, rebroadcast a classic game, or televise a live event of a sport it would normally avoid covering. Talk radio, however, does not usually have such a luxury.

So, in such dead periods, talk radio produces more talk. And it is at this point where listeners subjected to such nonsense begin to damage their brain cells.

Frequently, radio hosts will ask listeners about their current mood or "feeling" on certain happenings, creating an almost shrink-patient atmosphere of venting on the air. Other times, radio hosts will ask listeners to speculate about mere rumors which are unlikely to ever occur, leading to a waste of time for all those who actually tune in for concrete news developments.

An example of such talk was seen this summer in Los Angeles, when Kobe Bryant made a flippant, no-too-serious comment about listening to a $50 million offer from Europe should such an offer be made. Although no such offer was ever made, and Kobe made this comment among a slew of other pre-game statements, the talk radio airwaves chose to create a "Kobe is leaving" story. For hours, pundits and fans tried to read Kobe's mind, discussing the likelihood of his departure, when in fact there was not even an offer on the table.

For anybody more concerned about the actual results of Olympic basketball pool play, or of the inner workings of USA Basketball itself, the whole dialogue was a colossal waste of time. In other words, it was media coverage of a non-story.

Symptom #3: The False Scoop

Traditionally, journalists have had to work within set time deadlines in order to get their stories out by the next day. Now, stories come out at any time on the internet, depending upon when the news breaks. The result has been that in the race to be first, media fact-checking has suffered, as mere rumors are now published as if they were confirmed stories.

Exhibit A: Ric Bucher

Last season, ESPN's Bucher guaranteed that Kobe Bryant was being traded to the Bulls, an obviously false story in hindsight. Bucher claimed he had a reliable source (most likely Kobe's agent), and based on such information, quickly published his "scoop."

Normally, veteran hoops writers, such as Peter Vescey and Mark Heisler, tend to do more fact-checking before putting themselves out on such a limb. For those types of old-school writers, their sources consist of trusted individuals who work within a franchise's management. Hence, they are not so prone to manipulation from a player's agent determined to promote his client's agenda. Such writers know the difference between reporting that teams are merely in trade talks, versus reporting that a trade has occurred.

Writers like Bucher, on the other hand, seemingly are trying to forge their reputations by being the first guy on the block, rather than the most accurate. And this has caused a proliferation of "rumor" stories to be reported as factual news.

In fact, this year Bucher did it again this season, as he listed the likely percentages of several NBA deals occurring by the trade deadline. Once more, none of those deals ever happened.

Exhibit B: Michael Wilbon

ESPN basketball "analyst" Michael Wilbon is an individual with no formal basketball experience, who sits on a halftime panel with other ex-players. In order to justify his position as one of the analysts, he appears compelled to come up with overly clever angles that the other panel members do not mention. And in the process of such overanalysis, he often will make some ridiculous points.

Last season, during a Lakers-Suns broadcast, Wilbon tried to be very clever by making a point about the Suns bench. That game, journeyman Brian Skinner had a decent first half, prompting Wilbon to exclaim what a valuable, vital, and overlooked addition Skinner was to the Phoenix Suns roster. An incredulous Bill Walton literally jumped out of his seat in disbelief, shouting, "Brian Skinner, the Clipper legend?!"

Safe to say, by season's end, Skinner was no longer a regular in the Suns' rotation, as he was relegated to occasional spot duty by coach Mike D'Antoni.

During that same broadcast Wilbon also attempted to show his historical knowledge during his "Fab 5" segment, as he incorrectly stated that Jerry West's famous 60-foot buzzer-beating shot provided the Lakers with a playoff victory over New York (all informed fans know it merely sent the game into overtime).

Thanks for the clever non-scoops guys.

Solution #1: Increase Coverage of Neglected Sports

Part of the problem with the current news cycle, is that since journalists are covering a limited number of sports all day, they are running out of valid things to say about those sports. And when they run out of news to report, they begin to provoke their audiences emotionally, rather than switching coverage to another sport.

To correct this problem, the media must expand its coverage of other sports. That does not mean that the media should start covering a bunch of small-audience, fringe activities like rodeo or bowling.

However, many legitimate events, such as boxing and track and field, are woefully undercovered. By merely adding a few such established sports to the news cycle, fans would be subjected to less nonsensical filler on the other, more regularly covered events.

Currently, major boxing matches such as the recent Mosley-Margarito fight, are lucky to receive even a highlight or two on SportsCenter. The geniuses at Bristol have made a predetermined call that America does not care about such events, even though that fight filled more seats at Staples Center than any prior Laker game.

Similarly, track and field only garners attention every four years, but at least during the Olympics, it seems to generate a lot of interest. Since people display an enjoyment of the sport every four years, they theoretically could also show an interest during non-Olympic times as well. Perhaps the media could test those waters by replacing its coverage of the oversaturated A-Rod story, with more news on charismatic sensation Usain Bolt.

Sometimes, less can equal more.

Solution #2: Add More Live Game Broadcasts, and Reduce the Conversation

Nothing is more infuriating than driving on a Sunday, turning on the AM dial in the hope of listening to a currently-playing NFL game, and instead hearing a sports talk radio show.

Ultimately, fans turn to the media for information. And the most exciting and important information to any fan consists of a live description of an ongoing game or fight. Post-game analysis is secondary to most fans, and emotional on-air venting should be a distant third.

Nevertheless, radio programmers seem convinced that fans would rather hear a marginally witty, overweight radio personality, than a live game broadcast. Quite frankly, the counter-intuitive nature of such reasoning is astonishing. In other words, sports fans, who are drawn to sports in the first place because of their very love for the games themselves, are then assumed to have a preference for mere talk, rather than actual game coverage. Such logic is inexplicable.

In the end, too much talk leads to irrelevant emotional discussions once all the actual news has been reported. It's now time to get back to covering actual sporting events.

Solution #3: More Watchdogs

One way to prevent media personalities from making extremist statements is to call them on their inaccuracies. In other words, were someone to shame Michael Wilbon for trying to elevate Brian Skinner into a 6th Man Candidate, then perhaps he would be a little gun-shy the next time he felt like uttering an over-the-top claim.

Such media policing would cause journalists to be more cautious in their work for all the right reasons. Simply put, reporters would have to watch what they say, not for the sake of avoiding some corporate backlash, but rather, to protect their reputation as a professional in the industry.

Ultimately, 24-hour coverage can be a positive thing, with a few minor tweaks to the system. Otherwise, we will end up having to listen to useless opinions at the expense of live event coverage. To all fans, the remedy is clear and simple:

It is time to take to the streets, march on Bristol, and demand an end to the "Bristolization" of your beloved sports.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for TheDailySportsHerald.com

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