Bob Costas is tired, exasperated even. You can see it in his eyes—that is, if they aren’t serving as a cautionary tale about the dangers of Botox. He shrugs, he sighs, he shakes his head. The NBC sportscaster is tired of the “extreme” sports fans who take umbrage with his monologues praising Vladimir Putin, condemning guns, and demanding that the NFL eliminate aggressive tackling and inappropriate team names. He made that much clear in April when late night neophyte Seth Myers asked him how he deals with criticism for “talking about politics when you should be talking sports.”
“I think we live in a culture where people who are angry are more apt to weigh in, or people who have an extreme view are more apt to weigh in,” Costas replied. “And they have more ways than ever to do it, and people who approve of it or like it say, ‘Hey, that was good,’ when they see you on the street.”
It all depends on the street. Costas owns a $10 million, three-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side (complete with wine cellars, room service from a private chef, and a prominent anti-gun neighbor, Sting). Costas, one of the four highest-paid sportscasters in the country, reportedly earns $5 million each year for delivering three-minute halftime vignettes while most viewers are using the bathroom, and providing breathless commentary for the Olympics, which is less a string of sporting events these days than a series of short docudramas about athletes overcoming personal hardship.
It’s a nice job if you can get it, and many are trying to. It’s evident in how modern sportswriters treat their subjects, their viewers, and their readers. The desire to be on the “right side of history” has replaced the love for the game. It’s easy to see why.
Sportswriters have always had something of an inferiority complex. They may have gone to the same journalism schools as their peers, but they’re treated with disdain by the politics reporters, the metro desk, even the style section gurus who declare annually that men’s capris are the next big thing. Sports, according to these Very Important Journos, are useless, a distraction. Costas’s NBC colleague Chris Hayes, who as far as this writer can tell has never swung a bat, recently denounced those who criticized Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy for taking two games off for paternity leave.
“I say this as a sports fan and someone who borders on obsessive at times about my sports love,” Hayes told MSNBC, earning Four Pinocchios from fact checkers right out of the gate. “But the whole way that sports functions as a business is for everyone involved to kind of suspend disbelief and everyone collectively to create the fiction that it’s important. When it is not important. It just is simply not important. It doesn’t matter. It does not matter if the Mets lose three games.”
Full disclosure: I’m a diehard Mets fan, and Murphy is my favorite player because of his superb line-drive rate and devout Christianity. But Hayes has reason to feel self-conscious about his argument in front of even the unbiased. First of all, he called into his own show on the network because he was on paternity leave (an exploitive photo of Hayes holding his newborn served as the backdrop for the screed). Though a self-described “obsessive” sports fan who has made a career out of bashing the “one percent,” he failed to note that Murphy earns more than $18,000 per game and, more importantly, didn’t actually birth a child.
The facts of the case aside, imagine you’re a sportswriter and your blowhard co-workers or your old college buddies had no problem saying your life’s work “didn’t matter.” It hurts, doesn’t it? You have two options: a) defend yourself by, say, pointing out the ratings gap between MSNBC and ESPN; b) appease the blowhards by synching your priorities with theirs at the expense of your audience, which anyway consists of nothing but apes obsessed with watching other apes hit a ball around with a stick.
CBS college basketball correspondent Gary Parrish circled the latter choice. When middling UMass basketball guard Derrick Gordon announced he was gay, Parrish dedicated his Twitter account to calling his followers homophobic. He then penned an op-ed about how homophobic fans don’t understand why sexuality matters to performance. “It doesn’t matter whether you care or do not care if a player is gay,” Parrish wrote, adding that “…these important stories deserve every headline they can possibly get.”
Parrish’s column, you see, isn’t about sports. If it were, he would have mentioned that Gordon played for a ten-seed team and shot less than 60 percent from the free throw line. His column is about Important Social Issues That Highminded Journalists Care About, you homophobic goons. “Anybody suggesting these stories aren’t stories is wildly missing the point,” Parrish concluded. But the point is perfectly clear: Gary Parrish really wants to impress TV executives.
Not a peep, though, from Parrish or any other national sports reporter on the openly gay Lindenwood University wrestler Michael Johnson, who was arrested for allegedly exposing five men to HIV and secretly videotaping thirty-two male sex partners. Parrish hasn’t touched the subject, of course, because homosexuality only counts when coverage is positive.
One can forgive Parrish—and every other national reporter—for ignoring the story. Writing critically about a sexual “Other” invites scorn from activists and apologies from editors. ESPN pet project Grantland created a firestorm in January for exposing golf club designer Dr. V as a transgendered con artist who duped investors and golfers. Dr. V killed himself prior to publication, leading activists to blame the reporter for the suicide. Rather than sticking by the story—no one disputed the facts of the case—Grantland founder Bill Simmons apologized and vowed to the non-readers that future stories would follow a style-guide prepared by gay activists to a T.
Sportswriters’ obsessive focus on “covering culture through the lens of sport (instead of the other way around),” as media consultant George Scoville put it, has damaged the product. The focus on narrative over fact has produced more sports pundits than sports reporters much to the chagrin of fans. Outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban won cheers the world over in 2012 when he slammed leading ESPN pundits Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless for their shoddy work. “My two-and-a-half year old will sit there and break down tape, so he knows more than any of you guys about the NBA,” Cuban told the talking heads. “You don’t ever use facts, you don’t ever use substance.”
Modern sportswriters aren’t used to speaking truth to power. Every sports section that doesn’t belong to the New York Post is rife with clichés—“110 percent!” “team effort!”—from coaches and players who spend as much time in media training as they do in batting practice. A sportswriter will do anything to preserve access to a team or an outlet, even if it means becoming an extension of the PR department. He now lies prostrate before a new set of masters: Mimosa-sipping Manhattanites and liberal witch hunters whose sole interest in sports is purging football teams of offensive names, obtaining equal screen-time for females, and celebrating sexual diversity.
Luckily for fans, there is a new breed of journalist emerging who is singularly focused on athletics: the fantasy sportswriter. These jobs didn’t exist a decade ago, but they are exploding across newsrooms and the blogosphere each day. The Hanna Rosins of the world would have us believe that they owe their existence to the delayed adolescence of men increasingly desperate to escape reality. But the proliferation of fantasy reporters is much simpler: sports fans actually want to read about sports.
Not even all ESPN employees are as clueless as the empty suits it puts on primetime. The network has hired plenty of people to dissect game tape and obsess over statistics. All of them can be found at ESPN.com’s Fantasy section.
Fantasy sportswriters were mostly anonymous bloggers at the turn of the century, but they are quickly becoming marquee names. Matthew Berry, Tristan Cockcroft, and Eric Karabell have emerged as rising stars on ESPN, garnering increasing screen time on television.
Rotoworld, which is dedicated to fantasy sports, is a top 600 website in the United States, according to Alexa. Its popularity cannot be solely attributed to the 32 million people who play fantasy sports each year. While Rotoworld enjoys more visits during football season—the most popular fantasy sport—traffic remains relatively steady for the rest of the year, despite the fact that baseball is far more popular for fantasy players than basketball and hockey.
These sites are attracting more than just fantasy team owners. Regular sports fans are becoming regular readers because they are looking for facts. Fantasy reporters oblige, providing readers with advanced statistics previously reserved for coaches and scouts: batting average on balls in play, isolated power, rushing yards after first contact, yards per carry on turf versus grass, etc. They don’t write about the “larger social importance of sports,” nor do they walk the line to preserve access.
We call such writers “wonks” in politics, but dismiss them as man-children in sports. Political pundits like Hayes may not realize just how much these worlds intersect. Nate Silver, the polling “wizard” worshipped by liberals for correctly predicting 99 out of 100 states in two presidential elections, honed his craft as a baseball statistician. ESPN purchased Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog fourteen months after the exchange with Mark Cuban.
Grantland Rice, the legendary sportswriter whose name inspired the title of Bill Simmons’ blog, once said, “A wise man makes his own decisions, an ignorant man follows the public opinion.” Fantasy reporters may be the last wise men in sportswriting. They don’t yet carry the gravitas of Bob Costas, but they respect their fans and readers. It might not be a $5 million television contract. Hopefully, though, it will be enough.