Disillusioned is one way to describe my current relationship with the sports-writing industry. As a graduating senior and new member of the legal-drinking community, I’m still far too young to provide nostalgic anecdotes about the landscape that once was. Sports journalism is what it is. Whether you appreciate its current state or the direction it is going is another story.
There’s a distinct, objective line between sports and reality. This separation is what has kept me a shotgun passenger on the proverbial bandwagon since my preschool days. The beauty of fandom is that we experience authentic emotion without authentic consequence. Life doesn’t always allow for clichéd shots at redemption. In sports, there’s always tomorrow.
Recently, we’ve been captivated by a new era of journalism that has blurred this line. Sports are so easily accessible that the most passionate followers fall into a pattern of addiction that demands new information at the snap of a finger. I’m as guilty as the next person of trawling Twitter for hours, digging for even the slightest suggestion that my irrational sports-related dreams may come true. Those hints are, more often than not, rumors concocted by the least reputable of sources, whose Internet presence is exactly what turned the writer-reader dynamic sour.
Nearly every media organization, The Daily included, that attempts to do its due diligence to ensure appropriateness and objectivity has been accused of sensationalism. It’s a frequent claim that, grounded or not, occasionally requires attention. Is this because the nature of the industry has evolved to almost always require some sort of slant? Perhaps, especially when factoring in the race for page views and advertising dollars on the web.
But an even larger problem, one that is nearly always ignored, is the average fan’s meshing of life and sports to the point where overall satisfaction is impossible. When athletes excel in their craft, the masses flock, allowing our favorite stars to reap the benefits of celebrity status. Yet when those same athletes falter off the field, when transgressions become public and picture-perfect lives become slightly tarnished, the media is crucified for not recognizing them as people, just like you and me.
So what are sports journalists to do? Should they ignore the extracurricular lives of athletes whose actions off the field may very well impact in-game performance? That would be considered irresponsible, especially in the aforementioned situation we find ourselves in as fans. If a readership is connected enough to voice a constant demand for additional information, then it is the role of a media organization to provide its readers with that news when it is pertinent and reported professionally.
This isn’t to say that stars shouldn’t be graced with privacy; I’m one of the biggest opponents of sports tabloidization that you’ll find. Tiger’s extramarital affairs and Josh Hamilton’s struggles with addiction are personal matters that should be kept private. But that is my opinion. I don’t watch sports to idolize other people and fret over their mistakes. They are people. They are bound to make mistakes.
However, if an athlete performing in a public forum makes a decision that impacts future success individually and collectively, the modern fan demands the right to know. Emotional investment is so intense that there is no longer the distinction between superficial legitimacy and real, life-changing, life-or-death legitimacy.
As a result, media outlets have become scapegoats for an issue that is much larger than words written on paper. Fans and athletes must learn to discern fact from fiction. If the spike in TMZ-esque sports coverage is troublesome, athletes must not vocalize a special sense of entitlement, and spectators must not feed the growing celebrity culture. As it stands, both parties want to have a ton of cake and eat it too, and writers are struggling to find an appropriate recipe that accurately captures all sides of the issues.
This isn’t a problem that is going to fix itself soon. As the world becomes more publicly and socially connected, the nature of being human will be more candidly and crudely exposed. Through our loyalty, we’ve earned the right as fans to have more access into the lives of the players we admire than we did before, especially as their desire for fame grows. That is no longer debatable. Now what we must do is acknowledge the difference between relevant reporting and sensationalized gossip. It’s not always the most well-defined boundary, but it most definitely exists.
It’s not a lesson that is easily learned, but we can’t always kill the messenger just because we don’t like the message.
Zach Zimmerman is just glad that he didn’t have to deliver this message to King Leonidas. Talk about the joys of not being kicked into a bottomless pit at zachz “at” stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @Zach_Zimmerman.