Monday, April 28, 2008

The Roger Clemens Affair: Sports journalism, blogs, and the end of icons

Blogs have completely changed the nature of sports coverage. Pressured to compete against bloggers, journalists are now expected to do more than simply write a game story, they must report what they see. That might seem like an obvious journalistic precept. But covering a team is complicated. You actually have to face the people you're writing about, and when you're ridiculing them, it is not so easy to face them the next day in the locker room. But the world has changed. It is the TMZ'ing of America. And maybe sports journalism--once considered journalism's toy department--will be better because of it.

Back in the 1990s, the pre-blog era, the biggest story in sports--steroid use in baseball--was completely ignored by beat writers who were observing players getting bigger, and breaking all sorts of hitting records. They missed the story. Total whiff.

I doubt that would happen today because of the increased scrutiny in the blogging community who are dissecting sports and sports journalism.

Earlier this month there was a post--Ricky Reilly, Billy Simmons, And The Follies Of Privileged Sportswriting--on Deadspin, a popular sports blog. The editorial is well-worth a read. Although it is profane, it does a beautiful job of showing the importance of sports blogs, and the perils of "the inherent catch-22 of a sportswriter's job lies in access. You can't brutally criticize athletes and expect them to give you any access." Perhaps journalists need to do a better job of reporting athletics, and bloggers need to do a better job of fact-checking their stories.

Some reporters fear blogs. But competition has always made newspapers better. Journalists used to lament the death of two newspaper towns because there wasn't enough competition. Now reporters have hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors. Heck, there is at least one blog dedicated to covering steroids. It is an important issue, maybe the issue, in modern sports but newspapers can't cover it all the time.

The increased scrutiny has its price. Quick to judge, perspective can be lost. With the New York Daily News' revelation today that Roger Clemens allegedly had an affair "with country star Mindy McCready, a romance that began when McCready was a 15-year-old aspiring singer performing in a karaoke bar and Clemens was a 28-year-old Red Sox ace and married father of two." The story made me realize how sports icons are no longer untouchable. And that is not such a bad thing. It is extremely rare for an athlete to transcend sports, and to hold up all sports stars as heroes is naive. Clemens is a baseball legend, but he chose to sit before Congress proclaiming inaccuracies in the Mitchell Report. Ten years ago he might have gotten away with it. But this is a different era. Clemens, 45, didn't quite change with the times. He thought being a super-star athlete would let him escape scrutiny. But newspapers can't afford to sit by anymore. And they aren't. You can thank the bloggers.


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