Sportswriters are old-fashioned. “There’s a lot of tradition involved in sports, and it tends to attract conservative types,” argues Salon sportswriter King Kaufman. “These guys have all gravitated to a world where there’s regimentation, hard rules, things like that. Change comes slowly within that world, and I think that mindset spreads from the playing field outward.” This could explain why so few sportswriters know the basic lay of the land online — and, furthermore, why sports bloggers’ failure to slowly work their way up the journalistic ladder is deemed so offensive.
Sportswriters are used to getting sand kicked in their face. “There’s something very demeaning about covering sports,” notes Bissinger. “You’re covering someone making $15 or $20 million a year, and you’re making a fraction of that. And even when you ask a legitimate question, players often react by telling the writer, in their own silent way, to go fuck themselves.” As Bissinger sees it, older sportswriters worry that the worst of sports blogging — e.g., cruel, locker-room-humor-style attacks on a given athlete’s physique — could end up making this even worse. Of course, it’s also possible that, after enduring decades of abuse from the people they cover, sportswriting’s ink-stained wretches relish the chance to piss on somebody else for a change.
Despite impassioned protests from the traditionalists, old-school sportswriting really isn’t all that different than blogging. Sure, the best sports journalism may stem from aggressive reporting — but suppose you’re a sportswriter who feels like taking it easy. You can watch the Red Sox on TV, check the box score and the standings, and whip up a quick take on what it all means. Of course, passionate, highly informed fans are capable of doing the exact same thing. And now they can self-publish.
Nothing hangs in the balance. According to Henry Kissinger’s famous aphorism, the battles in academia are so intense because the stakes are so low. Sportswriters occasionally do deal with subjects of great import. But usually they don’t.
Sportswriters think their profession is in jeopardy — and they might be right. The best sports blogs don’t aggregate information from traditional media; they provide original analysis of great depth and sophistication. Take Britt Robson, who writes online at The Rake, and may be the best basketball writer working today. Meanwhile, more pro athletes are writing their own blogs, a trend that threatens the sportswriter’s customary role as intermediary between player and fan. (See, for example, Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling’s 38pitches.com, where Schilling recently raised eyebrows by panning Kobe Bryant’s leadership style.) Finally, sportswriters themselves lament their increasingly reduced access to the athletes they cover — a diminishment linked to the massive financial stakes involved in professional sports today. Add it all up, and whether we’ll need traditional sportswriting in the not-too-distant future is an open question.
So where will it all end? Somewhat stunningly, there are hints that a fragile peace is taking shape. During my conversation with Bissinger, his list of good sports blogs kept growing; he also described Leitch as a talented writer. Massarotti, too, was surprisingly conciliatory. (“Somewhere along the line, I got labeled an Internet basher, and I’m not,” he says. “I just think problems come up with it, as well as good. A lot of good.”)