Parting Shots


ESPN has a Sunday morning show called The Sports Reporters, a staple of their programming since ’88. Whether hosted by the late great Dick Schaap, or by John Saunders today, the show’s highlight is a segment titled “Parting Shots,” when the circle of sports columnists provide their most honest and insightful comments on all issues related to sports. Oftentimes as you watch these men—I say “men” because it’s rare when they have a female columnist on the show—you get the sense that they’re unknowingly showing their true colors about what they think about the world of sports and about their intelligence. They can come off as arrogant, jealous, petty, holier-than-thou, and with an ax to grind. Unlike Cyndi Lauper’s song “True Colors,” many of their otherwise thoughtful comments aren’t “beautiful, like a rainbow.”

Unfortunately, our world of false divisions created in the media’s coverage of politics has also transformed sports coverage over the past two decades. And not for the better. Between Sports Reporters, Around the Horn, Sportscenter, The Best Damn Sports Show Period, and pregame shows for NFL and NBA (I don’t watch baseball), sports “reporting” has become a poor version of CNN’s defunct program Crossfire. Mind you, Crossfire at it’s best wasn’t that good. Watching a bunch of middle-aged, predominantly White and male journalists and pundits comment on the affairs of the day in the American sports world is watching cynicism and jadedness in constant motion. I guess they believe that they’re channeling the views of their readership. But really, their opinions merely reflect the amount of time they’ve spent around the business of sports.

Like any other large business, the reality of what it takes to put a package together for consumers will likely make any observer shake their head. Yet the guts of what’s going on in the business of sports (e.g., non-guaranteed contracts, the long-term effects of physical contact and injury, how issues like diversity, politics and ideology play out, the branding of sports for the benefit of sponsors and media coverage, etc.) is usually left on the back burner of these programs. Heck, most of these reporters don’t know enough of the technical stuff to discuss the differences between a pick-and-roll and a give-and-go (basketball), or the difference between an out-route and a go-route (football). There are plenty of days over the past two decades that I’ve turned on one of these programs and wondered if they would be better served by picking up four gambling winos at random points in New York — like at various OTB outlets — and letting them pontificate for a half hour or longer.

Like a good sports junkie who played and watched sports but also wanted to hear what those who covered sports though, I watched certain shows dutifully in my relatively younger years. In the late-90s, I did watch Sports Reporters, because it was a unique show out of the few shows that were on the air at the time. Even then, I noticed a pattern. It was obvious to me that the theme of each week for some of the reporters were scandals, in which individual athletes had screwed up off the field. Nothing wrong with that. A public figure like a professional athlete involves themselves in a DUI or in hauling 70 pounds of an illegal substance in the trunk of their car, that deserves coverage. But then, to turn it into a soapbox issue about how privileged these athletes must be because they may or may not have been coddled throughout their lives borders on the ridiculous. That kind of pseudo-sociological and psychological analysis should be left for the average Joe. Not for a reporter with a bachelor’s degree or master’s in communications or journalism.

I do understand. Professional athletes aren’t the people that commercials and soundbites and posters show them to be. They make millions of dollars to do things that many of us have done at some point of time growing up, except not against people with superlative physical talent. The journalists who often end up working the sports desks of local newspapers and television news rooms often worshipped these athletes and a particular set of sports growing up. To realize that so many of them are flawed people who can make idiotic and sometimes criminal decisions is disheartening. To have to cover these men (and sometimes women) while they may be engaged in such activities would likely make even the most Polyanna-ish reporter somewhere between skeptical and cynical. But it shouldn’t mean that I have to read a column or blog, watch an allegedly serious program or pregame show and hear conjecture well beyond the expertise of such journalists.

Sure, I’ve become somewhat cynical about professional athletes and mainstream American sports over the past decade or so. I understand that the days of unyielding idolization of athletes ended for me around my senior year of high school. That so many had scars and flaws that both made them the great athletes they were and left them vulnerable to temptations, trials and tribulations that could afflict any of us. Still, it’s not just about individual athletes and their multitude of sins. It’s about how we as a society deal with talent, nurture it without nurturing the person that possesses it, and then condemn the person with the talent without understanding that these individuals shouldn’t be summed up simply by how much talent they have (or don’t).

This is all the more reason for better, more in-depth coverage, with thoughtful analysis beyond the minds of the vast majority of journalists and columnists covering professional athletes. Actually, covering any athletes or athletics broadly speaking. We honestly don’t have many reporters with the ability to truly analyze the individual athlete beyond today’s gotcha-yellow journalism or with the acumen to understand the connections between the business of sports and the issues of our society. I guess that’s because most in the field saw sports as an escape from the daily tortures of living in a volatile nation, a constantly changing society. Seeing sports in this light creates a sense that there is no place for a grown-up to go to escape the fact that our world is a flawed and unfair place.

My favorite sports reporter on Sports Reporters was the late Dick Schaap. Not only did he understand the various complexities involved in discussing the sins of individual athletes. Or the connections between sports and our societal issues. And the business of sports and its connections to American politics and ideology. Schaap also understood his own industry, the people on the program, and where things may be headed. He kept a sense of optimism about how the success of an athlete could inspire a tweener, or how the success of a team could galvanize a city.

We forget that sports in our society, especially for the young, is as much about inspiration and imagination as it is about scandals and soundbites. With Schaap long gone and the holier-than-thou or over-the-top reporters in control of the “serious” discussions, I don’t watch Sports Reporters anymore. And of what I do watch now, I watch only out of habit. I watch only because the political reporters are even worse.

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