Athlete and Broadcaster

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Why Sports’ Symbiotic Love-Hate Relationship Between Athletes And Journalists Benefits Both

Solomon

There has long been a love-hate relationship between sportswriters and athletes. But it was not always so. At one time, probably before many of you were not even old enough to know the difference between a touchdown and a home run, reporters acted as protectors of athletes by not revealing the seedy side of many.

The spoken rule among a large percentage of reporters during my days as one was that “if it didn’t happen on the playing field, it wasn’t a sports story.” Today, of course, a reporter who said that would probably be relegated to writing obits.

Just when sportswriters stopped covering up the unsportsmanlike-like actions of athletes, team owners and leagues is difficult to pin point. Some people believe it began after investigative reporting forced President Richard Nixon to resign.

Other people believe the change occurred when franchises began moving to other cities that offered better tax advantages. Still others believed that television caused the change, because now that viewers could see what was happening on the playing field, print reports had to provide previously self censored information in order to keep people reading, ending the long-held dictum “if it doesn’t happen on the playing field, it’s not a sports story.” But what is not in dispute is that the end of the cover-up didn’t happen overnight. It occurred over a period of years and became more frequent as sports bloomed into a really big business.

Legendary New York Daily News columnist Dick Young and Jackie Robinson in 1972.

But even in the distant past, when negative reporting of athletes was at a minimum, some reporters refused to act as PR people for athletes, their teams and leagues.

Dan Daniel, a well-respected columnist for the World Telegram and Sun and other publications, once wrote about Bob Meusel, who played for the New York Yankees during the Babe Ruth era, “He started to say hello when it was time to say goodbye.” But that was an exception. Most print sportswriters, in those days only, wrote favorable articles abut baseball players, covering-up the unsavory acts of some of the most well-known athletes of the time.

Interviewed about her 2010 book “The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood,” former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy told the Christian Science Monitor, “The rules changed for all these guys. They grew up with a ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.’ press corps. They were accustomed to being able to assume that everything they did and said would not be recorded but would be buried and go to the grave with the writers.”

“Then the rules changed,” said Ms. Leavy. Writing about Mantle, she said, “In 1983, it would have been a firing offense to write what really happened, when I interviewed him. Today it would be a firing offense not to.”

A game changer that definitely poisoned the relationship between sportswriters and athletes was a book by a former New York Yankee player, turned TV sportscaster.

It was Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four: My Life and Hard Times Throwing the Knuckleball in the Big Leagues” published in 1970, in which the New York Yankee pitcher and former broadcaster told of previously ‘privileged information’ about how players acted. More than anything else, perhaps that was the defining moment that forever changed how print reporters would cover athletes. The book was edited by New York Post’s sportswriter Leonard Shecter, who whenever he entered the Yankee clubhouse, players would say to one another, ‘He can’t be trusted.'” Shecter also edited Bouton’s sequel, “I’m Glad You Didn’t Take It Personally.”

Another example that shows how the relationship between sportswriters, teams and the leagues have changed involved me, when I was a young sports reporter for a New York City newspaper assigned to the scholastic sports beat.

I attended the practice of a high school football team, coached by a gym teacher in the school. When I heard him instruct his linemen to pick up dirt and throw it into the opposition linemen’s eyes, I asked him if, as a teacher, he thought that, it was the proper thing to tell students. That enraged him and a few football players had to restrain him from coming after me, while warning me “You better got out of here.”

I wrote that story then but my editor tore it up saying, “We can’t run that. The league will get mad at us.” In 2024, the article would probably be on page one of a sports section, if not in the main section.  (I told what happened to a reporter, pal of mine for another publication. His response was, “Oh, that’s an old trick.”)

It’s no secret that the relationship between athletes and writers who covered them was shattered when sportswriters began to cover athletes as Wall Street reporters did about financial crooks, entrainment reporters did about the misdoings of famous show-biz folk and police reporters chronicled the doing of criminals.

Which brings us to today, when many athletes look at print sports reporters as trouble-makers, because unlike many sports broadcasters  the ink reporters refuse to act as PR arms of the teams and the leagues they cover. I once heard a sportscaster for the New York Mets sing the praises of a player whose jersey was being retired without mentioning that he was sentenced to jail for not paying taxes. The 2009 misdemeanor conviction was included in a New York Times story about the jersey retirement ceremony.

Today, I can count on one hand how many times play-by-play announcers or analysts tell the seedy side of players that they constantly tout as God’s gift to mankind. It’s as if they still believe in the long ago discredited sports reporter’s tenet, “If it doesn’t happen on the playing field, it’s not a sports story,” which is ridiculous considering that even the misdoings of presidents of the United States has been reported on for decades. (The pitcher was Jerry Koosman.)

I can understand why so many athletes dislike reporters. No one likes to be criticized for have their dirty laundry made public. But if measured on a monetary scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the best, the athletes would measure 100 and the reporters zero. It’s because many athletes have become millionaires (or even billionaires) after being praised by reporters.

The dance between the media and the athletes is similar to a love-hate relationship, or, if you prefer, a symbiotic one. Athletes need reporters. Because despite the antagonism of many athletes to reporters, it’s the reporting that helped make them famous. And the reporters need the athletes. Because without them there would be no sport for them to report on.

 

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Arthur Solomon

Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications and consults on public relations projects. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.

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