First, before you blow up the comments with suggestions that I stick to baseball, let me explain the three reasons why I am writing about this topic:
1) I recently read two columns by two people I know exploring the situation.
2) There are a lot of factors that consumers of sports writing need to understand, factors that were not addressed in either column.
3) I just finished Season Three of Mad Men and do not feel like removing my rear end from the couch cushion in which it is comfortably implanted.
Recently, a columnist from our sister paper, The Philadelphia Inquirer, asked in his column, "If a sports writer cheers, does it matter to readers?" This was followed by a column from a local radio host and writer that asked, "If the press cheers, does anybody care?"
The impetus for both pieces was Sports Illustrated's decision to fire a free-lance writer after he and a number of other people in the press box at the Daytona 500 cheered for 20-year-old champion Trevor Bayne.
Now, before we tackle the fundamental issue of sports writers cheering, let me say that in my decade of covering sports for a living, I have found this to be overwhelmingly true: Readers care only about what they read. They do not care that an athlete acted like a jackwagon toward you when you asked him whether that ball was fair or foul. They do not care that your original flight was canceled and you are now in a middle seat with a screaming infant on your left and Proposition Joe on your right.
So I'll take a guess and say that the majority of readers probably don't care about whether you cheer in the press box, and I'll even go one step further and say they probably don't want to read about whether they care or not.
I am hoping, though, that they do care about two things: journalism, and professionalism.
And so I write. . .
Nobody does self-flagellation better than newspaper journalists. In fact, we have an entire organization dedicated to it. Google "Kelly McBride" and "McBride said" sometime. You'll see what I'm talking about.
I'm not sure about the exact psychology of it. Maybe when you take a group laden with introverts and hand them the keys to the mass media, you shouldn't be surprised when the result is a healthy-dose of public self-examination. Really, though, it is bigger than that.
When you look at all of the freedoms spelled out in the Bill of Rights, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press are the only two that are not regulated by a higher authority. You need some sort of official approval to purchase a gun, to practice law, to serve on a jury, to govern a state, to serve as a police officer, to establish a religion.
To work as a journalist, you need only to convince an editor that you can do the job. There is no license, no certification, no governing board. The profession of journalism is responsible for policing itself.
Doctors' ethics are checked by a medical board, lawyers' by a bar association, teachers' by a board of education. Journalists' ethics are checked only by themselves and because they believe their profession is an important part of the foundation on top of which a free society stands -- after all, James Madison said so -- they take that checking seriously.
Now, when Mr. Madison laid out his vision for a successful society, he probably was not concerned about the public's ability to read an unbiased account of Ryan Howard's game-winning double to the right field corner. Which is why a certain amount of cognitive dissonance is an occupational hazard of life as a sports writer.
On one hand, we are reporting for publications that have exposed police brutality and toppled corrupt governments, publications that in some cases have seen the fruits of their labor result in the deaths of their staff members.
On the other hand, we spend most of our time in situations where the only stakes are wins and losses and the emotions of fans who have paid to watch the outcomes unfold.
These conflicting perspectives manifest themselves in a variety of behaviors. Some sports writers paralyze themselves with guilt over their inability to have a more direct influence on the greater good. Others convince themselves that they really are saving the world, one game story at a time.
Members of the second group I mentioned are the ones frequently derided in columns such as the ones mentioned at the top of this meandering blog post. They have convinced themselves that their duties as journalists are to cover sporting events as if the trajectory of democracy hangs in the balance of their outcomes. This does not sit well with some of their readers, most of whom are well aware of the relative magnitudes of balls and strikes and bullets and bombs. In any activity, self-importance is not an attractive trait. In the dissemination of information about a baseball game, it is downright repulsive.
But there is a difference between self-importance and professionalism. And the "no cheering in the pressbox" mandate falls squarely in the latter category.
We all have codes of conduct in our jobs. A police officer should not patrol is beat with his shirt untucked. A baseball player should not cartwheel around the bases after he hits a home run. A doctor should not tell an off-color joke while giving a patient a prostate exam.
In the press box, part of acting like a professional is checking your cheers at the door. There is a philosophical side to it: a sports writer might not be covering bombs over Baghdad, but other members of his profession are, and the least he can do is honor the mast-head of his paper and those it represents by conducting himself with sincerity.
Really, though, it is just as much a practical rule...
In a column at Phillies Nation, my friend Pat Gallen talks about the stoic atmosphere in the press box at Citizens Bank Park in the aftermath of Roy Halladay's playoff no-hitter.
For a fan like myself, and for Gonzo who sat next to me for the game, and for many others who grew up around this team and franchise, this should/could have been one of the most magical sports moments of their lifetime. Instead, many were comatose, or acting that way, in an attempt to uphold the sacred rule that says “No Love for the Game Here."
But Pat makes a deduction in that last sentence that mistakes correlation for causation. If people in the press box had started cheering for Halladay, I would not have admonished them for displaying their admiration for a great athletic achievement. I would have told them to shut the (expletive) up so I could concentrate on finishing my story and jotting down my notes for my post-game interviews (cheering might not be allowed in the press box, but cursing damn sure is).
Really, the no-cheering rule is more practical than anything. There is a reason none of us head out into the crowd as we are attempting to hit a 11:15 deadline for a game that ends at 10:30. It has nothing to do with a lack of passion.
Furthermore, a writer's job is to channel every part of his energy, be it positive or negative, into his story. That process first requires him to direct his energy to the part of his brain that controls reason, and then to the newsprint that holds his story, where the final result is not an unfiltered psychological reaction, but a processed piece of writing that reveals both the emotion of the moment and the sequence of events that brought about the catharsis.
Let's say you want to take a picture with a camera. You can cheer while pushing the button, but the image will probably turn out a heck of a lot clearer if you remain still and focused.
Look, there are a million different reasons why writing about sports requires you to temper your emotions. Sure, some reporters take themselves too seriously. But the Inquirer columnist claims that one of the rules of being a sports writer is to "overestimate your own importance." That would be like me claiming that one of the basic rules of being a columnist is to not take yourself seriously enough. Just because it is true in some cases does not make it a rule.
My main point: A writer feels emotion. One of the great things about covering sports is not just to witness feats of greatness, but to feel them as well. We just happen to have a job that requires us to process those feats and emotions so others can re-live them.
And the end result lasts a lot longer than a cheer.
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