Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hot Tamales! And Other Things Sports Reporters Don't Like To Think About.

I'm not even going to pretend that I really knew or cared who Bobby Petrino was until this week.  Frankly, when I first read a story saying that Petrino had been in a motorcycle accident, I thought this exact thought:

Bobby Petrino? Isn't he a basketball coach? Or is that Rick Pitino?  They can't be the same person, right? Probably not, as they spell and pronounce their names differently.  Ha! I liked that episode of The Simpsons.  Too bad that show ended up being so boring all the time and constantly just doing parodies of movies in which Bart loosely substitutes for Leonardo DiCaprio's character in The Departed.  I wonder why that is, that animated shows so often just end up parodying movies and other shows.  You don't see the great TV shows, like Three's Company, just doing that.  Then again, I'm not sure whether maybe Three's Company didn't just parody big pop culture things from the 70s.  I was only, like, 8, when it was on TV, so what would I have known?

And with that, I'd moved on to other sports stories like how UW basketball coach Bo Ryan was getting support from a local sports columnist after Bo held up a redshirt freshman's transfer to another school for a couple of days, then pleaded ignorance, saying that he was unfamiliar with transfers and that's why it took him so long to let the kid go, that it wasn't petulance or anything like that.  Ryan told Mike & Mike, to ESPN radio broadcasters who feel like it's okay to electrocute puppies if you can give the Eagles a decent shot at the playoffs, that he wasn't as familiar with transfer rules as other coaches, so he called some other coaches who he didn't bother to name and nobody asked him, and asked what they would do, and then did it.

The first rule of journalism, as espoused primarily by Dan Savage, is that whenever a public figure says something about an anonymous group of people, you should immediately ask for names.  Dan Savage says that about politicians who claim they have gay friends that support their gay-bashing policies: ask them to name one, Savage says, and he's right.

So when Bo Ryan says "I talked to these college coaches and they said block this kid from going to another school in the conference" which MARQUETTE IS NOT IN THE BIG TEN, Bo, did the other coaches mention that? reporters should immediately say "Which coach(es) said that, exactly?" and then call for confirmation.

But that would require journalism, and athletes know how to respond to journalism -- if they don't like what you're saying about them, they won't speak to you and they may block you on Twitter, as J.P. Arencibia, who is apparently a terrible baseball player, does to reporters who mention that he is a terrible baseball player.

(When I read that, I went and followed Arencibia on Twitter, with the intention of getting blocked.  He hasn't blocked me yet.)

Without bothering to read any more of the articles than I had to, I can say that I (a) know Bo Ryan to only be kind of petulant, and not totally so, and (b) I don't believe for a moment that he was unsure how to handle a transfer or called other coaches.

I know Bo Ryan to be kind of petulant because I met him once, and asked him for an autograph on a basketball for my father-in-law, who is a big Badgers fan.  Bo looked at me incredulously, and said "You've got to be kidding me," at which point I realized that I was wearing my North Carolina shirt and the Tarheels had just kicked the Badgers out of the NCAA -- as in it had happened only about a week before.

Worse yet, although I didn't tell Bo this, was that I'd won the shirt in a bet on that game. (I took the Tarheels.)

But he signed the basketball, after giving me some grief about it, which seems symbolic to me now that I look at it.

Bo's been a coach for a long time.  He knows the rules for transfers like this college freshman asked for.  And if he didn't, he could surely have asked someone at the UW Athletic Department to give him a heads-up on what he was required or allowed to do.  Pleading ignorance and saying you turned to competitors for help strikes me as disingenuous, especially when Bo also makes a point of saying as much as possible that the freshman (who I am deliberately not naming because I don't want to help Kanye him to more fame than he deserves) didn't even bother to tell Bo that he wanted a transfer, not personally.

In other words: "You've got to be kidding me."

Despite that, a local sports columnist bravely leaped to the defense of his bread-and-butter, choosing not to really think much about who was right or who was wrong here and instead just blindly support athletic department of the local university because if he gets banned from covering that athletic department he's out of a job.  The columnist, Tom Oates, declared all controversy over the decision to be over, "just like that," because that's what journalists do, right? They don't cover controversies, they simply declare that there is no controversy any more.

All's well that ends well, more or less declares Oates, in his column, and decides that the story of whether the local basketball coach, who Oates must have access to or he will lose his job, acted arbitrarily or petulantly is not a story at all, not a controversy, because, Oates notes, it's over and so there's nothing to investigate.

Remember:  Bo Ryan at first blocked lots of schools for this freshman, then blocked only some schools, and offered varying explanations for why he did so.  That's not worth investigating, Oates decides, possibly because Oates knows that if he asks tough questions of Bo Ryan, he will eventually not have access to Bo Ryan and therefore will lose his cushy job reporting on Wisconsin athletics.

Such is the power that athletes sometimes wield over columnists and reporters, power that waxes and wanes.  Sterling Sharpe famously refused to talk to Wisconsin media -- and (possibly) as a result, Sterling is not really famous at all anymore.  Arencibia tried not to talk to sports reporters, and got ridiculed by one site for it, but not by every site.

Oates' actions or lack thereof in covering Bo Ryan are instructive in that sense, because, remember, there's some reason to think that Bo wasn't acting forthrightly -- so one would expect a reporter to investigate and report on whether the local coach acted vindictively towards a player who'd changed his mind and wanted to go elsewhere.

But Oates doesn't cover that, at all -- he declares the controversy over because in the end the Coach changed his mind, kind of.  "All's well that ends somewhat less arbitrarily than it started out," is Oates' message, an odd sort of conclusion for a reporter to make.

Imagine this:  Suppose you tell your wife "I'm thinking about having an affair with this hot girl at the office."

And suppose your wife reacts badly and says that would be a horrible idea, and others around you hear about it and say that they, too, think it would be a bad idea.

And suppose you then get defensive and say "Look, I'm not going to have an affair with her at all, I'll just sort of ogle her from afar and imagine what it would be like to make out with her, and anyway, a bunch of guys at the office back me on the original plan."

But, in the end, you more or less didn't have the affair, right?  CONTROVERSY OVER, as Tom Oates would say.

But Oates would go one step further and distract you from the controversy and also attack you a bit, as Oates did in his column defending Bo Ryan's ill-explained actions.

Oates begins with a suggestion that Ryan would have been justified, and the media criticism from everyone but Oates (who basically is on Ryan's payroll, when you think about it) is unjustified, because college players make commitments, you know?


Meanwhile, the holier-than-thou national media are patting themselves on the back for saving Uthoff from the evil Bo Ryan and for helping to free college athletes from the perils of having to honor a commitment.

YEAH! This guy committed to playing for UW! And UW therefore cannot possibly cancel his scholarships during his athletic career, and must play him a certain amount of time per game, and certainly Bo Ryan could not retire or leave the UW while this guy is there because DIVISION ONE SCHOOLS HONOR THEIR COMMITMENTS (in Tom Oates' mind).  So because no D-1 coach or school ever in any way backed away from any commitments they'd made to an athlete, no athlete can ever rethink his end of the deal.

Nobody knows, by the way, what promises Ryan made to the freshman to get him to come here and whether they looked to be fulfilled after his redshirt year.  Oates didn't ask.

Anyhow, that's not important because what's important is that Tom Oates doesn't need to ask Bo Ryan what's going on in his mind because Tom Oates is a telepath:

Most coaches block players from transferring within the conference (the Big East even has a rule preventing it). Others, including Michigan’s John Beilein, prevent them from going to schools that are on future schedules. Some also prevent players from going to schools they think may be guilty of tampering. All three of those appeared to factor into Ryan’s thinking on Uthoff.

So. Um.  You didn't ask him what was on his mind? NO NEED TO! Tom Oates has this one covered.  He knows what Bo Ryan was thinking without even having to be told it.

But maybe Tom Oates didn't have to ask those questions, either, because there were bigger questions to ask, and answer, without asking anyone, questions like "Will this hurt the University?" (Oates says no) and "Could this have been worse?" (Oates isn't sure!)  What IS certain is that this was really just a simple twist of fate:

What if Uthoff’s letter of appeal hadn’t sat unopened in the mailbox of associate athletic director Justin Doherty for days? That led Uthoff to go public to say he was left in the dark on his case.

What if Ryan hadn’t added the entire ACC to the list of schools Uthoff couldn’t talk to, a move that was seen as piling on? What if Ryan hadn’t gone on national radio and added fuel to the fire by giving what were widely viewed as evasive answers?

All those actions escalated the story to where it was the national topic of the day Thursday. Overnight, Ryan and UW had become the unsuspecting faces of a much larger issue — freedom of movement for athletes. The tidal wave of ridicule on the airwaves and the Internet unfairly cast Ryan as a villain.

In journalism, there are five Ws -- the who what where when and why.  Oates' column is short on why, so maybe Oates never attended that day in Journalism School.  Why did the letter sit? Why did Bo add on the ACC schools?  Why did everyone in the universe except Bo Ryan and his best-bud-Vulcan-Mind-Melded Reporter Sidekick Tom Oates think this was such a big deal?

Oates, in the end, declares that the "shame of it is" that Ryan's program has been exemplary -- in that he wins and hasn't been totally vindictive to other players.  But this looks bad for UW, which is bad for UW, Oates says, sympathizing with his shadow bosses and the unfair predicament they find themselves in, where they have to ANSWER to MEDIA for decisions they have made that look caprcious.

But the shame of it is that a local reporter can't bring himself to question the local authorities -- the UW Athletic Department is as big an authority in Madison as there is -- about a decision they made that seems to have been made for arbitrary reasons at best, and the bigger shame of it is that a local paper then allows a de facto UW Employee to write an op-ed piece defending the decision on the basis of assumptions and sleights of hand: don't look there look here I bet Bo Ryan thought this.

THAT is sports reporting these days, almost always at the local level and largely at the national level: Reporters and columnists must increasingly toe the company line, the "company" being the athletes and the leagues that employ them.  Reporters are not free to criticize the athletes and coaches they cover 99% of the time, and only when someone does something that's so far out of bounds that everyone in society says that's wrong do we get reporting that acknowledges the negative aspects of human behavior -- and even then, we're in for shocking reversals like when Mike & Mike on ESPN urged people to look past Michael Vick's dog-slaughtering because Vick was really good on the field.
 
How much, I wonder, of Mike & Mike's sudden decision to let Vick's past go was brought on by their really deciding Vick needed a fresh start, and how much was brought on by ESPN saying "Vick is a big deal and you're not going to insult him because we want him on our shows"? 

If Tom Oates was an internet blogger who'd once had Bo Ryan mock him for wearing a North Carolina shirt, would he feel more free to question whether Ryan's explanations hold water?  Would he maybe have investigated whether a major university's athletic department had decided to attempt to destroy a young man's athletic future simply because he didn't want to play for them?  
 
We don't know if that's what Ryan was thinking -- and we might never know, because nobody seems much interested in finding out why.  And the vast majority of Badger fans, who get their information from local sources that are less independent from the UW than Pravda was from the Politburo, won't even get that. 

Which is why I didn't know much about who, or what, Bobby Petrino was: I don't read much in the way of sports reporting, because what's the point?  I read the news to get more information about what's going on around me; I don't care if my coverage has a bias so long as the coverage provides me information and allows me to learn things.   Most of sports "reporting" has jumped that shark, and did so long ago:  it provides little to no analysis or news, instead falling into one of two categories, mocking the way Deadspin does or sucking up to athletes the way ESPN does.  

There is very little in the way of actual sports reporting going on, and so little way for me to be informed about the world of sports.  There are a few sites or reporters that I think get it right -- Grantland does a good job of being fun and informative, and Deadspin, despite the overload of sarcasm, at least investigates things sometimes.

But beyond that, there's not a lot of reason to read sports "reporting" of the sort that Oates, and pretty much every other sports reporter, at least until they prove that they want to be more than public relations hacks for whoever it is they're covering now.

Or, to put it another way and make the whole article come around: The deepest investigative reporting I've seen in sports in the past year or so has been the discovery, by sports "reporters," that Bobby Petrino lured his mistresses in by using "Hot Tamales" candy.  And they only discovered that  because Petrino got into a crash and they finally felt like they could start raking him over the coals.  It seems impossible to me that nobody in the world of sports, especially the local reporters, would have known about Petrino's affairs and malfeasance... but it only got reported once Petrino got in an accident and got fired, and therefore became fair game for negative reporting.

So the world acts shocked that a college coach could have used candy to lure a young woman into a job where he could pay her for sex and nobody knew, but the far more shocking story is that lots of people knew and nobody reported it because sports reporters work for the athletes and coaches.  

This can be shrugged off, because sports reporting isn't the most important thing in the world... until it is.  While it may not matter in the long run whether Arksansas beats Alabama or whether a freshman from Wisconsin transfers to Creighton, what does matter is that these are huge institutions through which hundreds of young men and women pass on their way to professional careers, and through which billions of dollars annually flow.  These institutions wield power, sometimes in indirect ways and sometimes in direct ways.

And we trust the reporting on all that money and power and influence to a bunch of hacky fat guys in polo shirts who are too afraid of their real bosses to even ask them questions about what they were thinking when they decided to punish a freshman for wanting to transfer.


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