Why Sports Journalism Is Boring and Cruel

 

 

Simone Biles at the 2016 Olympics. (Photo by Agência Brasil Fotografias)

 

 

 

Naomi Osaka went first, and her courage made it possible for Simone Biles to step back at the Tokyo Olympics. Anybody who wanted to at least sound compassionate (and not like an anguished competitive spectator feeding off of other people’s skill) made sympathetic murmurs about all the pressure.

Would there be anywhere near as much pressure without all the media exposure? At least a third would dissolve, I suspect. No one will ever erase, nor would we want to, the healthy pressure fine athletes place upon themselves, or the pressure applied by a good coach, or even the pesky pressure of pleasing overinvolved parents. But I once had to edit a sports column, and after a few years of mind-numbingly repetitive Q&As, I decided the problem of sports media is even larger than its intrusiveness.

Sports writing can be brilliant; it is one of the most exciting forms, full of suspense and rich with lore. Yet most sports reporting winds up formulaic and pedestrian. This is an arena of high drama and individual challenge, but for the performer, the interest is in the training and the doing, not the words the rest of us try to surround it with. Reporters lean hard on interviews with athletes, yet they only turn chatty when they retire from their sport. While competing, they are intense and focused, utterly uninterested in coming up with quotable sound bites. They are not running for public office. They are running for speed, or swimming, or doing floor routines.

“The reporters talk to them right afterward, and sometimes all my son wants to do is go vomit into a trashcan!” exclaims the mother of a star collegiate athlete. So much adrenaline has pumped through his system, and right after a race, he is reeling with either triumph or disappointment. Post-performance, athletes have used up every ounce of energy and concentration they possess—especially if their sport happens in an intense, solitary burst, not stretched over time or in collaboration with other team members. Unless they are glory hounds, you can feel how badly they want the interview to be over.

Reporters keep it brief because they have no choice. And what is elicited? Remarks you could script ahead of time. “I gave it everything I had.” A nodding reference to a challenge or how well the opponent(s) performed. A close of optimism about the next game, event, challenge. Subjecting themselves to the interview acts as a reminder that they have performed for all of us, and their actions have a larger significance. Now their personal triumph or failure is public and the camera is focused tight on their sweaty, exhausted faces, baring the emotion of the moment for everyone else to relish.

Before our wedding, our (Episcopal) priest walked us to the back of the church and did a bit of coaching herself: “After you walk back down the aisle,” she said, “duck into this little room”—she opened the door to show us—“and take some time just to be with each other. Kiss each other properly, or just be quiet together. Let it sink in. Because what just happened will change the rest of your life.” She knew a receiving line would be waiting, and she did not want all those quick half-hugs from each other’s distant relatives and obligatory compliments and comparisons to their own weddings and jokes about little near-disasters to dissipate the energy.

We took her advice, and when we emerged, I felt serene, married, ready for the hugs and comments. Too often we crowd one another, not allowing an experience to sink in. Reporters press forward because their own sport is just as competitive. They believe that the public is desperate to hear from the athlete themselves, right now, at this climactic moment, and if they miss the quote, they will have failed.

It reminds me of the microphones pressed at people who have just lost a loved one or watched their home flood. Sure, there is an emotional charge at this moment, and we all feel a thrill of either pity, joy, or schadenfreude. But insight would come from interviewing the athlete’s coach or a prior winner or a historian of the sport. Anybody who could analyze the performance we just saw and explain what was extraordinary about it. Yet reporters save those folks for filler and commentary before the big moment, when all they can do is hazard predictions.

In disasters and crimes, the impulse to talk to the person who has been terribly hurt or frightened is understandable, and sometimes the wrenching testimony does help you feel the import of what has happened. That is useful when what has happened is grave and unusual, or the disaster is spreading and could hit others in the audience at any moment. Still, I respect the reporters who ignore their training (“You’ve gotta be aggressive. Get that killer quote.”) and step back, waiting until someone is ready, even eager, to speak.

The same holds for athletes, student or Olympic. They will remember how they felt hours or days later. And by then, the reporter might be calmer, too, able to ask more interesting questions instead of succumbing to “How does it feel to lose to Ariarne Titmus, Katie?” “I know you wanted the gold, Lilly.” “Too bad it was just the bronze, Ryan.” “Do you feel like you’ve let everybody down, Simone?” Once the spectacle fades and the outcome settles into everybody’s psyche, it will be a sport again, not a do-or-die gladiatorial competition. In that spirit, athletes might want to talk to the press.

Or they might not. Some might always prefer to remain aloof from the media fray, private and reserved. That should be their right. The same holds for actors, many of whom have been rendered emotionally unstable by celebrity’s distortions. We do not own these people. Eagerly watching their talent often engenders a deceptive fondness; they feel like part of our lives, like we have a weird sort of relationship with them, and they owe us. But they have already done their part by performing. There is no reason they should have to perform all over again for the cameras. Let the extroverts who enjoy the media attention have their fun, the way couples begin to go their separate ways if one loves big loud cocktail parties and the other dreads them.

What is left for a reporter if the subject chooses to remain silent? Plenty. You work around the person, interviewing those close to them, observing, analyzing stats and changes and techniques, documenting their progress. Maybe you capture some video, if the athlete agrees, from a practice session. You talk to former competitors who watched them up close. All this is a lot tougher than a breathless, “How does it feel to win?” or “to lose?” But the audience will learn a lot more about the athlete and the sport than they ever learned from a few gasped obligatory comments. And the athlete will be able to breathe, relax, celebrate, even vomit in peace.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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