The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons, has a shtick that his readers all know. His columns are all derived from his life as a Boston sports fan. He watches games on television or in the stands, just like every other sports fan, rather than the press box. He derives insights of athletes based on interviews and performance that he sees from afar, rather than talking to them in the locker room. His goal is to voice his opinion through the eyes of an average Joe sports fan, rather than the traditional sportswriter.
We’re all familiar with the traditional sports journalist as well. That guy (or woman) who has been a sports fan since birth, who was at (insert huge sports history moment here) which let him know he wanted to be a sports journalist, who makes jokes about his weight or lack of athleticism regularly, and who uses pop culture references from the 1970’s.
Neither side thinks too highly of the other, which is a shame. To combine the two would breed a form of journalism that today’s sports fan deserves. But are the two mutually exclusive? Let’s take a closer look.
It seems to be the opinion of Simmons that traditional sports journalists have become jaded by working in the business for so long. By going through the motions day in and day out in covering a team or sport, traditional journalists seem to lose some of the spark that they had when entering the business. And the malaise begins to show on their faces, in their reporting and in their weight. I remember my boy Fus telling me, after spending a summer in the media relations department with the Cleveland Cavs, that the thing the sportswriters looked forward to the most was the free food at the games or team functions. I’m sure most of these reporters didn’t grow up dreaming of covering their doughnuts with powdered sugar instead of covering some of sports’ most famous athletes, but after years of covering sports, it appears that what is a dream job for many ends up being a chore for those in the positions.
It’s a shame that this is the case, and to be certain, does not hold true for every sports reporter. Yet in the time I have spent around professional sports reporters, both at my time covering Northwestern athletics at school or during my summer internship, which has allowed me to cover N.Y. Mets games, the theme rings true: the fan is gone, the fun is gone, and, just like anything else, the work is a job. The reporters sit through press conferences, hoping to get a couple of bytes to place in their stories. They sit and wait in a PROFESSIONAL SPORTS LOCKER ROOM and complain about the time, the athletes, or anything else that is bothering them at the moment. And they eat…a lot.
But I must admit that I see how it happens. While covering a professional sports team is still a novelty, and the excitement of interviewing David Wright at his locker has yet to wear off, I see the transition. I see how being a fan can fall secondary to getting your job done or getting home at a reasonable time from the ballpark when you’re there every day. It’s a sad reality that has made me question whether I want to go into this form of sports journalism.
Bill Simmons is in a sports journalism camp on the opposite end of the spectrum. He doesn’t sit through press conferences and doesn’t go into the locker room. He claims that it allows him to remain a fan, and not get sucked into the rut of sports reporters that I mentioned above. This allows him to transfer his unbridled passion for his teams into his writing, which is an appealing style to his readers. He’s able to look at sports from outside the cage into which sports reporters are often trapped. And it also allows him to make claims about athletes without consequence, because he knows he doesn’t have to worry about interviewing them the next day.
When I frame it like I just did, it seems Simmons has it better, and as far as quality of life in regards to his job, that may be true. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that his form of journalism is more important than the work the everyday reporter does. Without reporters, there aren’t game recaps, there aren’t postgame interviews and there aren’t interesting human interest stories. Granted, there is an overload of these things in today’s saturated media landscape, but there are plenty of noteworthy and important stories done by these traditional reporters.
At the same time, what Simmons does is important as well. He is able to keep things in perspective by writing from outside the locker room, and can relate to the average fan far better than a reporter who hasn’t paid for admission to a ballpark in 35 years.
So can these two styles coexist under one by-line? The answer, unfortunately, is probably not. Because Simmons writes from the perspective of the fan, and thus writes what a fan thinks about players’ performances and personalities, it would be very hard for him to land a ton of interviews. And because he pokes fun at many of the reporters and columnists out there, he would have a hard time in surviving in the press box.
At the same time, it seems all but inevitable that spending decades covering athletes from the inside can wear one down. It’s very hard to keep the fan perspective alive after years of being treated poorly by athletes and coaches, event management and editors. At some point, it seems that fire that was once lit from seeing Larry Bird, Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays or Joe Namath play eventually burns out.
Thus, the fan must take what Simmons writes and what the local beat reporter or columnist writes and digest it all, parsing through thousands of words to form his/her own perspective on the world of sports.
And don’t feel too bad for those worn-out sports reporters, because the ice cream is still free for them after all these years.