Mr. Popularity

Ron Borges has amassed more enemies than any other journalist in town. Yet as much as it would pain them to admit it, Boston’s sports fans couldn’t live without him.


This is the man everyone hates?

Ron Borges sits at the Angora Café on Commonwealth Avenue, balancing on a chair that seems far too small for his 6-foot-plus, 220-pound frame. His baggy cheese-ball golf shirt is tucked into a pair of jeans that must be a holdover from the last time the Celtics won a championship. Between sentences, he drinks a pink smoothie through a straw. How do you hate a man who drinks a pink smoothie through a straw?

Apparently, quite easily. In the nearly two and a half decades he’s covered football and boxing at the Globe, Borges has made a name for himself by insulting, maddening, and confounding local sports fans. These days he is omnipresent, working side gigs with HBO.com, MSNBC.com, WBCN, ESPN Radio, and, who the hell knows, maybe Radio Free Taiwan. Which means, for Borges, more opportunities to piss people off. Every time he raps something out on his computer or opens his mouth, it seems, he incenses a whole new category of people. It’s a talent.

Outlets for fans’ Borges-related antipathy, meanwhile, have become a minor industry of their own. People call WEEI to bitch about him; they put scathing Borges videos up on YouTube. When word got around that I was writing this piece, I received several unsolicited e-mails urging me not to make him a “hero.” Here’s what the popular national sports website Deadspin wrote about him: “If there is a sportswriter more despised in his own local area we know not who he is; there has not been this much indignation here since the Stamp Act of 1765. And even then there were a few who sided with the British.”

Boston sports junkies might be surprised to hear this. Dan Shaughnessy has always been the guy they’d most like to dump into the harbor. But over the past few years, Borges seems to have supplanted his fellow Globe scribe as the most vilified writer in town. “We should have one of those Globe polls—‘Who do you hate more?’” Shaughnessy says. “I’ve challenged Borges to see who could get out the vote. It would be close. And it would be a lot more interesting than who’s going to win the MVP.”

Borges has cultivated much of his infamy by beating up on the Pats. (In an interview before the 2002 Super Bowl, he picked the homeboys to lose 73–0.) What really gets fans boiling, though, is his gloves-off attacks on demigod Bill Belichick. Borges once said that had the two men gone to school together, he would have taken Belichick’s lunch money. In one radio appearance, he took what many saw as a particularly cheap shot: “[Belichick] has cornered the market on convincing people…that no one has ever worked harder than he does and he’s out, you know, when everyone else is sleeping, he’s working, when everyone else is eating, he’s working. I could say something, but I won’t…about how at least some of his time is being spent.” Some listeners and media types assumed Borges was alluding to an alleged relationship between Belichick and a married woman—a story that was splashed on the front page of the Herald in late July. Borges insists he was talking about how the coach played golf twice during Super Bowl week in Jacksonville two years ago.

The sportswriter has plenty of rebuttals, but no apologies. By his own admission, he is brutally honest and refuses to self-censor, a character trait that, to many, makes Borges come off as needlessly antagonistic. When discussing the notion that he is loathed by most of the city, Borges shrugs. He contends that a large portion of local fans just don’t get it—whether the it happens to be the arcane details of the offensive line’s blocking scheme or the effectiveness of a good left hook at close range—and so they respond by doing what Bostonians do best: booing.

“You know, my dad used to have a saying,” he says. “Empty tin cans always make the most noise.”

There are few professions in which being reviled is an advantage. Pro wrestler. Mob enforcer. Sports columnist. Decades ago, when Washington Street was home to Newspaper Row, things were different. Then, in the Globe as everywhere else, the focus of a sports section was on straight reporting, on delivering the score of last night’s game. Where once success was gauged by the clarity and accuracy of your words, it is now measured by how loudly you trumpet them—and yourself.

Today, with talk radio stations, 24-hour TV networks, and countless Internet blogs devoted to sports, it’s nearly impossible for a journalist to distinguish himself through reporting alone. Anyone can provide information. Personality is the new, rarer currency. You get paid only if you stand out, and the quickest way to do so is by being an ass. This has been going on for a while, of course, but the practitioners of assery have never been in such high demand as they are now. It’s why Los Angeles Times columnist T. J. Simers (who will wear an Angels hat to a Dodgers game to shake things up) has become a star in a town that shines bright with them. It’s why Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Stephen A. Smith, who isn’t even the best writer at his own paper, has shows on ESPN and its radio network—we love to hate his screwball opinions, his stupid equine face, and especially his irritating New York accent (“How-EV-a!”).

The very fact that we hate Borges and his counterparts means they win. And really, we win, too. It would be boring if sportswriters merely reinforced our own opinions. The fun lies in the disagreement and the attendant fervor, and for that you need someone to play the antagonist. All the rest—who’s right and who’s wrong and who’s making it up—is immaterial. We’re not talking about North Korean nuclear testing, after all. The reaction is the thing that guys like Borges sell. He may be more well informed than Stephen A. or Simers—he can win an argument with bombast and knowledge—but Borges is still part of the same troupe. He’s an entertainer, even if he won’t admit he’s putting on a show.

“One of the things that I found offensive in one of your e-mails was that I have a shtick,” Borges tells me after finally agreeing to sit down. “I really don’t have a shtick. I just don’t. I believe what I say, and I try to say either what I know to be true or what I believe to be true.” Those who have worked with Borges agree. His antagonism, they contend, isn’t calculated to elicit responses—it’s just…him. “He’s always expressed his opinions,” says former Globe sports editor Don Skwar. “Bluntly.”

“Borges doesn’t care,” says Bob Ryan, the Globe’s sportswriting patriarch. “I think he fires away and doesn’t think about the fans or anyone else. I think he fires away with honesty and candor with no other objective but to tell people what he really thinks. And if people don’t like it, fuck ’em.”

For a sportswriter in this town, taking the “fuck ’em” approach can be hazardous. “In person, most people have been very kind to me,” Borges says. “A few people haven’t, usually when they’re under the influence of some stimulants or depressants. It’s not nice. I don’t like it. It happened to me once in a mall with my daughter when she was about 10 years old. Some guy was cursing and yelling. I tried to use it as a learning experience for her on how not to behave. I’d be lying if I said I thought it was cool. But I accept it. I’m not complaining. I know what this is.”

Kerry J. Byrne is talking about Ron Borges, as he often does. He’s sitting in the conference room in the Boston magazine office, his face flushed. It looks as if he might have a heart attack. (I wonder what that would do to our insurance premium.) As the conversation wears on, Byrne begins to yell.

“We didn’t start this!” says Byrne, who runs the website Cold Hard Football Facts.com. He’s jabbing at a stack of paper with his index finger; the pile contains anti-Borges e-mails forwarded his way, and Byrne has brought them along to prove a point. “This is a widespread channeling of discontent,” he says. “We’re just reacting to what people send to us. We didn’t intend to get into the Ron Borges business.”

Earlier this year, Byrne’s site famously partnered with Bruce Allen’s Boston Sports Media Watch to compose an open letter titled “Fire Ron Borges.” The screed, which ran nearly 5,000 words (slightly longer than the U.S. Constitution), attacked Borges for being a “tactless hack” who “lacks objectivity” and “makes things up,” and is “wrong about virtually everything.” It accused Borges of being a “bully” and “culturally insensitive.” It stopped short of implying that he drop-kicks orphans and donates money to Hamas, but not by much. Among the evidence presented in the piece:

* Borges went on WEEI and called former Yankees pitcher Hideki Irabu a “fat Jap.” Borges says he thought he was quoting George Steinbrenner, who actually called Irabu a “fat, pussy toad.” Nevertheless, the incident contributed to the Globe’s banning its sportswriters from WEEI.

* Borges called his listeners and readers “drunks” and “idiots.” “I didn’t used to think that,” he says, “but I’ve met some of them.”

* A few years back, during a boxing press conference in Las Vegas, Borges got into a physical altercation with former New York Daily News writer Michael Katz, an older man who walks with a cane. “He wrote something of a personal nature,” Borges explains. “Eventually, you gotta be a man. But Michael Katz is no cripple. I knocked his cap off. Then he hopped up and started swinging his cane around like Zorro, so I had to disarm him.” (Boxing promoter Bob Arum was on hand for the melee, and so were his people. During the scuffle—in which several people attempted to separate Borges and Katz—a chair fell over. Arum’s henchman thought the noise was a gunshot and tackled his boss like a Secret Service agent. “Get the fuck off me!” Arum screamed.)

The crux of Byrne and Allen’s piece—which ran on both men’s websites—dealt with what they perceive to be unreasonable anti-Pats animus on the part of Borges. Specifically, they wanted to know how Borges could criticize Belichick when he’s won three Super Bowls. As further evidence of Borges’s bias, they quoted the following exchange from a radio appearance on 1510 AM:

Caller: “Most of us trust [Belichick]…he’s got a little bit of a track record around here.”
Borges: “Yeah, well, Emperor Hirohito had a big lead in the early days, too.”

“At least I didn’t call him Hitler,” Borges says. “Sure, I’ve said things that would’ve been best left unsaid. I think I have a sense of humor that’s not for everybody. Sometimes I wish I had a better filter. But then I wouldn’t be where I am. Or it would be phony. And that’s worse to me.”

The main objective of Byrne and Allen’s piece was to solicit e-mails demanding Borges’s immediate dismissal. (Byrne says he received about 1,000 e-mails, all of which were also sent to the Globe; the paper contends the number is closer to a few hundred.) It was talk radio fodder for weeks. Still is, from time to time. Byrne, for one, refuses to let it die. “Borges lets his dislike for Belichick and the Pats cloud his judgment and how he covers the team,” he says.

“It’s not personal,” says Borges. “I don’t know Belichick well enough for it to be personal. He’s a great coach. But there’s not much else that’s redeeming about him—which will get me in trouble with people, but it’s true. People beat me up for saying I’d rather have Tony Dungy as my coach.” Borges has been touting the relative merits of the non–Super Bowl–winning coach for years, much to the frothing displeasure of local fans. “How many times do I have to say it? Dungy has never been on the front page of a tabloid newspaper for something other than football. That’s why I’d take him over Belichick.”

Between sips of his smoothie, Borges stops walloping Belichick long enough to show off the football knowledge that has propelled him into one of the top newspaper jobs in town. With professorial aplomb, he explains the intricacies of running pass routes, of why it’s not always the quarterback’s fault when a ball is thrown short and incomplete. Maybe the receiver ran 14 yards when he was supposed to go 11. The lesson is thorough (if a bit dry), and points to the fact that it’s not all bluster with Borges. He’s gained infamy, sure, but also respect. Since 1999, he’s been named the state’s sportswriter of the year five times by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

“No one in Boston knows more about the NFL than Ron Borges,” writes Globe sports editor Joe Sullivan in an e-mail. Even Borges’s peers concede this point. “If you have no knowledge behind what you’re saying, if you’re just throwing bombs, that loses its impact really quick,” says Mike Felger, the Herald’s Pats beat writer. “Ron knows things. He talks to people. He’s been covering the team for a while.”

Whatever you think about Borges’s opinions, it’s hard to fault his attention to detail. His stories sometimes read like a corporation’s annual report—full of statistics and salary figures. And he has the sources to make those pieces work: He often scores interviews and snippets of inside information that others can’t get. The day after Deion Branch was traded to Seattle in September, Borges was the only writer to land an interview with the former Pats wideout.

The thing about Borges, though, is that even when he’s talking about his accomplishments it somehow turns into a fight. He just can’t help himself. He recalls, for instance, listening to WEEI the day after he missed September’s Pats–Broncos game for personal reasons. “I turn on the radio,” he says, “and I hear Gerry Callahan: ‘I wanna know what Borges says.’ And I’m thinking to myself, the guy’s saying I’m full of shit every day, so why does he want to know what I have to say if I’m full of shit? You know why? ’Cause I’m not full of shit. And that’s gonna sound cocky, but it’s not. Why would you need my opinion if my opinion is uneducated?”

No matter how knowledgeable Borges may be, many observers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove him wrong. And Borges, not one to back down, expends an equal amount of energy on counterattacks. When fans, as they often do, beat him up for saying it was a bad idea to draft Richard Seymour—the Pats’ Pro Bowl defensive end—Borges will come back with an argument, or three, detailing other instances when he was correct or his accusers were wrong. It’s become a new sport—one with a running score but no endgame, since neither side appears willing to admit defeat anytime soon.

And that, for Borges and local sports fans alike, isn’t such a bad thing. He’ll keep throwing jabs at Boston’s most revered figures, and people will keep calling him wrong or stupid or evil. Borges, at least, can’t see things happening any other way. “Some people can’t handle conflict, but that’s never been an issue for me,” he says. “That’s why I love boxing. Because boxing and journalism, when done right, are against human nature—to go forward when other people would go backward.”