The Fellowship of the Miserable

Whiny, petulant, entitled, self-important—no, it’s not Boston fans we’re talking about, it’s Boston sportswriters. How did the sports media in this town, once the envy of the nation, become so awful?

boston sportswriters awful

Photo by Landov (McDonough). (Illustration by John Ueland)

Passan’s story was still fresh in Sullivan’s mind. “We got beat,” he told me. “There’s no question.” Then, after carefully making a point to praise the work of his own baseball writers, he added, “It’s like in sports—you’re going to lose some games.” Although his staff has shrunk overall in recent years, Sullivan has increased the number of reporters on the marquee Patriots and Red Sox beats from two to three each. The extra staffing is important to help the paper fulfill what Sullivan says is its mandate in this digital age: “to serve the Web and print at the same time.”

As forward-thinking as that sounds, the newspaper’s core approach to sports coverage—which still relies on boilerplate game recaps, columns, and weekly “notebooks” offering bullet-point takes on the happenings from the various sports leagues—hasn’t changed much over the years. In fact, not much in the Boston sports media has—not even the photos on the wall.

 

How did we get to this point? Ironically, it’s the success of this city’s sports-media past that is at the root of today’s problems. Romanticizing the Globe of the ’70s and ’80s has become almost clichéd…and for good reason. Back then, the paper had a must-read sports section featuring, among others, Peter Gammons, who pioneered the baseball notes column; Bob Ryan, whose knowledge of the Celtics’ playbook rivaled that of the team’s head coach; the late Will McDonough, an NFL insider from Southie who was one of the first print reporters to appear regularly on television; Leigh Montville, a wordsmith who eventually moved on to Sports Illustrated; and Jackie MacMullan, a pioneering female columnist and feature writer who’s still one of the greats.

Today, the paper’s sports section remains synonymous with Ryan, now semiretired, and his fellow columnist Dan Shaughnessy. Glenn Stout, the editor of the Best American Sports Writing series and a longtime New Englander, says, “a place like the Globe hasn’t had a turnover of voices in 20 or 30 years.”

Since columnist Michael Holley left the paper for a radio gig at WEEI eight years ago, it’s hard to think of a single distinctive voice the paper has developed and held on to. Meanwhile, the Globe has continued to employ a number of longtime veterans, like Cafardo, who seem to have hung around forever.

It’s a similar story over at the Herald, where old mainstays like Gerry Callahan and Steve Buckley continue to occupy top billing. The tabloid’s also had Mark Murphy and Steve Bulpett covering the Celtics since the days of short shorts, and it even hired Ron Borges as a columnist after he departed the Globe following a plagiarism scandal. Meanwhile, sports talk radio station WEEI has stuck with many of the same hosts they’ve had since the ’90s, like Callahan, John Dennis, Glenn Ordway, and even Mike Adams. It’s not that all the old-timers are bad—it’s more that it’s bad that there are so many old-timers. Bill Simmons, the ESPN media mogul and star columnist, has often complained that he never felt like he, or any young, aspiring writer, had a fair chance to break into covering Boston sports.

And it’s not just the city’s core sports personalities that haven’t changed much. The way the local media covers games is stuck in the past, too. Beat writers may blog, chat, and utilize social media now, but after games, they’re still churning out the same kinds of vanilla recaps that have long been a newspaper staple. While these types of stories have the capacity to be poetic—Gammons’s lyrical piece after Game 6 of the 1975 World Series is considered the modern standard—today’s versions rarely rise to such levels and, in the end, just end up rehashing hours-old events (as if the highlights weren’t immediately available online).

In most game stories, there’s a conspicuous lack of creative analysis, which is compounded by the local media’s apparent allergy to the type of advanced statistics that other outlets have used to shine new, interesting light on old sports. For instance, after the Patriots earned a spot in the AFC Championship game by beating the Houston Texans in January, the Herald dutifully recapped the series of events in the game, sprinkling in quotes like Tom Brady saying afterward, “I’m tired, man.” (One would think so!) Tight end Aaron Hernandez offered this enlightening bit of pablum: “We’ve still got one more to go to get to the big dance, so we’ve got to keep playing and come to play next week.” And defensive standout Vince Wilfork was captured saying, “It’s sweet playing in the AFC Championship.” Another big shocker. Meanwhile, the sharp minds over at the national website Pro Football Focus informed their readers that the Texans blitzed on 48.8 percent of their plays, a decision that allowed Brady to pick their defense apart. When Houston did get to Brady, he was 0 for 5 on completions, but those occasions, the site reported, were rare. The difference between the two approaches was night and day.

WEEI.com’s Alex Speier, who specializes in incorporating advanced stats into articles meant for the average fan—and who is therefore one of the city’s few inventive sportswriters—told me that everything has changed now that readers no longer depend on print for all their news. “Now you have to wrestle with whether what you’re doing is interesting,” Speier said, “or a bit of a nuisance.”

It’s not as though the local sports press exists in a total time warp. TV, radio, and the Internet all have a big presence in the media landscape. It’s just that too many of our sportswriters—ahem, sports “personalities”—have become adept at using these 21st-century tools to serve up what is little more than the same old slop. Take Dan Shaughnessy. After his more than 30 years at the Globe, everybody knows the columnist’s shtick: Be contrarian, be over the top, and, if at all possible, be part of the story. And why should he change? It continues to work—the rest of the city’s sports-media complex feeds on his bluster. Before that Texans game, for example, Shaughnessy used his column to gleefully ridicule the Patriots’ opponents, calling them “pure frauds.” It was the same caustic, one-liner-laden junk he’s been peddling for years. “Could this get any easier?” Shaughnessy wrote. “I mean, seriously? The planets are aligned and the tomato cans are in place.”

Predictably, it provoked a strong reaction. First, the football writer Tom E. Curran, of Comcast SportsNet New England, took to Twitter, writing that “Shaughnessy couldn’t name 5 Texans. Or 10 Patriots.” Then, right on cue, Shaughnessy appeared on The Sports Hub’s Gresh & Zolak show, on which he managed to name five Texans and 10 Patriots. Meanwhile, Texans running back Arian Foster fell into the columnist’s trap, using Twitter to call attention to Shaughnessy’s trolling foolishness.

Later that week, the New-Hampshire-based sports-media critic Bruce Allen summed up the entire episode. “Columns are written, statements are made simply to generate buzz. Good or bad, it doesn’t matter,” he wrote on his website, Boston Sports Media Watch. “By bringing them up and even attempting to denounce them, I’m simply feeding the monster and adding to the buzz.”

That monster, it should be noted, was born out of something fairly benign. When Will McDonough, Bob Ryan, and Peter Gammons began showing up on TV, they evolved from working writers into celebrities. Jackie MacMullan remembers Larry Bird once saying, “Bob Ryan, he’s as famous as we are.” Butover time, the city’s sports punditocracy has expanded to include not just the truly wise, like Ryan, but any sportswriter willing to blow hot air. Glenn Stout told me that, 20 years ago, he might have been able to come up with a dozen Boston sports-media personalities. Now he counts three dozen. “If you’re a halfway decent beat writer in this town,” said Mike Felger, cohost of the afternoon show on The Sports Hub and a CSNNE anchor, “you’ll get on Comcast, or NESN, or Sports Hub, or ’EEI.”

Felger, of course, should know. He’s transformed himself from a sharp Patriots reporter for the Herald into a contrarian “media personality.” His radio cohost, the former Red Sox reporter Tony Massarotti, has done the same thing, if somewhat more shrilly. The primary goal for reporters seems no longer to be merely producing great and interesting work. These days, they’re all trying to be loud and provocative so they can become fixtures on TV and radio. There’s good money, after all, in broadcast. “There has to be a willingness to put yourself out there and make statements without knowing what you’re talking about,” Rich Levine, an online columnist for CSNNE, told me. “You have to not give a shit about ultimately looking like an idiot or saying a lot of things that you regret.”

  • Ross

    The lack of Haggerty in this article disappoints me. He is a professional troll.

    • Paul

      Haggs is a huge homer, which will be his biggest downfall

  • Steve

    The lack of a lot of things is disappointing, like an understanding of the difference between newspapers and web sites.

  • Ron

    Well this article only half nails the issue. The real problem is that there are scores of miserable people just eating up what Felger, Mazz and all the rest have to say because we have a miserable fan base who is only happy when things are bad. The ones conditioned by years of Red Sox losing to only see the bad in all things sports related. Those guys, the REAL fellowship of the miserable. By watching and listening to this crap, we are getting exactly what we deserve.

  • http://soaringtoglory.com Kyle

    As a New Yorker who’s going to Boston College, I’ve had the displeasure of being exposed to the Boston sports media. I’ve read some of the newspaper articles, watched some of the talk shows and have literally found nothing interesting, except for the occasional Bob Ryan speech. Sure, the semi-decent writers here have turned to talk show blowhards, they can’t even be good at that. Felger and Mazz is seriously the most boring program when compared to something like Boomer and Carton on the WFAN in NYC. There are biases on that show as well, but they have reason, intelligence, and effective humor. Even Francesa without the Mad Dog is 10x more entertaining than anything Boston radio can produce. Another troubling facet of the Boston media is the non coverage of college football, especially with BC. After the Globe got rid of the bumbling Blaudschun, they have basically excised any coverage of BC athletics. Boston media’s problem is the fact that they are so full of themselves and their biases, that they have gotten away from journalism. Read the sports section of the NY Post one day, and you’ll see what Boston’s missing.

    • Tom

      I don’t know about that. I’ve seen the clip of Francesa falling asleep in his chair on air, so I think the idea of sports talk show hosts hanging on too long is universal.

      As for their lack of coverage of BC sports, that is not new. It has nothing to do with the Globe’s decline and everything to do with the fact that there are more people around here who simply don’t care about BC. The simple fact is Boston is not Gainesville or Ann Arbor, where one university is the only game in town. If you attended Harvard, BU, Northeastern, MIT or any of the dozen or so other schools in the area what happens at over in Chestnut Hill simply doesn’t matter. I know this is hard to hear for any BC student or alum, but it’s simple numbers – more people don’t care about the Eagles than people who do.

    • Nick

      Kyle, I’m glad to see you left the steroid laced/ chronic lying atmosphere that is A-rod. Welcome to Boston. I do hope however that you don’t really expect to see any BC games though. First off, they’re not very good. second, you go to the school! buy some discout tickets, go to the game and stop complaining. Lastly, those games count for NOTHING! if they meant something like a bruins or sox game they would be televised. I’d much rather watch professionals that are paid to be as good as they can for games that matter. Not college kids that are so terrible at their sport they won’t play another down of football in their life after college. Its an A-bomb! for A-Roid! I have a feeling you’ll fit in real well as a new yorker at BC. good luck with that

  • Bob

    I think Bob Neumeier tried to bring a lot of what you reference to WEEI but was chastised for going against the grain.

    • Paul

      Neumeier was/is terrible.

  • Derek Phillips

    Hello, Mr. Siegel:

    Please recall that the word media is a plural noun:

    The Boston sports media, once considered one of the country’s best and most influential press corps, [are] stumbling toward irrelevance.

    It’s disappointing that so many writers and their editors get this wrong so frequently – especially when trashing their professional compatriots.

    Thanks for hearing me out.

    Derek Phillips

    • Paul Bonfiglio

      Derek and everyone else,

      You are correct in this instance, but media can be both singular and plural.

      “… once considered one of the nation’s most influencial press corps” makes it plural.

      1: a medium of cultivation, conveyance, or expression; especially : medium 2b
      2a singular or plural in construction : mass media b plural : members of the mass media

      Thanks.

  • Spats

    The vulgar language uttered on a daily basis by the likes of Ordway, Callahan, Dennis and the rest of the sports radio “boys club” of pompous, bloviating, sniping, self-important buffoons relegates them and their niche to the gabage disposal.

  • Dick

    A lot of these sports talkers and writers have their own little schticks and agendas. Felger is a contrarian. He will check the way the wind is blowing and always go the opposite way. Ron Borges has a pathalogical hatred of Bill Belichick. His articles have no credibility because of it. Shaughnessy doesn’t seem to have any friends with the local teams. A lot of people were surprised when Tito did a book with him.

    One thing they all seem to have in common is that once they take a position, they don’t want to budge from it, like Cafardo and Bobby V. It became apparent that the Red Sox were a train wreck yet he kept going out of his way to defend him.

  • KG

    Wow, nice piece. I’ve only been here since September so I haven’t gotten immersed in the sports culture (and probably won’t since I’ve got my own home teams to bitch and moan about). But this sounds fairly the sports scene back home where I was a reporter for a few years. Lazy reporters asking lazy questions and the “name” reporters resting on their past glory. Now can someone explain the two brain-dead idiots doing the Red Sox broadcasts? You’d think Remy, a former player would have SOMETHING insightful to say, but… nope.

  • http://twitter.com/notwallygm NotWally

    Often, it seems like members of the Boston sports media are simply there to serve as PR agents of the organizations that they are “reporting” on. To me, that answers the question of why a journalist from outside the circle of Boston sports media, like Jeff Passan, can break a big story on the Boston Red Sox — Passan isn’t dependent on the Red Sox for his paycheck.

    Pete Abraham and Nick Cafardo, on the other hand, serve as commentators on the FSG-owned NESN; making Red Sox ownership partially responsible for their income. They simply don’t have the independence to do honest reporting on the team.

    That fact, in and of itself, isn’t wrong — I’m not suggesting that we pull part of their income and take food out of their mouths (although a few months on Slim Fast wouldn’t hurt either of them), but people like Abraham and Cafardo shouldn’t be allowed to label themselves as “journalists”, either. They are not journalists, they are PR men for the Red Sox.

  • Phil

    Mr. Siegel, the great Ray Fitzgerald was also at the Globe in the 1970′s.

  • Jon

    Greg Bedard needed to be mentioned earlier in this story. His piece on the Pats’ no huddle is routinely mentioned as one of the best stories written this fall. If he keeps it up I’m sure he won’t stick around at the Globe for much longer. And Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston should have been mention. Anyone who takes the time to breakdown special teams snaps certainly isn’t going with the status quo.

  • berger

    This is great, but the author doesn’t seem to know that the Bruins exist. I don’t know what to say anymore when even the people covering the people covering the Boston scene are indifferent to the B’s. Really sad that with such a good/interesting team there’s no coverage (or coverage of the lack of coverage).

    • Pete

      Agreed that it’s disappointing that the author makes no mention of hockey. In my opinion, Kevin Dupont is a very good writer who flies under the radar.

  • stuck working

    While I generally agree with this analysis, I think it’s a bit unfair to Peter Abraham. He may have missed the story about players meeting with ownership about Valentine and he may be weirdly defensive about that even now, but he is being innovative in some ways. Unlike Cafardo, Abraham understands and uses both social media and advanced statistics, so I wouldn’t lump them together.

  • John Paul

    On behalf of the part of America that is not over 50, white, male and from Boston, may I please shrug emphatically and say, who effing cares? Not even sure how one shrugs “emphatically” but after reading this thumb sucking pile of Boston horse fart, I want to shrug at your face. Please do society a favor and spend a day at a soup kitchen.

  • giles

    I agree with most of this article. I kind of wish it had gone on for longer so we could criticize more of the lame Boston sports media. People in other parts of the country dont understand how bad our sportswriters are – especially because 25 years ago, all the country’s best sports journalists came from Boston.

    Surprised Gasper wasn’t mentioned. He is a hack.

    • Media Mogul

      Giles is right. Chris Gaspar is AWFUL. Nothing compelling or interesting about any of his columns.

  • Mike Benedict

    And the inevitable response will be, “Bloggers, get off my lawn!”

  • John Simmons

    I met Shaughnessy once in an airport bar after Sox game in Seattle. I had on a Schilling shirt. First thing out of the guy’s mouth “I can’t believe you walk around in a Schilling jersey” …. this 3 years after he pitched the shut down game 6 in Yankee Stadium. I’m from Boston, and I moved away to California, and the self-loathing, miserable we have it so rough and think we are so tough attitude of new englanders is why I moved away. On top of which the sports dynasty decade is now calling curtain close, we will see how these reporters fair. I was back in town the week before Pats/Ravens game, driving listening to the sports radio. Not one single person had even a shred of doubt Pats would win that game. That is ridiculous considering the Pats had lost 2 of lsat 3, and Brady has his worst QB rating against that team….nope doesn’t matter. Pats win. I agree, time to evolve.

    • Brian

      I don’t think that was particularly unique to the Boston media, though. The vast majority or national media picked the Pats and Vegas had them as 10 point favorites. Sometime everyone is wrong.

  • Jon

    This is right on with regard to the arrogance of blowhards like Shaughnessy, Dennis and Callahan, and well done for recognizing the talents of Bedard and Speier.

    On the other hand, there’s perhaps too much of a local focus here. Whatever the shortcomings of the Globe’s team, their sports section remains one of the best of any newspaper in the nation.

  • Paul

    How about mentioning Ryen Rusillo and his dealings with that dick on EEI’s morning show event?

  • Shelly

    Thanks to my XM radio I don’t have to listen to all the crap.

    I Got my horseracing,Blues,and Business channels.Beautiful!

  • JJ

    Boston media think they’re bigger than the sports teams . With ESPN and other outlets who always ask their opinion , they have begun to think they’re bigger than the sports they cover

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charles-Farris/1476476891 Charles Farris

    Great article. Spot on.