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

Photos by Getty Images (Shaughnessy); John Soares Photography (Massarotti). (Illustration by John Ueland)

The prospect of shouting down a professional rival can be particularly enticing—how better to attract even more attention for yourself? “I don’t think people necessarily enter into it with that mindset, but nonetheless, if it starts down the hill, they’re like, ‘Fuck, this is a profitable undertaking,’” one Boston sportswriter told me. “Especially if you actually don’t like the person at the other end of it. And you’re like, ‘This is great. I get a megaphone to dump on this person I don’t like, and I get paid for it.’”

“You can quote that if you like,” the writer said, “but don’t attribute it to me, because I want my fucking appearance fees.”

 

In a landscape where being loud and controversial is valued over being smart and insightful—and over doing the difficult work of investigative reporting—it’s no surprise that the Boston sports media keeps getting beat on genuinely important news, like Passan’s story about the Red Sox players meeting with ownership. That’s hardly the only example. If news breaks on the Celtics beat, for instance, chances are it’s coming from Passan’s colleague at Yahoo! Sports, Adrian Wojnarowski. Last April, he—not a local writer—reported that Boston had attempted to deal Ray Allen and Paul Pierce at the trading deadline. And when Allen signed with the Miami Heat in July, it was Wojnarowski who shed light on the behind-the-scenes friction that made Allen want to leave, and who scored the key interview with coach Doc Rivers.

Even the local media’s most notable success of the past few years—the Globe’s spectacular report on the historic collapse of the Red Sox in 2011—likely would not have happened without an intervention from outside the sports bubble. It turns out that it took then-Globe editor Marty Baron to set the investigation in motion. According to sports investigative reporter Bob Hohler, a former Washington correspondent for the paper who also covered the Sox in the early 2000s, once the Red Sox were eliminated from playoff contention, Baron told Joe Sullivan, the sports editor, “I want to go deep on this. I want to know what happened.” Hohler told me that Sullivan then called his baseball writers into his office to devise a plan. “It was agreed that I would do the story because they didn’t want to burn their sources,” Hohler said, “which is legitimate.”

Hohler’s resulting postmortem, which ran in early October, detailed the now-famous tales of players drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse, as well as, controversially, details about then-manager Terry Francona’s personal life and use of prescription drugs. (Hohler pointed out that the Herald’s John Tomase was actually the first to mention the players’ beer drinking.) The story embittered fans and, it’s safe to say, will go down as a defining piece of Red Sox history.

“There is something weird on that Red Sox beat,” Felger told me. “All the good stuff has come nationally, or from a news guy like Hohler. Why I think that is, partially—if a beat guy writes a story that Hohler did, [the organization] is going to make his life a living hell.”

Hohler made the interesting point that if the Red Sox had won their final game of the 2011 season, and therefore made the playoffs, his article might have never come to be. “Marty Baron wouldn’t have talked to Joe Sullivan,” he said, “and Joe Sullivan wouldn’t have called us all in, and there wouldn’t have been a story.”

 

Before an early-December Celtics game at the TD Garden, the press slowly trickled into the home locker room. The space was designed to fit large men, but because of the pack of reporters, it felt tiny. Waiting to interview the players, media members stood around awkwardly, checking their phones and staring down at the giant Celtics logo on the carpet. Of course, there weren’t any players there for them to interview at the moment. Most Celtics players tend to avoid their locker room when it’s open to reporters, for fear of being mobbed. Some will come out for a couple of minutes to do a perfunctory Q?&?A, though, so the reporters stand there, just in case. It’s fun for nobody, but this is the theater of the absurd that goes on before every game.

Eventually, Rajon Rondo, carrying a football, walked in and wove between a few writers. He and the strength and conditioning coach, Bryan Doo, began throwing the ball back and forth, whizzing it by reporters’ ears. “I know what I’m doing,” Rondo said as he winged the ball over the heads of the assembled media. To Rondo, the reporters were as inanimate as the chair in front of his locker. He did not take any questions.

There’s a distance now between players and the media that didn’t exist in the past. In the old days, when the media contingent was smaller and before 24-hour cable sports news and the explosion of coverage on the Web, it was easier to interact like human beings. Now, when the Celtics players do enter the locker room to talk with reporters, they’re immediately surrounded by a dozen or more people and prodded with questions—an unhealthy percentage of which typically aren’t questions at all, but lazy statements along the lines of, “Talk about the third quarter.” “I don’t envy anybody covering a team in any major sport for any major outlet,” Bob Ryan told me. The media scrum rarely turns up anything interesting and, without doubt, the job for today’s reporter is harder than ever. And yet, most of them continue to approach it the same way their predecessors did in the ’80s and ’90s, showing up dutifully when the locker room opens, standing around, and going through all the same motions with the athletes. For the most part, the fruit of all this labor is a bunch of really boring, cliché-heavy quotes.

Still, there are some local writers who understand that a fresh approach is what’s needed. Greg A. Bedard, the Globe football columnist, for example, spends hours every season studying film from Patriots games. The stories he writes after games don’t necessarily rely on getting lots of access to players in the locker room, but his analysis is more enlightening than yet another strikingly unrevealing quote from Tom Brady or Bill Belichick. By taking the time to break down the film, he’s able to give fans an inside look at why the game happened the way it did. Alex Speier, the baseball writer for WEEI.com, is equally insightful. On top of managing to translate advanced statistics into fluid prose that any fan can understand, he hosts podcasts on the state of the Red Sox’s farm system, explaining how what’s going on in the minors affects the big team.

There have been others like Bedard and Speier, but, unfortunately, they’ve for the most part left town. That’s because of the rise in the number of national opportunities, owing to the proliferation of Web-only publications, and also because of the glut of old guys blocking their way forward. As a result, the list of young, talented sports reporters who have moved on from Boston media grows longer every year: There’s the NHL executive Chris Snow (the Globe), the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport (the Herald) and Albert Breer (the Herald and the Globe), SB Nation’s Paul Flannery (WEEI.com), and Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears (the Globe), to name a few.

And too often, innovative voices are simply being overlooked. For example, Kirk Goldsberry, a 35-year-old visiting geography scholar at Harvard who uses advanced stats to analyze basketball, has been virtually ignored by the Boston sports-media establishment. A year ago, he launched CourtVision, a blog that uses complex, color-coded maps to reveal the shooting habits of NBA players. Last March, he was the runner-up in the research-paper competition at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference for his paper on the topic, but it barely registered with the local press corps. “The Boston Globe sports section is legendary,” Goldsberry told me. “And you would think they would sort of be looking for a new next thing.”

When Ray Allen ultimately signed with the Heat, Goldsberry created an infographic that pinpointed the exact spots on the floor where Allen shot particularly well. Nobody else had anything like it—or an analysis as revealing. While the local media took little notice, Goldsberry managed to capture the attention of ESPN’s Bill Simmons. Last fall, Grantland, the well-regarded website Simmons founded in 2011, hired Goldsberry as a contributor.

Zach Lowe is another example of an innovative writer with local ties who the Boston media failed to embrace. The former cops reporter first honed his deeply analytical style, which relies on film study and a grasp of advanced statistics, on the CelticsHub blog. He eventually landed at Sports Illustrated, and last fall was hired by Grantland.

 

Boston’s sports pages became influential because a bunch of forward thinkers had the creativity, brains, and freedom to try something different. Whatever once flourished, though, has ground to a halt.

As national publications continue to recruit next-generation talents like Lowe, Goldsberry, and the many others who went underappreciated in their home city, it’s worth stopping to consider the plight of the local sports telecast. If channels 4, 5, and 7 at last did away entirely with their evening sports segments, who around here would care? Boston sports fans are more likely to turn to ESPN’s national SportsCenter broadcast rather than the local affiliates for television highlights and news. The same fate almost certainly awaits our local publications—print and digital alike—if they fail to adapt.

Were the Globe to stop publishing sports tomorrow, how much loss would readers feel? Certainly some, but much less than even a decade ago. That’s because Boston fans have gotten increasingly used to following the ups and downs of their favorite teams in national outlets rather than local ones.

The message to The Lodge is clear: Change, or die the death of utter irrelevance.

ADVERTISMENT

  • 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.

  • NHLfarmteams

    Of all the Boston media types Haggerty should be the 1st mentioned in this article. He is nothing but a homer blogger that has been given the keys to the city. Unfortunately the city of Boston and Bruins fans get painted with the same brush because this moron gets a microphone.