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?

By Alan Siegel | Boston Magazine |

boston sportswriters awful

The Lodge, as Boston’s stuffy sports-media establishment is called, is home to such luminaries as, from left, 98.5 The Sports Hub’s Tony Massarotti, the Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, WEEI’s Glenn Ordway, and the Globe’s Nick Cafardo. Photos by Getty Images (Shaughnessy, Ordway); Boston Globe (Cafardo); John Soares Photography (Massarotti); AP Images (Bird, Williams). (All Illustrations by John Ueland)

In late July, Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez sent the organization’s top brass a text message to complain about the team’s manager, Bobby Valentine. It was by then clear that the season was lost. Valentine had clashed with his players since spring training and, despite the team’s bloated payroll and perennially high expectations, the Red Sox looked certain to miss the playoffs for the third straight year. In response to Gonzalez’s message, two of the Sox’s owners, John Henry and Larry Lucchino, called a meeting with a handful of players to hash things out. The players, including star second baseman Dustin Pedroia, ripped Valentine behind his back. They didn’t just air a few petty grievances, they all but mutinied, declaring that they didn’t want to play for Valentine anymore.

That incident, plus several more that reflected poorly on the manager, were revealed in an explosive story published by Yahoo! Sports on August 14. Written by Jeff Passan, the article followed a June report by ESPN’s Buster Olney that called the Red Sox a “splintered group” and described the team’s clubhouse as “toxic.”

Whoever was at fault for the chaos that had descended on the team—Valentine, the players, ownership—it was clearly a massive story. Unless, that is, you happened to work as a sportswriter in Boston. While national reporters parachuted in to break a big story—as they’ve been doing with increasing frequency of late—the local press simply missed the boat. In fact, some of the Sox beat writers insisted in the aftermath of the bombshell story that Passan had gotten it all wrong. For instance, the Globe’s Nick Cafardo—who devoted so much effort to (bizarrely) defending Valentine throughout last season that he seemed to miss the larger story of a franchise crumbling around him—wrote a column arguing that what Passan’s piece showed above all else was that it was the Red Sox players rather than the manager who were the real problem. “The behavior of players as described in the Jeff Passan Yahoo! Sports story,” Cafardo wrote, “was downright disgusting.” Maybe so, but what was missing entirely from Cafardo’s take was any mention of what Valentine had done to create his own problems. Instead, Cafardo excused some of Valentine’s transgressions, including publicly questioning third baseman Kevin Youkilis’s commitment early in the season, a comment that Cafardo insisted would have been no big deal back in the ’70s and ’80s—decades that occurred, you know, 30 or 40 years ago.

Other writers simply downplayed the significance of Passan’s report altogether. Though he would later produce an article about the poor relationship between Valentine and some of his coaches, Globe Red Sox reporter Peter Abraham remains mystified as to why Passan’s story got so much attention. In journalism, it’s worth noting, there’s nothing more embarrassing than having a reporter from the outside come in and break news on your turf. “There was this perception that, well, somehow the Boston media got beat on this story,” Abraham told me. “I didn’t know what there was that we got beat on. I guess the fact that [the players and ownership] had a meeting.”

Actually, yes, exactly that.

Abraham continued: “Bobby, if anything, at the time, had his position strengthened. He didn’t get fired. They fired [the pitching coach]. And the team played better for a short time after that meeting. So when this thing came out, at least for me personally, I didn’t really know what the story was—‘Well, the Red Sox were upset three weeks ago.’”

Again, the players tried to get the manager axed. That was the story. But Abraham went on: “Had Bobby been fired, and that was the reason, it would’ve been a better story. There were really no consequences to the meeting. Nothing happened. I wasn’t really sure where to go with it.”

Abraham’s implication that the meeting was unimportant because nobody got fired is more than a bit strange, especially considering that pitching coach Bob McClure, rumored to be the source for Passan’s story, was canned less than a week after the article ran. More broadly, though, there is something seriously amiss if the Globe’s Red Sox beat writer, the holder of one of the most sought-after jobs in all of American sports journalism, doesn’t know where to go with a story like this.

But Abraham is hardly the only problem these days. The Boston sports media, once considered one of the country’s best and most influential press corps, is stumbling toward irrelevance. The national media not only seems to break more big Boston sports stories than the local press, but also often features more sophisticated analysis, especially when it comes to using advanced statistics. To put it bluntly, “The Lodge”—as Fred Toucher, cohost of the 98.5 The Sports Hub morning radio show, mockingly refers to the city’s clubby, self-important media establishment—is clogged with stale reporters, crotchety columnists, and shameless blowhards. Their canned “hot sports takes” have found a home on local television and talk radio, but do little but suck the fun out of a topic that’s supposed to be just that. And we haven’t even gotten to Dan Shaughnessy yet.

In early December, Joe Sullivan, the Globe sports editor for the past nine years, invited me to Morrissey Boulevard to discuss the state of things. Stepping into his large office, I noticed that the walls were covered with poster-size photographs of the Celtics legend Larry Bird and the champion Brockton boxer Marvelous Marvin Hagler.

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.”

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.

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