Boston Sportswriters: The Fellowship of the Miserable
Whiny, petulant, entitled, self-importantâno, 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?
The Lodge, as Bostonâs stuffy sports-media establishment is called, is home to such luminaries as, from left, 98.5 The Sports Hubâs Tony Massarotti, the Globeâs Dan Shaughnessy, WEEIâs Glenn Ordway, and the Globeâs Nick Cafardo.Â Photos by Getty Images (Shaughnessy, Ordway);Â 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 organizationâs top brass a text message to complain about the teamâs 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 teamâs bloated payroll and perennially high expectations, the Red Sox looked certain to miss the playoffs for the third straight year. In response to Gonzalezâs message, two of the Soxâs 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 didnât just air a few petty grievances, they all but mutinied, declaring that they didnât 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 ESPNâs Buster Olney that called the Red Sox a âsplintered groupâ and described the teamâs clubhouse as âtoxic.â
Whoever was at fault for the chaos that had descended on the teamâValentine, the players, ownershipâit 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 storyâas theyâve been doing with increasing frequency of lateâthe 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 Globeâs Nick Cafardoâwho devoted so much effort to (bizarrely) defending Valentine throughout last season that he seemed to miss the larger story of a franchise crumbling around himâwrote a column arguing that what Passanâs piece showed above all else was that it was the Red SoxÂ players rather than the manager who were the real problem. âThe behavior of players as described in the Jeff Passan Yahoo! Sports story,â Cafardo wrote, âwas downright disgusting.â Maybe so, but what was missing entirely from Cafardoâs take was any mention of what Valentine had done to create his own problems. Instead, Cafardo excused some of Valentineâs transgressions, including publicly questioning third baseman Kevin Youkilisâs commitment early in the season, a comment that Cafardo insisted would have been no big deal back in the â70s and â80sâdecades that occurred, you know, 30 or 40 years ago.
Other writers simply downplayed the significance of Passanâs 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 Passanâs story got so much attention. In journalism, itâs worth noting, thereâs nothing more embarrassing than having a reporter from the outside come in and break news on your turf. âThere was this perception that, well, somehow the Boston media got beat on this story,â Abraham told me. âI didnât know what there was that we got beat on. I guess the fact that [the players and ownership] had a meeting.â
Actually, yes, exactly that.
Abraham continued: âBobby, if anything, at the time, had his position strengthened. He didnât 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 didnât really know what the story wasââWell, the Red Sox were upset three weeks ago.ââ
Again, the players tried to get the manager axed. That was the story. But Abraham went on: âHad Bobby been fired, and that was the reason, it wouldâve been a better story. There were really no consequences to the meeting. Nothing happened. I wasnât really sure where to go with it.â
Abrahamâs 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 Passanâs story, was canned less than a week after the article ran. More broadly, though, there is something seriously amiss if the Globeâs Red Sox beat writer, the holder of one of the most sought-after jobs in all of American sports journalism, doesnât 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 countryâs 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, âThe Lodgeââas Fred Toucher, cohost of the 98.5 The Sports Hub morning radio show, mockingly refers to the cityâs clubby, self-important media establishmentâis clogged with stale reporters, crotchety columnists, and shameless blowhards. Their canned âhot sports takesâ have found a home on local television and talk radio, but do little but suck the fun out of a topic thatâs supposed to be just that. And we havenât even gotten to Dan Shaughnessy yet.
In early December, Joe Sullivan, theÂ GlobeÂ 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.
Photo by Landov (McDonough). (Illustration by John Ueland)
Passanâs story was still fresh in Sullivanâs mind. âWe got beat,â he told me. âThereâs no question.â Then, after carefully making a point to praise the work of his own baseball writers, he added, âItâs like in sportsâyouâre going to lose some games.â 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: âto serve the Web and print at the same time.â
As forward-thinking as that sounds, the newspaperâs core approach to sports coverageâwhich still relies on boilerplate game recaps, columns, and weekly ânotebooksâ offering bullet-point takes on the happenings from the various sports leaguesâhasnât changed much over the years. In fact, not much in the Boston sports media hasânot even the photos on the wall.
How did we get to this point? Ironically, itâs the success of this cityâs sports-media past that is at the root of todayâs problems. Romanticizing the Globe of the â70s and â80s has become almost clichĂ©dâŠand 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 Celticsâ playbook rivaled that of the teamâs 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 whoâs still one of the greats.
Today, the paperâs 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, âa place like the Globe hasnât had a turnover of voices in 20 or 30 years.â
Since columnist Michael Holley left the paper for a radio gig at WEEI eight years ago, itâs 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.
Itâs a similar story over at the Herald, where old mainstays like Gerry Callahan and Steve Buckley continue to occupy top billing. The tabloidâs 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 theyâve had since the â90s, like Callahan, John Dennis, Glenn Ordway, and even Mike Adams. Itâs not that all the old-timers are badâitâs more that itâs 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 itâs not just the cityâs core sports personalities that havenât 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, theyâre 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 poeticâGammonsâs lyrical piece after Game 6 of the 1975 World Series is considered the modern standardâtodayâs versions rarely rise to such levels and, in the end, just end up rehashing hours-old events (as if the highlights werenât immediately available online).
In most game stories, thereâs a conspicuous lack of creative analysis, which is compounded by the local mediaâs 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, âIâm tired, man.â (One would think so!) Tight end Aaron Hernandez offered this enlightening bit of pablum: âWeâve still got one more to go to get to the big dance, so weâve got to keep playing and come to play next week.â And defensive standout Vince Wilfork was captured saying, âItâs sweet playing in the AFC Championship.â 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.comâs Alex Speier, who specializes in incorporating advanced stats into articles meant for the average fanâand who is therefore one of the cityâs few inventive sportswritersâtold me that everything has changed now that readers no longer depend on print for all their news. âNow you have to wrestle with whether what youâre doing is interesting,â Speier said, âor a bit of a nuisance.â
Itâs 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. Itâs just that too many of our sportswritersâahem, sports âpersonalitiesââhave 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 columnistâs 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 workâthe rest of the cityâs sports-media complex feeds on his bluster. Before that Texans game, for example, Shaughnessy used his column to gleefully ridicule the Patriotsâ opponents, calling them âpure frauds.â It was the same caustic, one-liner-laden junk heâs been peddling for years. âCould this get any easier?â Shaughnessy wrote. âI mean, seriously? The planets are aligned and the tomato cans are in place.â
Predictably, it provoked a strong reaction. First, the football writer Tom E. Curran, of Comcast SportsNet New England, took to Twitter, writing that âShaughnessy couldnât name 5 Texans. Or 10 Patriots.â Then, right on cue, Shaughnessy appeared on The Sports Hubâs Gresh & Zolak show, on which he managed to name five Texans and 10 Patriots. Meanwhile, Texans running back Arian Foster fell into the columnistâs trap, using Twitter to call attention to Shaughnessyâs trolling foolishness.
Later that week, the New-Hampshire-based sports-media critic Bruce Allen summed up the entire episode. âColumns are written, statements are made simply to generate buzz. Good or bad, it doesnât matter,â he wrote on his website, Boston Sports Media Watch. âBy bringing them up and even attempting to denounce them, Iâm simply feeding the monster and adding to the buzz.â
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, âBob Ryan, heâs as famous as we are.â Butover time, the cityâs 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. âIf youâre a halfway decent beat writer in this town,â said Mike Felger, cohost of the afternoon show on The Sports Hub and a CSNNE anchor, âyouâll get on Comcast, or NESN, or Sports Hub, or âEEI.â
Felger, of course, should know. Heâs transformed himself from a sharp Patriots reporter for the Herald into a contrarian âmedia personality.â 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, theyâre all trying to be loud and provocative so they can become fixtures on TV and radio. Thereâs good money, after all, in broadcast. âThere has to be a willingness to put yourself out there and make statements without knowing what youâre talking about,â Rich Levine, an online columnist for CSNNE, told me. âYou have to not give a shit about ultimately looking like an idiot or saying a lot of things that you regret.â
Photos by Getty Images (Shaughnessy); John Soares Photography (Massarotti). (Illustration by JohnÂ Ueland)
The prospect of shouting down a professional rival can be particularly enticingâhow better to attract even more attention for yourself? âI donât think people necessarily enter into it with that mindset, but nonetheless, if it starts down the hill, theyâre like, âFuck, this is a profitable undertaking,ââ one Boston sportswriter told me. âEspecially if you actually donât like the person at the other end of it. And youâre like, âThis is great. I get a megaphone to dump on this person I donât like, and I get paid for it.ââ
âYou can quote that if you like,â the writer said, âbut donât attribute it to me, because I want my fucking appearance fees.â
In a landscape where being loud and controversial is valued over being smart and insightfulâand over doing the difficult work of investigative reportingâitâs no surprise that the Boston sports media keeps getting beat on genuinely important news, like Passanâs story about the Red Sox players meeting with ownership. Thatâs hardly the only example. If news breaks on the Celtics beat, for instance, chances are itâs coming from Passanâs colleague at Yahoo! Sports, Adrian Wojnarowski. Last April, heânot a local writerâreported 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 mediaâs most notable success of the past few yearsâthe Globeâs spectacular report on the historic collapse of the Red Sox in 2011âlikely 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, âI want to go deep on this. I want to know what happened.â Hohler told me that Sullivan then called his baseball writers into his office to devise a plan. âIt was agreed that I would do the story because they didnât want to burn their sources,â Hohler said, âwhich is legitimate.â
Hohlerâs 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 Franconaâs personal life and use of prescription drugs. (Hohler pointed out that the Heraldâs John Tomase was actually the first to mention the playersâ beer drinking.) The story embittered fans and, itâs safe to say, will go down as a defining piece of Red Sox history.
âThere is something weird on that Red Sox beat,â Felger told me. âAll the good stuff has come nationally, or from a news guy like Hohler. Why I think that is, partiallyâif a beat guy writes a story that Hohler did, [the organization] is going to make his life a living hell.â
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. âMarty Baron wouldnât have talked to Joe Sullivan,â he said, âand Joe Sullivan wouldnât have called us all in, and there wouldnât have been a story.â
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 werenât any players there for them to interview at the moment. Most Celtics players tend to avoid their locker room when itâs 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. Itâs 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 reportersâ ears. âI know what Iâm doing,â 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.
Thereâs a distance now between players and the media that didnât 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, theyâre immediately surrounded by a dozen or more people and prodded with questionsâan unhealthy percentage of which typically arenât questions at all, but lazy statements along the lines of, âTalk about the third quarter.â âI donât envy anybody covering a team in any major sport for any major outlet,â Bob Ryan told me. The media scrum rarely turns up anything interesting and, without doubt, the job for todayâs reporter is harder than ever. And yet, most of them continue to approach it the same way their predecessors did in the â80s and â90s, 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, clichĂ©-heavy quotes.
Still, there are some local writers who understand that a fresh approach is whatâs 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 donât 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, heâs 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 Soxâs farm system, explaining how whatâs going on in the minors affects the big team.
There have been others like Bedard and Speier, but, unfortunately, theyâve for the most part left town. Thatâs 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: Thereâs the NHL executive Chris Snow (the Globe), the NFL Networkâs Ian Rapoport (the Herald) and Albert Breer (the Herald and the Globe), SB Nationâs Paul Flannery (WEEI.com), and Yahoo! Sportsâ 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. âThe Boston Globe sports section is legendary,â Goldsberry told me. âAnd you would think they would sort of be looking for a new next thing.â
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 itâor an analysis as revealing. While the local media took little notice, Goldsberry managed to capture the attention of ESPNâs 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.
Bostonâs 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, itâs 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 ESPNâs national SportsCenter broadcast rather than the local affiliates for television highlights and news. The same fate almost certainly awaits our local publicationsâprint and digital alikeâif 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. Thatâs 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.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2013/01/boston-sportswriters-awful/