Boston Sportswriters: The Fellowship of the Miserable
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.