Legendary sports writer Bob Ryan describes in his autobiographical book, “Scribe: My Life In Sports” a different era of journalism – one in which you could regularly go out drinking after games to get the “real scoop” on the teams in which you cover.
Ryan would fly on team planes. He would sit next to coaches on the team bus. And, yes, he would often pound beers with the boys after the game.
That type of access simply does not exist in 2016.
A few years back during the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce era of the Celtics, I was covering a game and saw Ryan in the same spot as me – watching ants dribble a basketball from the ninth floor of the TD Garden.
Now, if you ever want a good view of basketball history, it’s a good spot I suppose. You’re literally eye-to-eye with the NBA record 17-championship banners.
But there was some irony there. Here was Ryan, having already announced his retirement from full-time writing at the Boston Globe, staring the history of the Boston Celtics straight on. The only media guys who were getting a good look at the ants of Celtics present that night were the state-media run TV and radio broadcasters.
The Celtics aren’t as good right now as they were a few years back, so the team has been so kind as to allow SOME plebian writers back into the loge section of the Garden (I assume once the C’s are back in the Finals they’ll be booted right back up to the ninth floor). But even the loge section is a stark contrast to the days when players used to dive for loose balls through the apron of a sideline table and end up at the feet of a sports writer.
Locker room access
I get why the teams have done what they’ve done. They want to create a culture in which the sports writer is petrified to ask a tough question (thanks Bill Belichick!). After losses in particular, it’s not an uncommon sight to see media hordes huddled around the one player on the team they know won’t yell at them.
The teams want to limit access as much as possible.
With the exception of Major League Baseball, there are extremely strict time limits when it comes to pro locker room access before and after games.
The media go-getters will find a player no one else is talking to in a corner and try to pry a non-cliché quote out of him. But obviously the batting average for finding that “money quote” these days is low even for a wily veteran.
What, exactly, does a pro athlete have to gain from telling a media guy the “real story” these days? And even if they do want to “get something out” what’s stopping them from publishing it on the Players’ Tribune website or simply tweeting it out?
Team executives and coaches are often baffled by the amount of rumor that is printed in the media these days. But the teams have no one to blame but themselves. They have created this no access culture.
Now, there have been and always will be a great deal of fan boys who cover teams. (I’ve seen credentialed bloggers at Celtics games decked out in green and white gear on more than one occasion.) Ryan himself was definitely “pro jock” by most standards and got scoops by being buddy-buddy with athletes.
But no one – not a hardened local voice or a backwards-hat wearing blogger - is getting big scoops on the regular in 2016.
In this day and age a local story is a national story. If Kevin Durant – in tiny Oklahoma City – is thinking about joining the Golden State Warriors, Anthony Slater (the Thunder beat writer for The Oklahoman) is not getting the scoop. It’s going right to Adrian Wojnarowski. In the NFL, all the good stuff goes right to Adam Schefter.
They’re the 1 percenters in the sports media world.
So the rest of us are left reading the fine print of the Wojnarowski and Schefter pieces and rumors come from those rumors. And rumors from other rumors get pageviews.
Just this week I was telling my Metro colleague, Evan Macy, a story from when I was a student reporter in college. In 2004, I was covering the Final Four of which my school (UConn) was a part of.
Great, awesome experience. I was lucky and privileged. All of that.
But I got an early lesson then about the money-gobbling nature of big time sports.
That day in the AlamoDome, I made the cardinal mistake of carrying a Diet Coke can to my seat on press row. A spectacled NCAA official ran full sprint toward me at my seat and demanded that I go back to the sectioned-off media area behind the blue NCAA curtain to pour my Coke into a DASANI-labeled blue paper cup. Then and only then would I be allowed to return to my seat.
Evan is covering the NCAA Eastern Regional in Philly this week. Twelve years later, I would like to have thought the NCAA might have relaxed its rules on specific beverage logos. No such luck.
“After having lunch in the press dining room, I refilled my water - in the clear plastic cup that was provided with lunch – and headed to the floor to watch Wisconsin practice,” Evan told me Thursday (PHOTOS ABOVE). “But before being allowed out of the tunnel, I was asked to pour my water into a paper Powerade cup before walking out – even though it is just a practice day and even though it was a label-less plastic cup. Quite peculiar. I get that they have sponsors, but that’s a bit much.”
Get to the point, dummy
Ya, I know. Sports writing isn’t exactly digging ditches. I literally worked in a graveyard during summers and during winter vacations during high school and college and I can safely report that it blows compared to writing a four-sentence post on how LeBron might leave the Cavs again.
Plus, we chose this profession. We knew what we were getting into for the most part.
I guess the main point of these 1,000-plus words is that the next time you’re set to complain about the click-baity nature of sports writing in 2016, just remember – THEY made us this way. I would love nothing more than to go throw back eight rum and cokes with Tom Brady on a random Wednesday night the same way Bob Ryan used to slam Bud Heavys with Larry Bird back in the day at the Scotch ‘n Sirloin.
But I’m at peace with the fact that that world does not exist now. And I know full well that right now it’s time for me to write my 18th NFL Mock Draft this month.