So after 40 years and 12 books and thousands of columns and millions of words, I have just one question for you gentle readers of sports coverage and commentary . . .
Do you want coverage or celebration? Do you want subjective commentary and analysis, or do you just want writer/fans rooting for the local teams to win?
The older I get, the longer I work, the more I wonder.
I thought about this after connecting with so many Patriots fans in Miami over the weekend. There were thousands of New Englanders in southern Florida and I had many pleasant encounters with Patriots fans. But the conversation often came around to the same question. Fans would ask me: Don’t you want the Patriots to win?
And the answer was always unsatisfactory.
I don’t care if they win. I don’t care if they lose. I love sports. I love football. I love the story. The story can be great, win or lose. But I am not emotional about the outcome. Overall, of course, it’s better to work in a region with good teams, and Boston has more than any other city. Most of the time it’s a great story if they win. It’s even good for the city. Money flows. Strangers talk with each other. Sometimes it’s a good story even if they lose.
Patriots at Ravens Sunday is a good example. If the living-on-the-edge Patriots win, it’s off to the playoffs. If they lose to the surging, cocky world champs, the pressure mounts. It’s a good story either way. The game is suddenly bigger than it was. I can’t wait for the game. And I don’t care who wins.
You’ve no doubt seen “The Fugitive” with Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford. It’s a classic. There’s a scene early in the film where Jones, as Deputy US Marshal Samuel Gerard, pursues fugitive Dr. Richard Kimble (Ford) through a viaduct in a dam. In the ensuing confrontation, Kimble points a gun at Gerard and says, “I didn’t kill my wife.’’
With nary a shred of emotion, Gerard barks, “I don’t care.’’
That’s it right there, people. It’s not the marshal’s job to determine Dr. Kimble’s guilt or innocence. The marshal’s job is to bring him in.
That’s me. I write the stories. I care about the stories. But when my head hits the pillow at the end of the day it does . . . not . . . matter to me if the Patriots won or lost.
This comes in handy in some deadline situations. In our business, it’s important to be able to function when an 18-0 season blows up in smoke in the final minute in Glendale, Ariz. The tracks of our tears don’t fill the column space in Monday’s newspaper and on the website.
This is how we were trained a few decades ago. We were instructed not to root for the home team. Just deliver the story and the analysis.
That’s the way it is in other departments of a legitimate news operation. Journalists who cover politics, science, medicine, labor, and international relations are asked to put their agendas on the shelf. Tell the story. The reporter covering the Romney-Obama election is not supposed to be a fan of either candidate.
Why is it presumed to be different for us? Why do readers expect — and in some cases, demand — that sports reporters be fans of the team they cover? This amazes me. Are we supposed to suspend all rules of journalism because we cover sports?
I had this discussion with a very smart woman at a dinner party some years ago. She was from a family of newspaper publishers. And she was astounded to learn I was not rooting for the Red Sox while I was covering the Red Sox.
Trust me when I tell you this whole thing has changed. When I came into this business in the 1970s, it was OK for sports reporters to be skeptical and critical. It was not a crime against humanity if you suggested the Patriots or Red Sox might not win the championship, or perhaps might not be serving the best interests of their fans. It was OK to occasionally poke fun at Haywood Sullivan or Billy Sullivan.
Naturally, the Internet is a good source of explanation for this new dynamic. The web gives fans an infinite forum. Fans have a place to read like-minded people. It’s like one giant sports-talk show with no hosts interrupting. It turns out that fans love reading other fans. And, naturally, they all love their teams. What a surprise. Now they expect everyone else to love a team. It’s the wild west of fanboys.
And so the industry has changed. The press box is peppered with folks who are working for the teams, or the league, or other fans. And woe is the fly in the punchbowl who’d dare interrupt the fanfest celebration.
These are high times in Boston sports. We have seen eight Duck Boat parades since February 2002 and all four of our pro teams seem to be in good hands. We are the envy of sports fans in America.
But not everything is always great and it’s OK to point this out now and then. Opinions about sports don’t impact important issues that touch our lives. This isn’t about taxes, abortion, gun control, or health care. It’s about first-round byes and Cover 2 defenses. If we have differing opinions about Wes Welker, it doesn’t mean we can’t get along with one another.
Bill Ballou of the Worcester Telegram once said to me, “If I wake up on January 3 and put on my coat before going outside, I am not being negative, I am just preparing because it’s probably cold outside.’’
In this spirit, I submit that the 2013 Patriots are headed to an unfortunate ending this season. Please don’t take this as negativity. It’s just an opinion. I may be wrong. But it really won’t matter if I’m right or wrong. It’s sports. It’s entertainment. It’s fun. And it’s not going to change your life or mine, one way or another.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com.