Does it have to be Us vs. Them?
Are sports media folk and athletes inherent enemies?
This topic was raised anew during the run-up to the NBA All-Star Game, when Kevin Durant, a player long considered to be the modern gold standard of media friendliness, launched into a stinging rebuke of the media, a rant — there really was no other way to describe it — in which he declared that the writers and broadcasters in question “don’t know s-word.” He lobbied for more player input on such things as the MVP award, which is a reasonable premise. Durant also revealed that he has been withholding his true thoughts in an attempt to be politically correct and say things he figured the media would want to hear. From now on, he vowed, things would be different.
For the media in question, it was as if a neighbor’s friendly golden retriever had suddenly turned into a ferocious pit bull.
The media was shaken. Here was a universally respected player about whom seldom a bad word had ever been spoken or written. Yes, there had been a foolish, over-the-top “Mr. Unreliable” newspaper headline accompanying a column by Berry Tramel during the 2014 playoffs, a headline that made the column seem far more inflammatory than it actually was. The paper even issued a public apology to Durant, and the offending copy editor was sent to bed without his supper, I am sure.
Anyway, from a media perspective, Durant had no cause to turn on them. All someone had done was bring up the subject of coach Scott Brooks’s job security. It was very noble of Durant to defend his coach, but it was also somewhat naive of him not to realize that many NBA people have long believed the Oklahoma City Thunder need a coaching upgrade.
Thinking back to the hoo-ha at the Super Bowl concerning Marshawn Lynch, whose “I’m-just-here-because-I-gotta-be” mantra was borrowed by Durant, the question about why athletes should even have to talk to the media was again front and center.
Much is often made of the awkward circumstance of interviews being conducted as players have just stepped out of the shower, which is hardly a situation conducive to a decent exchange. This, in fact, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the first five decades of the 20th century, when baseball reigned supreme, writers watched the game, wrote their stories, and went home, or to the bar. It wasn’t until the 1940s that a New York Daily News writer named Dick Young began to invade clubhouses in order to extract some postgame thoughts that the practice became common. The practice soon spread.
But there had always been interviews conducted before games, or on offdays or during leisure time. Feature stories and columns had to be written. And a writer (daily electronic reporting didn’t take root until the ’80s) was the accepted conduit between a player and the fans.
That, of course, is ancient journalistic history. We live in an era when an athlete no longer needs the media to get across whatever message he or she wishes to send. The balance between athlete and media member exists no longer. If an athlete has something to say, he or she can tweet it or post it. No intermediary is necessary.
The leverage belongs to the athlete. I’m not talking about a major function such as the Super Bowl. I’m talking about the countless daily encounters between the media folk and the athletes on our many professional sports teams. If someone doesn’t want to talk, there is nothing anyone can do.
Now, I will acknowledge that far too many of the postgame encounters are banal and pointless. Really good, juicy, informative quotes are always in short supply. But when writers are facing hideous nighttime deadlines, those boring, obvious, and repetitive quotes are needed in order to fill space and make that deadline. I call them the journalistic equivalent of Hamburger Helper. There are times a writer cannot live without them.
Most players, even today, go along with the program. They understand that a writer or electronic journalist has a job to do, and most athletes still fulfill what they accept as a professional obligation.
Few NBA players entered the league as media wary as Larry Bird. But once he got into the league, he did what he perceived to be his duty.
“Once I got into the pros, I felt it was part of the deal,” he explained. “You have to do your share. But it works both ways. You have to set your parameters.”
In time, Bird became an incredible journalistic resource, a true “go-to” guy for us. I once did a Globe Magazine story detailing his incredible transformation.
But that was then, and this is now, and Larry Bird never had to deal with Deadspin or TMZ or the ramifications of social media, things that have altered the landscape. Bird sympathizes with the modern player. “It’s a lot harder now,” he said. “Social media has changed everything. For these guys today, the hits can come from anywhere.”
As far as Durant is concerned, Bird simply observed that “maybe he was going through a bad day.” Like most NBA personnel, Larry thinks highly of Durant and was surprised to see him going off.
But if the central question is why anyone should wish to talk to a player in the first place, we had Exhibit A two weeks ago in the Sunday Globe.
Fluto Shinzawa had a fascinating tidbit in his hockey column. He was chatting with Patrice Bergeron after a morning skate on Feb. 10 and somehow or other the subject of a “bumper” on a power-play unit came up. What Fluto extracted was a tutorial about an aspect of hockey many of us did not know even existed. It was informative and flat-out fun to read. This is why we wish to converse with athletes.
There were three winners here. Fluto got a nice little story. Bergeron demonstrated his intelligence. And we had a great read.
Those tidbits abound in all sports. We need to keep digging for them.