We live in a frenetic 24/7 news cycle where stories are gone almost as soon as they emerge. One frequent casualty of this news environment is the context and insight necessary to understand really what’s going on. Talk radio fills this gap to some degree, because the medium allows for incessant harping on the same issues – but, it’s still a here-today, gone-tomorrow world. Blogs fill a void because they provide an institutional memory missing from mainstream media coverage – to remind their readers that we’ve seen this before and, in the process, lend better insight to “new” stories that are really the same as the old stories. The political blogosphere has served this function well for several years now, subjecting the mainstream media to a level of analysis and scrutiny that the big media boys are clearly unaccustomed to and uncomfortable with. My intention is to do the same for media coverage of sports.
My goal will be as much to talk about what’s missing from the coverage as it is to analyze what’s being covered. So, when I talk about steroids, I’ll be asking whether the sound and fury over that issue includes a serious understanding of the health effects of steroids – I won’t claim to be a doctor, because I am not. But, I will call commentators on the carpet who pretend they are, when they have no real knowledge of the issues. When a “small ball” team in baseball does well, and there appears the predictable avalanche of commentary about why Moneyball is wrong, I’ll make sure that the people attacking Moneyball have actually read the book and understand what Moneyball is and isn’t. When sports people make predictions – whether about the NCAA tournament, or the NFL draft – I’ll hold them accountable down the road – to make sure that they don’t merely get to pop off about what’s going to happen, unless they already have a proven track record that we should take seriously.
When politics works its way into a sports conversation, as happens more often than people realize, I’ll weigh in. I’ll make sure that if people make claims they can’t substantiate, that at least one corner of the information noise machine calls them to account – makes sure that they understand the data they’re using, that they don’t misrepresent the people they’re quoting that, in short, they be forced to take seriously their roles as public commentators. Whether it’s about the relative merits of on-base percentage vs. batting average or the supposed harm women playing in men’s golf tournaments does to the game, to whether Title IX really hurts men’s opportunities in collegiate athletics to whether we should take seriously whether a guy runs a 3.5 in the 40 at the NFL combine, I’ll make sure that the big media mouths have their facts and arguments straight.
In short, when the great American sports noise machine picks over a story for a few days and then moves on to the next big thing, I’ll stick around a little longer to examine the remains of the carcass, and tell you who got the story right, who got it wrong, and why it matters.
I know that a lot of the fun of arguing about sports is being able to go at it with a buddy, or a sports talk host on the radio, and not have to worry too much about keeping all your facts straight. But, for the ESPN columnists, and the Sporting News Radio hosts, and the guys who cover sports for network TV, all of whom make a nice living – a little accountability isn’t such a bad thing. Popping off is easy – saying something insightful takes a little more work. But, the big conversation could benefit from a little more rigor, a little more insight, a little more thought. I’ll do my small part to try to inject those things into the conversation.
Over on the right there will soon be a list of some of the people I listen to or read whose work I respect. I won’t always agree with these folks, either, and I’ll let you know when I don’t. But, these are guys who bring to the table something more than the typical sports commentary – the intelligence, insight and thoughtfulness often missing. None of them sacrifices real passion about sports or in-depth knowledge about what happens on the playing field. If you know of people who you think belong on the list, tell me about them – I may not have heard of them – and I’ll check them out. If I agree with you, I’ll add them to the list.
I think it’s a truism in blogging that a blogger is only as good as his or her most intelligent readers. Given the impossibly large number of information sources now – from traditional media to the internet, to blogs and podcasts, there is no way for one person to keep up with everything that’s being talked and written about. Much of the commentary is garbage – but the quality stuff, even if it’s a small percentage of the total, is still far more than a mere mortal can grasp and digest day-to-day. Central to my ability to bring real insight to how the sports media cover the big stories every day is for you all to let me know what’s out there – whether it’s a good article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch on Tony LaRussa, or a great podcast on a publicly financed stadium fight in Tampa Florida, or a sharp exchange about Michelle Wie participating in men’s tournaments on local sports talk radio in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I’ll do my best to troll for these kinds of sources, while keeping my eye on the big names in sports media – Mike and the Mad Dog, the dynamic duo of sports talk radio on WFAN in New York, the major sports columnists in places like the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post, the army of bloggers and commentators on ESPN.com, the writers in Sports Illustrated, the occasional sports commentary that appears on non-sports blogs like the Huffington Post, or King Kaufman, sports writer for Salon.com.
To give you a taste of where I am coming from, I’m posting here a commentary I wrote in 2005 about the McNabb-Limbaugh controversy. By no means will everything I write be so clearly “political” – to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a quarterback controversy is just a quarterback controversy. But, as I’ve said, I won’t shy away from politics, and my point of view will be obvious soon enough.
Sometimes, I’ll open the mailbag (assuming I have mail) and I’ll always be interested to hear the issues you think need more attention.
Thanks for giving me a look.
(From February 2005):
McNabb and Limbaugh
Since 'tis the Super Bowl season, and since Donovan McNabb is quarterbacking one of this year's entrants, I wanted to re-visit the comments that then-ESPN commentator Rush Limbaugh made about McNabb in the Fall of 2003. According to Media Matters, Rush recently fielded a phone call in which he acknowledged that McNabb had had a great 2004 season, but stood by his comments, made early in the 2003 season. Here's what Limbaugh said in 2003:
"He's overrated…I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well…There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."
A firestorm erupted after this comment, prompting ESPN to end the short-lived Limbaugh experiment. ESPN's cravenness aside (what did they expect him to do on the program?), the implication of Limbaugh's claim is this: that white quarterbacks have not gotten undue credit for the play of their team's defenses. You know, that unlike Blacks, white men sink or swim on their merits. Is this true with regard to quarterbacks?
Let's start by talking about John Shaffer. Shaffer was the quarterback at Penn State University in 1986 when that school won its second national championship, after upsetting the University of Miami in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year's night, 1987. Shaffer was lionized (sorry for the pun) for his grit and his winning ways, and it was common to hear people refer to the great won-loss records of his teams going back to the seventh grade. But, here's the dirty little secret about Shaffer: he sucked. Big time. For his college career, he completed fewer than half his passes and threw more interceptions than touchdowns. That's a frankly pathetic record for a quarterback at an elite school surrounded by future NFL players. In the championship game itself, Shaffer threw for 53 yards, a laughably low total. The reason that Penn State won was their defense, which was great all season and intercepted Miami's Heisman trophy winning quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, five times in the championship game. Shaffer, by the way, is white.
How about a couple of other examples? Tom Brady, now deified as the second coming of Joe Montana, won the most valuable player three years ago in Super Bowl XXXVI, the Patriots' first championship. Why? Well, Brady threw for 145 yards in that game. That's one of the lowest totals in Super Bowl history for a winning quarterback, and the second lowest in the last thirty years. True, Brady led the Patriots on a nice game-winning field goal drive in the final minute. But, the real story of the game was the Patriots' defense, which held the high-scoring St. Louis Rams to just 17 points. Brady, by the way, is also white. So is Jim McMahon, a good, tough QB who happened to lead the offense of the 1985 Chicago Bears, a team that had perhaps the most ferocious defense in football history; McMahon got credit as a "winner," of course, and as the heart, soul and leader of that team, though his statistical performances never put him among the NFL's elite quarterbacks. Let me assure you, there are many more examples to choose from.
Here's the point: quarterbacks have always gotten credit even when their performances were mediocre or worse but they happened to play on teams with great defenses.
For guys like Limbaugh, it's not slavery or Jim Crow that constitute among the greatest crimes in American history. No, it's the liberal response to those crimes that really imperils our civilization. From this warped historical perspective, it often follows that ill-informed, frankly cowardly race-baiting is dressed up as a courageous rejection of political correctness. The fact is that McNabb was a good quarterback when Limbaugh made his comments. Actually, as Salon.com's great sports columnist King Kaufman pointed out at the time, according to Football Prospectus, McNabb was the best QB in the NFL in 2002, using a purely statistical analysis that did not consider skin-color. But, the larger issue is that because of the nature of the sport, quarterbacks have often gotten credit for team performances that had little or nothing to do with their own talents. Limbaugh's fantasy quarterback meritocracy, like the larger white meritocracy he's certain existed before 1965 or so, is a canard. The only reason McNabb got singled out for the same treatment that white quarterbacks have always gotten is that he's Black. This isn't a "media" issue, as Limbaugh has maintained. It's a Limbaugh issue.
If you can't decide who to root for on Sunday, you can put that in your pocket.