With the release of his new book Scribe: My Life in Sports last week, Bob Ryan has been doing media interviews as part of the publicity campaign for the book.
One of the reappearing themes from the interviews is how treatment of the media by the teams and leagues has changed over the years, specifically the NBA.
Last week he talked to Ben Golliver of SI.com.
SI.com: There’s a great picture in the book of you typing from a courtside seat with a group of fans looking over your shoulder. How important was proximity to the quality of your writing, and do you hold out any hope that NBA owners might reconsider their decision to move writers away from courtside and up into the bleachers?
Ryan: Without question, the treatment of the media and the elimination of media courtside seating has adversely affected the writing ability of anyone who is covering the game, the way we were able to cover games. Not only was I able to see the game unimpeded, but I was able to hear – the oral part of the game was a very big deal. You could hear things, you had rapport with referees and coaches during the game. It was so vital. It kills me seeing some 5-year-old kid eating ice cream, sitting in a seat that I should be sitting at or some beat man should be sitting at.
It all started with Jack Kent Cooke moving the beat writers off the floor. In hindsight, if the Los Angeles Times had boycotted the Lakers and said, “We’re not covering you until you put our people back where we belong,” we would have headed this off at the pass 45 years ago. But they didn’t and it gradually took root, and one team after another after another eliminated courtside seating. Now you have what you have: you can’t see the game properly. In places like Boston, they don’t even treat local radio with respect. Local radio sits in the same angled corner where the media sits. I could never have written the stories I wrote and did as well as I did writing game stories — that’s what it was all about then, that’s not what it’s about now — if I did not have that courtside seating. They’ve wrecked the opportunity that we had.
Ryan did an interview this week with Ryan Glasspiegel of The Big Lead, and added some more to this topic:
RG: It might be the case that I don’t have an NBA franchise that I really root for, and I just watch the league as a whole, so I’m probably thinking about it more as a writer.
BR: I’m speaking as a fan who happened to write. And I happened to have season tickets for 22 years — from 1978-2000. I still have Red Sox tickets. So I always relate to the fan experience. As far as writing, it’s very annoying what they’ve done to us. They treat the writers like cow dung. They care not one lick about the print press. They are so close to charging us to get in that it’s frightening. That’s a whole other matter.
RG: Wait, at this point in your career, you go and get credentialed and they send you into crappy seats?!
BR: I’m no better off than any other writer. At the Boston Garden they put me with the regular press, which is a terrible seat in the corner. That’s the regular press. The beat men for the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and any of the other New England papers or visiting writers are stuck in the corner. Even home radio is stuck there because they don’t care about either entity anymore.
They care about one thing: Filling the courtside seats with people who have enough disposable income to overspend for them. And they care about television. That’s it. Everything else is a bother.
It should be emphasized that Ryan is mostly talking about basketball here, and the importance of being courtside for someone who is reporting on the game. For other sports, it isn’t as important to be right there, and in fact, the view for the other sports is probably better from a higher angle.
Speaking of other sports, Ryan has had about enough of football.
My personal premise on football is that it wouldn’t bother me at all if they stopped playing in the next five minutes. I can live without football. The sports smorgasbord has any number of other activities that could satisfy us over a 12-month period. We don’t need football.
He goes on to explain why – mostly the impact it has on the well-being of the participants later in life.
Grantland had a tremendous column by Bryan Curtis on Ryan, which examines the legacy he is leaving behind in the world of sports media.
He also mentions something I think is very important, and which is something that gets a finger-wag from media types today. The rooting aspect.
“[Sportswriters] say, ‘I never root. I only root for the story,’” Ryan said as he drove through town. “Not me. I want the team to win.”
Ryan was a writer-fan. In Boston, this wasn’t uncommon. “They all are out there,” said Larry Bird. “Not just Bob. They cared. They just wanted you to win. In New York, they want you to lose so they have better stuff to write.”
Ryan’s colleague (and competitor) Dan Shaughnessy may have invented the “rooting for the story” catchphrase, as it is a tenet that he lives by. Curtis explains though, that Ryan rooting for the team did not mean he wasn’t critical.
Now, a rooting sportswriter tends to get people flexing their J-school diplomas. So it’s worth explaining just how Ryan’s fandom manifested itself. He wasn’t Johnny Most yelling into a microphone. Ryan was the kind of Celtics fan who demanded good play and personnel management. Anything less he took personally — and litigated in the Globe.
Now, to me, that is what I want. Too often I’m accused by some of simply wanting cheerleaders for reporters. That’s not the case, I want the media to demand excellence from the teams that I root for, as Curtis explains, there is a difference between wanting the team you cover to win, and homerism. I don’t want homers or cheerleaders. But I don’t want the reporters and columnists seemingly rooting against the teams I follow.
Is Bob Ryan the last to understand this? At the very least, he’s among a dwindling few.