By Chris Warner
Before I prattle on about sports writing, please go online and buy Touching All The Bases, a collection of columns by the late, great Ray Fitzgerald. It’s four bucks. Go now.
Did you go? Good. Now, a few thoughts while my DVR plays back the last minute of the Super Bowl, again …
Sports are about the possible. Coaches, teammates, mentors, and (we hope) our own brains tell us, You can do this. You can make this happen. Rudy can get the sack. Team USA can beat the Soviet Union. New England can score 14 in the fourth quarter against the league’s best defense, then stop Seattle on the one-yard line.
You. Can. Do. This.
On the other hand, sports discussion is about the impossible: What if the 2007 Patriots played the 2003 Patriots? Could the winner of that game beat 2014’s team? Could Jimmy Foxx hit Pedro? What about Satchel Paige? Could a young Satchel Paige, drunk, shut down the 1975 Red Sox?
What if the 2006 Patriots had paid Deion Branch?
See? Every single one: impossible to answer. When you have that kind of conflict: a medium of the possible described in terms of unattainable scenarios, you’re bound to get conflict. And conflict, as we know, sells.
(Speaking of conflict – and impossible to answer – what do you think the national reaction would have been if the Patriots had lost on a heartbreaking play and started a brawl in the final 20 seconds? Maybe some negativity there, one would think.)
But let’s back up a bit. Here are the main sticking points with journalism today, and my various levels of participation in them:
Back in November of 2009, I reported that NFL free agent quarterback Jeff Garcia was flying to Boston. At the time, New England had only one backup QB on the roster (Brian Hoyer), and it made sense that they would try out a veteran.
Here’s the story behind that piece: A college friend of mine took a business flight to Boston and ended up next to Garcia. As I wrote in the story, Garcia said he was visiting friends. When my “source” (funny to call him that) asked Garcia if those friends were in Foxboro, he said “Yeah.” He didn’t elaborate, but the connection seemed obvious.
Within hours of posting that piece, two separate sources said the Patriots had not tried out – nor were they trying out – Garcia. The story got shot down before getting a chance to get any traction.
I still wonder what the heck happened. I could not have had a more believable source: I trust this friend with my life. Garcia implied he was headed to Foxboro. Was he messing with my buddy? Did the Pats get a whiff of the story that evening and put the kibosh on the tryout?
Maybe I should have waited, but then what? The Pats bring in Garcia for a tryout, and the next day I write something like, “I totally knew it!” Should I have written a coy piece instead, something about New England bringing in a veteran player for a look-see – details to come? I don’t know. I’d still like to find out what went on there.
Now, think about the consequences of posting greater gossip fodder. Commenting on a potential tryout pales in comparison to bringing up locker-room grumbling, or impending firings, or a league-wide investigation into whether or not rudimentary physics of air pressure apply to footballs.
That’s the trick of the Internet. Someone tells you something. You know you’re among the first to have the information. Do you wait for a second source, or do you go with it and, if you’re wrong, work out the details later? I hate to say it, but I understand the tendency for the latter. After all, if you’re info’s incorrect, you can move on to the next thing. A story can stop; the business of sports never does.
Besides, we all know we can’t believe everything we read on the Internet. Sometimes we who write count on that, because submitting stories online can resemble trying to paint a landscape on a Shrinky Dink: The final product often lacks the initial necessary detail.
Speaking of which…
Don’t Believe Everything You Read On The Internet. Unless You Want To
On the premiere of “The Colbert Report” several years ago, Stephen Colbert introduced us to the word “truthiness,” which he defined as “truth that comes from the gut, not books.” Since then, Mirriam-Webster has come to define truthiness (yup, it’s in the dictionary now) as “the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”
Did Bill Belichick order the deflation of footballs? Of course he did. Or, wait: no, he didn’t.
The correct answer? Even if we throw common sense aside, even if we want to believe the story, it seems highly implausible. Early reports on the topic used the terms “deflate” and/or “under-inflated,” both pointing to human activity and not weather effects on pressure. Also, 11 of 12 footballs were allegedly “as much as” two pounds under pressure. That term obfuscated specific numbers and downplayed a huge variance. Coffee can cost “as much as” 10 bucks in some fancy restaurants, but no one’s shelling out big clams for a medium hazelnut at DD.
That’s where the web becomes a light-speed version of telephone. Writers go with the “Be First” rule but can’t confirm; they send out teasers (tweets, posts, etc.) on upcoming reports in order to maintain their position at the “front” of the story while allowing time to suss it out. People believe what they want to believe. “As much as two pounds” becomes “two pounds each.” Our own Bruce Allen called out one tweeting nitwit who confused pounds per square inch (psi) with pounds (lbs). This Bumbling Bernoulli questioned the believability of Tom Brady being unable to tell if a football weighed two pounds under regulation, as if the air inside a ball actually had that much gravitational pull.
A well-put, insulting-yet-pointed piece on medium.com called “Deflategate And The Softness Of The American Mind” focuses on how the story got out of hand partly due to our ignorance regarding the science of air pressure. Worth a read. Combine a dearth of knowledge with a specific bias, and you get a rumor-based scandal. Easy.
The Patriots cheated? Pats fans (and science) say no; many others say yes. That has become an aspect of sports, or, better said, it has become the sports aspect. Most items of interest possess a sports aspect. Whether a defendant on trial should be found guilty or not, whether a singer in a contest should win or not: those are the conflicts. Those get attention.
As readers, we need to look for question marks, literally. If I’d posted “Garcia To New England?” then I would have gotten more hits. Seems like more people would’ve believed it more quickly. But as a journalist, why am I asking that question? Shouldn’t I confirm it and take the role as one telling you?
Last week I posted a piece on Bill Belichick, and I called him a cheater. Though I did so with a sense of admiration and even loyalty, I didn’t word it right, and my voice just melted in with the cacophony of those calling him out. I apologize for that. I have always admired Coach Belichick’s attention to detail, and much to my regret, I put football air pressure into the same category as scouting, personnel, and planning.
I believed initial reports. I believed what I wrote when I wrote it without waiting for more information. Bad call. But, these days, believing is not all that important.
You Don’t Have To Believe It To Write It
I have a hard time admitting this, but here goes: I used to write for Bleacher Report. This was before that site found its current format, when they’re going for legitimacy with experienced writers. This was when hits meant everything.
So here’s my most-read article. Ready?
Christ, this is embarrassing.
Hoo, boy. In my defense, my first two reasons are Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth, but after that it devolves into the hit-seeking missal it really is. Not sure if it still works the same, but BR made it easy for writers to set up slideshows. First, think up your headline (e.g., “Is Tom Brady Unhappy In New England?”). Next, pick out photos from their extensive library. Last, write a few sentences for each caption.
From the aforementioned article:
Sure, Haynesworth has shown flashes of greatness, but only flashes. The big man might do some good things, but if he fails to bring any consistency, the Patriots defense will fail to live up to expectations.
Ugh. Again, I apologize.
Now, compare that “effort” with one of my most difficult pieces, “NFL Draft Predictions 2011: One Prospect Each Team Should Target on Day 3.” For this, I had to come up with a potential late-round draft pick for all 32 teams. There I sat on Day Two, clacking away on the computer as the ESPN draft ticker rushed along the bottom of the TV, hoping my candidates wouldn’t get picked by some other team that night. It felt like trying to build a card table on a Lazy Susan: if one fell, many others would follow. The fun I’d had leisurely picking out photos for the previous slideshow had devolved into scrambling to find any likeness of the candidates that could accompany two or three relevant factoids.
And after all that effort? Fewer than half as many readers as the “Pats Won’t Make The Playoffs” bumblefart. Plus, the draft piece got zero comments, as opposed to 73 for the negative take.
So, if you had a choice between toiling away with fact-based, well-thought-out pieces or doubling your audience with a quick, irreverent, possibly offensive sportstake, what would you do?
You might appeal to a broader audience.
People Aren’t Dumb; They Just Don’t Pay Attention
Let’s look at this game review I wrote after the Pats beat the Raiders back in 2008. Due to injuries, Bill Belichick had coaxed Junior Seau and Rosevelt Colvin out of retirement, prompting this comment from me:
This is hard to say, but someone must: the Patriots as currently constructed would have a hard time beating Boston University’s football team, much less a bunch of professionals. (For those of you who don’t know much about B. U. football, here’s some history. You see my point.)
The joke here is that Boston University had cancelled their football program over 10 years before. Get it? Hilarious. In any case, here are a couple of reader comments:
“…it is extreme hyperbole that has no bearing on reality.”
“It’s a lot more than Boston U could manage, (were) they to play in the NFL.”
Now, most of the readers got the gist of what I was saying, but it’s difficult to discount the two comments above. I use hyperbole to make a point; it’s just some ha-ha-jokey-fun to elucidate their lack of depth on defense. But the joke gets lost, people take offense, and you end up admitting (for lack of a better word) that, yeah, the Patriots could definitely beat a non-existent college football team.
People don’t pay attention, and they believe what they want to believe, evidence be damned. It’s a pick-and-choose Internet. Ignore that piece from the “established” media. I read the real story elsewhere!
Think of that mindset as the so-called news broke about flat footballs. Think of the leaps in the minds of millions of fans who dislike the Patriots.
Think of the temptation for reporters to get in on that action. That, as much as anything, is hurting journalism.
Reporting has been a business for a long time. Papers – the so-called established ones – used to get readers because they told the whole story, and quickly. Now, with speed-of-light exchanges of information, accuracy and clarity might not provide the catalysts for proper business models. Besides, it’s football: we’ve really only got so-called news once a week, summarized in one game story and a webpage of stats. With fans hungry for material, something has to get put out there.
I could write a column with the headline “The 2014 Patriots Are The Best Ever And Are Destined To Repeat,” or I could write “The 2014 Patriots: Overrated,” and have that lede read something like, “I don’t mean to deflate your mood right now.”
We all know which one would get more hits.
Chris Warner’s on Twitter: @cwarn89