MESA, ARIZ. Let’s say you’ve just finished a brutal day at work. You come out of your cubicle and are immediately met by someone asking you questions about how and why you failed. This person doesn’t put in your hours and isn’t nearly as informed about your job as you are, but he gets paid to question you every day inside the TV, the radio, the newspaper. And, armed with the day’s results, he always gets to look right about how you do your job without taking your risks or suffering your consequences. That’s the questioner’s job — to question you.
How annoying do you think that would get?
“What I have learned in 11 years in the sports business is that the dumbest guys in the room are always the media guys,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote on his blog last week. “Listening to the media only increases your odds of failing at whatever you are doing.”
This candor is rare in sports these days and fear is the reason. Fear for your job, fear of becoming the face and voice attached to a news cycle’s issue of the day, fear of picking an unwinnable fight with a media beast that has you outnumbered. That’s why so many of the answers in sports, too many, are droning cliches. Being real isn’t worth the hassle.
The guys who dare do it loudest — Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, Jose Canseco — become unpopular and tend to get run out of their sports as they age and tire of the fight. Journalism major and Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, honorable and professional, lectured the New York tabloids once about fairness. Once. The backlash was such that he hasn’t said anything interesting since.
But Cuban does not fear. Helps that he doesn’t have a boss. The NBA has fined him more than any owner in sports history, but he doesn’t seem to care. Cuban is guilty of generalizing about the media, but there’s truth in his accusation.
There are certainly benefits to having people care enough to question.
The sports trough spills money at least in part because hunger for information enhances appetite, and coverage fuels those bloated sports salaries.
But Cuban is a digital pioneer aware of the changing media, and he’s right to be concerned by what surrounds him now.
It appears to be getting dumber and meaner, a vicious combination. And then, with the instantaneousness of new media merging with the insecurity of old media, the pressure to be first is encroaching upon the duty to be right, never mind just.
The result is more reckless, and less credible, than anything we’ve ever seen.
“Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali — thoughtful, articulate, fighting for rights — couldn’t survive in today’s climate,” Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas said. “They’d get chewed up. The backlash to expressing an opinion used to be a negative newspaper column or two. Now it’s a backlash that will kick the expletive out of you forever. So the smartest athletes shy away, choosing to be silent in an era when their voices are needed, and the media just goes toward the guy who isn’t as smart but will say anything.”
The result, of course, is that everyone involved in that transaction gets dumber.
Let me let you in on a secret: The people covering sports, the critics, tend to be more insecure than the athletes we cover. I’ll give you an example. Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s Chris Broussard and I all reported early that LeBron James was coming to Miami. As the moment arrived, all of us were terrified. Smith says he never wants to cover a story like that again. Broussard looked haunted on national TV.
And I, allegedly a grown man, wanted to curl up in a ball and hide somewhere. Just out of fear of being wrong and ridiculed.
This wasn’t taking a big shot in Game 7. We were on the periphery of the arena.
And we’re the same guys who accuse athletes of being soft in big moments.