Perhaps it’s just exhaustion. For a time this year, each week seemed to bring a new challenge to those focused on the straightforward art of reporting on professional athletes, from bloggers paying for scoops to reputable journalists making up fake news and the biggest sports media outlet on the globe partnering with an athlete it’s supposed to be covering.
It’s almost enough to make the cratering of golf’s most dominant player after the exposure of an unbelievable seamy infidelity scandal look like small potatoes. Almost.
Put another way, my list of this year’s most compelling sports media stories is as much about us journalists as the things we are covering; a travelogue of all the pitfalls and comeuppances surfacing as sports media redefines itself before our eyes.
It’s a slippery slope filled with sexting, reporters behaving badly and the multi-million-dollar sports brands which just happen to be attached to the biggest athletes of our time. So let’s surf the wave, shall we?
*Number 1: Tiger Woods and Brett Favre define new era in sports gossip reporting. Remember when journalists were too principled to admit paying for sources? Welcome to the Internet age, where Gawker Media owner Nick Denton can breezily announce his Deadspin sports site paid $12,000 for voicemails of superstar Favre hitting on a pretty sideline TV personality and nude shots sent to her by text message of a man who may be him. Golf superstar Woods already opened the Pandora’s Box, cheating on his wife so brazenly it only took a 2 a.m. car crash for gossip site TMZ to unravel it all (though TMZ honcho Harvin Levin insists they didn’t pay for their Tiger scoops). Considering that Favre’s indiscretions happened in 2008 and Woods cheated for years, there may be a host of superstar athletes sweating over how fast the sports reporting game has changed, and the skeletons left in their closets to unveil.
*Number 2: The Decision marks new low for LeBron James and ESPN. What’s worse – giving a town full of devoted fans the middle finger during an hour-long TV special or discarding every journalism value in the book to get the broadcast rights? Some critics found it downright horrifying that ESPN and host Jim Gray would work so directly with James to manage revelation of news they were supposed to be covering; others just wondered why the Worldwide Leader in Sports couldn’t at least have made his announcement of leaving Cleveland for Miami entertaining.
*Number 3: NFL ratings skyrocket. The only way to improve on the excitement of a good football game is to watch it for free with stereo sound and high-definition picture detailed enough to see sweat flying off the linebackers. Given the high quality of most home-theater systems, it’s no surprise professional football games have been the most-watched television shows of the week, every week for the last three and a half months. The achievements stands as a testament to two things; TV networks’ skill in presenting an engaging, sharp-looking telecast, and a stubborn recession that makes saving money by staying home an increasingly attractive option. Which is why the next item is so inexplicable…
*Number 4: NFL stands tough on blackout policy as recession lingers. So many NFL games have been blacked out from TV broadcasts due to lackluster home game sales, the league has created a special task force to examine the problem. But I can save them months and a boatload of pointless meetings; until the economy improves, inconsistent teams like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – playing in a state with 12 percent unemployment – will always struggle to sell tickets. Why not just carve out an exemption for economically challenged communities and take credit for helping the working man?
*Number 5: Mike Wise’s fake tweet mostly proves he doesn’t understand Twitter. In trying to mock how fast sports websites pass along inaccurate news items, Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise only proved how little he understands the new media ecology. Because people in Twitterland mostly believe news from established new outlets with good track records, his false report that Ben Roethlisberger’s NFL suspension would be reduced from six games to five (ironically, it was later reduced to four), only served to tell his Twitter followers they were idiots for trusting him. In an age of dropping newspaper circulation and crashing reporter credibility, he’s lucky the Post only suspended him.
*Number 6: Dave Kindred takes on hypocrisy of Red Smith Award for Mitch Albom. I’ve never met or even spoken to my fellow columnist on this website. But I read in awe as he used superstar writer Mitch Albom’s own acceptance speech to – in his words – raise a little hell about Albom receiving one of the highest sportswriting awards in the country five years after admitting he fabricated the lead to a Sunday column. Lots of writers have groused about Albom’s ego and occasional hypocrisy; Kindred let the man’s own words do most of the talking.
*Number 7: Ines Sainz and Jenn Sterger revive talk of sex and sexism in sports. When members of the New York Jets decided to catcall sexy sideline reporter Ines Sainz during a September practice, they kicked up yet another debate over the uncomfortable tension between female sports broadcasters who emphasize their sex appeal and the sports reporting establishment. Nobody thinks a woman in a miniskirt deserves harassment in public, but some pundits seemed to suggest Sainz (and the target of Favre’s affections, sideline personality/Playboy model Jenn Sterger) somehow helped bring unwanted attention through her behavior.
*Number 8: George Steinbrenner’s hidden legacy as a media pioneer. When Yankees owner George Steinbrenner died in July, lots of column inches extolled his success as a manager without noting what generated the money to pay all those high profile players. But King George presaged our current forest of sports channels by paying serious money to create a TV network that would air Yankees games. He seemed to follow an idea that makes all kinds of sense, years after he implemented it: In a world where everyone has a channel, whoever owns the best content is king.
*Number 9: Jay Mariotti felled by same excess he criticized as a sports pundit. Noted for his habit of criticizing athletes for bad behavior, Mariotti faced a boatload of comeuppance after his arrest on domestic battery charges stemming from an argument with his girlfriend. When the dust settled, Mariotti had pleaded no contest to one charge, received three years probation and been sidelined from both his column writing job for AOL Fanhouse and his ESPN appearances. It’s a bitter lesson: In today’s 24/7 media environment, it’s not just the star players who get serious off-the-field scrutiny.
*Number 10: ESPN’s 30 by 30 documentaries. At first, it sounded like typical hype from the Worldwide Leader in Sports, but ESPN’s sprawling documentary series has brought the best tales in sports to the screen this year, courtesy of the movie industry’s most interesting filmmakers. From Ice Cube’s story of the Raiders’ move from Oakland to Los Angeles to Oscar winner Barbara Koppel’s flawed yet compelling portrait of George Steinbrenner, the 30 for 30 films – which stated airing last year, but mostly aired in 2010 – have delivered again and again.
Eric Deggans is TV and Media Critic for the St. Petersburg Times and a 1990 graduate of the Indiana University School of Journalism. His work has also appeared in the Washington Post, Village Voice, VIBE magazine, Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times and many other publications. He also writes a blog on media, The Feed, at blogs.tampabay.com/media.