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In defense of an “annoying” profession . . . with knickers in a decided twist

Dan Le Batard of the Miami Herald recently wrote a column giving voice to the idea that sports journalists are lazy, ignorant, hypocritical, parasitical, vengeful, and not much good, either. Well. This put my knickers in a twist. So, as we count the ways in which Le Batard is full of it, we should begin at the beginning, with the column’s lead . . .

“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?”

Le Batard’s analogy is to locker room interviews. He wants readers to understand how athletes are abused by callous know-nothings who somehow have obtained media credentials. The analogy fails for many reasons, the first being that it is built on a false premise. The athletes are seldom abused. I have been in lots of locker rooms and have heard lots of questions asked of lots of athletes. Mostly, because these are kids’ games played as entertainment for the paying public, sports journalists lob softballs. When the news demands hard questions, I’d say that 99.4 percent of those questions are asked respectfully, usually hesitantly, and with trepidation born of the knowledge that testosterone-propelled athletes often favor physical retribution over rhetorical debate.

The analogy fails as well because it ignores the truth that professional athletes are paid for answering questions; if not paid directly, certainly indirectly by contract as representative of a sports franchise that depends on the public’s goodwill. Look, if The New York Times wants to pay me a few million dollars – I’d settle for one million – I’ll stand by my typing machine all day and take hostile questions about what I was thinking when I used that semicolon and why, with deadline looming, I indulged my annoying habit of dropping asides between dashes.

After his annoying start, Le Batard does the unexpected. He gets more annoying. He does that by lifting his money quote from Mark Cuban’s blog in which the Mavericks’ rapscallion owner wrote, “What I have learned in 11 years in the sports business is that the dumbest guys in the room are always the media guys.'' Then, as if in proof of Cuban’s thesis, Le Batard commits an act of vacuity so extraordinary as to make one long for the rigors of superficiality. He cites Allen Iverson, Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens, and Jose Canseco as athletes who have been punished for Keeping It Real.
“The guys who dare do it loudest” – here he named those masters of self-absorption – “become unpopular and tend to get run out of their sports as they age and tire of the fight.”

Oh, please. Popularity is for junior high. Sports is the ultimate meritocracy; if you can play, someone will pay you. With the exception of Owens, who’s still in uniform, those guys just lost game.

A hundred years ago, someone said, “Kindred’s only problem is he likes sportswriters.”

Guilty.

What’s not to like?

During the PGA Championship’s first round, I interviewed a fan in Tiger Woods’s gallery. Kevin Leissring is a student at the University of Tampa, 21 years old, cigar in hand, handsome behind a scruffy beard and sunglasses. He touched the media armband that gave me access to most places at Whistling Straits.

“How do I get inside the ropes?” Leissring said.

“Type for a long time,” I said.

Too glib by half, that was. But true. Covering a major golf championship is work at a high level of sports journalism. None of the men and women here for newspapers, magazines, websites, television, radio, blogs – none arrived by being the lazy, ignorant, hypocritical incompetents of Le Batard’s broadbrush insult. For that matter, Le Batard is the antithesis of the stereotype he created in the unfortunate column in question here. Edwin Pope, forever the Herald’s star in sports, long ago told me that Le Batard earned his column by being “bright as hell,” ambitious, competitive, creative, “and working like a dog.”

What’s not to like about a guy like that?

What’s not to like about Sally Jenkins? The best sports columnist at the Washington Post, she’s at Whistling Straits traipsing up and down steep sand dunes in pursuit of Tiger. I once asked her father, Dan, what made her so good.

“She’s married to the craft,” he said.

All the good ones are.

The full measure of Le Batard’s mistake is obvious in even cursory thought about this sentence: “If you consume sports media, you know the best-and-brightest don't go into my profession. They become doctors, lawyers, scientists, owners, whatever. Sports tends to be the place where people go to rest their minds from heavy lifting and . . .”

As if we’re nothing more than the toy department . . .

As if we’re incapable of really important thought . . .

As if there aren’t idiots aplenty filing lawsuits, defrauding Medicare, and paying Dirk Nowitzki $80 million to keep on not winning anything . . .

Le Batard does quote Mark Cuban's one good point, that homework is essential: “Preparation. Having some journalistic and quality standards. I can't remember the last time I had a sports interview where I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of questioning and knowledge of the interviewer. When something has to be written/taped quickly about the day's/week's events, media has no choice but to talk out of their [rear ends] because having an uninformed opinion and winging it is always better than choosing not to participate. Being left out means you probably lose your job. Worse still, media lives off the brands they built for themselves in the pre-blog/Twitter/Facebook era. If you were a good reporter in 2002, fans probably think you still are, and treat your opinions as facts.''

The Le Batard column also provided one good laugh, albeit inadvertently. Isiah Thomas was quoted saying that Bill Russell, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali –“thoughtful, articulate, fighting for rights” – couldn’t survive in today’s media. “They’d get chewed up.”

Not a chance in hell of that.

Dave Kindred's latest book, "Morning Miracle," is an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at inkstained1@aol.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295.   
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