What about the Fans? Fuhgeddaboudit

By Zion, Sidney | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview
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What about the Fans? Fuhgeddaboudit


Zion, Sidney, The Nation


AS ON ANY OTHER BEAT, SPORTSWRITERS WORK IN PACKS, TELL THE SAME STORY AND TRY TO PULL ONE OVER ON THE PUBLIC. THE DIFFERENCE IS, IN SPORTS THE FANS KNOW THE SCORE.

In Casablanca, Peter Lorre says to Humphrey Bogart, "You despise me, don't you?" Bogart: "If I gave you any thought, I probably would."

Drop the "probably," and you've nailed the attitude of sportswriters to fans. This is an unexamined phenomenon. The sports pages--better read than everything from the front page to the editorials--are as ignored by media critics as fans are ignored by sportswriters. I don't surf the journalism reviews, but I lay 20-1 against all comers that none of them have ever critiqued the sports sections. I double the odds on newspaper ombudsmen.

Why? Because the serious thinkers on issues of journalism don't believe that sports warrant their attention. "Who cares?" Nobody but the fans. And nobody cares about the fans.

What do fans want? Winners.

What do sportswriters want? Access.

The difference is everything. To guarantee access to the people who provide them with daily copy, sportswriters dare not stray far from the interests of the owners of ballclubs. They can, and do, beat up on ballplayers, coaches and managers, but even then they work in packs, which is why all sports pages read alike. There are occasional exclusives, of course, but any casual reader has no trouble noticing that these are spread among the papers--in New York, the Daily News today, the Post tomorrow, etc.

The same deal goes in every county courthouse and right on up to the White House: Beat journalists work together for their common good. So long as nobody has anything different, editors are happy. But whereas readers seldom know any more than they're told on issues of foreign policy, the judiciary, crime or politics, sports fans can see everything for themselves, at least on the playing field. What they want to know, and don't get, is why they can't get a winner. Here the sportswriters lay doggo, and almost invariably play apologist for the owners.

They make an exception for George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees. The Boss is daily feed for the writers, their common target. He brings it on himself, of course. Bullying players and managers, threatening to take the Yanks to Jersey unless the city builds him a new ballpark in Manhattan, Steinbrenner presents himself as a one-man Murder, Inc.

But.

He never seeks retribution against the writers. Sometimes he treats his enemies better than the few friends he has in the media. It's as if he invites attacks, and who's to say he doesn't? As a result, the ever-supine writers have nothing to lose by turning into Menckens when it comes to Steinbrenner. So they kick and maul and gouge and scratch--and grab backpage headlines.

But.

Consider it this way: Steinbrenner, the one owner they attack, is the only owner who turns out a winning team in New York. And when he doesn't get the ring, he spends and spends to do it next year.

What do fans want? Winners.

What do they get from the people beloved and promoted by the sportswriters? Losers.

The Jets have been a laughingstock for the better part of two decades, but owner Leon Hess is portrayed as a splendid old fellow who would do anything to please his loyal fans. Hess is indeed a splendid old fellow, but for years the only thing he wouldn't do for the fans was put together a management group that knew how to run a football team. Until last year, when he turned the club over to Bill Parcells, Hess guaranteed losing seasons by putting an accountant in charge of the show.

Leon spent money, plenty of it; he just didn't spend it the right way. The fans understood this and were unforgiving. The press insulated Hess from criticism, fixing the blame on coaches and the front office, but if I heard this line once I heard it a thousand times from fans: "If Leon ran Hess Oil the way he runs the Jets, he'd have gone bust forty years ago.

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