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Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Fields and Questions


"Sure Dad, what do you need to know?"

Super Bowl Sunday will offer a quietly interesting dynamic when Larry Fitzgerald Sr., journalist for the Minnesota Spokesman Reporter reports on a game, and his son, Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr. plays. The son is currently the most dominant player in the game. Papa Fitzgerald's toughest challenge won't be offering an "objective" view of his son (we know he's good), it's applying an objective view to his son's team. (Lately, however, son has at times been the team.)

Who has it tougher, though? Fitzgerald the reporter or Fitzgerald the player? Well, both are kind of in no-win situations to a certain degree. I know. From 1990 to 1994, I played for four NFL teams. During that time I learned that every team conducted business pretty much the same way. Now, fifteen years into my career as a sportswriter, I see the NFL as one corporation that does business in 32 separate branches. Let's contrast the most difficult aspects of being an athlete with the most troublesome elements of reporting.

The Player

You're a slave to your body. The best current example is LaDainian Tomlinson. For the past two years, injuries have kept the league's best runner from competing in the biggest games of his life. As a former athlete, when it falls on me to judge "toughness," these are tricky. People question his toughness, but to me Tomlinson's injury, it's a matter of function, not pain. I've suffered a torn calf muscle. When it involves the word "torn", there's more than pain at play. A strain or a sprain means inflammation. With rest, ice and medication it will heal in a short time. But when muscle or connective tissue is ripped—either from the bone or in a way that leaves it less than whole, that muscle will not function. At all.

The business of the NFL draft. There's a draft every year. Not every four years, but every year. If you're an incumbent player, this means change is coming. With the advent of the salary cap, however, change doesn't necessarily mean upgrading a position. It means cheap labor. In his last season Rod Woodson said: "They're bringing in all these young guys, but I'm not sure they're better than the players we have. They're cheaper, but maybe not better." I'll always see the draft through that lens. Brains versus brawn. Not all coaches like a smart guy. Some assume that if you possess intelligence and desire to express that intelligence outside of football, then perhaps you don't "love" the game as much as you should. I'm sure a few coaches questioned my commitment to the game simply because I sometimes failed to be completely stupid with my body. I have a couple of former college teammates, extremely bright guys, who knew that downplaying smarts would make life easier. The Journalist

All analysis is open to interpretation. There are times when an athletic past puts the reporter on edge. Back in '98, while at ESPN The Magazine, I pitched a story on the Atlanta Falcons. I surmised that if they beat the 49ers in their second meeting that season, they should be considered legitimate playoff contenders. Problem was, I had just moved to New York from Atlanta and my editor accused me of being partial to the Falcons. Well, the Falcons did beat the Niners and several weeks later went to their first and only Super Bowl. Alas, the story was never written. When your credibility is based on pissing someone off and the guy you pissed off tells you and only you, it can be quite frustrating.

Guilt by association. Okay, this falls under the guise of postgame activity, but it's a struggle nonetheless. Some athletes dislike the media. There are times when I've tried to interview someone only to have him rip some other reporter who either misquoted or misrepresented him. During times when an angry athlete paints all media types with one broad stroke, the former-jock privilege is voided and conducting the innocuous interview is akin to a performing a rectal exam. It feels like an invasion. The private objection. As he left both Colorado and Wadshington mired in clouds of scandal, I once referred to Rick Neuhiesel as college football's "Pig Pen." Well, Neuheisel took offense to that. But rather than making a fuss to ESPN or ESPN.com, Neuheisel sent me an email directly. As a result, no one else got to see it. When your credibility is based on pissing someone off and the guy you pissed off tells you and only you, it can be quite frustrating. I wish the Fitzgerald's luck. No matter what Larry Fitzgerald the player does, and no matter what Larry Fitzgerald the journalist says about it, I'm absolutely certain of this one thing: someone is going to be angry, somewhere. It's impossible to please everyone.