Monday, May 4, 2009
Updated: May 6, 11:44 AM ET
The Sports Guy
By Bill Simmons
ESPN The Magazine
When I was Li'l Sports Guy, The Boston Globe's John Powers wrote a book called The Short Season about his experience covering the 1977-78 Celtics. I read it, like, 20 times. Every anecdote seemed to come after Powers ate steaks with John Havlicek at the Scotch 'n Sirloin or hung with Dave Cowens at the hotel bar. And he got to see the games for free, too? What job could be better? My decision was made: If I couldn't play sports for a living, I would write about it.
Three decades later, I have my column. But I can't even imagine the access Powers had. Most players have no interest in dining or drinking with writers anymore. And frankly, I don't blame them. If I played, I'd be a blank slate. All pre- and postgame questions would be answered as if my humor coach were Davis Love III. All TV interviews would be handled with the gregarious candor of Barack Obama's discussing stem cell research. Occasionally, I'd get my PR team to orchestrate a puff piece -- say, a TV feature in which I sat in my lavish living room, showed off my trophy wife and spouted clichés.
"Accolades aren't important to me; winning is important to me."
Translation: And this house! I mean, look at this room! This bear sofa cost 65 grand!
"When I'm done, I want to give something back to the game."
Translation: Like body fluids. I'm still hoping to have sex with groupies. They'll still like me when I'm retired, right?
"Leaving when it's time, protecting my legacy and the memories people have of me … that's what matters most."
Translation: I'm going to play as long as they're willing to keep paying me.
You get the idea. We learn nothing from today's superstars beyond the spin. Take Spike Lee's upcoming Kobe Doin' Work, which could be headed for an Oscar next year -- not for best documentary but for best actor. Blanketed by 30 cameras covering his every move during a 2008 game, Kobe tries to be funny, supportive, helpful, charming … really, there hasn't been a performance so convincing since There Will Be Blood. I nearly impaled myself with a Twizzler near the end, when Kobe jokes on the bench with Pau Gasol (who has an "I didn't even know Kobe knew my name!" look on his face), followed by Spike's cutting to Kobe's kids holding MVP signs. I had to take a postmovie shower.
Then again, kudos to Kobe Day-Lewis. This is how you use the media. Control the access, provide your own filter, say nothing profound, play a part, derive the benefits. Nowadays, teams routinely break news on their websites. The Patriots announced each 2009 draft pick on Twitter. Curt Schilling retired from baseball on his blog. Hundreds of athletes keep in touch with fans digitally. We're getting close to a day when players save postgame quotes for their own blogs. Wanna know why I'm limping? Check out my website, sponsored by Bob's Discount Furniture!
During the Scotch 'n Sirloin era, beat writers, local sportscasters and SI were our conduits because we didn't have Google, cable TV, blogs or SportsCenter. If you missed a game … you missed it. No TiVo, no VCRs, no YouTube clips, no message board recaps. Athletes cooperated with the media because they needed to. How else could we follow them? How else could they get us to like them?
Things changed once cable, talk radio and fantasy took off and sports became a 24/7 industry. Locker rooms swelled with reporters of all types. Fans wanted more access, more info, more everything. But as salaries climbed, star athletes no longer cared about fan approval as much as they cared about shaping their personae in an electronic age. They began to deal with reporters and writers only on their terms. They spoke candidly, but not really. As they retreated further into little bubbles, PR people and agents protecting them, the dynamic shifted completely.
In 1980, the late Pulitzer winner David Halberstam followed the Trail Blazers all season for The Breaks of the Game, or as I call it, The Best Sports Book Ever Written. Virtually every member of Portland's franchise gave him tons of time, and the access made the book special. Over the next two decades, the NBA had changed enough that Halberstam decided it was time for a sequel, this one centered around MJ's '98 season. Although Jordan kept his distance throughout, he promised a sit-down after the playoffs. But when the time came, he changed his mind. He'd decided to write his own book.
For sports access, this was the tipping point: Our most famous athlete had refused a journalistic icon's interview request, and the reason -- gulp -- actually made sense. Around the same time, Tiger Woods spun his own cocoon, never to say anything interesting again, after feeling he had been burned by a magazine profile. Our two most famous athletes had become impenetrable. Great.
Fast-forward to the Twitter era. Access for reporters and writers has dwindled faster than A-Rod's pectorals. With newspapers dying and the Internet not yet subject to the same libel scrutiny, journalism is getting nastier and more detached -- fewer stories broken, infinitely more snark. That will cause stars to weave even stronger cocoons, and the chasm between us will keep growing.
Today's technology means athletes don't need a middleman anymore. You know how you won't hear a peep out of Jennifer Aniston for a year, then she'll have a movie to promote and you can't get away from her? She shows up when she wants to show up, always on her terms. It's no different from Tiger's making himself "available" every summer when his video game is released. Okay, he's a superstar; he can pull that crap. But what about the other guys? I see a day when the following sequence will be routine: Player demands trade on blog; team obliges and announces deal on Twitter; player thanks old fans, takes shots at old team and gushes about new team on Facebook. We will not need anyone to report this, just someone to recap it. Preferably with links.
If Jordan was the harbinger of lost access, LeBron ushered in the I'm-controlling-every- interaction-I-have-with-you era. We've been hearing from him since high school, and yet I can't remember reading a single memorable feature about the guy. We think we know him through his entertaining antics with teammates, only I don't remember one funny thing he's actually said. He talks of becoming a global icon, of becoming the Jay-Z of sports, which makes perfect sense because we don't know anything about Jay-Z, either.
Only 24, LeBron has already erected the perfect see-through wall between him and us: accessible and exclusive at the same time. I see him controlling every documentary, reality show and book to come. I see him communicating with common folk through his blog, Facebook, Skype or whatever innovation comes next. I see him earning an Oscar for LeBron Doin' Work. And if he's enjoying a juicy steak at the Scotch 'n Sirloin, I definitely see him letting us know with a tweet.
This isn't a good thing or a bad thing. It is what it is, and maybe how it always should have been.
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