If you have HBO and like sports a little bit, you may have caught the special CostasNow episode which explored sports media in America today. It discussed five topics: sports talk radio, the internet, sports TV, the relationships between journalists and athletes and -- of course -- race.
During the second segment about the internet, a galvanizing exchange took place betweeen Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, and Will Leitch of Deadspin.com (full disclosure: Deadspin is my favorite sports/humor website and they were even kind enough to link me once). Bob Costas moderated the discussion, with a clear initial bias against those dastardly "bloggers." Cleveland Browns WR Braylon Edwards was there and was about as interesting as the logo on the Cleveland Browns's helmets.
If you haven't seen the clip, you simply must. Click here to view the video and get a little bit of context, but then promise me you'll come right back. I'll wait....
So if you've watched the video, the gist coming from the esteemed Mr. Bissinger was this: bloggers aren't fit to carry the pocket protectors of "real" sports journalists. Blogs are lowering the discourse. Blogs are vile and mean-spirited. [Side note: I was amused that Buzz Bissinger talked about how he had "spent the last 40 years of my life trying to perfect the craft of the written word" and then uses the phrase "this really pisses the shit outta me." Well-crafted, Buzz. Well-crafted.]
There were a couple of somewhat valid points. Many bloggers are just crap writers out to shock with lots of filthy language. In some ways a "trained writer" such as Bissinger does have more credibility than the iconic "guy sitting in his underwear in his mom's basement." (By the way, that is becoming the most hackneyed, tired cliche since "If I told you I'd have to kill you." Everyone knows that I write this in my grandaddy's outhouse.) And maybe there is something to the idea that posting camera phone pictures of Matt Leinart with a bunch of college beach bunnies is somewhat irresponsible.
But within Bissinger's hissyfit were some staggering misconceptions and misdirections. Costas was worthless in trying to moderate the debate, and as much as I think he is a pioneer in internet writing, Will Leitch didn't quite get to the guts of the reasons why I believe Deadspin and other so-called "mean-spirited" sites exist in the first place.
- Deadspin can be extremely crass, and because it exists in the Wild West that is the internet, it often goes to the extreme. I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if some of the more profane bloggers somewhat took Bissinger's comments to heart and concentrated less on being "edgy" and actually attempting to write better. Having said that, Buzz set up a straw-man by picking a particularly absurdist piece to be "representative" of what blogs really are. Anyone who reads Deadspin can tell you not only that Will Leitch is a gifted writer (and one with a centrist's conscience among the many goons that the internet lures), but that the commenters and comments themselves can be some of the cleverest, most side-splittingly hilarious items on any internet site, professional or not. Deadspin is not popular because it is vulgar, it is popular because under the vulgarity lies a wit that can sometimes be unparalleled on the internet. (Please note, I am not a Deadspin commenter -- although I've tried to be -- so this observation is not some sort of clandestine patting of my own back.)
- If there is one thing that YouTube has taught us, it's that Regular Folks can often come up with ideas that are as creative or more creative than so-called "creative professionals." You can find four-minute clips on YouTube that are funnier than two of the last three Will Ferrell movies. (Movies suck in general now, but that's a topic for an upcoming post.) Amateurs are getting it right, and as Leitch said in the interview, the internet is a meritocracy. Things get noticed on the internet, by and large, because they are worth noticing. (Not always of course: for everything worth seeing there are 50 "Leave Britney Alone" ladyboys.) It's the reason The Onion and Funny or Die have gained followings; and you're telling me that some of the writers on Kissing Suzy Kolber or Fire Joe Morgan aren't at least as funny as some of the hacks they trot out on VH1 every few months?
My point is, you don't have to be professional to get it right. And if we have learned anything in the last few years about journalistic integrity, it's that ESPN doesn't have any. Not only have they turned SportsCenter into an unwatchable laser light show, but they have picked up the torch of pundits-yelling-at-each-other that used to belong to Hardball and Crossfire and any other similar (and since-subdued) political show, and made it more absurd by having Woody Paige and Skip Bayless yell at each other at full volume about a fucking pro football game. Honestly, when you really step back and think about it, you should calm the fuck down.
And as for being a "professional journalist," I don't buy for a second that Will Leitch doesn't have every right to be heard on the same level as a terrible, race-baiting writer like Scoop Jackson. Or that just because some blogger doesn't have a press pass that his or her opinion isn't just as valid as Mike Lupica.
Why isn't Buzz Bitchinger decrying the death of REAL media? Fox News is a GOP mouthpiece, run by Roger Ailes, the guy who created the Willie Horton ad campaign against Michael Dukakis in 1988. Why does Bill Fucking O'Reilly get a free pass, but A.J. Daulerio is questioned on literary merit. Why has no one called into question the journalistic cred of Bill Cunningham? Apparently you just have to be on TV, on radio, or have your work sold on a newsstand to be considered legit. I know the show was about sports, but Jesus, Bissinger, save that level of vitriol for a worthy target and not "Big Daddy Balls."
- Finally, the real reason I think that Deadspin, Kissing Suzy Kolber, Fire Joe Morgan, Awful Announcing, The Big Lead and any other number of eminently readable blogs exist is because of four letters: ESPN.
ESPN used to be a sports fan's utopian dream. Sports all day and all night. For people who could literally not get enough sports, it was a godsend. And for the better part of 20 years, ESPN held up its end of the bargain, with great sports coverage and thoughtful analysis. But somewhere along the way, ESPN tried to make ESPN the central focus. Their anchors started overusing stupid catchphrases, rather than insight we started getting shrill "point/counterpoint" segments, and they began overhyping EVERYTHING, from Danny Almonte to Yankees-Red Sox to
When an entity gets so big and hubristic, it requires a reaction. Some thought it was going to be Fox Sports, but they became even more shrill and even more hellbent on cementing their own brand name. The reaction came from the internet.
We (and when I say we, I mean ordinary folks) got sick to death of ESPN overhyping itself, of discontinuing criticism of "untouchable" athletes. We tired of Stuart Scott and Ahmad Rashad fighting over which would get to ingest the last drop of Michael Jordan's precious bodily fluids. We abhorred Chris Berman's once-clever but now tortured nicknames. We lamented the fact that SportsCenter -- which we could easily, and often did, watch the same repated episode multiple times in a row -- became a loud, empty shiny object.
Mike and Mike became a brand name. The SportsCenter anchors started giving Belichick and Bobby Knight a free pass. Stephen A. Smith and Woody Paige became talking heads and no longer writers. What was once the greatest man-channel on the planet was now putting out a show called "ESPN Hollywood" and putting actors from "Desperate Housewives" in the booth on Monday Night Football.
Deadspin and other blogs have taken the luster off and the bluster out of ESPN. What was once the de-facto king of sports has now taken on criticism from those of us who remember what it once was. No longer are we forced to accept "Quite Frankly with Stephen A. Smith." ESPN no longer makes decisions without having to deal with the consequences, which they did for so long. When you have an Evil Empire, you will have a rebellion. Deadspin is that rebellion.
For those of us who can't stand what ESPN or sports writing (Peter Vescey, Peter King, Mike Lupica, Rick Reilly) have become, we need the communities of Deadspin and the like to react. Those who have become too big for their britches, and too comfortable among the rarefied air of the celebrites and athletes they were once charged with reporting on, are being called to task. And if it's done with dick jokes, then so be it.