When Covering Sports Gets Hard
It’s been a tough couple of weeks to be a sports fan.
So many of us love sports, because sports provide us a break away from reality. They give us something to celebrate in the midst of a world that is chaotic and confusing. I think Earl Warren, the former Chief Justice of the United States, summed it up best when he said, “I always turn to the sports pages first, which records people’s accomplishments. The front page has nothing but man’s failures.”
The last two weeks, I haven’t wanted to turn to the sports pages. I’ve watched movies and TV and caught up on new music. I’ve read about art. I even turned on CNN one morning. The morning news was less depressing than ESPN. That says something.
We don’t turn to the sports pages to hear stories about men knocking their fiancees unconscious.
We don’t turn to the sports pages to see bleeding lashes on a young child’s body allegedly brought about by a 217-pound NFL veteran.
I started covering sports in 2011. While my main schtick then was sports law, what I really wanted to do, was tell stories about athletes doing good things. I saw the way that the media sensationalized the bad acts of a few professional athletes to make news. I knew, though, that for every bad apple, there were hundreds of athletes doing the right thing. For every Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson, there are hundreds of men who not only make the right decisions, but are working off the field to make this world a better place.
A journalism student emailed me early last week. He asked me, essentially, how do I keep writing about sports when there are weeks like these when everything seems negative? How do I keep a positive outlook on my subjects?
To answer that question, I need to go back to the first sports interview I ever did.
My entry into sports writing wasn’t grandiose. The first event I covered was the Manhattan Beach Open, a volleyball tournament, in California. The goal of my story was to highlight how during the NBA lockout, Kevin Love was playing volleyball competitively. While I was there, a man walked up to me and said, “Do you know who that is?” and pointed at an older, tall, African-American man. I said, “No.” He said, “That’s Rafer Johnson. That’s who you need to be interviewing.”
Seeing as I was holding myself out as a sports writer, I said, “Oh, of course that’s Rafer Johnson!” like I had any clue who he was. I then Googled him on my phone and agreed with the stranger who approached me that Rafer was someone I needed to interview.
Rafer grew up in segregated Texas and moved to California where he would become a standout athlete. He played for John Wooden’s UCLA basketball team, but his mainstay was track and field. In 1960, Rafer won the gold medal in the Olympics for the decathlon–arguably, the most difficult sport to compete in. He’d become a national celebrity of sorts thereafter, championing various causes, especially promoting the interests of people with special needs. In 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, Rafer was one of two men who tackled the man who shot him so that authorities could apprehend him.
On a July day, my 27-year-old self marched over to Rafer across the sand of Manhattan Beach. I introduced myself as Alicia from RulingSports.com and he was gracious enough to say he’d heard of it (which was a lie, since the site had been up for all of two weeks). The next thing I knew, we were making plans to grab lunch the following week so that I could learn his story.
Rafer was one of my early mentors in the sports industry. He told me things like they were. More importantly, though, he showed me that there is always hope in covering sports. Because at the end of the day, covering sports is about covering the human spirit. And the human spirit is one born to compete, to fight, to do anything at all costs to survive.
How do I stay positive about my decision to dedicate a large chunk of my life to covering sports and professional athletes after weeks like the few we’ve had in the sports world?
I stay positive because I know better.
I know that for every Adrian Peterson, there is a David Nelson who dedicates his time, money and heart to saving orphans in Haiti.
I know that for every Ray Rice, there is a Jason Witten, who through his SCORE Foundation, places mentors in battered women’s shelters in Texas.
I know these things, because I’ve sought these stories out. These are the stories I care about telling. They are never going to land me a job on ESPN–I’ve been told that in so many words. They are never going to generate significant traffic–I’ve had stories I’ve written on these subjects pulled by editors because they “aren’t newsworthy.”
And therein, lies the problem. We are told the stories that the media tells us. And the stories that the media tells us are the ones that they believe will generate the most views, clicks and traffic.
Last night I was out with some friends and one asked me, “Jessop, when are you going to write about Ray Rice?”
My answer? “Never.”
If we want to see positive news make its way into our media, we–the storytellers–must do our part to stop the negative news cycle.
That’s not to say there isn’t something positive that can come from the last two weeks we’ve had in sports media, where the news cycle isn’t about X’s and O’s or heroic victories, but rather two men beating women and children. What good can come of it? Change.
Sports, unlike anything else, has the power to change the world.
Our sports stars are our heroes. When they slip up, we watch. And we talk. And hopefully, we change.
If there is anything good to come from the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories, it is this: They’ve forced us as a society to have tough conversations.
They’ve forced us to discuss the way lovers should treat each other and what type of behavior is acceptable.
They’ve forced us to discuss how billion-dollar leagues should handle domestic violence.
They’ve forced us to discuss whether a winning at all costs mentality should stand in the wake of abuse.
They’ve forced us to discuss how children are disciplined.
They’ve forced us to discuss if there are better ways to bring up a child than hitting him with a tree branch.
Through sports, our society has confronted some of the most serious issues the world has to face. AIDS with Magic Johnson. Dog fighting with Michael Vick. Homophobia with Billie Jean King. Racism with my friend Rafer Johnson.
So, how do I approach weeks like the last two we’ve had in sports?
I remember that there is always, always, always a positive story to be told in the sports world.
I remember that sports is one of the greatest facilitators of change in this world.
And then I get back to writing.