What Do Sportswriters Really Know About Athletes? (Re: Kirby Puckett)

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve heard how “tough” and “brutal” the New York media are toward athletes, but I’ve never found that to be the case. For instance, the 1986 Mets were about the scummiest bunch of individuuals ever assembled on a sports team, but you’d never have known that from reading the New York papers back in 1986. It wasn’t until years later we finally started hearing about what Kevin Mitchell, Darryl Strawberry & Co. were really like.

Turning our attention to the Midwest… for years, sportswriters told us what a saint Kirby Puckett was. Countless times, I read or heard variations on “If only there were more players like Kirby Puckett, baseball would be America’s favorite pastime again.” In reality, we know now that Kirby Puckett was FAR from the plaster saint that writers told us he was. Indeed, he would’ve fit in neatly with the 1986 Mets.

I could give many other examples, but you see where I’m going. Writers regularly sing the praises of athletes who turn out to be slimy characters. And it seems to me, there are only two explanations possible for this phenomenon:

A) Writers don’t really know squat about what players are up to outside the stadium.

B) They know, but choose not to tell their readers.

Of course, I can offer variations on both theories. Such as…

A1. Writers who don’t really have a clue whether the athletes they cover are heroes or villains will simply parrot what they hear other writers saying (“EVERYBODY says Kirby Puckett is a sweetheart, and they can’t all be wrong”).

A2. Many writers don’t know or care what an athlete is really like- they care only whether an athlete is cooperative with the press, whether he’s always ready to give reporters a smile and a quote. Thanks to guys like this, Eddie Murray (a good person, by most accounts, whose only character flaw was saying nothing to the press) was regularly described as a surly thug, while Kirby Puckett (a creep and a lecher) was painted as an angel, because he was always ready to kiss writers’ backsides.

B1. Writers NEED players to cooperate with them, to talk to them. And they know that if they ever embarrass a player in print, players will stop talking to them. Without quotes from players, these guys would be forced to rely on their own writing skills… and you know how pitiful those writing skills usually are! So, many writers decided that it’s far more important to be liked by players than to tell their readers the truth.

Any other theories I haven’t considered?

I think that a liberal dose of A2 and B1 goes a long way towards explaining sports journalism. I think that there’s also another factor, which could almost be included as part of B1.

There are, i believe, reporters who really like to think of themselves as the players’ friends. These reporters get a kick out of the fact that they get to talk to famous people every day, and i think that in some cases this blinds them to the fact that they are meant to be reporting without fear or favour. So, these reporters make an effort to be liked by the players not only because it makes their job easier, but because it makes them feel more important.

To tell you the truth, i think that some members of the White House press corps suffer from similar conflicts.

Reminds me of Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous,” telling the young music reporter, “These people (rock stars) are not your friends. Friendship is the booze they feed you. They want to get you drunk on the feeling that you belong.”

But once you’re actually covering rock stars (or athletes or politicians, I guess), it’s tempting to start believing you’re part of their world, rather than a supposedly neutral observer.

I seriously doubt Kirby Puckett went to reporters and told them, “Hey, want to know what I’m really like?”

Do you expect them to follow every ballplayer around 24/7 to check to see what their personal life is?

Sports reporters cover the sport. When the games are over, they aren’t going to check out the player’s personal life unless something comes to light, and in all the cases you cite, the problems were not public (or easy to discern).

In addition, some people aren’t all that interested in finding the sleeziest dirt they can find on celebrities.

I think the writers’ reputation for being tough on athletes is based more on their criticism of the guy’s play. If someone’s in a slump, they can be merciless. They can also be pretty brutal when a guy’s past his prime.

Fair enough, EXCEPT that writers did FAR more than ignore Kirby Puckett’s off-the-field life.

It would be fine if writers simply tossed up their hands and said, “I don’t really know anything about Kirby’s private life, and I don’t want to know. I’ll just write about how he plays, and refrain from commenting on his character, because I just don’t know what his character is.”

In reality, writers DIDN’T refrain from writing about his character. They wrote about his character constantly! They told us he was the embodiment of virtue, the epitome of everything that was good in baseball and humanity. And that was the OPPOSITE of the truth!

So I ask you, Chuck, even if you don’t care that Kirby Puckett was a creep (and many people DON’T care!), why did writers put him on a pedestal, instead of just looking the other way? It comes back to two possibiites:

a) They had no clue what he was really like, but still chose to paint him as a saint.

b) They KNEW he was a slimeball and still chose to paint him as a saint.

From what I’ve read about Puckett, he kept his real life secret. And whenever there was a time when reporters were likely to be present, he played the part of the loving husband and all-around good guy (and, to be fair, he did do a lot of good things that are worthy of praise even now).

That was all the reporters were doing: reporting on what they were seeing. They just had no reason to believe that what they saw wasn’t the entire story.

See this article from Jim Caple, a reporter who covered the Twins at the time. The relevant paragraph:

. Clearly he didn’t know what Puckett was really like, and if he didn’t it’s not likely anyone else did, either.

Indeed, the SI article that revealed the issue clearly indicates that, until he retired, Puckett’s only real issue was having a mistress and numerous affairs, behavior that certainly could be kept secret from reporters. Once he was forced out of baseball, he quickly got out of control. He only began the really sleezy stuff after he was no longer a player and the press wasn’t seeing him every day.

So the reporters saw a likeable guy who appeared to be devoted to his wife and who put a lot of time and effort into charity work. That’s what they portrayed and until he retired, there was no reason to report otherwise.

a former sports writer chimes in*…

I believe many sports writers start out thinking about the glamour of rubbing elbows with high-profile athletes but that disappears pretty quickly, once you’re:
a. stuck covering Po-Dunk High v. WoeBeGone Tech sports for your first several years, if not your whole career.
b. exposed to how big an asshole many professional athletes are.

My experience, especially with the college coaches, who were relatively high-profile (I was covering a ‘midmajor’ school, which made a few trips to the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament while I was there), was that there was a private life they would let you see, and another private life altogether that was rumored about and commented on by the reporting pool, but nothing that could be printed b.c. there was nothing ‘solid’ there to write about.

Did you want to be in good with the coaches and players? Absolutely - without them, stories and features are at best difficult to do. But if I had been aware of any illegal or highly questionable activities - illegal recruiting, drug use, etc. - I would have reported it immediately and still expected to talk w the coaches.
*I only covered a small handful of professional events; most of my experience was with HS and collegiate athletics, so take that into consideration.

See, i’ve never quite understood this attitude.

It seems to me that, at a fundamental level, it should be possible to do very good sports reporting simply by sitting at home and watching the game on television. A reporter who is armed with a good knowledge of the game can, just by doing this, analyse and write about the team’s performance, weaknesses and strengths, future prospects, etc., etc.

Why do you need to have access to the players and coaches? I have yet to see an interview with a player–either before or after a game–that added to my understanding of the game itself. Ditto for coach interviews, for the most part. They are nothing but a collection of stale soundbites and a chance for the coach to make (non-)witty cracks for the amusement of the assembled hacks. In fact, the only time these interviews are even interesting is when the coach starts abusing one of the reporters for daring to criticize the team or the coach’s ability.

Here in Baltimore, the local free City Paper had, for quite a while, a guy who used to write a column about local sporting teams. He covered the Ravens and the Orioles, obviously, but also college sporting teams like University of Maryland football and basketball teams. He never had interviews with coaches or players, and much of his analysis was, by his own admission, based on watching the games at home on television. Despite this, however, he had more real insight into strategy and performances than most of the TV sports reporters and newspaper sports journalists in this town. And, unlike some of them, he wasn’t afraid to say when a well-known player was playing like crap.

Contrast this with the sports reporter on the local Fox affiliate. His specialty must be softball, because that’s all he ever throws when conducting interviews. The Ravens or the Orioles might be in the middle of a massive slump, but if he is interviewing a player from either of those teams, you can be sure that the questions will have nothing but positive spin. It’s puke-inducing.