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On Curt Schilling, free coolers and the state of sportswriting

Most media people today, especially the younger ones, sincerely believe the ethical standards today are much higher than they once were, and have been taught that in many journalism classes. I want to be on record disputing that view. Different? Certainly. Higher? By what measure? Lower? In many respects. One thing I can report as a fact, from personal experience: We were definitely less pretentious about it then.-- Leonard Koppett, The Rise and Fall of the Press Box

Curt Schilling announced his retirement on Monday, which has kicked off numerous discussions about his bloody sock game, his postseason brilliance, his Hall of Fame candidacy and so on. I have thoughts about all these things and then some: Curt Schilling has always been one of the more fascinating characters in the game for me, and not only because he sent me a thank you e-mail about eight hours after he won Game 1 of the 2001 World Series.

But, as is probably obvious, I have been thinking a lot about newspapers lately, the ever-changing media landscape, and so the first thing I thought about when Schilling retired was the now semi-famous clause in his contract that would have earned him $1 million for receiving even a single third-place Cy Young Award vote.

The Schilling Clause created a bit of stir for a while -- many people (myself included) felt that the clause created a new and troubling ethical line. Many newspapers already had real problems with their writers voting on baseball awards because of the overriding feeling that a journalist's mission is to report the news, not make the news. And there are money implications too: Players who win the MVP awards and Cy Young Awards get large bonuses for it, and many in the journalism business are bothered by that.

The Schilling Clause took it all to another level. At least before, there was the comfort of crowds -- one voter could not DECIDE who won the MVP award or Cy Young Award, could not singlehandedly make a pile of money change hands. He/she could only be a part of the larger process.

With this new kind of bonus, though, suddenly one voter could trigger a huge bonus with a fairly trivial third-place vote. It opened up a whole new ethical wasteland, and all sorts of handwringing and negotiation followed.

I came out pretty strong on the Schilling Clause, and I don't disagree with what I wrote back then. But I must admit that the trials of newspapers the last 18 months or so has made me think a lot about the way American newspapers cover sports in the 21st Century. What I have been thinking about is probably summed up in a single, simple question: Have newspapers tried too hard to make sports reporting like news reporting?

A very brief history is probably in order: There was a time in the not-so-distant-past when sportswriting was nothing at all like news reporting. It was, as famed sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said, the "Toy Department" of a newspaper. More than that, sportswriting was very much tied together with the sports themselves. Promoters would get a little publicity by throwing a few bucks at sportswriters, who were barely making enough money to survive at their papers. Baseball teams would pay for the travel of baseball writers (and many baseball writers made a few extra bucks serving as official scorers). Horse racing writers would supplement their meager salaries by using insider tips at the track. Sports columnists were often movers and shakers who worked behind the scenes to get things done -- in Kansas City, for instance, Joe McGuff played a prominent political role in bringing the Royals to town, in San Diego the old baseball stadium was named for sports editor Jack Murphy. And sportswriters did indeed get free tickets; people still believe we do.*

*To clarify: I mean free tickets for others. Sportswriters do still get free access to games.

There was, looking back, a pleasing rhythm to those days. Sportswriters got better access (and most of them were careful not to "abuse" that access), teams and promoters were relatively pleased by the publicity, athletes and writers generally tolerated each other, and fans got sports stories of varying quality (some of the best- and worst-written sportswriting comes from that time) and the overall impression that their heroes drank milk, their baseball managers said witty things in broken English and the fans shouted "hurrah!" in the stands.

To a sportswriter raised in today's world -- and I'm being bluntly honest here -- a lot of that is mortifying ... a past we would rather forget. Sportswriters have been raised to believe that we are entirely separate from the teams we cover. Koppett is right. I will quote quite a bit from the fascinating essay in the back of the late Leonard Koppett's book, an essay called: Ethics and Responsibilities.

He wrote: "... an underlying general agreement was reached. The 'adversary relationship' between reporter and subject must be demanded, made clear and flaunted. The time-honored practice of simply running a press release (on some routine announcement, like appointment of a business executive) became taboo; it had to be reworded. And any official pronouncement by a manager, coach or club official ought to be regarded with suspicion by any 'tough' reporter."

That's right. Koppett lived through the changes, which he believed came out of the Watergate '70s, when newspapers started worrying not only about conflict of interest but also the APPEARANCE of conflict of interest. Sportswriters were expected to live up to the same ethical standards as reporters covering city government or the local school board. There was to be no more graft. And, by extension, sportswriters were expected (within reason) to do their jobs with the same distance and skepticism as reporters covering city government and the local school board. That was the day athletes stopped drinking milk.

You could ask me how I feel about all this, but the truth is it is a bit like asking me how I feel about gravity. It is all I know. I remember being 21 years old, green as Kermit, and going to something called the "SAC-8 Rouser" as a "reporter" for The Charlotte Observer. The SAC-8 was the "South Atlantic Conference," and it included small colleges like Catawba, Lenoir-Rhyne, Elon, Mars Hill and so on. And the rouser was a media gathering designed to give the conference a bit of publicity. I remember all the coaches were there, and I got to interview them, and then, at the end, rather unexpectedly, there was a raffle. I remember that early on in the raffle, I won a rather nice cooler. I thought that was pretty cool, to be honest: I NEVER win raffles. So, I had my cooler, and I felt good, and then all of a sudden they were auctioning off the big prize (which I recall was something like a free three-day golf vacation) and, lo and behold, I won again.

I was quite shocked. I remember going back to my editor at The Charlotte Observer and saying to him that I had won TWO prizes from a raffle I had not even entered, and that one of those prizes was a nice golf package. He smiled and told me I couldn't take those prizes.

Me: Why not?Him: Why do you think you won?Me: Um, because I'm lucky?Him: Or maybe it's because you work for The Charlotte Observer, which is the biggest newspaper in the Carolinas, and they want more coverage?Me: Or maybe because I'm lucky?

The cooler went to charity. The golf vacation was returned. The lesson was learned.

That was more than 20 years ago, and the lesson of that day has been pummeled into me so thoroughly, so intently, so entirely that I honestly cannot see straight on the subject. I have never believed anything except that sportswriters must stay separate, that we must keep a healthy distance, that we must report on sports using the same tools and techniques and strategies that every journalist is taught at a very young age: Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted, ask the five questions, follow the money, challenge authority, get both sides, fight for the little guy, eliminate bias (to the best of your ability), dig a little deeper, report what you know, get it right. I honestly did not ever consider there was another side to the argument.

This is progress. And, as with all progress, there are some very obvious things that the sports pages do better now than ever before. There are more stories broken now than ever before. There is more intense analysis now than ever before. The box scores are so much more complete now than ever before. And I know that there are many Web sites today that mock sportswriters' cliches and bizarre thought processes, but believe me when I tell you that if you go back and read newspapers from around the country in 1975, or 1955, or 1935 ... you will find stuff that would have made the Fire Joe Morgan writers' heads explode. There has always been good and bad sportswriting, of course, but all you have to do is go back and read some of the racially charged, sexually charged, cliche-ridden half truths of a different America* and you will admit that sportswriting doesn't come close to hitting the lows that it once hit. Sportswriting -- and I think this is unquestionable -- is more professional than ever before.

*I always loved Frank Deford's description of Boston sportswriting when he was writing about the Celtics in the 1960s: "One step up from illiteracy, one decibel down from shouting."

But that's a charged word: professional. Here again I quote Leonard Koppett (and it should be noted that Koppett -- a sportswriter for about 60 years -- finished this essay just before he died in 2003):

"Athletes and promoters are not government officials dispensing tax dollars, patronage and punishment, backed up by the judicial and coercive powers of the state. It's entertainment of a totally voluntary type for participant and follower. The admirable American journalistic tradition of 'watchdog' applies to government and other socially powerful entities, not blindly to accounts of ball games, movie reviews, comics and (need it be said?) the content of advertisements. There has to be a sense of proportion about any kind of blanket rule. Ethics depend on conscience, not formula."

And you know, that makes some sense to me. This is not to say that we should go back to the days when teams paid for sportswriters to travel with them*, but I will admit that maybe our newspapers and us sportswriters, in some ways, have lost some of the point. I think about Bill Simmons, the Sports Guy, and what makes him so popular. Bill is a talented guy. He's a very funny writer. He has a real knack for connecting and seeing things in a fresh way and he still makes the best Shawshank Redemption references in the business.

*Though, in many ways, we ARE going back to those days as team Web sites become more prominent.

But the other thing Bill has done is break down those walls that have been built up. He's a fan. And he writes with the passion of a fan. That's not to say that Bill is everyone's style -- nobody is everyone's style -- but it seems to me that his writing speaks to a lot of people who grew tired of the distance that has widened between sportswriting and sports. The distance is not all our doing ... it is not even MOSTLY our doing. Money has changed the game. Television has changed the game. Money has changed the game. Talk radio has changed the game. The Internet has changed the game. Money has changed the game. And a million other things. Also, money.

But I believe too that sportswriting has shifted on its own. There is still great, great sportswriting being done in newspapers, I believe this with all my heart. But that professional thing -- maybe in places, there is a lack of joy. Maybe in places, there is an honorable distance. Maybe in places, the professional skepticism that we have built up through the years turns our coverage of games into hard-nosed city hall reporting. And last I checked, nobody wears jerseys that say "City Hall" on them.

I don't know: It's just something I have been thinking a lot about. No, I don't believe newspapers should go back to the days when teams paid sportswriters to travel to games. No, I don't think sportswriters should take free golf vacations in exchange for a little more coverage. No I don't believe sportswriters should stop trying to get closer to what's real -- it's more important now than ever. But, in the fight for survival, I'm not sure that we should be spending a lot of energy worrying about the blurry ethical lines of contract bonuses for Cy Young votes. Yes, sports are big business. But there is a lesson in the grand history of sportswriting that might be worth remembering: Sports are games, too.

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