Should reporters clean up quotes from athletes? Richard Deitsch discusses J.A. Adande’s article on The Undefeated and more in this edition of media circus.
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One of the best promos ever cut by professional wrestler Ric Flair came in 1985 when Flair was the signature star of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). With his flowing head of bleach-blond hair, oversized sunglasses and a suit straight out of the prop department from the movie Scarface, Flair explained to the audience just who they were watching.
“You are talking to the Rolex-wearing, diamond ring-wearing, kiss stealing — Woooooo! — wheelin dealin, limousine riding, jet flying son of a gun — and I’m having a hard time holding these alligators down! Woooooo!”
What is always interesting about professional wrestlers–and particularly the stars of the 1980s and 1990s–is to decipher where the distinction lies (if any) between the in-ring character and the real man. The terrific journalist David Shoemaker examined this duality in his sensational piece on Randy (Macho Man) Savage, and if ever someone’s on-screen “Nature Boy” persona blended into his real life, from self-destructive behavior to high living to repeated bouts with legal authorities, it would be Ric Flair, born Richard Morgan Fliehr in 1949.
Recklessness is often the stuff of an excellent sports documentary and sometime in the next 12 months, possibly as early as the fall, ESPN’s critically-acclaimed 30 for 30 series will air “Nature Boy,” a documentary on the life and times of Flair directed by Rory Karpf, who has directed multiple 30 for 30 documentaries including “I Hate Christian Laettner” and “The Book Of Manning.”
“In the wrestling world, the viewer isn’t sure what’s real or what isn’t, but 'Nature Boy'–Ric Flair wasn’t just a character,” said Karpf in an interview this week. “He was real. The wrestler he portrayed in the ring was also the man he was outside the ring. I found that to be fascinating. He’s led a crazy life that’s a natural for a 30 for 30. Plus I just love pro wrestling.”
Karpf said the documentary, which will run at either 90 or 120 minutes, is currently in the editing stages with some interviews left to shoot and a few archive materials still to procure. The interview subjects for the film include Flair, all three of Flair’s living children including daughter Ashley, who wrestles in the WWE under the name of Charlotte and is the current WWE women’s champion, and a host of retired wrestlers including Sting, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley and Ricky Steamboat, along with Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard, the pair who with Flair and Ole Anderson formed The Four Horseman. Other interviews include Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross, former WCW head Eric Bischoff, as well as Flair’s first wife, Leslie.
On the issue of how much wrestling footage will air, ESPN Films vice president and executive producer John Dahl said ESPN has a great relationship with WWE and that Karpf pursued footage agreement before they started shooting. Karpf said the WWE has been very supportive with his requests.
There’s a lot to digest on Flair’s life, and much of the underbelly was covered in this Grantland feature by Shane Ryan in 2011 under the header of “Ric Flair’s long, steady decline.” On the subject of Flair’s openness in answering questions, Karpf said Flair answered all his inquires and that he found his lead subject “very open, for the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve seen a lot of Ric Flair interviews. And in my opinion, I've never seen a better one than the one he did for our film.”
Karpf said the 1980’s will be the main era of the doc to coincide with the prime of Flair’s career, as well as the explosion of pro wrestling into the pop culture. “Hulk Hogan and Wrestlemania had become household names and meanwhile, Ric was in a rival organization,” Karpf said. “I wanted to explore what specifically made Ric so great and what specifically makes for a great pro wrestler. Why is he considered the greatest of all time? How is that determination made? Unlike the NFL or NBA there really aren’t stats and metrics we can use like touchdowns, points scored or championships to determine greatness. Wrestling is pre-determined. But it is very athletic and the performers are definitely athletes. I wanted to give wrestling its just due in comparison of other sports.”
Karpf said one of his filmmaker dreams was to do a wrestling-based 30 for 30 for ESPN, and Karpf said one of the reasons it happened was that Flair’s interview for his Laettner doc really resonated on social media, according to ESPN’s research. That helped convince Dahl to give the standalone Flair project the greenlit.
What does Karpf want viewers to come away with from the film?
“Hopefully they’ll have an emotional, visceral reaction,” he said. “I think this is a film where the viewer can laugh, cry and hopefully ‘Woooooo!’ I try to make my films accessible for everyone, so my ultimate goal is to make a film enjoyable for wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike.”
The Noise Report
(SI.com examines some of the notable sports media stories of the week)
1. Last week the ESPN commentator and writer J.A. Adande wrote an interesting piece for The Undefeated website that examined the journalistic tradition of “cleaning up” quotes, or making small fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with conventional English. Adande argued it is a tradition that needs to go.
The news hook to his piece was criticism of the Houston Chronicle for quoting Dominican-born Houston Astros outfielder Carlos Gomez verbatim, which Gomez perceived as ridicule by highlighting the native Spanish speaker’s grammatical inaccuracies. Houston Chronicle editor Nancy Barnes apologized, telling Richard Prince of the Journal-isms website: “With regards to quoting Carlos Gomez: We sincerely apologize for any offense that was taken. Our writers are encouraged to adhere to AP style rules...I reviewed the rules myself after this arose and found the guidelines on quotes to be less than adequate for a community like ours, full of immigrants from all over the world, and for whom English is often a second language. I’ve asked some top editors to review this policy, research best practices, and recommend guidance for all of our writers in the future. We always want to be respectful of those we are interviewing.”
It’s an interesting question for sports media members: Should (and do) you make any fixes to quotes to align grammar and pronunciation with conventional English and why?
I polled a group of reporters with diverse backgrounds for some feedback:
Frank Isola, NBA columnist and host, New York Daily News and SiriusXM NBA radio: I generally clean up the grammar, and hope that my editor cleans up my grammar as well. There was a Knicks player who would often say “with the way with how we played.....” I thought it was right and respectful to edit that. I think it would be mean-spirited not to. There was another player who would say “flustrated” which I took as a combination of flustered and frustrated. I would print frustrated. There are times when I do believe quoting someone verbatim is proper and impactful. When I read J.A.’s story I automatically thought of Micheal Ray Richardson’s “The ship be sinking.” That’s a classic. Plus, I loved the guy as a player. Also, players will use “ain’t” in a lot of their comments. I use it myself in tweets. Most of the times I leave it. It comes across as slang, as opposed to poor grammar. The Knicks have had Italian and Spanish players and a majority of the times I would touch up their comments unless it read better verbatim. Same thing with Latin baseball players. For example, they might say "that team have two good player." Isn’t only right to make it plural? Now, if a guy is angry after a game and declares “we no good” I will use that line. I think the reader understands that for the most part. The one comment I edit 100% of the time is so and so needs to “step up.” A player may say it but I ain't writing it. I can’t stand “step up.” It’s a pet peeve. No one should ever say it.
Kimberley A. Martin, New York Jets beat writer, Newsday: Perhaps because I’m a part of the so-called “New York media”—you know, the band of malevolent marauders who usurp quotes for their own insidious intentions—I’m far more sensitive about quoting athletes verbatim. I rewind, fast forward, and rewind the audio again to ensure that I hear and type every word perfectly. It’s arduous and annoying, but the fear of misquoting someone is very real. Accuracy and objectivity are (or should be, for some people) the main goals.
But when it comes to grammar and diction, I admit I do “clean up” words a bit, sometimes with the help of parentheses (so the reader knows that I’m the one including the correct or intended word) or just re-writing a phrase. (For example, if an athlete says, ‘They be knowing’ in an interview, I might change it to “They know” or something to that effect.)
J.A. Adande raised some excellent points in his piece, including: “Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker.” I agree with that sentiment wholeheartedly—from a philosophical standpoint. I cover predominately African-American men, some of whom grew up in inner cities or speak slang. But by no means are they unintelligent. I know that, but my readers may not. Because I’m African-American and a woman, I’m far more sensitive to stereotyping and the assumptions that are made of a certain subset of people, whether that be people of color, women or athletes. To me, changing a word here or there isn’t the same as stripping down an athlete’s speech pattern to the point where his or her personality is completely unrecognizable.
Adande also noted in his piece: “Reasonable people can make allowances for those who use English as a second language.” That’s a lovely sentiment, in theory. But that’s not always reality. It’s also much easier to make those allowances when watching an interview on TV. The visual medium offers a fuller picture that is more digestible and forgiving. On the contrary, grammatical errors are far more jarring in print form and they immediately stop readers in their tracks.
Like I said, accuracy is paramount. But while it’s not right or fair for readers to judge athletes based on their grammar, many do. And part of being accurate is painting a complete, realistic picture of the individuals we cover.
Mike Reiss, NFL reporter, ESPN: The two main things for me with quotes are accuracy and context. Everything is recorded so I can hear and play back both question and answer when needed. On fixes to align grammar and pronunciation with standard English, I will make them within reason, but if I do I generally try to let readers know they aren’t exactly what the subject said with the use of parenthesis/brackets. A lot of it is a case by case basis, and judging if changing the grammar/pronunciation alters the context or effect of what the person is saying, and if keeping the original verbiage might embarrass the player/coach. Sometimes when there is a long history between a reporter and coach/player, the interview subject might go as far as to say, “Feel free to clean that up so I don't sound stupid.”
Marly Rivera, ESPN Deportes, writer and reporter: I frequently clean-up quotes in both English and Spanish, particularly with non-native speakers, but I am very careful. By “clean-up” I specifically mean removing filler words (the most common ones in English tend to be ‘like’ and ‘you know’, and in Spanish ‘me entiendes’). I will also fix mistakes in verb concordance or any made-up words, as long as it doesn’t affect or change the meaning of the quote whatsoever. If someone says irregardless I will change it to regardless. There are very common Spanish grammatical mistakes that I will correct. For example, the verb “haber” in Spanish is very irregular in conjugation. Many will use the incorrect tense “haiga” which I will always change to the correct “haya.” Therefore, if a player said to me “cuando haiga tiempo” (when there is time) I will change it to “cuando haya tiempo” (both mean the same thing, but one would be grammatically incorrect). In paraphrasing, I never change meaning. I will rarely use a phrase that contains a glaring grammatical mistake, unless its usage is pertinent to the story.
I have also done many interviews in Spanish with native English speakers (for example, Mike Hill, Tony LaRussa, Mike Matheny, Mike Scioscia, CJ Wilson, and AJ Green – all have studied Spanish and speak it well — and if they make any mistake in gender/number agreement (something that doesn’t exist in English so it’s a very common mistake) I will fix it. I find it completely irrelevant to point out that instead of saying “en unos días” (in a few days) someone said “en unas días”, where they made a mistake in the gender/number agreement in the pronoun. Native English speakers will also frequently use Anglicisms, words in English that have entirely different meanings or don’t exist in Spanish, and in that case, I simply won’t use the quote whatsoever. Another way in which I will not quote a player verbatim is when using an idiomatic expression in Spanish when I am writing a story in English. For example, in Spanish we commonly use the expression “no tener pelos en la lengua” (literally means “to have no hair on your tongue”). It is an idiom that means that someone openly speaks their mind or tells it like it is. I would paraphrase in that case, because it would make absolutely no sense to the reader if I wrote: Richard Deitsch has no hair on his tongue. In an excellent article called “The great quote question” by journalist Doreen Carvajal, she cites an ethnic affairs reporter from the Philadelphia Inquirer named Murray Dubin with words that I live by: “On this ethnic beat of mine, the only rule I have is not to shame or embarrass anyone because of their inability to speak English well.” At the same time, Dubin adds that there are times when slang or way of speaking add to a specific picture. As a professional, it is your job, along with your editor, to achieve that balance.
Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports and MLB Network reporter: The goal is to accurately convey meaning. Usually quoting a person word-for-word does the trick, but even highly educated people sometimes do not speak with precise clarity. So, if I have to clean up grammar, etc., I will. It doesn’t mean I will change context or even basic sentence structures; rarely will I tweak more than a few words, and even then only if I believe it’s absolutely necessary.
In many cases, it’s a question of judgment; what does your experience tell you to do? It would have been insane if anyone had altered Micheal Ray Richardson’s immortal line, “the ship be sinking.” No, Richardson’s grammar was not perfect, but that was how he spoke, and he communicated quite clearly. That said, it’s different with a person who struggles to explain himself or herself, or for whom English is a second language.
I had a real problem with what Brian Smith did with Carlos Gomez’s quotes. It embarrassed Gomez unnecessarily, and drew attention away from what was an otherwise perfectly valid column. I would have cleaned up Gomez’s language, and in no way would I have considered such a thing to be patronizing. The fact that I can’t talk to a player in his native language–I do not speak Spanish–that’s on me. It’s a fine line knowing how far to go, but there is a responsibility to the person you are quoting. Common sense and decency should prevail.
Greg Wyshynski, NHL writer and podcaster. Yahoo Sports: Outside of corrections for clarity, I try not to clean up quotes. In the NHL, we deal with players–especially Russians–for whom English is a secondary language. Not only do I worry that fleshing out quotes will lead to a mistake on my part when it comes to context or meaning, but I think it robs these players of their own eloquence. They said what they said in the manner in which they said it, and that was their intention. Just like I wouldn’t want someone changing some Jersey-fied malapropism in my quotes because it's not correct, I wouldn't want to do the same to Evgeni Malkin.
2. Last Wednesday I wrote a long column that examined the challenges ESPN is facing with SportsCenter, the flagship show for the network and a brand that has faced declining ratings on linear television. ESPN executives admitted in that piece that they needed to make SportsCenter a more compelling program in each of its timeslots. So it was particularly frustrating on Saturday night following Game 3 of the Cavs-Raptors series to see SportsCenter become little more than commentator Stephen A. Smith promoting all NBA takes by Stephen A. Smith. As a viewer, I’ve come to accept that there’s a group in ESPN’s upper management who have anointed Smith as one of the faces of the network. Part of that is a branding play for ESPN2’s First Take; the other part is a flawed belief by sports television executives that forceful opinion above all is what analyst should be selling (and, thus, ESPN sells it socially and digitally). But bloviating should never trump actual news and as Raptors coach Dwane Casey was questioning the officiating, one of the major stories coming out of Game 3, during a live press conference that ESPN had access to. ESPN was on the floor of the arena pushing Smith, fellow analyst Tim Legler and the SportsCenter brand. Yes, viewers could have gone to NBA TV for the press conferences but not every home has NBA TV. It was an example of ESPN’s most self-aggrandizing tendencies; the words of a highly-paid analyst trumpeting all. Thankfully, Smith did not threaten Kevin Durant during the segment. On this end, it’s particularly curious why NBA Countdown was not on the road for the Eastern Conference finals, anchoring the post-game coverage for the Cleveland-Toronto series. The Sage Steele-Jalen Rose-Doug Collins trio is the group ESPN’s NBA viewers have invested in for the entire season, and they cover the sport on a weekly basis. Yet, they were back in Los Angeles, ceding their terrain to SportsCenter. Turner Sports, of course, has Inside The NBA at the Western Conference finals.
2a. NBC, NBCSN and USA Network combined to average 514,000 viewers for the 2015–16 EPL season, a new U.S. audience record for the league and up 7% from last season’s record figure of 479,000 viewers. As Sports Business Daily’s Austin Karp noted, Fox Soccer averaged 22,000 viewers during the 2012-13 season for the package.
2b. The top-rated cities of the NBC Sports Group’s coverage of the Premier League:
1. Washington, D.C.
3. West Palm Beach
T5. Philadelphia and Baltimore
7. New York
T11. Chicago, Denver and Tulsa
T14. Atlanta and Miami
2c. NBC drew a 6.2 overnight rating for Exaggerator’s Preakness Stakes win, up 7% from American Pharoah’s victory last year. The top-rated cities for the Preakness: 1. Baltimore; 2. Louisville; 3. Ft. Myers; 4. Richmond; 5. West Palm; 6. Washington D.C; 7. Buffalo; 8. Knoxville; 9. Orlando; T10. Cincinnati and Philadelphia.
3. Episode No. 58 of the Sports Illustrated Media Podcast features TNT NBA analyst Chris Webber, who will call the Western Conference finals with Marv Albert and Reggie Miller.
On this episode, Webber discusses how forthcoming today’s NBA players are, how he viewed the press during his playing days, whether the league is watered down today, the hardest players for him to guard (Vin Baker ranked high on the list), how his Kings teams would have done in today’s game, how he prepares for his broadcast, how Marv Albert and Dick Stockton tutored him as a broadcaster, working with rapper Nas, his all-time All-Detroit team including Jalen Rose, why Allen Iverson was the best teammate he ever saw and much more.
A reminder: you can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, Google Play and Stitcher, and you can view all of SI’s podcasts here. If you have any feedback, questions or suggestions, please comment here or tweet at me.
4. Non sports pieces of note:
• Via The Undefeated’s Jesse Washington: What does it mean to share a name with the victim of one of the most infamous lynchings in American history.
• Via Washington Post: This is how fascism comes to America.
• FiveThirtyEight’s Walt Hickey, on how male reviewers sabotage internet ratings of female shows.
• From The Walrus: How one Fort McMurray family built a dream and watched it burn.
• Via Washington Post: The inside story of when Run‑DMC met Aerosmith and changed music forever.
• From Dijana Kunovac: “Donald Trump: A Refugee’s Perspective.”
• "What Would It Take for Donald Trump to Build a Wall?" A deeply reported examination of an inane idea from The New York Times.
• A reporter for CJR reflects on reporting on a 17-year-old student at a Catholic high school who was raped and decided to have an abortion.
• Via The Boston Globe: The college debt crisis is even worse than you think.
Sports pieces of note:
• Excellent piece from ESPN presenter Pablo Torre on the relationship between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
• From Alex Daugherty, for the NYT: “Since 2002, when Nascar made head-and-neck restraints mandatory, at least 141 people have died on short tracks, and dozens of others have sustained major injuries, making this the most dangerous corner of American motorsports.”
• Bay Area News Group sports columnist Marcus Thompson traveled to Oakland with Warriors forward Harrison Barnes.
• SI’s Chris Ballard profiled Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey.
• A major takedown of Buffalo Bills management from Buffalo News columnist Jerry Sullivan.
• The Guardian’s Marina Hyde destroys the Muirfield golf club.
• Detroit Free Press writer Dave Birkett on former Detroit Lions quarterback Erik Kramer, who battles depression and survived a suicide attempt.
5. The NBA’s Draft Lottery on ESPN drew 2.748 million viewers, down 23% from last year’s 3.55 million.
5a. The rare Twitter attack via podcast rankings.
5b. Washington Post writer Paul Fahri asked a number of sports media members whether their stance on the Redskins nickname had changed.
5c. This 30 For 30 short directed by Mickey Duzyj and executive produced by Erik Rydholm is worth watching.
5d. ESPN’s SportsCenter host Kevin Negandhi is the new host of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Live coverage of the finals will begin on Thursday, May 26, at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN2 and WatchESPN. The finals will conclude on ESPN and WatchESPN at 8 p.m. ET.
5e. Michael Lombardo, HBO’s head of programming and the man who cut Bill Simmons a very large check, is stepping down after more than three decades at HBO. He’ll be missed by the brass.
5f. Showtime Sports’ “All Access: Quest for the Cup” offers great access for NHL fans. The show airs every Friday night at 9 ET/PT on Showtime through the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
5g. Slate declared ESPN’s Zach Lowe as America’s best sports writer.
5h. Respect for Comcast Sportsnet New England anchor and reporter Trenni Kusnierek speaking publicly to the Boston Globe about her depression and anxiety.
5i. Great work here by ESPN producer Jose Morales.