On the night of Oct. 22, 2016, shortly after the Cubs advanced to the World Series with a 5–0 victory over the Dodgers, ESPN television personality and digital columnist Michael Wilbon found himself standing on the grass at Wrigley Field with a microphone in his hand and a 1969 vintage Ernie Banks Cubs’ jersey on his back. This was not how Wilbon had expected to end his evening. He had purchased a ticket and taken in the game from the 400‑level seats behind home plate, where he had watched his favorite baseball team as a kid. He was not working, in the literal sense.
During the game, Wilbon was contacted by an ESPN producer who told him, “We need you after the game.” Wilbon had spent 30 years at The Washington Post, including 20 as a sports columnist. He pushed back against doing live journalism dressed like a fan. “I said, ‘I’m wearing an Ernie Banks jersey,’ ” says Wilbon. “ ‘In case you haven’t noticed.’” The producer responded, “Nobody will care about that.”
Hold on to that thought.
The sports media industry has evolved with breathtaking speed and scope over the last generation. Most of the resulting innovations are obvious and fully baked into America’s daily sports consumption: digital platforms largely replacing paper; social media becoming a delivery service and free-form sports bar; televised shouting matches between pundits snagging ratings; celebrity-driven coverage and more. But that’s not all: The voice of sports media has changed as well. Increasingly, sports journalists have abandoned neutrality in favor of writing (or broadcasting, or podcasting) in the voice of the fan.
“Advocacy journalism,” says Malcolm Moran, a three decades-plus sports journalist at several major newspapers, including The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, and now the director of the Sports Capital Journalism Program at IUPUI in Indianapolis. “It’s viewed more and more as not only acceptable but the norm. For your branding, you establish yourself as an expert on Team X because you rooted for Team X when you were eight years old.”
J.A. Adande, a veteran of The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and ESPN who is now in his second year as the director of sports journalism at Northwestern, says, “It’s not the way I was taught and trained. My professors would be having a fit if they saw this. But it’s definitely where we’re at.”
Let’s back up for a second. The traditional voice of the sports journalist (or any journalist) is a neutral voice, detached from any connection to the teams, players and coaches he or she covers. The buzzword here is “objectivity.” This was best expressed by one of my early colleagues in sportswriting, who was once offered condolences after the team he was covering lost in the playoffs. “I don’t care,” my colleague said. “I get paid on Thursday whether they win or lose.”
Of course, it’s not that simple. Pure objectivity is a myth; no journalist is devoid of emotion about the subject at hand, whether it’s a game or a feature story. In fact, that connection often makes the writing better. And anyway, Adande says, “I think fans have always had a hard time believing that we could just turn off our emotions.” (Wilbon says, “Objectivity is something you strive for, but never reach.”)
That’s fair. But for a very long time, the best journalists kept their preferences to themselves, while endeavoring to write balanced journalism. Example: I covered Super Bowl XLII between the Patriots and the Giants for Sports Illustrated. My preference would have been to write the story of the first 19–0 team in NFL history, but instead the Giants upset the Patriots. Sportswriters have performed variations of this dance millions of times over the last century or so, suppressing personal preferences and letting the story tell itself.
The change has come as writers have used their attachment to a college team or professional franchise as a tool to better connect with an audience. ESPN personalities Scott Van Pelt and Mike Greenberg have made narrative devices of their affection for Maryland basketball and the New York Jets, respectively, with scant blowback. There’s little doubt that hometown writers in small markets have been doing this for decades (at least), but credit for taking the practice into the mainstream probably goes to Bill Simmons, who at ESPN developed his audience in part by openly professing his passion for Boston teams. It’s become commonplace since, both in traditional neutral publications and through the proliferation of team-employed “journalism.” A few years ago Moran took some students to the NFL combine and was shocked to see credentialed media wearing team apparel. The approach can be a full-throated declaration of fandom or more subtle references: the word “we” subtly creeping into copy or the occasional photo with a celebrity athlete, snapshots that could be seen as establishing a journalist’s access and power, but could also look like the work of starry-eyed fans.
In the right hands, story-telling that calls on the writer’s perspectives and emotions can be doubly powerful. But there are clearly risks. “I don’t encourage it,” says Moran, “because I’m dealing with young people who are in the starting blocks of their careers. Maybe you can make it work if you’ve put in 20 years and established yourself. But if you’re 23, and you start a website devoted to [your alma mater], how are you going to establish any authority as an independent journalist? That’s the danger.”
A trend is not synonymous with acceptance; many journalists still recoil from the label homer. Last week writers covering the NHL’s Predators took exception to a tweet from the Vegas Golden Knights’ official team account that claimed reporters applauded after a Nashville goal. The tweet was deleted, and the team issued an apology, but the episode launched a brief public debate about credibility and sensitivity to professionalism that would have been unnecessary a generation ago.
For Wilbon, the goalposts were moved when he started Pardon the Interruption with friend and colleague Tony Kornheiser in 2001. Show producers encouraged both men to tap into the roots of their affection for sports—Kornheiser as a New Yorker and Wilbon as a Chicagoan. “Once you own it,” says Wilbon, “you own it. And I think connecting with the people and city in that way has helped build a connection. I’ve never had a problem being critical. But I don’t know how any of this would have gone over earlier in my career. Probably not well.”
It comes down to this: As writers, broadcasters and podcasters seek audience share, they will increasingly embrace partisan sportswriting, chasing eyeballs predisposed to look. It is inevitable. Pure journalism could suffer, falling to fewer and fewer outlets. Wilbon is talking about himself when he says, “The genie is not going back in the bottle.” But he could be talking about an entire industry.